A Long Way From Home

DEC 30, 2015

By  Louis Jenkins

I saw Mark Rylance’s performance in the lead role of Peer Gynt, at the Guthrie Theater, Minneapolis in February, 2008, and was knocked out. Mark had undertaken to adapt Robert Bly’s translation of Ibsen’s play for the theater. Who is this guy, I wondered, who could take a strange play like that and make the character of Peer come alive? It turned out that Mark and I had mutual friends in Robert and Ruth Bly and in James Hillman and his wife Margot McLean, but Mark and I did not meet during that performance.

One evening when I was home in Duluth, I got an excited email from Margot McLean saying that Mark had used one of my prose poems as his acceptance speech for the Best Actor Tony Award.  I was flabbergasted.  I watched the speech on YouTube and saw that with Mark’s delivery the poem had wonderful comic effect.  I immediately emailed Mark, and from that contact our collaboration on the Nice Fish project began.

The idea Mark proposed was that we use my poems as text of a story that he had envisioned. My first thought was, “this isn’t going to work.” But I said, “sure,” figuring that whereas I knew next to nothing about theater, Mark probably knew a lot. In December 2008, Mark arranged a workshop performance of one act of the play in New York. When I arrived at Mark’s apartment he and Matthew Cowles were rehearsing a scene from the play. Mark had typed out the poems on sheets of paper and arranged them on the wall according to which poem went with which scene. So I joined in, putting my two cents worth whenever possible. Miraculously, it seemed to me, the play began to come together.

We continued to work on the play over the next few years. Mark had the primary job of constructing and shaping the play. I provided the poems as speeches for each of the characters and, also, occasional bits of plot. It was in a way like putting together a jigsaw puzzle, finding the right place for each piece, or the right piece for each place, except that there were extra pieces and places continually shifted. When the play went to rehearsals at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis in March 2013 the process remained the same, poems on the wall, and with new cast members and Mark’s wife Claire van Kampen as director, the discussion was expanded. Due to this input the play grew and I think got better.  I found it all to be great fun.

The writing of poems is a solitary activity, and often the poems never leave the page on which they were written, or the room in which they were written. Working on a play in this manner is a much more collaborative, group effort. Working with Mark has always been a great pleasure.  He seems to have endless energy and enthusiasm. And to have my poems take this direction is a total surprise, for them to wander so far from home. Of course, the poems are all my children. “What?” I say, “You are going into theater?! Oh, well, whatever makes you happy.”

Louis Jenkins’ poetry has been published in a number of magazines and anthologies including American Poetry Review, Gettysburg Review, Kenyon Review, Poetry East, Paris Review, and Virginia Quarterly Review.

This article originally appeared in the A.R.T. Guide, published by the American Repertory Theater in conjunction with A.R.T.’s production of Nice Fish. It also appears in the program for that production.

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