Theatre Preview: Available Light’s The Absurdity of Writing Poetry Returns to the CMA on May 29
In June of 2006, Available Light Theatre fired their first shot, at the Cincinnati Fringe Festival, with The Absurdity of Writing Poetry, a breathtaking solo piece by Matt Slaybaugh with sound from Dave Wallingford. It immediately raised eyebrows, including fellow theatre artist Stacey Morrison saying it “set such a powerful tone for all of us,” and Jason Fox, columnist for Cincinnati’s weekly, City Beat, using it as a tentpole in an article about the value of preserving downtowns (in an Over-the-Rhine not terribly recognizable going down there today) and glorifying people doing the work of culture, who said, “[Slaybaugh] slowly builds you and your faith back up again, and by the end Slaybaugh has absolutely sold you that not writing poetry is what’s absurd and that not creating art is what’s pointless. ‘Work it where you are right now,’ he implores us. ‘Commit to it like a vow.'” Slaybaugh told me, “It’s absolutely true that this was a manifesto for Available Light right at the beginning,” as he focused himself – in the wake of predecessor company Blueforms – around inspiration from Jennifer Fawcett and Sean Lewis in Iowa (both of whom Available Light later produced) and SITI Company founder Anne Bogart. “It served to get us started, and it’s also a declaration of intention and values.”
The Absurdity of Writing Poetry uses text from sources as diverse as Steve Colman’s “I Wanna Hear a Poem” and Wislawa Szymborska’s “Possibilities” (from which it draws its name) in a dazzling array of shout-outs and references. This assault on complacency uses collage and original work arranged to artfully exploit the juxtapositions and disjunctions and create something that feels wholly new and emotional. In many ways, this piece serves as an ur-text for what Available Light’s evolved into, the depth of its literary adaptations and the sweet spot where that company delves into why we, as people, do creative work in spite of whatever obstacles life throws at us.
I had the chance to ask Slaybaugh what’s changed as we approach this piece’s 10th anniversary, what keeps the company revisiting this.
“My perspective on the piece has certainly changed,” he said. “It is, in a way, a letter from my 30-year-old self. (I am now 40.) Some of what he has to say serves as a powerful reminder of why I got into art in the first place. I’m reminded of a quotation from an Against Me! song, ‘Do you remember when you were young and you wanted to set the world on fire?’ That was me. Luckily, it’s still me.”
“A number of people have said that they didn’t really understand what Available Light was all about until they saw The Absurdity of Writing Poetry,” Slaybaugh continued. “I know a few audience members who have said, ‘Anytime you’re doing that, I’ll be there.’ That’s very gratifying. One thing I’ve learned about the piece is that it speaks to all sorts of people who are in the process of beginning something bold, or people who’ve already done it, or people who are thinking about doing it. All sorts of people, in all sorts of disciplines know the extraordinary difficulty of fighting resistance to start doing work that matters and those are the people who get the most out of the show.”
I’m one of those audience members. I saw a restaging a few years later paired with Sean Christopher Lewis’ heartbreaking Killadelphia and it’s still one of the most powerful things I’ve seen on a stage in Columbus.
This very limited revival takes place in the auditorium of Columbus Museum of Art’s gorgeous renovated space.
“I’m excited about doing the show in an inspiring place that I dearly love,” said Slaybaugh. “I don’t want to give anything away, but it will be absolutely appropriate to exit the show and then enter galleries filled with beauty and joy and the work of people who pushed back the darkness and made work that matters to people. Doing the show will only increase my appreciation for all that art and it will do the same for the audience.”
About the practical aspects of performing it, “The biggest thing that’s changed in ten years is that I’ve learned a small but significant lesson. I have terrible ‘stage fright’, as they call it. I absolutely hated the thirty minutes right before we started. Now, I’m still nervous, but I don’t think it’s because I’m scared, I believe it’s because I’m excited to learn something. I learn a great deal about myself in those sixty minutes, and I’m grateful for the opportunity to do it again.”
This is one of Columbus’ treasures I, for one, look forward to revisiting. If you’ve never seen it, it will more than reward taking an hour out of a beautiful Sunday. If you’ve seen it multiple times, it will keep revealing things and inspiring you.
The Absurdity of Writing Poetry has one show at the Columbus Museum of Art at 2pm on Sunday, May 29. For tickets and more info, visit http://avltheatre.com/absurdity-at-cma/