Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Rite of Passage: Poet, Playwright, and Performer Vivienne Glance

Vivienne Glance  is a poet, playwright and performer. Her poetry has appeared in journals, anthologies and online publications, and she has won places and commendations in competitions. Her poetry collection, The Softness of Water, was published by Sunline Press in 2009, and her work is featured in the anthology Amber Contains the Sun, published through A Few New Words, an initiative of the Government of Western Australia’s Department of Culture and the Arts. Vivienne has been a guest at Sydney’s Night Words, Perth, Big Sky, Sprung and writing WA’s Apropos Writers Festivals. Her full-length and short plays have been produced in London, Edinburgh, Seattle, Sydney and Perth. She runs poetry and playwriting workshops for children and adults, including performance poetry techniques. As an act of cross-cultural dialogue, Vivienne works with Afeif Ismail co-transcreating his poems and plays into English. One of their co-transcreated works The African Magician has been nominated for an Australian Writers Guild AWGIE. Following is the transcript of our email interview with Vivienne, which we are quite happy to share with our community.

~Upon first realizing oneself as a writer.

I was sixteen sitting an English exam, looking at the last question on the paper. There was a black and white photograph of a beach with calm seas, a rock pool and a rusty bicycle discarded on its side. We had to write a response to the image, and as I was rehearsing a stage version of Under Milk Wood in the school production, I found myself channeling a teenage girl’s version of Dylan Thomas. It was the best fun I’ve ever had in an exam and that’s when I thought not only that I wanted to write but that I enjoyed it too. Unfortunately we were not allowed to keep a copy of our answers, so that story has disappeared. But sometimes I wonder if my writing life since that time has been a futile attempt to rewrite that story: to recreate the flow of words and the joy of creation I felt then.

As to when I first considered myself a writer, well, that’s harder to pinpoint. I have always enjoyed writing and turned to words to help me make sense of the world as well as record its absurdities and delights. But was I a Writer? The question seems to imply a rite of passage, an acknowledgement from others that I was worthy of this moniker. I remember calling myself an actor after I’d had my first professional job, which for me was straight after Drama School, so I never had a time of uncertainty there. Writing was not so straightforward. I learnt about how to write from school, from life, from reading others, from attending ad hoc classes and workshops. That is, I designed my own apprenticeship. But public recognition for a piece of writing came when I wrote a play that was performed at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 1986, which incidentally also received a good review. As for calling myself a poet, that was probably when I was awarded second prize in a national poetry competition in 2003, although I still feel poetry has much more to teach me before I can truly call myself a poet as opposed to someone who tries to write poetically.

~Early Inspirations.

Apart from the sheer pleasure of forming words on a page, my initial inspirations came from trying to make sense of the world. I grew up in a pragmatic family; we were concerned with functioning, with providing food and shelter. As such there was little time for conversation or debates about issues, ideas, literature, science, and so on. I was constantly asking myself questions without getting answers, and writing was a way of mapping out responses to many things. From that grew the idea that characters with different points of view can contest these in a story or a play, or that a poem can open up perspectives and illuminate insights.

~On the Source of Ideas.

I visit as many places as I can and try to meet people from different walks of life. I enjoy representing diversity in all its forms. Sometimes newspaper articles can present an unusual story that can spark a series of connecting thoughts that will lead to a new theme or narrative. If there is a blank page in front of me and no inspiration, I will kick start an idea by noting down two or three “triggers” and find a way to connect them.

~On the Making of a Good Story.

Without meaning to be facetious – a beginning, a middle, and an end. A story in any form has to have a structure that enables it to have momentum, something that keeps the reader/audience/viewer engaged both intellectually and emotionally and wanting to know “what happens next?” This doesn’t mean it has to be fast-paced or a complex guessing game, rather that it provokes curiosity. I try to create drama by presenting opposing viewpoints or personality types through characters in the narrative.

~On Realistic Creative Writing.

Sometimes my writing is realistic, sometimes not. I like absurdist theatre and expressionistic, experiential poetry as well as realism in both poems and plays. Also in my writing I include male characters and people older than myself, and although I know both men and seniors, I don’t “write” these individuals per se. I look for traits, physical characteristics, language use, etc. and mould a composite character from several sources. Although I have to admit, I sometimes put in one or two of my own personal observations about life and attribute these to one of my characters – not telling which though.

~Any Surprises in Writing?

How much I love the joy of editing and redrafting! There is something about crafting a piece of writing that thrills me. The initial inspiration often happens in an unstructured almost trance-like state and in an intense burst of energy, often sustained over a few hours, which can be exhausting. However, the process that follows where ideas are teased out, words rehearsed and rearranged, when characters become “friends” or antagonists, and the writing is shaped on the page, for me this moment is perhaps similar to when a sculptor sees the statue emerging from the raw marble rock.

~What is Your Favorite Writing?

