Tag Archives: Muriel Rukeyser play

15. The Muriel Rukeyser Living Archive

Delighted to be invited to post at the Muriel Rukeyser Living Archive, once a month for four months.  Here’s the first one.  It has a clip of the first scene Lorae Parry and Madeline McNamara read for the Rukeyser Symposium. And another clip of Christine White performing her composition for The Speed of Darkness, the Rukeyser poem that inspired me to write the stage play and now the radio play.

And, if you’d like to, you can join the project’s Facebook page, which focuses on Muriel Rukeyser news as well as the plays.


13. Christine White’s “I will bE sTiLL maKing” – MuriEL RuKyeSer


It’s out! Chris has written the first of two posts about her composition process for Throat of These Hours. A treat. Here’s one excerpt I love.

So here is the initial sound palette:

1. Voice – the title of the play gives it away – Throat of These Hours – and Muriel’s question in the context of her poem – “Who will be the throat of these hours?”. The play explores two women who, for various reasons have struggled with their art-making…Meredith has long since given up on writing poetry, and Tina is trying to discover her own voice through following the writings of Muriel and setting them to music.

The throat – the sounds of the throat can be many and varied…and can communicate a variety of emotions – the feeling of constriction, of not being able to speak/communicate – throat clearing, trying to make a way through obstacles.

Even the act of sighing and iterations of the breath can give signals as to the state of mind of the communicator – the body in the act of communicating, or trying to…

As this is a central theme in the play, and seemed to be a theme in Muriel’s own writings, I thought it is an obvious instrument. Its use in the presentation recording isn’t as subtle as it could be in the context of the whole play.

I think now of the film The Sixth Sense, and in watching a documentary about the film. In terms of sound design, the breath was used in layers – many many layers…human breath, animal breath – sometimes pitch shifted and slowed down – always running almost as if in the subconscious of the film – creating an undercurrent signal of the afterlife.

You can check out the fascinating rest of the post over here, on Chris’ blog MOLLY PLANET  RAW FOOD – RAW SOUND [discoveries and experiments] And her second post will be about influences…

12. Taking Throat of These Hours to the States


Struan Ashby and Jess Charlton prepare to film Chris White

1. Preparation

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. Continue reading

11. Singing Muriel

On Friday night, Chris sent through her compositions for our presentation at Michigan, to a Symposium-full of experts of Muriel Rukeyser and her work. One for part of ‘The Speed of Darkness’, which goes at the beginning of Throat of These Hours, and the other for ‘Then’, which ends it.

Chris’ composition and performance exceeded my expectations and confirmed my hunch that Muriel’s poems set to music will offer a way into them that their presence in the play doesn’t otherwise provide. At least, they do that for me. Muriel’s poems always reach my emotions in a way I can’t explain and when I listened to Chris’ compositions they renewed and amplified the poems’ intensity for me. I can’t wait to discover what effects they have on Saturday’s audience (Friday in the U.S.)

Tomorrow, we have a crew/equipment/location meeting and on Tuesday we film Chris performing her composition and two actors reading excerpts from Throat of These Hours.



And yesterday I re-found what Sharon Olds wrote about Muriel’s own voice:

In 1968, when Muriel Rukeyser read her poems at a gathering of poets against the Vietnam War, I was amazed by their directness and power, and deeply moved by her voice. It had an unusually wide range of tones, and a slight vibrato. It had an amber quality, a dark gold note–it was deep, but with highlights in it when it sailed up almost girlishly, full of hope or promise. When she read, tears came out of me easily, as if automatically–as if this had been the voice I was imprinted with when still in the shell. Now, more than thirty years later, I hear in the recordings the shape of the lips and the tongue and palate and vibrant throat of someone who loves to eat, and to laugh–not a woman with a small mouth, not a woman afraid to open it. She begins each line on a fairly high note, a casting up and out of the shining arc (with its tensile strength, and its hunting), which falls, gradually, in a serious, gravitational curve, to mezzo or alto (no lifting, no questioning, or permission-seeking, at the end). And her voice always sounds physical, homemade, and of its time and place.

