How to avoid storytelling in the theatre…

Part 1

Formal strategies are very important. Processes, too, are crucial. Choose them and trust them.

I found myself wanting to do something with verse. I decided to invent a line. I arrived at three iambs followed by three trochees:


And that would be followed by a line consisting of three trochees followed by three iambs:


I decided that if I had one line of one sort, it would have to be followed by a line of the other sort.

Will all the lines follow this verse form?  I reserve the right to not know.

Symmetry and isomorphism come to mind with this approach to prosody, but not in a way accountable to formal mathematical definitions.

To back up a bit, the reflected mirroring aspect comes from a silly two line poem I wrote:

Damn! Finish already.
Already finished? Damn.

That one led to another one, an imagined bit of chat between voices:

Did she?
She did.

And it’s inverse:

She did, did she?

That got me curious about symmetry in language. You can have it in certain ways, but in other ways, you can’t. Time flows in one direction with respect to how you deploy words. Sure, you can construct palindromic sentences, but can we perhaps say that meaning lies in the impossibility of certain symmetries in the domain of language?  Or can we even talk about the breaking of symmetries?

You do have symmetries with the shape of certain letters, however.  And maybe that I will also exploit.

So, to carry forward with this idea of reflection or twoness, I chose for there to be two speakers. Sitting in chairs. I impose an arbitrary restriction: they must remain in their chairs.

To shape how I ponder the implications of what I have so far, I give myself two words:


Associations to these words will help prompt and organize material.

Now, with me, there’s always this matter of what I’m going to call the “extra-textual” in a script. This is a germane issue in this instance because I want to compose something for two performers I worked with in grad school. I am thinking particularly of these two because it was a moment of work between them in a piece we did using the writings of Poe that was very much about defining the significance of the “extra-textual” component, so much so that it basically led to my own particular “Road to Damascus” transformation with regard to what I want out of theatre.

So somehow the work has to attend to this matter of the “extra-textual.” It has to have something built in that will allow for these two performers to have some opportunities for elaboration that they, because of their training, will know how to use to their advantage.

I’m thinking square brackets. At certain points I will place things in square brackets and this will lead the performers to explore “extra-textual” possibilities at that moment in the proceedings.

The gender of the performers, both female, will also guide certain associations.  It will underline, ultimately, a certain attitude toward reflection and symmetry.  At a certain point, perhaps, a certain attempt at balance is an attempt to define absolute intimacy.  So, too, I now realize, the scan of each line and the structured coupling of lines are also enactments of that intention.

So here’s the thing about story.  I don’t want to deny the audience the possibility of finding a story or speculating about a story.  They will attempt to clump together the strands.  As I associate within my strictures, moments of a storied temporality will emerge, but I refuse to let those take over.  It’s enough to trigger things for the audience.  I’m more interested in using language and creating a multi-dimensional realm of possibilities for the performers.

Part 2

I should play with some examples.  Here’s a couplet that illustrates my verse scheme:

Your tongue will sound a cold click before I finish
running lengths of twine all around your hands and heart.

Three iambs followed by three trochees in the first line, the reverse in the second.  This implies a two-fold mirroring, one between the lines and one within each line.  The challenge of composition with this verse form led me first of all to the question of the mirroring break in each line.  I knew I had to have two accented syllables next to one another in one and two unaccented syllables together in the other.  Cold click came first, free of context, just a collision of two unarguably accented sounds.  From that choice, I tried to let questions and answers regarding subjectivity, intimacy, body, and relationship, start to unfold.  Since a context began to emerge, it made it more challenging to determine the mirroring pivot of two unaccented sounds in the second line.  The twine was already in place trying to do double duty as both a tying action and a punning allusion to doubleness or twin-ness (not to mention a bit of promise for some comic sado-masochistic jouissance to come into play), so all around made for a possible solution with the all a- serving as the unaccented couple.  The somewhat idiomatic tone of that phrase also seemed to keep things light and gave me permission to indulge in the use of heart at the end of the line.  There is fun and grumpiness here, a familiar griping between intimates, perhaps, a domestic ritualization of the perpetual misalignment of desires.

I am suddenly surprised to see that the word finish, one of my orienting ideas along with nestle, has made an appearance.

I want to take the mirroring action further, so I decide to reverse the couplet:

[Heart and hands your round all of twine and running lengths
I finish click before sound will cold and tongue you.]

I made small adjectival adjustments, but tried not to interfere too much, just enough to conform to the inverse of the original couplet’s verse scheme (I did change around to round for that reason).  The line struggles with grammatical conventions, of course, but subject and object still seem to churn and insist. I tell myself there’s a bit of extra enjoyment seeping in with this uncoupling from the conventional requirements of sense. I wonder if this approach might have some “extra-textual” interest for the performers, so I enclose it in brackets.

The piece I’m interested in writing is for two performers, so I decide to mirror again, but this time from the point of view of the other presence implied by the first couplet’s address.  Again, I reverse the verse scheme:

Tie my heart and hands with at least two tightening turns 
to try and stop my tongue clicking cold indifference.

