Words on Stage

by Siobhán Kane

New ideas and best practice in producing and staging literature events, with Stephen James Smith, Julia Bird, and Marcella Bannon, chaired by Dani Gill.

This panel discussion illuminated many of the considerations in staging literature events; difficulties, potential solutions, and successes.

An interesting mix of expertise, anecdote, and engagement with the future of putting ‘words on stage’, there were many threads that clearly emerged.

Julia Bird talked about the “alchemy” present when bringing theatrical elements to events, with lighting, set design, and rehearsals as considerations. The size of the space has proven to not be the most important thing to her, but thinking carefully about space is. Find spaces that are complementary to an interesting experience, entering into an engagement with public spaces, for example, using a foyer of a theatre space, rather than the theatre space – pushing against received notions about what a literature event might be.

The Roaming Writer-in-Residence was put forward as an example of thinking creatively when it comes to literature, audiences, and engagement, with Jan Carson, the first recipient of the scheme, a perfect candidate, traveling by train to various universities throughout Ireland, to facilitate workshops with Creative Writing students, to create and send “Postcard Stories” – pieces of micro-fiction written on postcards. The Roaming Writer-in-Residence scheme, funded by ACNI in partnership with Irish Rail and Translink is the Irish Writer’s Centre first ever mobile all-island residency, and the idea is inclusive, and exciting.

Julia also talked about responding to particular sets of circumstances creatively, using an example of working with a network of rural pubs in the south of England, she was tasked with bringing poetry to a different kind of audience, which resulted in a series of half-poetry, half-karaoke events that were really successful, and served many roles.

She put forward the ultimate question, that although reading is a solitary pleasure, how do we build a communal experience out of it?

The communal experience was key to Marcella Bannon’s contribution, who talked about expanding existing audiences, activating new audiences, and reaching out to less-obvious audiences. That, as programmers, we have to think about the audience’s needs, and reach for a broad spectrum of people. We have to understand that there is not just one fit.

Marcella also talked about the touring grant at the Arts Council – how it is open to all art forms, but literature doesn’t do so well in the application process. There is a fund, and budget there for commissioning and touring interesting literature events, and we need to be as competitive as other creative arts, and invest heavily in the curatorial aspect, which contains a real legacy, and foundation stone for growth.

Anne Enright’s the Long Night of the Short Story – was used as a great example of an inclusive, interesting event that did really well, across a wide demographic, and looked at ‘words on stage’ in a slanted way, and Marcella mentioned that the new Laureate for Irish Fiction, Sebastian Barry, also has a passion and remit, to bring work to new audiences, with a responsibility to pass the fire on.

This is something Stephen James Smith has been doing, not only as a poet, but as a programmer. One of his early collaborative projects, was ‘Three Men Talking About Things They Kinda Know About’ which put ‘words on stage’ in an unusual way, and Stephen’s own work and practice is informed by writers such as Mark O’Rowe, who reappraises the idea of the play, harnessing both established, and modern conceits. Stephen has taken this idea, continuing to look for unusual ways to present work.

He has been thinking a lot about this, in light of his upcoming Ireland and UK tour, and mentioned scaring himself into trying something new, and while a booking agent has helped in many ways, it is still up to Stephen to present something more than a poetry event – so he is folding in local artists with each date. He does mention that poetry events can be a ‘hard sell’, something all the panel agreed with, and that the work needs to be presented in a creative, or collaborative way to harness audiences.

Stephen’s own practice brings his work into places that he never imagined – prisons, for example. He has been surprised at how much it has formed a huge part of his practice. He also put forward the idea that open mic nights are a great way to gather people, because it is a shared space, as well as a platform.

Dani Gill posed many interesting ideas, asking, what do writers want out of this experience? And suggesting that intimacy is key with literature events in particular, there is a huge psychological component. When engaging moderators to convene a discussion between writers, it is so important to choose the right one, to chat with potential moderators beforehand, to understand their own sensibility for the event.

Some venues are more static, but risks have to be taken, to bring interesting themes, writers, and experiences to audiences. These risks might not bear fruit overnight, but over time. Thinking creatively about putting ‘words on stage’ is an opportunity for curators, writers, audiences, and venues to arrive at a different way of thinking, and presenting work.