(from Poetry Speaks)

After almost a year of writing, alone at my desk, I’ve found it more challenging than usual to shift to a producer role. Something’s happened to my mental flexibility. And I’ve whined a bit to myself as I juggle what’s necessary with the other commitments in my life. Then, further on in Sharon Olds’ essay, I re-read this:

Around that time, I heard of [a] reading where many poets took turns reading…Muriel was reading heartily, with power and verve, and then gradually people noticed that there was no longer any space between her head and the podium. She had sunk down to some degree, and yet there was no diminution in the gusto with which she was reading, so no-one stepped up–everyone was kind of mesmerised. Eventually they realised she had sunk to the floor and someone mentioned an ambulance. But Muriel, lying there, said, “No, I want to finish the passage, I’d like a chair.” One was found, and they lifted her into it and brought down the microphone, and, as if nothing had happened, she continued on with the section and finished it.

Muriel died when she was aged 66 and two months, exactly a year older than I am now. How dare I whinge? I am soooo lucky to be reasonably healthy, to have these wonderful people to help. To have access to technology that makes it possible to communicate with people half a world away, about a woman whose work we all love. I love her life, too. And I love her, after meeting her in her writing and the writing of others like Sharon Olds.

10. Christine White’s ‘Water, Water, Water’

It’s ace to work with Christine White, the Throat of These Hours composer, because her work makes me re-hear Muriel Rukeyser’s poems. It also enhances the play, helps me explore ideas about the connections between poems and theatre and when a play becomes a musical. And it was a beautiful surprise when Chris sent me a link to what she’d written about Kathleen Gallagher’s film Water Whisperers Tangaroa (see also 7. Kathleen Gallagher – Poet, playwright, filmmaker).   Here’s the beginning of her post, with a link to the rest on her blog, MOLLY PLANET: RAW FOOD – RAW SOUND [discoveries and experiments]. Many thanks, Chris!

Water, Water, Water

Headman Mark Franco Winneman Wintu, North America

“It’s almost like if you want to put a tourniquet on your arm, that’s what
you’re doing with these dams, you’re putting tourniquet on your arm, and
then your fingers die – and you wonder why your finger’s died. It died
because you cut off the flow of blood. Water is like the blood in our
body…the water is the blood of Mother Earth. You cannot do these
things to it.”

– from Water Whisperers / Tangaroa (WickCandle Film – www.wickcandle.co.nz).

Mike O’Donnell Sculptor, Potter

“Ohinemuri was called a designated sludge canal once. It was so tragic that
everything got dumped in it – all the mining stuff, cyanide waste, the
community dumped its’ waste. It dumped its sewerage. That was the
attitude you know – this attitude we have inherited. On Sundays they
would stop the mine and they would all go to church. And then on Mondays
they would open the mine back up – and the old people would see
thousands of mullet and fish swimming with their heads out of the water
’cause they couldn’t swim in Ohinemuri any more. It was deoxygenated
from the cyanide. And I remember Uncle Tiki Rakana just saying it just
made us wonder about their spirituality. They go to church on Sunday,
and then they destroyed the water of Mother Earth, of Papatuanuku – they
destroy it on Monday.”

– from Water Whisperers / Tangaroa (WickCandle Film – www.wickcandle.co.nz).

I am lucky enough to be involved in a composition project with film-maker/playwright Marian Evans (http://wellywoodwoman.blogspot.co.nz/), in which the poems of Muriel Rukeyser are to be set to music. These will be  performed in the context of a play which explores the dynamics of three women in Aotearoa/New Zealand and examines issues of water conservation, health, and the experiences of creative women in finding/expressing their own voice.

Rukeyser (1913-1980) was a poet, feminist, bisexual, activist, Jewish woman from New York. I’m not very good at describing writing but her poems have stood out to me because of their confronting nature and honesty, particularly for the era she was writing in. I am inspired by her activism and also feel a closeness because of my visit to New York last year – it is a place that gets under the skin for sure.


9. Zero Dark Thirty: The Director As Backing Singer?

A Wellington Sevens costume. Thanks, Stuff!

I didn’t much want to go to Zero Dark Thirty. I scare easily at the movies and don’t often watch war films or action films. I love thrillers though, and I’m waiting for a new thriller about the war against violence against women, an ongoing event in real time – on 14 February Eve Ensler’s One Billion Rising is a turning point in that story.

But I’d followed some of the controversy about Zero Dark Thirty, read reports of what Kathryn Bigelow says about her film and watched her speak on various clips. And I’m very interested in issues around work that’s hybrid, a mix of documentary and fiction (in New Zealand, Alyx Duncan’s recent The Red House and two projects that are on their way, Leanne Pooley’s Beyond the Edge about Sir Edmund Hillary’s ascent of Everest in 1953 and Gaylene Preston’s Hope and Wire series about the Christchurch earthquakes.)So when a beloved friend was willing to go to Zero Dark Thirty, someone I knew would hold my hand if I needed that, off I went.

