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find: Theatre Poetry Canada

Valerie Senyk,  

playwright / poet / performer, teacher, Canada.

Valerie Senyk

I am a theatre artist, playwright, performance poet, and visual artist. I also teach theatre at Thorneloe University in Sudbury, Ontario - mostly acting, movement and voice. My work is eclectic and postmodernist. I try to follow the voices and images my soul generates, and then order them according to the medium I'm working with. My most recent theatre piece was a play called "Sleep, Speak, Turn Toward..." which comprises three playlets under the one title. Each playlet has its own characters and story, but they are tied together in their exploration of our inability to articulate our conflicts. Stylistically, they combine symbolism with realism and are somewhat Beckett-esque because the action and images unfold in a non-linear way. The material is rather dark with an edge to it, but the third playlet includes the voice of the Maid of Heaven and uses a few lines and references from Bahá'u'lláh and the Universal House of Justice.

I wrote it after hearing Dr. Julia Kristeva speak at an international theatre conference in Toronto. She said something like: In this day, our conflicts are too great to be able to articulate them. Therefore, much of today's most avant-garde theatre is relatively non-verbal, using image and movement instead. The statement rang true for me. I had already started and stopped a few pieces I was writing, trying to express this idea of disassociation and conflict, particularly between men and women. I let her statement resonate inside me for awhile. Then suddenly, one day, I had an image of a man trying to kiss a woman to stop her from talking, and that was it! The woman talks on and on about this almost neurotic fear she has, and the man keeps trying to kiss her, which to me is a rather cynical image because mostly we think of a kiss as a positive thing. But in this case it's meant to stop the woman from expressing herself.

image to come

The greatest problem I had, once the themes and some images were in place, was to let the characters say what they wanted to. The challenge in writing an idea-based play is to make sure it's human and not just philosophical. When the characters finally started talking to me, I was sometimes scared by what I was writing. I had to get over that - the responsibility we can feel as Bahá'ís to create 'purist' art. Creating three playlets under one umbrella helped me give the audience the sense of being let into the private lives of the characters without worrying whether or not the conflict was resolved. Also, having been influenced by the Japanese Noh Theatre style, I liked the idea of a cycle of plays that were tied together thematically and symbolically; for example, the "flood" and a "lifeboat" are two images that recur in the three works.

I began writing plays, stories and poems at age nine. I become a Bahá'í at 17 and this had a major impact on my work. Initially it was negative because I was so caught up with serving on Bahá'í committees and saving humanity that I decided pursuing theatre and other arts was frivolous. That didn't stop me from writing, painting and dancing and using my capacities to serve the Bahá'í Faith. But at that point I was not mature enough, and had not read any Bahá'í Writings on the arts, to see the value of pursuing it as a career. At 18, I had the opportunity to study at the prestigious National Theatre School but turned it down. I married shortly after. It wasn't until nine years later, when my first husband and I had separated, that I went back to university as a single parent of two children to study theatre full-time. My love for theatre had never gone away, and a dream about losing my soul by not following my calling propelled me into it. It was the best decision I had ever made.

The first performance of one of my scripts was held at a National Bahá'í Convention in Canada in 1974. It was a multi-media piece based loosely on the Valley of Search from Bahá'u'lláh's Seven Valleys and it was called "A Fable." It was thirty minutes long and had three characters or presences on stage. In 1995 I made a breakthrough with my play "Pictures of Angels in the Dark," in which a woman who is a Bahá'í looks at the difficulty of living a spiritual life in a world that is anti-religious. It was a breakthrough in three ways: the central character was identified as a Bahá'í; the dialogue was largely raw and realistic - I consciously included poetry and music to separate one scene from another; and it was almost full-length (80 min). My joy in creating this work was in the fact that the audience could identify with the character no matter what religion or belief they professed. Engaging in as many artistic disciplines as I have - dance, writing, visual art, theatre - has influenced the collaborative and experimental nature of my work. Intensive study of the Japanese Noh Theatre has supported this. I studied the Noh when I was doing my Masters work on productions of W.B. Yeats' dance-plays, which Yeats fashioned after the Noh. I was doing this in Sakatchewan and the university brought in a Noh specialist to work with me. Then I had the opportunity to travel to Edmonton for a rare tour by a Noh company and experienced how it looked and sounded. I was able to meet the director, actors and musicians backstage and take notes. It gave me a theatrical style that emphasizes the actor and minimalizes environment and technical support. Having a couple of very strong mentors has helped me understand the importance of taking risks and using my own "voice/vision."

I have also done performance poetry, in which original pieces are performed along with other elements and mediums. For example, my first major work was a poem I recited while playing the piano, and a woman danced with slides projected behind her. I've recently decided that I love performing poetry with musicians more than I do theatre. The musical element grounds me, helps me to physicalize the poetry, and the text (my own words!) comes from a very deep place in me, deeper than I could get with play text. I've also recorded poetry with another poet and a couple of bands, under the names "Poemotion" and "Lipskin Dance." These were independent studio recordings. Currently, I'm working in a studio with another Bahá'í musician/producer, doing a CD of my poetry with new compositions by him. I have published several poems in various anthologies and publications. One is called Kissing, published in a (W)rites of Spring anthology.

image to come    


..I like the light
that comes into your face
when we kiss;
it comes into mine, too:
I feel lambent.

With others,
their faces darken,
become suffused, blood-like,
like the blood filling a dark
empty cavern, the kind that
swallows you, eats you up -
not you, no, not you...

(excerpt from 14 verse poem)

Arts Dialogue, November 2002, pages 6 and 7.

Of Angels

They told me to dance - yes, dance! they said,
the clouds are angels - they chase
each other across the sky;
you can be an angel - you can dance!

The summer air at dusk is sweeter
than any perfume; hey you! I call to the angels,
How come you're up there,
and I'm down here - stranded?!

This is the way for us; clayed feet
and bodies yearning;
escape from claws of loveless stillness,
wholeness never gotten,
the angel never wrestled to the ground.

They say, "angels are forgotten-
a thing of the past - don't you know?"
Rilke, speak to us from where you are;
give us a sign, a scent - ah! of course -
words take wing, like spirits.
A life rolls by like cloud,
gathering particles of dust,
gathering weight and storm -
and after it rains, the sky is empty -
life purified - insideout.

Excerpt from Letters on Poetry and Prose.

I live in Sudbury, Ontario, where I teach theatre at Laurentian University. I am also a published and performance poet. I do not think that poetry could not sound like prose, or that free verse is not poetic. But I think there are standards that need to be looked at. Crystalized images and ideas nourish me more as a reader/listener than non-crystalized.

For an example in a poem by Yeats: "turning and turning in the widening gyre/ the falcon cannot hear the falconer." He might have written, instead: "The falcon can't hear the falconer as he flies in a spiralling motion..."

Or perhaps another, say T.S. Eliot: "We are the hollow men/ We are the stuffed men/ Leaning together/ Headpiece filled with straw." Although this line sounds more prosey, it is the choice of language and line-scan that crystalizes it, so that it doesn't sound like "We are men without souls and not a single original thought in our heads." I don't know if these are good examples.

I don't want to sound trite about this and I can't say that my views on this represent the views on poetry in my part of the world. In fact, here, anyone who wants to call him/herself a poet can do so by scribbling any drivel down so that it might look like poetry, and be rewarded for it. I think poetry's going through a bad time right now. I am not conservative or dogmatic or anal-retentive by any means, but I do long for some standards in the arts. Not the above sort, but at least a stick set up at a certain level that indicates what one should strive for.

Arts Dialogue, February 2000, pages 2 and 3

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