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On A Poetry Jag

Jennifer Shook

T. S. Eliot’s seldom-produced play, The Cocktail Party, is finishing its run at the Atheneum this weekend, produced by Caffeine Theatre. Caffeine’s Artistic Director Jennifer Shook talks with Anne Nicholson Weber about making poetry-based theatre that gets people talking over their after-theatre coffee.

What was the genesis of Caffeine?

Caffeine began as I guess many young theatre companies begin: people say, “We’re not happy with the work we’re doing. What kind of work do we want to do?” And what we wanted to do, for lack of a better word, was “intellectual” work, or thought-oriented work.

Who is “we”?

The “we” was myself and two actors. The three of us together developed a piece at the Abby Hoffman [Died For Our Sins] Festival, which was an adaptation of poetry into a choreographic, movement-based piece. The actors were speaking poems, but the structure of the piece was primarily movement-based. It was interesting. Not necessarily great, but interesting.

When you characterize it as movement based, that doesn’t sound obviously “intellectual.”

It was mostly the process that felt very intellectual to us. It was based on a lot of research, a lot of “story study” -- telling the stories of our lives in visual and physical ways. And a lot of research went into it. The piece was based on Joy Harjo’s poetry. She is a Muskogee Indian who writes a lot about tribal history and how she as a modern woman links to tribal history. So we were doing research into different tribes, their rituals, looking for images. It felt heady and processed.

After that, we started looking for other plays we were interested in as a group, and all the plays we liked were either from the ancient Greeks, or intensely literary, or somehow about heightened language. And I said, “If it were just me, I would define us as doing poetry-based theatre.” Poetry is my great love and something I’ve felt disconnected from. And the other two said, “We can get behind that.”

Is it received wisdom that a theatre has to have such a defined mission?

Yes and no.

It’s a fine line. You don’t want to be so narrowly defined that you’re doing the same play over and over again. No matter how much your audience likes that kind of play, they don’t need to see it 15 times in different versions. So that’s the tightrope we all walk. You’re always asking, “Are we defining ourselves too narrowly?” Certainly there are times when I say, “I’d love to do that play,” but it doesn’t fit our mission at all. So it’s tricky.

On the other hand, when a theatre company I know and admire fails at something, it’s usually because they’re not sticking to their mission, they’re not sticking to their heart, they’ve departed from the reason for their existence.

And also the business people tell us that we need that specific niche, because supposedly that’s how you get the grants -- by defining a niche that other people aren’t filling. Obviously, the larger theatres don’t bother with doing that. The irony for us is that we have yet to get any foundation funding, mostly because we’re so new that we don’t have anything to show them. In Chicago, there are so many companies the foundations can fund that they can be very demanding. They can say, “Bring us your big portfolio of work.” But we’ve only been here for two years, we’ve done only four shows. So we’re working on that.

But we have been amazingly successful with individual donors, which we did not expect. We began the company from the ideological standpoint of, “I am going to do work that I love and believe in with my whole being, because I believe that there are other people out there who also will believe in it and will see my total commitment come through.” And it’s certainly true that artists are attracted to that. I’ve had many actors and designers say, “We’re willing to come to work for Caffeine with your small budget because we know that you are really throwing yourself into it and serious about it.” And it’s true of the audience as well. Whether consciously or unconsciously, people recognize dedication. And that’s where individual donors come from.

So what does Caffeine’s mission of “poetry-based” theatre encompass?

Our mission sounds very specific but it actually allows quite a wide range. This season has been defined as plays by poets. The Cocktail Party, which is up through this weekend, is by T. S. Eliot. It also happens to be verse drama. But the first play from this season, Doña Rosita -- while it is by the poet, Federico Garcia Lorca -- is mostly not in verse. It has poems in it, and you can certainly tell that a poet wrote it -- it has a poetic sensibility -- but it’s not in verse form.

And then next season, we’re doing plays from the Greeks. And the season before, we did one piece that was a collage of poetry and other writings, and the other, Sailing to Byzantium by Sandra Deer, was about two poets -- Yeats and Ezra Pound. And again it had poetry in it but it wasn’t in verse. So we’ve found poet biographies, plays by poets, plays written in verse, plays with poems in them, plays inspired by poems.

And now we’ve started talking about “language plays” -- plays that simply have a poetic sensibility about them. Do those fit into our mission? That could be Beckett. Or Melissa James Gibson. So then suddenly we thought, “We can do almost anything.” Is that wise? I don’t know. I’m sure we’ll go down that road soon just to see what it feels like.

Where did the name Caffeine come from?

Before we even were a theatre, when we were just a bunch of people doing readings and drinking a lot of coffee, we were calling what we did “caffeine theatre.” And then we started talking about the tradition of the coffee house, the idea that people got together in 17th century in coffee houses to discuss ideas.

So we brought together the ideas that poetry gets people asking questions, theatre gets people asking questions, and then you go drink coffee and talk about those questions.

How did you choose “The Cocktail Party”?

T. S. Eliot wanted to reinvent verse drama for the modern age. And we said, “We have to work with Eliot then, because what does that mean? Why would you want to do it? Why is that a good idea?”

I think Eliot really understood the dramatic form. The more I worked on the play, the more impressed I was by how aware he was of the differences between drama versus poetry on the page. He’s not just a poet who wrote a poem and expected people to perform it.