I didn’t need my hand held. The film didn’t engage me enough on a visceral level. It’s very ‘talky’ and uses the talk  and ‘chapter headings’ to move the story along, so I kept missing bits and became confused (as did my mate). There was no point at which I cared about the central character, played by Jessica Chastain. If a man had directed Zero Dark Thirty, I’d have shrugged, enjoyed the rest of the evening on Wellington’s wild streets (it was a Rugby Sevens night and a lot of fun for an observer) and not given it another thought.

But because Kathryn Bigelow directed Zero Dark Thirty, I thought at length. Tweeted my interest in discussions and got a couple of responses. And kept thinking. I’ve come to two conclusions. One is that the film can be read as an art historically influenced statement about women and wars between religions and nation states. The other is that Kathryn Bigelow’s statement is compromised by her role as Mark Boal’s backing singer. Continue reading

8. They Might Have Completely Forgotten Us

Anna Keir Self Image (1981 silk screen on cotton 58×43.5)

I. How women artists disappear from history

As Sarah Polley said the other day, “It’s really lonely being a female filmmaker, there really aren’t that many women doing this job.” If we can’t connect to our women filmmaker histories, it’s even lonelier. Women’s histories disappear so quickly. We – and our intellectual and artistic achievements – get forgotten. Often because of lack of resources.

The other day I stumbled on a bilingual Canadian Women Film Directors Database filmmakers and was astonished to find it included 975 women who’ve directed at least one short or feature film. Created in 2006-2007 by Margaret Fulford, a librarian at the University of Toronto, the database provides additional information about 145 of the directors. It states that ‘more detailed records will be added over time’. I suspect that one golden year of funding made it possible to get the database this far, and that will be it – a tantalising glimpse into a rich history of filmmakers and films we may never know more about. (Happily I was mistaken: check out Margaret Fulford’s comment below!)

Women’s histories so often get lost within institutions which, unlike the Canadian database, are not only for women. There, women’s work is often entirely ignored, or framed in a way that obscures our contributions. Take, for instance, Te Papa Tongarewa Museum of New Zealand. Te Papa describes itself as

…New Zealand’s national museum, renowned for being bicultural, scholarly, innovative, and fun. Our success is built on our relationships with and ability to represent our community.

But there’s strong evidence that the institution hasn’t built strong relationships with its communities’ women and women artists and fails to represent them adequately. In 2009 I wrote about Te Papa and how it fails women artists in an article about We Are Unsuitable For Framingits exhibition of women’s work. But the institution’s relationships with women artists’ history have also been unsatisfactory in more general exhibitions. For instance, in 2004, Te Papa created an exhibition called Out On The Street: New Zealand In The 1970s. According to Te Papa, this show

…takes in the Māori renaissance of this decade, investigates the radical influence of women’s liberation on Kiwi culture, and canvasses the alternative voices that rose to challenge the Establishment…New Zealand took to the world stage, sending a navy vessel to Moruroa in protest at the continued French nuclear testing on this tiny Pacific atoll…everyone seemed to be out on the street, making their views known on, among other things, sporting contacts with South Africa, gay rights, the Vietnam War, abortion, social welfare benefits, and ‘US imperialism’.

Out On The Street included posters, many of them made by women artists, but as I remember it a high proportion were unattributed. For example, the posters that women’s art movement leader Sharon Alston designed were not attributed to her. And a classic Herstory Press poster was displayed without naming the prolific photographer – Mary Bailey – and the women in the poster’s photograph. In less than thirty years two accomplished women artists and five women who posed for one of them had become ‘anonymous’, even though there were many people in Wellington who could have provided names. Can Te Papa’s self-description be taken seriously if it isn’t scholarly enough to research and provide the names of those who create the artworks it displays? It’s possible to argue that posters aren’t ‘art works’ so that it isn’t important who created them, and there were probably posters men made that were also unattributed. But I think that if posters are shown in an arts context they become art works and it’s important to identify who made them; given the underrepresentation of women in Te Papa’s exhibitions and women’s somewhat fragile art history the institution should be especially scrupulous in naming the women makers of works it does show. Continue reading

7. Kathleen Gallagher – Poet, Playwright, Filmmaker

Kathleen Gallagher & Mike Single on camera, filming the Hurunui River – one of the four principal rivers in North Canterbury – for Water Whisperers/ Tangaroa 

Two things affected me last month. First, the proposal to increase irrigation in Canterbury, a New Zealand region with many major rivers which are depleted and degraded, probably best known outside New Zealand as the site of major earthquakes in 2010 and 2011. Second, Sandy-the-Frankenstorm that devastated Haiti – where there was also a major earthquake in 2010 – Jamaica and Cuba before it hit the United States. I felt deep sadness first, then a desire to help, so offered support where I could. And I thought it might also help to protest about the Canterbury irrigation, and about climate change, but wasn’t sure what was best to do.

