Rebecca Sharp. Photo by Stephanie de Leng

Rebecca Sharp is a writer working in performance, poetry and installation.

With her background as a playwright, she has had work professionally produced in her native Glasgow, New York City and Liverpool. In order to fully explore her interests as an artist, she now creates cross-disciplinary performances and installations involving text, sound and visuals. She often collaborates with other artists in achieving these aims.

Rebecca also plays and composes for the lever (Celtic) harp, which she has played for over fifteen years. She performs original compositions with spoken-word and also writes for other instruments, when scoring for theatre and film projects. Her harp and spoken-word work can best be described as modern fairytales, interweaving contemporary, often urban imagery with magical imaginings.

Currently based in Liverpool UK, Rebecca frequently performs at venues across the city, also travelling for performances and projects throughout the UK and beyond. We’re delighted to have her guest blogging about finding new and unusual ways to ‘use’ poetry.

Growing up in Glasgow, I spent a lot of time taking myself off to see cutting-edge, multi-media performances at places like Tramway, CCA and the Arches.  I remember an electronic opera at Tramway when I was about 14, going to talks at the CCA before I really knew what they were talking about, then as an undergraduate (studying Theatre at Glasgow), working front-of-house at all three at various times along the way.  I remember Goat Island and Forced Entertainment at CCA, Laurie Anderson at Tramway, Taylor Mac at the Arches and there were many more.  My first two plays were at the Arches (Last Child in 2001 and Danger: Hollow Sidewalk in 2006, both directed by Neil Doherty).  So it’s no huge surprise that now as a writer myself, I’m always playing with new and unexpected ways to create and present poetry and text.

Last year I collaborated with textile artist Eva Fulinova (Czech, based in Birmingham).  I had come across her amazing smocked silk work during one of my epic browsing sessions on the craft site Etsy (although Eva now sells from bigcartel – follow the link below).  I contacted her initially to commission a necklace for my wedding, then the more we communicated, the more I realised that we had shared artistic interests, so I suggested a collaboration.

Fathoming : setting poetry to silk 

Fathoming is a triptych of poems worked into individual smocked silk necklaces, each of unique design.  The process of creating the series was reciprocal: I wrote the poems with our final outcome in mind, following discussions with Eva.  I was inspired by the very process of intricate smocking and embellishment and wanted to capture that in the poems.  In turn, Eva designed and crafted each piece to reflect the structure, content and mood of each poem.

There is a thread of a story that runs through the pieces: two voices separated by time and the sea; the promise of a return perhaps never fulfilled; echoes of Penelope at her loom, waiting for Odysseus.  Eva puts it beautifully:  “The story speaks to me because I too waited long years to be with my love, landlocked and relying on messages darting across the sea… Can you hope to fathom or sway another’s heart when all you have are written words, so easily misplaced along the way or misunderstood?”

The Locker. Photo © Eva Fulinova

The first piece is called The Locker.  In it the first/‘her’ voice is heard, reminiscing and determined to call the other one home.  Eva dyed the strip of fabric with the text using an adapted itajime shibori technique to create three floating ‘sheets’ of paper. The honeycomb steadying the wavy pleats around the bag and sparkling with beads of honey is a reference to the ‘map of bees’ in the poem.

The Reminder. Photo © Eva Fulinova

The second piece is called The Reminder and bridges the other two like the voice of a narrator.  Eva dyed the silk in a colour that resembles faded pages of an old book or the ‘shades of wheat’ in the text.  She smocked it with indigo-dyed thread representing the sea as it enfolds the land.  The red thread of the story, the ‘blood-work’ of the poem, is visible on the back of the necklace. The toggle is made with jasper stones as red as broken pieces of sealing wax.

The Token. Photo © Eva Fulinova

The third piece is called The Token. It is a fragmented echo of the distant, absent voice. It is also a code and an astrolabe, a compass with ‘his’ words replacing the North, South, East and West for the waiting companion. Orbiting the chain is a mother-of-pearl moon (moon being a key image in the poem).  The words are set among the pleats in a pattern; the beads around the inner circle can be positioned to point in different directions and hopefully unlock the meaning of the cryptic message.

The pieces are available to see and order online, with the complete poems.

Also last year, I made The Ballad of Juniper Davy and Sonny Lumière.   The Ballad is a sequence of poems that I wrote as artist-in-residence with Metal Liverpool, based at and inspired by the historic Edge Hill Railway Station.  I also wrote the musical score and – in collaboration with Liverpool-based visual artist Elizabeth Willow – presented it as a site-specific promenade performance at the Station in May 2010.

