The Serenity Poetry Series

PoetsPoetry Readings Have a Long History

One of the more memorable evenings I’ve spent in stage theater occurred at a small forty person theater in Seattle called the Odd Duck.  A playwright, whose name I can’t recall and wouldn’t tell you if I did, had written a piece for the playwright’s group show.  His stuff was very watchable, but violent, bloody and transgressive.  It was also highbrow and stuffed with old Greek myths, all in all a bit crazy.  The playwright himself was somewhat likeable, but largely an ass.  And not only was he an ass, but he worked at it.  We’d go out drinking and he’d work his magic to get us kicked out of the bar.

Of course, he was left to direct his own piece for the show.  No one else would do.  And he ended up firing several of the actors, finally using a last minute replacement, who took on the role because he didn’t want the evening to suffer as a whole.  The short version is that they got in an unspoken argument on stage regarding the phrasing of a line of dialogue.  The playwright, (as I remember), wouldn’t feed the substitute actor the next line, until the actor would say the last line as the playwright felt it demanded.  This went back and forth, with missteps and false lines for a minute or so until the new actor said “this is bullshit” and  the playwright tossed some food at him.  The actor tossed it back.  A French fry flew out into the audience and hit me.  So I picked it up and tossed it back, striking the playwright on the nose.  He turned to the audience and glared at me.

I remember thinking, in a gleeful moment, that this was making all of the big theater productions feel like canned vegetables.

            For ten years or more I frequented playwrights groups regularly.  Actors would read our scripts and then the clutch of us would discuss what seemed to work and what didn’t.  Then, we’d re-write, or not.  Then have it re-read, or not.  Then seek a staged reading, or not.  Then seek a production, or not.  Then seek a better production or not.  All the while internalizing critiques and struggling to make the work better (more re-writes).  The theater is exhausting.  When you witness a musical production (one of the most arduous stage endeavors undertaken) which has finally made it to a prominent stage, you have to wonder what the hell they have left to sing about?  And how they even have the breath left?

The trick is that they work for the parts of the experience you don’t get paid for.  They work the parts without immediate remuneration or audience approval.  That’s where the fun is.  That’s what keeps them going.  (The rest is ego.)  That’s what kept our group of unsuccessfully realized playwrights working.  We were having group sex with each other’s talents.

(Scot Adams in his book, “How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big”, nails this in Chapter 6: Goals Versus Systems staring page 30.  I recommend it.)

Aside from all of that, the process of dramatic production is one of constantly preening the narrative so that it meets expectations.  What kind of expectations?  Well, the expectations of others.  The audience has goals.  The audience has expectations for delight, surprise, the exercise of favored emotions, commanding characterizations, heightened dilemma, and a through line which embraces a widely favored public narrative – all of which is either at war or at least in a small struggle with the artist’s very individual, specific take on the world.  You cannot remove the politician from a popular piece of work.  Huge numbers of people all claim (honestly, I would suppose) to hate politicians.  But politicians are the only persons large groups of people will listen to in large groups.  Inside of every successful artist is a successful politician.   They aren’t necessarily likable, or positive influences, but they can claim the support of a vast segment of the population as a group.

The general public opinion of artists who are not successful is that they aren’t any good.  But from my years of experience I’ve found that people rarely persist in doing something they aren’t any good at.  (I was pleased to read that Scott Adams, of Dilbert fame, agrees with me.)  And there are a vast number of ‘not very good’ artists out there, persisting.  From my years of experience with artistic habituates, I’ve found that nearly to a person, each artist held a shard of genius… possibly a very slender one, at times no more than the thinnest, near invisible gossamer thread.  But that winning at theater is more a game of poker.  You need at least five good cards which augment one another – plus to cop another phrase from Scott Adams again, ‘the X Factor’.  There has to be something about your work which grabs and energizes a particular set of fans.

Talent plus the X Factor is a rare occurrence.   But talent alone is not.  It is literally everywhere.  And this is what unheralded groups of like minded, unrealized artists mine.  They mine one another’s talent, and cast themselves as each other’s audience.  They enjoy the experience of utilizing their talent and enjoying the products of talent.  That’s not a goal, but it’s the system of these small groups of artists who meet and work and persist.

In Seattle, during my time, there were several groups of theater people who would meet to conduct staged readings of new work.  Most of the groups were formalized with a inner cadre of either officers or first rank members.  They received the readings.  Lower members on the totem pole received readings of lesser length and when chosen.  The goals were to produce work of the first rank.  Their goals were to get plays into the local theater or even more prestigious places.  They rarely put up productions of their own.  And you needed to pass muster to join.

Then, there was my favorite group.  It had no officers.  It generally had only one or two members who had taken it upon themselves to do the administrative and organizational work necessary to sustain the group.  And they generally emceed the meetings.  There were no dues, no officers, no qualifications to join – except that you had to be there.  (One fellow brought in a pretty good play written while living on the street.)  Anarchism was the politics.  The meetings were pretty much “Hello.  Who have we got with something to read tonight?”  Playwrights would raise their hands.  One would be picked and he would pick some actors from the audience and hand them a script.  And then, “Showtime!”  If the script worked, we had fun.  If it didn’t work, oftentimes the discussion was better.  Even conversation is a chance for writers to show off their wit.

What was the track record?  The prominent personalities in the local theater world in town vied to become leaders of the more formal organizations.  And those who reached prominence in these organizations were constantly badgering the theaters in the press about using local writers.  They all had lofty goals and big ambitions.  But these goals were not reached, their ambitions unrealized, and the organizations collapsed.  Five years was about the life span.

My group had no goals, other than to meet and do original theater.   We put on 3-4 shows a year, very few of which were ever reviewed in the local weeklies.  We were referred to as amateurish, without standards, and the artists who came through the group and eventually rose to prominence, nearly to a person, never mentioned our group in their resumes.  But, as I was leaving Seattle, our group still throve, about twenty years along.  And the majority of the local writers who eventually were produced in our regional theater, passed through our group.  This information wasn’t and still isn’t generally shared.

Presently I run the Serenity Poetry Series at a coffee house in Vienna, West Virginia.  My goal is to create a place, much like that theater group of mine in Seattle, where we all have ‘skin in the game’.  Anyone who loves the memorable, decorative, clever, or verbally notable for one reason or another is welcome to attend and share.  (You may even attend if you don’t.)  They might share poems, writings, song lyrics, or even jokes.  They can be yours or others.  Your artistic goals are your own business.  But the enjoyment is ours.  There is no audience to speak of, and this is not a career move.  There’s no fame in it – just artists showing off and exercising their talents.

There’s no audience in it, except us.  And there’s no money in it, except ours.  But to quote Scott Adams again:   “…we all know that money distorts truth like a hippo in a thong.”

And we’re all wondering to see what an audience would do!  Drop by if you’re in the area. We meet the second Friday of every month, 7-9 pm, at the Serenity Coffee House in Vienna, West Virgina.

(If you would like to see more of Carl Nelson, visit:  http://www.magicbeanbooks.co/home.html  )

 

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