I want to take Throat of These Hours to the United States, take my response to Muriel ‘back home’ to her place, even though her work belongs to all the world. So the Muriel Rukeyser Centenary Symposium was a great place to start and I was thrilled to have the opportunity to give a Skype presentation. And I wanted to show the work-in-progress, not just to talk about it. A filmed reading and performance of Chris White’s songs was the only way.
Two weeks before this morning’s presentation at the symposium, I finished the second draft of the Throat of These Hours and – with my beloved writing buddy – chose three related extracts to film. Found the cast and crew, all people I love working with or wanted to work with. Made a date to film seventeen pages of dialogue in three continuous chunks; and two associated songs. Max Schleser organised a perfect space for us at Massey University – a mixing suite that looks a bit like a radio station – and some equipment. Suggested three students to work with us.
Friday a week ago Chris White emailed through her settings for two Rukeyser poems. I listened to them and wept. So beautiful.
Then, last Tuesday , we spent the morning filming Chris performing her compositions. And the afternoon filming three related scenes. An intense adjustment, moving from solitary writer to producer (location, equipment, payment, food) and then to directing. And I didn’t get some of it right, as when as director I forgot to give the conventional cues – not quite the same as the ‘Everyone ready? Yep? Action–‘ from last year’s 48 Hours competition; I even (blush) forgot to say ‘cut’ now and then.
But worst of all, I repeated a mistake I made three years ago, with Development-the-movie. The longest sustained shoots I’ve been part of were for a fast-turnaround children’s television series, where the rule of thumb was that a page of script equalled a minute on screen. And that became heavily embedded in my consciousness, with serious consequences for Development. How did I not remember? John Conly, who did a wonderful job on set with the sound, with assistance from students Mon Patel and Nathan Foon, took the footage away to assemble on his own. Then brought it to me on Thursday for the hour he had available. The assembly was thirty-seven minutes long, for a presentation to last an hour, and include an intro and a Q & A. As John said, we’d shot almost half a feature in a single day. No wonder we were tired, though we started at 8.30 and finished at 4.30. Please, let me remember for ever-and-always that my writing takes two minutes per page on screen.
John and I had just one full play-through of his first edit. Script in hand, I concentrated on the text, because this was a filmed reading, not a film. I saw bits of the edited footage when we paused to fix dialogue and I looked up from the script. And felt again delighted by the performances from Chris and from actors Madeline McNamara and Lorae Parry, beautifully lit and shot by Director of Photography Jessica Charlton, with Struan Ashby and student Danesh Pillay on second camera. And now edited.
John-the-miracle worker took it all away for twenty-four hours and fitted the final version around his other work. Then we met Danesh at Massey on yesterday (Friday) morning and upload to Vimeo. Whew. Done. (Once again, I’m overwhelmed with the professionalism and generosity of a cast and crew, that beautiful alchemy that happens when highly skilled autonomous individuals give their all to a group project, regardless of the small amount they’re paid. So much imagination, skill and problem-solving of a high order. Here we are in a drought, at the end of a long hot summer. It will affect the country’s economy. Has anyone considered what a rich resource our artists are in this time of crisis?)
Back home to cut back on the oral intro, to allow for the longer clip. Done and emailed off as backup if someone in Michigan has to read it for me. A quick Skype test with De Ce Rouseau at Eastern Michigan University. It works. Whew again. An experiment with Chris on Skype at her place and me at mine: ‘Take the painting off the wall in the background,’ she suggested, ‘it looks like a huge whiteboard.’
A large dinner of omega-filled fish. Some lovely luck-wishing emails and calls. Help with getting the painting off the wall. Early night. Up at 5 a.m. to sweep the newly exposed cobwebs off the wall behind the painting and to sort out the necessary lights because it’s now still dark at 7 a.m. To decide on clothes: ‘Depending on your background wear what you are comfortable in – you know me simplicity all the way. I’d have my pj bottoms on and a teeshirt haha’ emailed my writing buddy. Wore the closest I have to a Patti Smith gig jacket, decorated with gifts from dear friends. Chris arrives right on schedule. Together, we lean into the laptop.
And then the presentation. Amazing to see people I’d only read about. Some technical hiccups. Some fabulous comments and questions that will inform my next draft, with more perhaps to come by email. And lovely to hear Chris’ responses to questions about her process; she’s going to write about it soon. Tiny regrets that we’re so far away and missing out on the other symposium conversations, alongside intense pleasure that we made it across the world. Now, here’s the original unedited intro.
Note: Our permissions to use Muriel Rukesyer’s poems for this presentation do not extend to being able to share the filmed extracts and songs online.