The poems were performed by actors – although we worked hard to remove almost all traces of ‘acting’.  It was an incredibly delicate balancing act, between delivering the poems in such a way as to make the most of the words, while at the same time admitting that this was a performance, with a necessary degree of characterisation and theatricality that we were careful not to neglect.

At the same time as we were rehearsing, there had coincidentally been two other recent examples of (successfully) putting poetry on stage – Fiona Shaw’s version of T S Eliot’s The Waste Land and Carol Ann Duffy’s The World’s Wife, adapted by Linda Marlowe at The Assembly Rooms (also a timely article in the Guardian).   I spent considerable time deliberating issues such as to what extent punctuation, line-breaks and structure, when agonised over on the page, should be made audible (or visible!) in performance.  And how to do this?  Thankfully, I’ve never been all that interested in naturalism.  However, I was also anxious to make sure we body-swerved some of the common pitfalls, such as accidentally slipping into mime, stilted recitation or the opposite – over-acting in the face of a ‘difficult’ text.

The Ballad of Juniper Davy and Sonny Lumière. Photo Mark McNulty

I was lucky to be working with some excellent performers (Adam Millington and Laura Powers-del Arco) who were up for the adventure, as well as a host of advisors (‘outside eye’, director Neil Doherty; lighting and sound designer Joe Stathers-Tracey; Elizabeth Willow).  In the end, it had a lot to do with eye contact and keeping your hands still: which words to move on and which to let fly by themselves.  We spent a long time blocking, painstakingly choreographing certain parts of the text to pin the words down physically, visually, where it mattered (and it always mattered).  And it worked – audiences commented that they were ‘transported’, ‘entranced’, were totally invested in the fiction of it, while at the same time being aware of the craft.  Some audience comments even quoted lines from the text, so we could rest assured it hadn’t been lost in translation.

The whole production and the book with CD were designed with astonishing attention to detail by Elizabeth Willow.  I now continue to perform The Ballad as a solo recital, reading the poems and playing extracts of the score on the clarsach.

Last November I was invited to undertake a research and development residency at Lanternhouse in Ulverston, Cumbria.  I’ll be returning at the end of this year to resume work on my new project, Little Forks.  I started writing the text during last year’s residency, when I also met and started working with sound engineer/artist Fern Oxley.  The text is about a brother and sister, memory and place, layers of time, reverberation and repetition.  The final proposed work will hopefully come to fruition in Spring 2012, taking the form of a series of sound installations to be situated in Grizedale Forest, composed of manipulated recordings of the spoken text.

I also have a project in the pipeline with Scottish printmaker and artists book-maker Hugh Bryden.  A couple of years ago I wrote a poem ‘Pepper’s Ghost’ (published in Smoke magazine #59), referencing the ‘disappearing’ stage-trick invented by John Pepper.  I extended the poem into a longer text, which gradually started to look like a cross between a prose poem and a short play.  (I’m reminded of Cormac McCarthy’s The Sunset Limited, which he describes as ‘a novel in dramatic form’, yet it reads much like a play-text.  But I see what he means.)  Now called The Tiger Act, I still hadn’t found a suitable home for the text, having staged a rehearsed reading of an early dramatised version in 2008.  I later met Hugh during a workshop at the Wordsworth Trust (through mutual friend, poet Andrew Forster) and started thinking about artists books.  Talking to Hugh and seeing more of his work (through his award-winning Roncadora Press) made me realise that the trickery and playfulness of the text would be best served in some manner of 3D object, through the complimentary artwork and construction techniques that Hugh devises for each project.

A common concern with poetry, or any stand-alone text, is often how to get it ‘out there‘, if the end result isn’t to be for example, a performance, film, or even heavily publicised book.  How to give a text a long and full life, how to bring it to life in the first place?  And for me this really isn’t a case of form over content or getting bums on seats (or books in hands).  In most cases I do start writing new work with a notion of the form it might finally take, sometimes the form is a key inspiration and reference point (a forest, a train station, silk); but beyond that, the content, the text itself must always stand its own ground.  And that’s certainly what I aim to address through all my work – a joining of ideas, art-forms and often artists, fizzing away at the edges of what you thought you set out to do, ending up with something possibly hybrid, hopefully magical and unashamedly in pursuit of its own truth.

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