Perfecting Performing Poetry – An Interview with Ryan McRee

Ryan McRee is a writer, dramaturg, and theatre director based in San Jose and Los Angeles. He graduated from USC in 2017 with a double major in Theatre and Narrative Studies, and while his focus is primarily in drama, he continues to explore screenwriting and poetry writing. He works for the Critical Studies department at the USC School of Dramatic Arts as a Course Assistant and prides himself as an educator as well as a working artist.

Ryan has also been my poetry coach, teaching me how to recite my poems, and workshopping my poetry. Below is an edited version of my interview with Ryan on The Viewless Wings Poetry Podcast.

James Morehead: In our first session, several months ago. you noted that “performance is intentionality”. Break down what you mean by that.

Ryan McRee: “I think that when one watches an actor, when the actor is doing their job, it appears to be natural, like things are just happening. I think one of the assumptions that’s made by the average theatergoer, when they watch a play and have never been in a rehearsal, is that when an actor crosses the stage, it’s just something the actor decided to do, rather than every movement being a meticulously designed and discussed choice. Sometimes even something as subtle as scratching the nose is something that a director and an actor may have had an argument about for three days. 

“It’s all about having a series of well thought out choices, and then being able to execute them smoothly enough to look mindless. I think that any sort of performance is the same. This became apparent to me when one of my USC professors, who is both an acting teacher and an academic, said that she would approach her conference papers the same way as an acting scene, where she would assign each section of her speech, or her essay, with an intention, and then play that, so to speak, to her audience. Even though she was giving a conference presentation, she was acting and performing in the same way that an actor would. I think that’s a useful way to approach any kind of public speaking. Whether it be Arts or academia or business or tech-related.”

James: You’ve also told me that thinking of a transitive verb for a poem, or a portion of poem, or even a line, can be helpful, can you break that down a little bit further?

Ryan: “The study of drama is all about the study of actions. That’s how actors and directors understand a play, characters having an objective and then performing a series of actions to obtain that objective. 

“Ideally you can understand everything that happens in a play through that lens. The practice of assigning a transitive verb to your lines is a way of getting in touch with what your character is doing at any given moment, and what your character is pursuing. 

“I think that while poetry is not always characters interacting (although sometimes it is), a poem is trying to accomplish something in the same way that a piece of drama is trying to incite a mood of some sort. The objective of the poem is a little bit more mysterious sometimes than a play, but I think the person reciting the poem has the responsibility to know the poem well enough to bring light to what that effect is. The way they can do that is by making their reading actionable by giving it that meaning.”

James: You have experience both with theatre, and reciting poetry. How are preparing to recite a poem and preparing to perform a script different? How are they the same? And, of course, I’m sure it depends on the poem.

Ryan: “They’re definitely different because they’re different mediums. With a poem you don’t necessarily have to flesh out a character, per se, as a full human being. But they’re similar in that they both require a very formal study of a piece of writing, and that’s how any actor starts. Later they might consider, how do I connect this to myself? Or other exercises to bring more emotionality into it. 

“I think any good actor starts with a very analytical read of a text. I think that is how someone reciting poetry starts, is just breaking down, what’s happening in every moment of this poem. In that way, they’re pretty similar. Once you have the general sense of the poem figured out, and the movements and the journey of the poem, then it’s all about final tweaking. That’s very not intellectual, right? Reading the poem and being, oh, that word sounds dumb unless I emphasize this syllable. Or I really need to slow down.

“That process can be sort of intellectual, because you might realize ‘if I add a hard pause in the middle of this line it creates a jolting effect that emphasizes a shocking revelation in the poem’ or maybe it’s the opposite, where you want to speed through it to actually undermine the startling shift in the poem because maybe you just want to let the poem do it’s work for you. There’s definitely that mix of heady abstract analysis, and then just common sense of what sounds good, and what doesn’t. 

James: You’ve shared some helpful tips for marking up a poem to help with the performance. Walk through your approach, what type of mark-up do you find helpful?

Ryan: “The biggest thing I do is add imaginary punctuation. Some poems are punctuated already, and some are not, and even when they are punctuated, you might want to add more punctuation to your reading. For me that consists of ellipses, periods or commas, to denote how quick of a pause I might want to take. Even if a poem has punctuation, you might add commas that wouldn’t make any sense visually in the poem. For example you might want to say three words disjointedly and add two commas.

“For non-punctuated poetry I think it’s really important to punctuate it for reading, because it’s so easy to in the middle of your read to lose track of the rhythm of the poem, or to spontaneously decide to make a different choice. And then you realize, halfway through it, that didn’t work at all. The rhythm is completely off now. If you know the poem very well, there’s something to be said for spontaneity and deciding to change your read on the fly can be great. It also can definitely mess you up if you’re not super confident about what you’re doing. 

“I usually mark for rhythm. Certainly you can also mark for meaning and doing some of those actionable, intentional things as well.”

James: How has your interest in poetry influenced how you approach drama and screenwriting?

Ryan: “That’s a good question. I think that one of the biggest things I got from poetry is that the meaning of a poem does not need to be obvious, but it needs to be present enough that the reader walks away with something. You’re making a bargain with the reader. If you’re not going to tell the reader exactly what your poem is about you at least need to give them some kind of reaction to go home with.

“When I write plays and screenplays, poetry makes me think about how to obscure things in order to create suspense. Using mystery as a way of actually hooking people, rather than alienating them. I definitely think there’s a balance to be struck because I think everyone gets frustrated when it feels like a writer is withholding the meaning of their work just to be pretentious. You don’t want to do that. But you want to withhold enough information at the right times to keep the reading engaging. That’s something I think is very present in a great poem that screenwriters or playwrights can really benefit from.

You can hear the rest of the interview including Ryan reading and discussing an original poem on The Viewless Wings Poetry Podcast.

Poet Bianca Amira Zanella on Virtual Open Mics and the Healing Power of Poetry Viewless Wings Poetry Podcast

Bianca Amira Zanella is the Poet-in-Residence at Phoenix Books Rutland and host of an international monthly open mic. Her poems have most recently appeared in The Artful Mind, The Rutland Herald, The Mountain Troubadour, and The Reverie. In 2020, Bianca founded The Paper Poet, now offering healing poetic experiences to anyone experiencing suffering and continues to perform around the United States and, virtually, abroad. James Morehead's debut book canvas is on sale now: https://tinyurl.com/canvasamazon. Follow James Morehead on Twitter (@dublinranch) and Instagram (@viewlesswings), and on the website viewlesswings.com. Bianca Amira Zanella's website: https://www.thepaperpoet.com/ — Support this podcast: https://anchor.fm/viewlesswings/support
  1. Poet Bianca Amira Zanella on Virtual Open Mics and the Healing Power of Poetry
  2. Ryan McRee (Writer, Director, Dramaturg, Poet) on the Art of Reciting Poetry
  3. Copyeditors and Perfecting Your Book's Manuscript
  4. "today?" Read and Discussed by James Morehead
  5. Regina Harris Baiocchi: Poet, Author, Composer on Creating with Words and Music

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