2. The Full Intro
Good afternoon from New Zealand. It’s exciting and such a pleasure to be able to join you to celebrate the centenary of Muriel Rukeyser’s birth. And it’s a privilege to be able to share the progress of my play Throat of These Hours with you, an audience of people who like me love Muriel Rukeyser’s work and are inspired by her life. A special thank you to Elisabeth Daumer for inviting me and to De Ce Rouseau for making the technicalities possible. I’m also very grateful to Bill Rukeyser for his encouragement and assistance. I don’t know if you’re present Bill, but if you are, please know how much your support has meant. As you all know, it’s sometimes lonely being a writer and when I got lonely writing this play, sometimes I’d sit at my desk and talk to Muriel herself and sometimes I’d sit there and talk to Bill. Neither of them seemed to mind. They didn’t say a thing. Though now and then Muriel gave me a non-verbal response. I think.
This presentation’s in three segments. I’m going to give you some background to writing the play. Then you’ll see a clip of two actors reading three scenes, bookended by Chris White performing the compositions she’s written for two of the poems included in the play, part of The Speed of Darkness from the beginning and Then, which ends it. After that, a Q & A with me and Chris.
So how did I get this far? About eighteen months ago, a mate – an actor, a poet, a filmmaker and a playwright, suggested that I write a play. I’d written only one, ever, a short exercise during my scriptwriting MA studies, at Victoria University’s International Institute of Modern Letters, which has had links to the Iowa Creative Writing programme. My apprenticeship was in screenplays and my Creative Writing PhD was about women developing screenplays. But I decided to accept the challenge to try a full-length play, partly because I’m interested in media convergence. What elements are necessary in and unique to a literary form and what aren’t? Why write a play rather than a film or a game or a book of essays or comic or a collection of poems? And I thought about my tattered photocopy of The Speed of Darkness, given to me by a lover, long ago. I don’t remember why she gave it to me, but I do remember that when I read it, it made my hair stand on end. And, held together with a now-rusty staple, it’s stayed in my file box of precious documents when I’ve moved across the world and back, and between New Zealand’s two main islands. I don’t keep stuff: I own only a dozen books and when I accumulate more I give them away. So now and then I’d take The Speed of Darkness out of the box and think Do I Need This? Read it again. Get its thump to my heart again. Put it back in the box again. Maybe it was time to investigate The Speed of Darkness a little more deeply.
Eighteen months later, I have the second draft of a play called Throat of These Hours, about two women who work in a Wellington New Zealand radio station, one of whom puts Muriel Rukeyser’s poems to music, for a solo show also called Throat of These Hours. The play needs at least two more drafts, but so far it seems to continue my preoccupations with the conflicts that often affect women artists and writers and our work. Motherhood of various kinds. The conflicts between elements which help us make our work and bring it to audiences and elements that may silence us or make us invisible, including patterns of abusive behaviour that may also compromise our health. And, for some of us, the tensions between arts practice and activism.
These concerns have been with me for a long time, starting in the late 70s when I was married to a highly politicized painter and worked, when my children were little, on an award-winning counter-sexist and counter-racist children’s picture book series. The concerns were there when I co-founded The Women’s Gallery here in Wellington and became a performance artist. And when a group of us became publishers of last resort for women writers who couldn’t find publishers for their work, and then became well-known for publishing Keri Hulme’s the bone people, which won the Booker Prize. The same concerns permeate my book Seven Risks for Single Mothers; & The Art Of Managing Them, my autoethnographic PhD about women who make movies and my globally oriented post-doctoral project that builds on the thesis work, documented in my Wellywood Woman blog and its various social media accounts.
Until I started this project, I’d never looked for other Muriel Rukeyser writing, though now and then I heard her mentioned, when I read about Alice Walker, or that Anne Sexton called her ‘beautiful Muriel, mother of everyone’. So what research did I do to construct the Muriel I chat to and who’s in the work, not as a character but as the woman that my characters refer to and whose work one of them puts to music and performs? I read and re-read the Collected Poems, The Orgy, The Life of Poetry, all the books I could find and some articles about the woman and her work and interviews with her. I had NO IDEA how much of it there was. I had no idea how rich and demanding it was. I was astonished, delighted, inspired and terrified. How could I possibly winnow it to share Muriel’s life and work with a 21st century audience?
Early on, I had a very useful Skype conversation with Bill Rukeyser. I also re-read Tillie Olsen’s Silences and Joanna Russ’ How To Suppress Women’s Writing and that – along with my own preoccupations – affected the aspects of the life and work I chose to highlight in the Muriel I’ve constructed: her urgent needs to connect with, to stand with, to listen with and to speak out; and (in alphabetical order) her bisexuality; her honesty and its companion mystery; her humour; her ill-health and her resilience; her intensity; her love of and breathtaking skill with language; her need to find money from sources other than writing poetry; her single motherhood.