I wrote a performance poem about going to bed with a poem. I love performing this because it makes people laugh even though the writing is not particularly sophisticated. As for my favorite writing of all – I can’t say, that’s too hard.
I’ve never regretted writing anything, or hated anything as I see all writing as a process towards better writing. However, I have cringed at some of my earlier works when through experience I can see their mistakes and shortcomings.

~On the Writer’s Life.

My habit is to write for three hours in the morning if it is new work. Editing and redrafting can happen throughout the day. I prefer to write in blocks of days or weeks rather than a little each day. For longer works I need to hold it in my mind, so an extended time where there are no (or limited) meetings, social engagements etc. works best for me.

~Influential Books and Authors Include.

I read a lot of non-fiction, especially books about the natural world and the environment or current ideas in philosophy (for a general reader, that is). I buy and read books by many local West Australian (WA) poets, such as John Kinsella, Shane McCauley, Dennis Haskell, Kevin Gillam, Lucy Dougan, and many more. I enjoy the plays of Samuel Beckett, Sarah Kane, Tom Stoppard, Michael Frayn, John Patrick Shanley, along with Shakespeare and some Jacobean drama. My guide and the touchstone I keep returning to is Shakespeare, even if this may be considered a cliché. He combines both poetry and drama, writes fascinating characters with complex interior lives, tells a good story and uses language imaginatively and beautifully.

~Now Reading?

I’m re-reading Gogol’s play The Government Inspector, reading Dennis Haskell’s latest poetry collection Acts of Defiance, and the non-fiction book by Guy Brown The Living End: the future of death aging and immortality. Two poets have recently caught my interest: T. Zachary Cotler who recently visited Perth and read an amazing poem titled Supplice, and local WA poet Mags Webster whose first collection is titled The Weather of Tongues published by Sunline Press.

~Long-term and Current projects.

I have had a long-standing interest with science (I have a Bachelor of Science degree), but in particular, with how science intersects with public discourse through the arts. I’m developing several ideas around aspects of science and technology at present and will bring my fascination with science and its achievements, and the place of science and the scientist in society, into both my playwriting and poetry. I’ve completed a play titled Staring at the Sun that fictionalizes and explores the ethics around the research of bio-medically-induced immortality and I’m looking for production opportunities. I’m slowly adding to and crafting poems for my second collection, which I anticipate will be ready for publication soon, alongside responding to a collection of photographs of the Athabasca glacier for an art and text publication.
Next year I’m hoping to collaborate on a script about the life of an important nineteenth century female natural historian.

~On getting started in drama.

I love standing up in front of a group of people and pretending to be someone else. I first performed in my friend’s garage at the age of five in front of our parents, and that was it – I was hooked! From then I embraced any opportunity to perform and joined a youth theatre group in Canterbury, England as a teenager. At university I joined the Drama Society, but being an actor was seen as too risky a profession by my family. So I “got a proper job” and rehearsed to perform in fringe shows in London during evenings and weekends. After a few years I decided I had to become a professional performer and re-trained as an actor. Since then I’ve been working in theatre, film, TV, radio, voiceover, etc. as well as directing and writing plays.

~Inspirational Drama Texts.

AS I mentioned before, Under Milk Wood was a magical play to be part of as a teenager with its rich cast of characters and poetic language. I enjoyed the story-telling in works like She Stoops to Conquer and The Importance of Being Earnest, which we performed at school. It was only after I had matured as a person and performed in some of his plays, that I really began to appreciate Shakespeare.

~Motivation to Act.

The love of performing will always be there. However, the roles for women, especially those over forty, are diminishing, both in number and in complexity and interest. My focus has been more on writing for performance, but I hope there will be opportunities to continue practicing my craft as a performer. Like any arts practice it must be engaged with regularly to keep skills fresh and the mind and body in shape.

~Honing Acting Skills.

Performance poetry is a small way to keep my skills honed. If there is no production opportunity, I try to challenge myself through participating in workshops. I recently attended a Magdelena Festival workshop in Perth with the amazing Australian performer, Margaret Cameron. I also perform in play readings when I can, which means I can “perform” several characters in a short time – a little like an acting boot-camp, I suppose. Reading lots of plays informs both my understanding of current trends in drama and my playwriting. 

~Acting and Roles.

I’m told my voice and the way I speak text are good qualities, plus I’m also told I have a “good stage presence.” Both of these are hard for me to judge as I live with my voice every day, and I can’t see myself perform. The last character is usually the all-time favourite! In this case it was the role of the Russian poet Anna Akhmatova in John Aitken’s play The Ships Pass Quietly. This character wonderfully blended drama with poetry, and she stretched my emotional range. Akhmatova’s story is one of courage and resilience in the face of excruciating oppression.

Image and Text Copyright c.2011 by Vivienne Glance - All Rights Reserved