How to put on a Live Literature Show

Image by Field & McGlynn

Claire Trévien talks to Young Poets Network about putting on a live literature show. Claire discusses her exciting new production The Shipwrecked House and gives you some advice for putting on your own show!

Live Literature has a long and illustrious history, though it may not have always gone under that name. Today, you might find under its umbrella performances that range from storytelling and spoken word, to experimental and multi-sensory works that bring poetry to audiences in new exciting ways. JayBird Live Literature, for instance, specializes in adapting published poetry to the theatre, most recently with Daljit Nagra’s Retold Ramanaya. Another example is Maggie Sawkins’ Zones of Avoidance which uses “video poems, prose passages, musical transitions and recorded voices of recovering addicts gathered at workshop sessions” to complement her poetry.

Earlier this year, I found myself joining in on the challenge of bringing poetry to the stage, by transforming my poetry collection The Shipwrecked House into a one-woman show. The collection had already been published and hadn’t been written with performance in mind so as you can imagine it was quite the challenge to draw out a narrative from it. My director, Tom Chivers, and I knew we didn’t want it to be a straightforward reading, so the show ended up as a hybrid involving an imaginative set using a whole series of pulleys, a haunting soundscape designed by Oliver Barrett, and two perfumes released at strategic moments. It’s not quite a play, not quite a poetry reading.

To me, live literature is about creating your own genre rather than feeling constrained by what is expected from poetry, so here are my pieces of advice for anyone thinking of creating a poetry show:

  1. Don’t be afraid to be ambitious. My show involved perfumes – I had to fight to keep them in and I’m really glad I did. Going outside of the expected is also a great selling point. It could be as simple as staging it in a place that doesn’t normally see poetry, or borrowing tools from other artforms, such as dancing or singing.
  2. Think about what you want to bring to your text that can’t be achieved by the page alone. Update this aim throughout the rehearsal process.
  3. Hire (or collaborate with) a director. Seriously. A second pair of eyes will make a huge difference.
  4. Do as many previews and scratch nights as you can, get all the feedback you can. Some of it will sting. Be gracious about this.
  5. Don’t underestimate the power of a good photo – getting promo shots of my show done by art photographers really made a difference when it came to sales and drumming up interest.
  6. Is your piece going to be a one-off performance? A touring show? What sort of venues are you going to perform it in? When you start to plan a show these things may seem far off, but it’s worth bearing in mind the limitations and possibilities of the space you’ll perform in during the rehearsal process. Perhaps you can use that balcony to create an effect, perhaps that door could be put to good use, etc etc.
  7. Go and watch as many plays as you can, the more experimental the better, and pay attention to their technical aspects: sound, lighting, staging, narrative devices. Write up notes, get inspired, and test out what you’ve learned when creating your piece.
  8. Depending on the scale of your piece, you’ll probably need a budget. I received an Arts Council England Grants for the Arts award for The Shipwrecked House as well as a co-commission from the Ledbury Festival, without which it probably wouldn’t have seen the light of day. These can be time-consuming but are worth it. There might be other grants available in your area for developing performances (check your local literature development agency). IdeasTap is another good place to keep an eye on for grants.

 

Claire Trévien’s The Shipwrecked House is currently touring the UK. Tour dates with more to be announced can be found on the Penned in the Margins website. The show is coming to London on 13 November 2014, Bridport on 14 November 2014 and Oxford on 9 January 2015!

Claire Trévien is the author of Low-Tide Lottery (Salt, 2011) and The Shipwrecked House (Penned in the Margins, 2013) which was longlisted in the Guardian First Book Awards. Her poetry has appeared in numerous publications including the Sunday Times, POETRY, Magma, Best British Poetry 2012, and The Charnel House. She is currently co-editing an anthology with Gareth Prior called Other Countries: Contemporary Poets Rewiring History. She edits Sabotage Reviews and tutors for the Poetry School.

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