I think it’s a great tribute to you and your actors that the dialogue was so natural sounding.

Thank you. But it’s also Eliot. When you study the script, you see how intentionally he alternates line lengths. And there are internal rhymes and assonances and consonances and echoes and symmetries in the writing that are very carefully crafted but also carefully made to be very subtle. He often shifts the number of line per feet and where the stresses fall, for instance.

Our dear dramaturg, Dan Smith, did a lot of work research and reading. He and I sat down and went through passages and said, “Okay, three feet per line, but the number of syllables changes constantly and where the stresses fall changes. There’s always a caesura -- a break -- somewhere in the line. But it’s not always in the same place and the stresses don’t fall on the same side either side of it.” So Eliot tried very hard not to make it feel clunky.

It is true that his ideas of what is dramatic are bound within his time period. It’s no more dated than Lillian Hellman or Coward or Wilde, but most of those plays can be updated somewhat -- they don’t necessarily hinge on door bells and telephones, while this play does. It’s structured around those conventions of the 1930s to the 1950s and I think it would be impossible to remove those from the play. But it doesn’t feel like a period piece the way some of the Coward plays do, for instance.

People talk about “Chicago-style” theatre. I would say Caffeine is not obviously in that tradition. Would you agree?

I would. Of course, there are several “Chicago styles” at this point. But certainly we are nowhere close to the Chicago store-front, nitty-gritty, kitchen-sink realism, Sam Shepard world of theatre. To say “realistic Sam Shepard” is, I guess, a bit of discontinuity. But that kind of gritty, angry-young-man theatre is nowhere near where we are.

You’ve defined a niche that’s going to require you to find actors who can do something beyond that naturalistic, hard-hitting style. Is that a challenge?

On the whole, I work as an outside-in director, so I need actors who can work that way. And also, since I was a choreographer before I was a director, physical work is very important to me. So even though my theatre is “language-based”, I need actors who are good physical actors -- I need actors who can do both well. It’s a fun little task we’ve set for ourselves!

But I believe that a lot of Chicago actors are capable of doing more than think they are. They just haven’t been asked to do it. When working with me, several actors have said, “I had to do this in theatre school, and I haven’t had to do it since.” “I haven’t had to create character through physical movement”, or “I haven’t had a director point out to me that I need to be on a specific spot on stage because that’s where the light is.” Or I will say to the actors, “You’re up right and she’s down left because that’s the power diagonal; and you need to be down left when you have your big moment of decision-making because that’s the most powerful spot on stage.” And the actors say, “What are you talking about?!”

But kinesthetic language is something that American theatre is starting to take into account more because of the work of people like Anne Bogart. So many actors are getting trained in her “viewpoints” method, that’s starting to become part of their awareness. So it’s not totally foreign when they run into someone like me.

Are you finding people who are comfortable with the verse-speaking coming in, or do you have to do a lot of coaching?

There are people who have acted at places like Court, Chicago Shakes and City Lit, who have some verse acting in their pocket.

But we do a lot of coaching too. The woman who played Doña Rosita in our fall production, Dana Black, is a fantastic actor and very smart and very well-trained, but she was terrified. There were a few scenes that were completely in verse -- the love scenes were all in poetry -- and she was terrified by that. She said at our post-show discussion, “I’ve never done that kind of work where a director said, ‘Put a comma at the end of the line’, or ‘turn the period into an exclamation point’, or ‘Make sure you don’t stop at the end of that line, be sure you go on to the next phrase.’” To me, that process is just basic verse acting. I was surprised that she hadn’t run into it, but she hadn’t.

We also sat down and did a line-by-line paraphrase of what the poems meant. And our paraphrase of all of the female’s lines ended with, “You jerk!” and all of the male lines ended with, “But I love you baby”: hers was all angry break-up letters, and his was Bon Jovi love songs! And, again, Dana had never had anyone say, take this beautiful symbolic phrase and break it down into subtext. Which again is like basic acting. But she was scared by the concept of poetry. She needed to be given permission to do the basic things she knew already in approaching the poetry.

Is there a deep connection between poetry and drama?

I think there is. It’s the desire to speak, the desire to say something out loud.

Robert Pinsky, who was Poet Laureate a few years ago, has done a lot of writing about the status of poetry in American today. He says there’s a difference between poetry on the page, which is the external voice internalized, and theatre, which is the internal voice externalized. So what happens when you have poetry on the stage? It’s those two things meeting somehow.

Shelley said “Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of humankind,” which I always thought was a fascinating idea. And Pinsky also talks about the relationship between poetry and democracy: we have to study as citizens and to compare what we know of the outside world with what we believe inside. I put that together with Anna Deavere Smith saying, “The purpose of theatre is to continue the national dialogue.” That’s the point of theatre -- to make a group of people in a room go through that process of matching external and internal.

And that’s ultimately where my interest in the form lies. What happens when emotion and intellect meet in some sort of in-between ground? What happens when they meet on the stage, the place that is both public and private? That’s what Caffeine is about.

Anne Nicholson Weber
Theatre In Chicago News Contributor Anne Nicholson Weber saw "Jack and the Beanstalk" at the Goodman Children's Theater and has loved the theatre ever since. She is a Chicago writer and the author of Upstaged: Making Theatre in the Media Age

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