This indifferent responder’s use of the alliterative t‘s communicates an investment in some kind of overt and resistent physicality, more exertion than what is at work in the tying one, seemingly.  The word indifference, caught up in irony, also seems to situate the responder in a different place.

For the sake of completeness, I now mirror the responder’s couplet, again reversing verse rhythm:

[Indifference my cold clicking tongue stop try and
Tight at least and tightening hands twice heart and tie.]

Again, an evocation of the “extra-textual,” as if nestled within the attempt at a meaningful utterance is some other projected truth, something with a life in another dimension, an expression folded up and hidden away in the mirroring surface between the speakers.

These principles and processes are leading to some material.  Is this dialogue I’m writing?  I don’t know.  I think I will need to follow my processes for a while and watch material accumulate.

Part 3

Finally arrived at the thought of birds.  I got there by staying with this idea of symmetry.  After a detour into concepts of higher mathematics to find out more about a wondrous notion I stumbled upon in a “math for civilians” book:  homologic mirror symmetry (attaching myself instantly to a precise colloquial sense I found in these words that seemed to set out my poetic project in its entirety) and discovering, no surprise, in parsing the specifics, that I had no business traveling into this area, the notion that eventually developed, as I thought about symmetry with tempered ambition, was that it was what was needed to establish containment.

Symmetry is the essence of any holding structure.  Take a moment to visualize expressions of symmetry and you will see how trivially true that is.  Think of a circle, think of a sphere.  Fold over a plane and you have a pocket.  Can one go further and assert that with a fold of containment, the line of time gets bent back on itself, gets looped or knotted?  Symmetry asserts itself as something set off from the flow of time, perhaps.

Language seemed to both fit and not fit in with this.  Language can be likened to the flow of time itself, of course, with every word marking a notch on the timeline.  But can’t language also reach out into the world as part of an impulse to construct something that gathers in, holds, and preserves?  Then I arrived at birds.  You can perhaps see how.

When I ponder the mysteries of language, I sooner or later get caught up in a wish to lace together questions of what is within us and what is without us.  How, for instance, is language a natural result of a living organism engaging with its environment?  What part of the world of meaning is engendered by this odd muscular harnessing of acoustics with instinct and what part is an outside pressure pushing in on us like any other threat to the integrity of our cellular walls.  Language as both an is and an it, and what might we, as investigators, stumble upon if we can find a way to study things both ways?  So I drifted into thinking about other creatures that reach out into the environment to “express” containment.  I naturally came to birds building nests.  I then was immediately pleased with the fact that one of the guiding words I had chosen for my project was nestle.

Birds also harness acoustics as part of an engagement with the environment, of course.  Can we see the impulse to sing and the impulse to structure containment as part of the same instinctual web of engagement?  I’m simply playing with conceits at this point, be assured.  I’m not trying to pass this off as any kind of scientific speculation.  I had already imagined my two performers sharing a relationship that involved nesting.  I had also seen them as lovers:  love birds.  So it seemed right to stay with birds and it followed naturally that I asked myself how two love birds might build a nest with words, the words emerging through a kind of singing…

After the bit of play with the symmetries of “she did” and “did she,” there’s an expression of enjoyment, I can imagine, followed by one performer asking the other if the pleasure is shared.  If it is shared, then I think there’s a symmetry evoked that contains that sharing of enjoyment, that sharing of enjoyment typifying for me an expression of intimacy.  Perhaps an erotic intimacy.

Very centering.
Sin entering.
Sin entering Sister Mary.
Merry Sister entering sin.

A concept from the quest for meditative wholeness leads to some fun with the clichéd trope of the naughty nun.  I had already had a notion of female mystics somehow pointing to a language source for this piece, along with two other words (the f in the word finish kind of prodding me to some choices) flowers and furniture. What if, in fact, the nesting love birds are former contemplative sisters?  Trying to story it so explicitly all of a sudden makes it seem a little silly, but I am interested in the idea.  Erotic and mystic union intertwining.  Via a balancing and reflecting of language.  Strange thought.  Where could it go?  Can I build something with this that can actually contain something?

With words, of course, there’s nothing really there.  What can you keep in a container that is not real?  Look what thy memory cannot contain…  Symmetry holding an absence, a mystery, a passion.  Maybe.  But then as we carry on to the thought of the mirroring reflection, the symmetry is no longer a containment.  We move to something else.  Absence is not contained.  Absence co-constitutes as a chimerical reflection.  And what does the bird sing for then?  Here, I think, is where the insurmountable conflict takes shape.  These voices trying to make words contain something that cannot be contained, to reflect what cannot be reflected.  Something is gone and can’t be gotten back.  Folding, reflecting, nestling, containing, nesting, singing, all insurmountably painful.  Pleasuring against life with what is lost to preserve who is lost.  Again that silly surge toward storying is there.  There’s a loss, right?  One of the love birds has flown the coop, taken wing.  Angel’s wings?  Now the nest is empty.  There’s the other aspect of finish.  These clear outlines start to get boring and I want to dive back into the play of the words, into the effort and the mad scramble of making.

2 Thoughts on “How to avoid storytelling in the theatre…

  1. Bravo! I like structure. I like the way structure provokes content. I like the way content springs from structure. (I like story, too, but let that pass.)

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