So I focused on what I had to do: an essay about New Zealand women directors, the garden.

The next draft of Throat of These Hours, my play about poet and activist Muriel Rukeyser (1913-1980, ‘beautiful Muriel, mother of everyone’ according to fellow poet Anne Sexton ) and two women in a Wellington radio station, was waaay at the back of my mind – it’s ten days or so until I start up again with my writing buddy. But then I received an interview with Muriel that I’d wanted for ages. In the interview, from the New York Quarterly, she says

…a lot of things have killed and mutilated people I love. I will protest all my life. I am willing to. But I’m a person who makes, much more than a person who protests…and I have decided that wherever I protest from now on…I will make something – I will make poems, plant, feed children, build, but not ever protest without making something. I think the whole thing must be made again.

So I began to think about the relationship between protest and making, how they create a whole. And that took me back to Muriel’s book The Life of Poetry, where she writes about the fear of poetry, and its capacity to provide a place where all kinds of imagination can meet and change us, change the world. She saw her long prose works as footnotes to her poetry. And she was a film editor, too, who found that working with film was ‘a terribly good exercise for poetry although many [poets] have been seduced away to writing for film’. She also wrote that –

The work that a poem does is a transfer of human energy, and I think human energy may be defined as consciousness, the capacity to make change in existing conditions.

I began to understand the links between poetry and other ‘making’ and protest; and to think about people who work to make ‘the whole thing’ again, and for whom writing poems is part of that process. And came back to Canterbury poet and playwright Kathleen Gallagher, who makes films, most recently a trilogy – Earth Whisperers Papatuanuku, Water Whisperers Tangaroa, and Sky Whisperers Ranginui, and before that Healing Journeys He Oranga He Oranga about eleven cancer survivors and Tau Te Mauri Breath of Peace about how Aotearoa New Zealand became nuclear free and antiwar. Continue reading

6. Women Directors. Globally

After I completed my survey of New Zealand feature directors by gender, I wanted to put the New Zealand statistics alongside those from other countries. It’s impossible to do this globally, or exactly. The figures are unavailable for Lebanon, for instance, a country with about the same population as New Zealand, where there is a very different cinema history and no state funding. In the United States, the volume of filmmaking of all kinds makes it impossible to establish a comprehensive picture. But here’s some information which gives a general idea, for directors of narrative feature films only.

Australia (five years to mid 2011) 18%

(theatrically released features only, probably most state-funded) via Screen Australia

Canada (2010) 16% (all state-funded) via Women in View

France (2010) 21% (state-funded, but with lower budgets than men-directed films) my research

New Zealand (2010) 16% (same percentage in both state-funded and not state-funded lists) my research

Norway (2010) 19% (from the Norwegian Film Institute database, not known if all state-funded)
Sweden (2010) 11% (19% of all state-funded films) via Swedish Film Institute

United States (2011-12) 18% (films from round the world shown at selected United States festivals) via Martha Lauzen at the Center for the Study of Women in Television & Film

United States (2010) 7% (250 top-grossing films, a steady decrease from 9% in 1998; 5% in 2011) via Martha Lauzen at the Center for the Study of Women in Television & Film. I better understood this especially low percentage and the decrease when I saw this graphic.

For the first time, I feel confident that although there are some local differences the percentage of women directors of narrative features is about the same everywhere in the world. Consider these figures in association with the percentage of films with women as protagonists (thank you, Miss Representation!), 16 percent, and it’s obvious the problem is serious as well as complex.

But there’s hope! By chance I received an email that shows that women who make decisions within the entertainment industry are not only aware of the problem but trying to analyse it and seek solutions. The notes helped me think and I hope they’re helpful for you, too. Continue reading

4. Celebrating Activism – YAY

This year, with half the feature films funded by the New Zealand Film Commission (NZFC) directed by women, it’s arguable that discrimination against women directors is in remission here. Though probably not far away. A bit like a herpes virus. Lurking forever within the body, grasping at opportunities to act. Globally, the good gender statistics now available from places like Australia, Sweden and the United States show that for various reasons including discrimination, women direct far fewer feature films than men. Continue reading