Working on a Poem

Stables in Paddington, Sydney 1900
Image by State Records NSW via Flickr

An old friend in the clergy called last week and asked me if I would like to read a poem at the Carols and Lessons ceremony on Advent Sunday evening. I am always honoured when these requests come to me, and of course flattered that I have been asked.

The wonderful Cicely Berry in her seminal book Voice and the Actor recommends poetry as quite the best material for an actor to work on. She’s on the money. I use it with my students all the time. Why? Because there is the chance to engage with language in a visceral way … emotions are closer to the surface in poetry … and it asks you as the actor to find the ‘size’ in yourself to match the heightened nature of the text. There’s often rhythm and rhyme to play with too, but not always. And of course, finding and revealing character in a very short space of time is a great challenge.

The piece I’m working on is The Innkeeper’s Wife by Clive Sansom, a lovely first-person, chatty monologue about the byre where the Christ child had been born, as she tells it, long ago. She’s talking to a carpenter who’s come to tear down the dilapidated stable and burn the wood. She reminisces about that night and doesn’t understand why she recalls it so vividly. Ah, but we do, of course. Shaking her head, she heads back inside to the inn to serve the customers more wine.

Finding her ‘voice’ to match the tone of the poem is the challenge with this one. Can’t be sentimental; she’s a no-nonsense woman. Her husband died years ago; she’s managed the inn since. There’s the trap in pieces like this, especially with religious text, to sentimentalise the whole thing and spoil the decidedly matter of factness of it all, or of making it too ‘actory.’

I try to find a role model in mind to work on as I prep for any role. Our city’s mayor, a no-nonsense, call-a-spade-a-shovel-if-you-have-to woman springs to mind. Hers is the body mask I will use to bring the Innkeeper’s Wife to life tomorrow evening. Meanwhile, I read and re-read till the cold-read becomes warmer and the text so familiar that I can relax into it.

The poem appears in A Pocket Book of Spiritual Poems collected by Rumer Godden, Hodder and Stoughton 1996.






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