The last three weeks in Sydney has been Bondi Feast, which is Phil Spencer / Tamarama Rock Surfers’ annual winter festival out at the Bondi Pavilion. It’s a pretty lovely occasion, heaps of shows, forums, events and gigs all right by the sea.
Last year, Hadley and Jess and I performed Teen Makeouts one night, and it was utterly unnecessary and also lovely. This time around, the extraordinary Gin Savage directed a production of Jess and my piece Jack Kerouac’s Essentials of Spontaneous Prose As Read By Jessica Bellamy and David Finnigan.
I don’t really know what to say about this – in fact I won’t say anything, I’ll just let you read it here if you like. Basically, Jess and I wrote a play in response to Kerouac’s guide for how to be a writer. It’s a list of rules and ideas that I found pretty inspiring, and we talked about them and wrote about them, and that is the play.
Two writers talking about writing is (to my mind) pretty unstageable, so it was totally delightful that Gin Savage took this on as a project, and with a whole array of lovely collaborators, she made it into far more than the text we wrote. The audience were seated around a pool of water, into which was projected animations, in which was dispersed dry ice, and on another wall an overhead projector sending up Kerouac’s rules, and over it all a beautiful soundtrack and two actors playing the part of Jess and myself.
Jodi McAlister wrote a lovely review of it on her Theatre From The Backseat blog:
Jack Kerouac’s Essentials of Spontaneous Prose is a gentle, contemplative, rich piece of theatre. Actually, I’m not entirely sure it’s technically “theatre” per se (but then we would get into a whole debate about what constitutes theatre and there would be definitions and stuff and no one wants that). It’s certainly not theatre in the traditional sense. It’s more akin to a radio play, but it’s not quite that either. I wondered for a while if it would have been best as prose – I think I certainly would have liked to read it, because there’s a lot in it and I’m sure I’ve forgotten a bunch of stuff – but on second thought, I think theatrical conceit added a lot to it. We as audience sit around a pool of water, watching and listening as conversations and snippets of stories ripple across its surface.
One of the stories Scheherazade tells in the Arabian Nights (I think that’s where I remember it from!) is about a man who, entranced by a pool of water, sticks his head into it. While his head is in the water, he lives lifetimes: he conquers cities, defeats dragons, rescues princesses, all that kind of thing. When he removes his head from the water, only a few seconds have passed. (This story was part of Kenneth Slessor’s inspiration for Five Bells, BTW.) It’s easy to imagine that the pool of water in this show is the same kind of pool – full of infinite stories.
In this case, the stories were framed by, or came from, or maybe even emerged in spite of, Jack Kerouac’s guideline for writers, which are being discussed and talked through by two writers sitting in a café. Normally, I would find a show about two writers sitting and talking about writing unbearably self-indulgent – and there is certainly an element of indulgence here – but one of the things I really liked about this show was the way that stories kind of kept crowding their way over the top of the rules for prose. The two writers describe the best way to get close to the story, a kind of monstrous creature which you must submit to. There was one line which described language not as a dress you can pull off but as a tattoo, something imprinted on you, something bound to you. And yet in the midst of this, story is happening anyway without much interference from them – they are distracted by people sitting a few tables away, wondering if they’re getting married or divorced.
There’s a Daoist meditative ritual called zuowang – literally, sitting and forgetting – where you sit and stare into water and forget all your training and education in an effort to learn simply to be, to return to a state of pu (lit. “uncarved block”), which is the natural state of humans. I was reminded irresistibly of this during Jack Kerouac’s Essentials of Spontaneous Prose, staring into the limpid pool that was our theatre. Many of Kerouac’s rules were kind of about this: removing barriers and preconceptions and pretensions to literary technique so that you were able to face the story in a kind of pure state. I don’t think we as audience ever exactly achieve a meditative state – there is way too much to think about in this – but there is something very enchanting about staring into water and letting words bubble over you. It removes a number of the barriers that usually stand between audience and language in the theatre. There seems to be an inherent contradiction in Kerouac’s rules, in that rules in general seem to be figured as a kind of restraint. I think Jack Kerouac’s Essentials of Spontaneous Prose is fascinating in its theatrical realisation of this idea.
It was intense to watch – I’d forgotten how personal it was, and how specific to the time and place we wrote it, and the people and situations we wrote it about. I found myself really caught up in the feeling of having other people hear these intimate details about my life, and them being shared with a group of strangers, and that group of strangers having (mostly) no idea that it was my (our) stories they were hearing.
I found myself hoping like crazy that other people could glean some insight from these personal tales.
Mostly though, I was so grateful that it was happening – grateful to Phil Spencer for producing it, grateful to Ginny for making it happen, grateful to all the artists / performers / creatives involved, grateful (always grateful) to Jess for being such an incredible collaborator, grateful to all the people whose stories we borrowed.
And also I came out of it wanting to write. So that’s a thing.
Also, while we were hanging out, Jess and I shared with each other our drafts for our new Teen Makeouts pieces, which we are performing with Hadley in Brisbane next month at the Queensland Poetry Festival, because POETRY, motherfuckers. Apparently.