The research was of course just the beginning. And the writing is taking me a lot longer than I’m used to. In my screenwriting apprenticeship I learned that I write best if I fall out of bed and onto the bench I sit at to write and set my little egg shaped cooking timer for 40 minutes, have breakfast, write again for another two lots of forty minutes and then spend the other parts of the day doing research or other writing, or editing or gardening, with maybe another burst of writing or re-writing around 6 in the evening. That gives me a full-length screenplay in two or three weeks.
This didn’t work with Throat of These Hours. The first draft took me months and months, because I had to keep testing what I thought and felt, now I was working with and learning from the Muriel element, her life and her work. There was Interrogating Tinkerbell, a short film about one woman’s anxiety, and a response to Hinemoana Baker‘s breath-taking poem Tinkerbell; it’s set in a radio station, where I was recording podcasts for my women’s film project. There was the 8000-word essay after Teju Cole visited Wellington and I began to understand the benevolent way in which male writers who support women writers nevertheless continue to transmit an overwhelmingly male literary tradition. That essay also explored the role of laundry in my life and re-explored ideas about my own and other writers’ absent mothers and women writers’ non-biological absent mothers. Later, there was the idea about women as backing singers for men’s work, which Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty inspired. On and on it went. And I went to and fro to the script until finally – in October 2012 – I had a draft which my mate read and gave me notes for. Too much like a film was one important element of her verdict. The women’s dialogue was sometimes too alike, or, as Chris later suggested, their energies were too similar. And my mate wasn’t clear about what the women wanted.
Back to a second draft I went for our summer, knowing by then that there was space to present at this conference and that I couldn’t offer excerpts if I wasn’t clear about the whole. Several things kept me on track. It made a huge difference that my mate became my writing buddy. At the beginning and end of each day we’d email. At the beginning of the day with our writing plans and our well-being and at the end with our progress. That really helped on the days it felt all too difficult and I wanted to run away. It also kept me going that by now I felt a commitment to Muriel and to the characters in the play, to getting it right. I felt answerable to them. And finally, I called on Chris to be the play’s composer. To some extent, the conversations with my writing buddy, with Muriel and my characters and with Chris lifted the loneliness of the hardest work I’ve ever done and the fear that I can’t do this, can’t make it work.
Chris and I worked together on the short film about anxiety and I’d enjoyed it very much. I knew she wrote a variety of music and I thought that if I gave her the selected poems and free rein to start by responding as she wished to two of them, that would both enhance the play and expand my perception of the poems. I’m also interested in the media convergence aspect of setting poems to music. Do they become songs? And if so what does that mean? And if there are songs in a play, does it become a musical and what does that mean? Some of the play’s dialogue between the two main characters seems to me to have the call and response mechanisms that I’m familiar with from chanting the Psalms. Is that another ‘musical’ element?
Last Friday, when I first heard Chris’ two sample compositions, for part of The Speed of Darkness and for Then, they exceeded my expectations and I realized that her completely contemporary music will provide a bridge to Muriel’s work that my play alone would not.
This is the play’s story. Tina, a bit younger than me, is a technician at a minor commercial radio station, a singer and composer who’s creating a show of Muriel Rukeyser poems she’s set to music. A former single mother, recently she’s become responsible for her grand-daughter Kate and she comes in early for her shifts so she can work on her compositions in peace. At the beginning of the play, Tina’s assigned to a studio where Meredith works, a renowned radio host who’s on her way down and a breast cancer survivor. Years ago, when she and Tina knew each other, Meredith was one of the few women poets who local male poets sometimes included in their performances and Tina played covers and was a backing singer. They didn’t like each other at all. At first, the two women spar, even though they agree over current political issues about water use and abuse. They continue to disagree over the value of poetry as Tina works on her show through difficulties with Kate, and Meredith neglects her health at the same time as consuming breast milk yoghurts designed to boost immune function, made and sold by their entrepreneurial colleague, Grace. Eventually, Meredith gets sick again, becomes engaged with Muriel’s life and work, regrets not writing more poems, and dies. Tina, herself now with breast cancer, ends the play with Then, an affirmation of continuing to work as an artist.
I’ve selected these scenes to show you the progress of Tina and Meredith’s relationship in the first half of the play and something of the relationship of the play to Muriel’s life and work. Please note that this is a READING, not a rehearsed performance or a film, though we’ve tried to make it interesting for you to watch and it’s on film because of distance. Because of time constraints it’s also not a final cut. It too is a work-in-progress.
After the clip, please do talk with us. We’d like to know what you enjoy and don’t enjoy. What works for you and what doesn’t work. What you don’t understand. Whether our accents are problematic. Whether the content feels foreign to you for other reasons. These things are important, because we want Throat of These Hours to be the best it can be. We want Throat of These Hours to entertain and to elicit vigorous responses. We also want it to provide a new pathway to Muriel Rukeyser’s work. And once it’s finished I’d like to bring to America. So we’d also love to hear suggestions about the best way we might bring it to audiences over there.