Essay: Dan Spielman on Manna

Many of you will know that Dan Spielman is an actor, whose CV spans an impressive range of work. He began his theatrical career with the Keene/Taylor Theatre Project in the late 1990s, and since has gone on to play lead roles on main stages, most recently as a member of the STC Actors Company. But he is a man whom some might say is unfairly gifted. Some of you might also remember that he recently made his debut as a visual artist. And I have known for years that Dan is a writer and, more specifically, a poet: if his translations of Rimbaud don’t convince you, then nothing will.

At the beginning of next month, he is making his debut as a theatre writer with Manna, which premieres at the STC as part of the Wharf2LOUD season. Manna, which will be directed by composer Max Lyandvert, is a densely poetic text which explores an intensely physical engagement with language. I thought it would be interesting to ask Dan a few questions about what he thought about the relationship between poetry and theatre, the process of collaboration in Manna, and so on: and he came back to me with this essay. So here it is.

WHEN I read a poem I am reading an object – faceted like a crystal or layered like a flower. Sometimes it takes years for me to be at the angle necessary to see its particular refraction, sometimes many seasons pass before the flower will open. For me, the contemplative engagement with poetry is one of the keys to sharing its incantation.

The spareness possible in the poetic line liberates my mind from the reductive applications of language – I believe that in poetry it is possible for the simplest things to happen. Where so much in this world bristling with media seeks to name and to reduce, to tarmac, comodify or domesticate the relationship between this and this, poetry is revolutionary. The poet can beckon silence to the edge of insufficient language, can gather runes of rhythm and experience together in an alchemical fashion, and more than nostalgia, more than statement of treachery, poetry can incant the most beautiful ambiguities, the most terrifying lacks within and beyond language. In poetry, because it moves at the face of things language can never enter, touch is possible, the vastness can be said in the vessel. This is the invitation to the reader.

If poetry were only literary, it might be impossible for this power to be translated on the stage. In the theatre, bodies, moments, shapes, gestures move and vanish – the audience vanishes. The incantation is written in the air, is written and absorbed by the event. Literally, there is no time to re-read, no time to go away and return. The imagined silence is completely different. The theatre happens, and then we disappear and the happening takes new form in our memory.

But poetry is an oral form. The Homeric hymns are gems in literature, but reading them I have a sense they live in an intrinsic relationship to the ritual, they exist in time relative to the events and gods they sing to. The theatre is such a ritual time/place, and one of my hopes for Manna is that what is said and sung occurs in a new-forged ritual that the theatre provides. That it might express things that exist between us and between us and that which threatens to overwhelm us.

In saying this, I have no desire to replicate the solitude of reading with a preciousness of language. The hymns, monologues and dialogues in the piece are not recited documents – they are infused with the multiple violences and intimacies of this world as it presents itself to me, and their saying is an act of creation as much as recital.

In the solitude of reading, the severity of a line is something that has to be confronted by the reader – perhaps a little like the considering the void. In the theatre I expect it to be very different. My hope is that the severity of the lineation will be experienced bodily. For the performer, the rest of the line has been erased, or a new phrase violently intervenes. The same can be said for the images of the piece. A score of physical and linguistic interruption questions the images seen and the images created. The voices of the actors are, broadly speaking, seeking to sing or say, but the fragmented language within them describes the contrast or resistance. In this way the performance of the poem will write a new text – a score of images, language and music that doesn’t need the security of the page, that conveys through complexity and fragmentation a ritualised singing. The page is the performers’ bodies and voices – and the equivalent of the aesthetic form of my text will be the craft of the performers in concert with one another.

***

The fact that Max is a composer and sound designer as well as a director is the reason I felt it was possible for me to write this theatre text. Though I have been reading and writing poetry for over fifteen years, I have rarely summoned up the courage to publish it – my process was usually one of filing the poems I wrote away or erasing them altogether. It was in our discussions of music and the ‘ear play’ or radio play form, that I started to see the potential for my writing in performance. On the one hand the imagined silence of reading could be analogous to the exposed ‘production’ of material as seen in a live radio play, and also the setting of poems to music, and the response in the piece of theatre by musicians seemed an exciting way of conveying the ritual I was after.

This ritual is not just an idea about the theatre. By engaging in writing this text, and in asking actors to take it on, I had to look at what my voice was, and what I am trying to do in my work. These questions were new for me. I realised that the place from which I write these poems is a place I need to create in this world. I find a silence, and I try to expand it. In my mind’s ear I summon vast spaces and I seek the expressions there. I am singing when I write these pieces and I am seeking the other who hears the song. This secret dialogue informs my use of language as a performer too. In a sense I try to imagine a fabric of rhythms that has to be found, and the poems that will join this fabric are those that confess all the terror and beauty residual in solitude, but that create new threads, that challenge existing rhythms, in turn creating my path in a communal world. Transforming my voice in this space also engages me in transformation.

At first it was shocking to imagine these private songs being out in the brutal, pragmatic air. I also feared that they would be too slight for the interrogation of an actor – being an actor myself I knew that whatever the material is it has to withstand body blows! – and that there must be certain paths already well trodden. I started to imagine the writing as music.

Max and I were working together in various productions throughout the writing of the text, and in his encouragement, he took a compositional view – some things may be captured in an imperfect musical phrase that would be lost if it were ironed out or described. ‘Keep everything’, he would say; ‘keep going’. Compose later. This conversation resulted in the structure of the piece. Just as every line had to be able to operate both in isolation and in context, so each section of the piece had to build its own relationship between voices, but also to sing to other voices, to answer other parts of the greater song.

***

The voices in the text are all describing absence. Two lovers are singing to each other, in each other’s absence; An old woman tries to teach a song before leaving, a soldier’s profound insecurity narrates her movements in an alien land… There are interruptions: descriptions of physical aberration and fractures in perception, psychotic episodes and delusional beliefs; there are movements of loosely grouped words in lists, in the absence of grammar, or scale… These are elements that are drawn from life in extremity. where language is at its most exposed, because the world has been turned upside down. Looking at language under this pressure is to look at its power to celebrate, to create, to remember and to imagine, but also to see where it falls short, and indeed where it is a weapon, and a carrier of destructive seeds.

The Jews’ punishment was to wander in the desert for a whole generation. Manna congealed on the rocks not to nourish these lost people, but the generation that would follow them. The gift of manna was a blessing and a curse. I am interested in the fact that language, or text, has been handed down in such a way and in its manifestations as text used to justify belief and action, text for the evolution of laws, or the private text with which we measure the world – language also contains the seeds of creation and destruction. I hope that if it is indeed possible in the theatre to recall the public ritual of grieving – of celebration – it will be possible to articulate something which is all too rare in the world as it presents itself to me – that though there is much we cannot know about the future of this world in throes, we can share a vivid and passionate song about the world we have lost.

- Dan Spielman


MANNA by Dan Spielman
Director/Composer/Sound Designer: Max Lyandvert

Visual Artists/Designers: Kate Davis and Marisa Purcell

Lighting Designer: Emma Valente

With: Jamal Alrekabi, Boris Brkic, Gertraud Ingeborg, Dana Miltins, and Jayne Tuttle.

Wharf2LOUD Sydney Theatre Company

Wharf 2 Theatre
Pier 4 Hickson Road Walsh Bay
Bookings: 02 9250 1777
Previews 27th, 28th, 30th June
Opens 1st July – 12th July.

Picture: Raft, program image for Manna

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