Part Two: More Than Words, or, Writing for Movement

Before The Water Gets Cold, to be staged by Smoking Gum Theatre this August, is an experiment in sound, movement, and poetics, an unjudging exploration of love, romance, and loneliness in the digital age, and the modern struggle of monogamy.

In this series I will be grappling with some of the show’s themes, as well as its unique process, and do both with as much pretentious waffle as I can manage.

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Sayin’ I love you
Is not the words I want to hear from you
It’s not that I want you
Not to say it, but if you only knew
How easy it would be to show me how you feel
More than words is all you have to do to make it real
Then you wouldn’t have to say that you love me
Cause I’d already know

Most of my years of ‘serious’ writing have been spent with poetry. After an awkward teenage struggle with prose in the form of several terrible first chapters of several terrible novels, and an ongoing flirtation with derivative fiction (which is a fancy way of saying I read and write fanfiction and fight me ‘bout it), I came to poetry through the then-realisation that what I was better at was ‘feelings’, and not plot, and so I languored happily in my purple words and my Tumblr followers for several years.

Having since realised the problem was not in fact plot but my disdain for the need to describe what happens between two lines of dialogue in a way that made sense to anyone who wasn’t me, I fell into playwriting and the last 18 months of my life took shape. By the time Lucinda (Vitek, director) brought this show to me–first as a straight play, then as a movement piece with accompanying poetry–I hadn’t written a poem ‘properly’ in many months.

I agreed first, and panicked later.

Writing poetry, as it happens, is not at all like riding a bicycle. For the first three months of my process, I wrote precisely nothing, besides excessive notes on ‘conceptual framework’ (which is a fancy way of saying I thought a lot about doing stuff and didn’t do any of it). Sometime in March, in desperation, I started rifling through the vaults for old material that could work, finding a handful of pieces I could mould to fit the concept. Towards the end of the month I had one poem, babble, one of the shorter scenes in the show, three-quarters finished and in need of drastic reworking. I was silently at a loss until, sometime in April, I wrote an explosive rant during a work shift, entitled u shd go n luv yrself, a furious manifesto on my frustrations with social media, dating, sex, my happily coupled friends, myself and my perceived unlovable nature. And just like that, the Bathtub Play, as it was then known, had a goal and a shape and a point, a reason to exist. From there I began to view the show as less a ‘play in poetry’, and more as cross-discipline writing for movement.

Turns out writing for movement is a different kind of difficult.

First, the question of plot: how do you convey a cogent storyline, message, or idea, when you have no dialogue, no ‘acting’ to hide behind? The answer to this question in much physical theatre/dance/movement-based art forms is to discard plot and instead strive for expressionism and abstraction–to go for all feelings, no plot. As a solution this left me dissatisfied, and without focus for exploration beyond my initial broad brief of ‘intimacy and relationships’. It became clear midway through this process that the show could not function without dialogue to push it forward and make it accessible. The show has settled on a happy, if bewildering, medium. Following a loose structure, the skeleton of a “typical” relationship, allowed me to free myself up in the way I hit those narrative points, drawing on different poetic styles as well as dialogue, found text, and sound.

The second issue to present itself was character: how do you convey who someone is with few words at your disposal? The answer to this question came more easily: to do away with ‘character’ in the conventional sense completely. The four performers in this show are collectively playing two figures–each one represented by a public and a private persona–but really, they can stand for any individual or relationship. The two figures, referred to as YOU and ME, are at times almost interchangeable, making the show less about characters and more about the space between two bodies, or the emptiness around one.

At just under 10 000 words, this is my shortest play, and maybe one third of it is actual dialogue. If you’ve seen my work, it may not surprise you to know that my biggest weakness is a tendency to overwrite. I am not yet confident in my ability to write economically and clearly, inadvertently bloating scripts with things I never needed to verbalise, things that sit comfortably in the shadows and spaces. To strip myself so completely of the ability to explain what I mean, precisely, to let my characters articulate what they want, what they mean, to instead let peoples’ bodies give shape to those intimations, and to let my images stand for themselves, has been a terrifying process.

As a writer, you want to cling to ‘meaning’ and dig your claws in, grip it tight and stop anyone from taking it and warping it. With poetry, the content and form of which can be so nebulous, the urge to cling is even worse. Writing a play in poetry for a director who had never worked with poetry, and a cast who had largely never done theatre, to put it bluntly, scared me shitless, but it is testament to the dedication, thoughtfulness, and talent of the BWGC team that those fears are now assuaged.

Well. Almost all of them are.

We are all plagued by the fear that we will be misunderstood, and I am not yet strong enough to let that go. Maybe I have mistrusted my audience, just a little, but mostly I have mistrusted myself. In a form whose meaning most often exists in quiet obscurity, it is sometimes hard to feel like anyone other than you will get anything out of your work. To take that form, and bring it to a medium where people expect ‘a good story’, a ‘take home message’, something accessible and tangible–to give an audience just enough of a road map to traverse the image landscape you’ve written, yet give them the freedom to trudge off the path and discover their own meanings, is a goal I didn’t even slightly trust myself to achieve six months ago.

Even now, it remains to be seen whether or not I’ve succeeded. I won’t know until you tell me. But I think I’m finally excited to find out.

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