Beyond Words: Reading as Performance

By Elizabeth Searle

The readers for ‘Lost Lit Presents Stonecoast MFA in NYC’: Elizabeth Searle (in pink scarf); counterclockwise from Elizabeth: Bobbie Ford, Cristina Petrachio, Nora Grosvenor, Alexandria Delcourt, Kristabelle Munson, Lindsey Jacqueline, Richard Squires, Alexis Paige.

The readers for ‘Lost Lit Presents Stonecoast MFA in NYC’: Elizabeth Searle (in pink scarf); counterclockwise from Elizabeth: Bobbie Ford, Cristina Petrachio, Nora Grosvenor, Alexandria Delcourt, Kristabelle Munson, Lindsey Jacqueline, Richard Squires, Alexis Paige.

Backstage in Brooklyn at “Lost Lit Presents Stonecoast MFA in NYC”—a lively Nov. 2nd reading—one fellow reader asked us all, “Is anyone else here nervous?”

Among the all-star group of Stonecoast students who each performed their work with verve, no one could say, No.  The onstage energy crackled accordingly.  While it may take a toll, “performing” written works can be an exciting and enlightening experience for writers willing to give it their all.

Our next Stonecoast Northeast event is called “A Night at the Theater” and will feature a fusion of theater works and writers who “bring it” to the stage in reading performance.  The event takes place December 20th, in the Poet’s Theater series at the Armory Center for the Arts in Somerville MA. Stonecoast alumni, author, and Poet’s Theater curator Richard Cambridge will host.  Like me, Richard finds energy in combining the literary and the theatrical to try to create something new.

I asked Richard what made him found the Poet’s Theater series.  He explained: “When my poetic vision extended beyond my ability to instantiate it.  I could see that what I was attempting to create went beyond words—I heard music, I saw dance, experienced ritual. The Cambridge/Boston community is rich with creative artists of all disciplines, so I called upon them to help me create what I began to call ‘dramatic murals’, my term for poetry theatre.”

Richard himself is a National Slam Poetry champion and a natural performer.  Some writers love to perform their own works; many loathe getting up onstage.  Most, like me, feel a bit of both.  Why should solitary often-geekish authors be expected to “perform” their works onstage at all? In these days of Blog Book Tours, it is possible to bypass what used to be a “reading requirement.”

One reader from our NYC event later posted on Facebook that she was relieved not to have “fallen down” onstage.  In my own younger years, I literally have fallen—as in fainted—while reading.  Yet later in life, I won a gold medal at a famously fierce competitive-reading event, the Literary Death Match.

For those of us who do decide to take on the onstage challenge, and who aren’t “naturals,” there are ways to learn to funnel (the key syllable is ‘fun’) your natural nervous energy.  That way, it doesn’t boomerang on you and knock you out.

Having written for theater and worked with stage performers and musicians, I know from them that you don’t “get over” being nervous onstage.  A professional pianist counseled me that you have to learn how to handle your particular “brand of nerves.”  But the nerves, he adds, are part of what fuels any strong performance.  Watching my plays performed by pros, I feel connected as if by physical stretched-out nerves to the bold and beautiful actors onstage.  And I find that the experience of having my works performed—by me or by actors—is invaluable.

The same Saturday as the Stonecoast MFA NYC event, my husband and son and I went to a Broadway matinee of the sublimely subversive hit musical Book of Mormon.  As I watched the show somewhat nervously, anticipating my own reading, I remembered watching the Book or Mormon playwright—the cocky creator of South Park—accept his Tony Award, thanking his friends for keeping him from “fainting” at all the previews.  Clearly, no matter how successful and fearless a writer you are, the performance experience is not for the faint of heart.

Yet having your work performed aloud—even just by yourself, for a small bookstore throng—can serve a writer the same purpose as grueling previews serve a playwright: forcing you to experience an audience experiencing your words.

Too often for literary writers, the “audience” is an abstraction.  One literary writer I know wondered aloud if her whole career had taken place “only inside my own head.”  There’s nothing like putting your words out there, before an audience, to make it real.  I have found writing for theater a mid-life wake-up call.  And since beginning my theater-writing adventures, I have found that I perform my own fiction best when I approach a reading not as “a writer” but as “an actress.”

For the space of time I’m on the stage, I try not to judge the work myself (that can and does come later).  I try instead, as real actors do, simply to perform the material the best way I know how, giving it all I’ve got.

We thank Richard Cambridge for providing Stonecoasters who want to give “their all” on Decemeber 20th with a great venue and we hope to have more Stonecoast events with Poet’s Theater.  For the December 20th event, I am happy that my short one-act play “Stolen Girl Song”—which premiered this spring at the Northern Writes New Play Festival in Maine—will be performed.  A talented young actress, Norah Bird, will star, directed by Stonecoast alumni, author and raconteur Bruce Pratt.  I am also happy not be reading myself at this event, but to be cheering on another all-star Stonecoast reader lineup.  Among those giving short reading performances are Bruce, Amy M. Alvarez, Anthony D’Aries, Barbara Greenbaum, Alexis Paige, Mihku Paul, and Enza Verscera.  Richard Cambridge will not only MC but will also deliver his own reading/performance.

I asked Slam champion reader Richard what he’d say to his fellow readers and to all authors who aim to “bring it” to the stage.  Richard has this sage stage-reading advice.  “Find someone in the realm of theatre—an actor or director—who can reveal to you the dramatic values of your words as you’ve fashioned them into poems.  Performance poets are essentially actors of their own works.  And then rehearse, rehearse, rehearse.”

SEarle4screenElizabeth Searle is the author of four books of fiction, most recently Girl Held in Home.  She is librettist of Tonya & Nancy: The Rock Opera (produced on both coasts and showcased in NYC in 2013), a show that’s drawn national media attention.  She’s taught at Stonecoast for 10 years.


2 thoughts on “Beyond Words: Reading as Performance

  1. Wow, sounds spectacular (or the auditory equivalent)! Wish I’d been there (much as I loathe NY)!

    Good point, Elizabeth, about how writers, inherently introverted, nonetheless read, giving their all, and how that leads to a peak experience.

    • Hi Litotes and thanks; yes, there really is something about introverts ‘giving their all’ that can be highly intense and also– if it doesn’t implode– highly entertaining. I think many writers are ‘introvert/extrovert’ types– both introverted and extroverted at the same time, especially in the reading arena. Cheers– E.

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