Words in the Mouth: Camille Roy interviewed by Robin Tremblay-McGaw in Poetry Flash 1991

Cover of Roy's Cold Heaven with Gina Hyams as Fear
and Dey Ehrlich as Technique from Bye, Bye Brunilde

In honor of Camille's new book Sherwood Forest, I thought I would reprise this interview with Camille, Gina Hyams who played Fear in Roy's play Bye Bye Brunhilde, and director Zack. For some reason that day, Dey Ehrlich was not able to be there. This was the first interview I ever did and I remember it clearly because we did the whole interview and then I discovered that something was wrong with the cassette recorder (yes, I said the cassette recorder!) or rather, my operation of it, so we had to do the interview all over again! It was alarming and fun.

Words in the Mouth: A New Look at Poet's Theater

published in Poetry Flash  August 1991

BYE BYE BRUNHILDE is an original Poet's Theater performance written by poet/playwright Camille Roy, directed by Zack, designed by Rodney O'Neal Austin and Robert Hold and performed by Gina Hyams and Dey Ehrlich, originally co-presented by The Poetry Center at San Francisco State University and New Langton Arts in March 1991. The play will run at the Studio at Theater Rhinoceros, San Francisco, August 15-25.

There is an active. fruitful, difference of opinion in the air which has encouraged many of us to take another look at the possibilities of poetry in performance; that is, theater used as a vehicle for poetics and language theory, as written by poets, not playwrights, usually practiced by poets unconcerned with narrative conflict and action, the traditional values of theater. The play becomes a setting for language, instead of a vehicle for plot. Literature and theate, as we are used to thinking of them, are based on a dialectic, and don't necessarily reduce to one voice. But experimental Poet's Theater has challenged these viewpoints, blurred the borders, as demonstrated by poet/playwright Camille Roy's Bye Bye Brunhilde, a play about two lesbians who share an apartment and have a 'non-representational' tug of war between "identity politics and language theory" as they act out their "tender dance and brutal wrestling match. As Robert Gluck, poet and writer, has said,

"Bye Bye Brunhilde is a gorgeously perverse valentine about two dykes, Fear and Technique.

Fear says. "We're compatible in a way. I like you and you like my looks.' Technique replies. "You're right. I do like your looks. Camille Roy has put a lesbian spin on poet's theatre. Her characters entirely embody their sexual give and take while, on another level, their roles are dismantled by star-struck language."

Bye Bye Brunhilde premiered to sold out houses earlier this year, and returns to the stage in August with the original cast, Dey Ehrlich and Gina Hyams. Camille Roy has published poems and stories in ZYZZYV A and (HOW)ever; her work has appeared in anthologies such as Women On Women and Deep Down; her first book is forthcoming from Kelsey Street Press. She is also editor of Dear World, a "queer art & lit magazine." Bye Bye Brunhilde grew out of a collaboration with film and video maker Abigail Child on "pornography, narrative, and community” in a lesbian context. ..

- Joyce Jenkins, Editor, Poetry Flash

The following talk was conducted by Robin Tremblay-McGaw with Camille Roy, Gina Hyams, and Zack.

RTM: Who are the writers that interest you, Camille?

CR: In this play, I think my two reference points were the plays of Carla Harryman and Frank O'Hara. They are both writers that I really admire; they're very different, vivid in different ways as well as both being poets writing for the theater. Other writers that I've been influenced by include Robert Gluck and Kathleen Fraser. I've been influenced by both poets and narrative writers quite a lot. So I've had to reconcile those diverse influences in my own work. Writing for voices, writing for theater, is one way to do that, to combine narrative and highly charged language. I can have the freedom and flexibility that I want and still keep these elements of recognition with an audience that creates a kind of intimacy that is valuable to me.

RTM: Zack and Gina, what do you see as different, if anything, in the work that poets produce for theater in comparison to what other writers produce?

Z: I think the clearest difference is the amount of steps you, as a director, need to go through to have a feel for the script or text. In most plays the analysis is pretty limited to the motivations and the psychological behavior and how that's manifested through the actions of the characters, whereas all those kinds of modes of interpretation go out the window when you're looking at a script that's abstract or convoluted or, at times, even nonsensical. You cannot break this script down according to the 'rules' of traditional drama. That's one big difference. Another difference is that it's not always clear from the words what should or could be happening visually. The words do not point to definitive stage action. They may suggest something, but there is no one-on-one relationship. Ten different directors will give you ten very different Bye Bye Brunhilde.

GH: Right. When we were starting, when we first rehearsed it, Zack and Dey and I sat in a cafe. Our first impulse was to try to pin it down in some way. What does this line mean? What do these characters mean? We found that that's not a helpful way to deal with this language because the language leaps all over the place. And that's the joy in the language, that you can go all these different places.

Z: Sometimes there's subtext and sometimes—there isn't—and to jump on the assumption that there's always subtext can be misleading. Or to throw subtext out the window can also be a faux pas. In traditional plays, generally, there is a lot of subtext, but it's of a simple nature. The character says, "I want you to leave!" when they really want you to stay. But in a play like this the character says, "Milk-white pebble stone'" and maybe it's not productive to spend half an hour saying "What are those milk-white pebbles there?"

GH: Except that as performers we needed to find those moment-to-moment kinds of truths and meaning. There is an arc to the play, but there's not a linear progression in the play that is immediately discernible. It's a much more intuitive progression that happens in the imagination of these characters.

CR: This play is kind of a meeting point for a set of collaborations that began in a collaboration, and it took in other collaborations as it moved to the stage of being performed in a theater. That was very exciting for me as a writer. The way the play was actually written invited collaboration, and I think it also invites that from the audience.

Z: Oh. definitely! I think that most plays, when they reach the stage of production, have been refined to the point of being almost fascistic in the sense of one vision, one clear, digestible, easily and quickly understood unit or moment or statement or message, or something. This play requires a lot from the audience in terms of interpretation. They must go through the same thing: do I want to spend thirty minutes looking at the milk-white pebbles, or do I want to go on and find out what's going on with the relationship?

RTM: So it's very process-oriented for everyone involved right from the very beginning?

Z: Yes, and I think that can make certain audience members uncomfortable, to realize that they have a responsibility or... an opportunity to participate in this way and invent along with us –that it is not a sealed, closed system that they are watching as if it sits under glass existing outside of them. They are really in the moment with the performers as well as the characters, as well as the writer. It's all [being worked on] at the same time rather than being something that has been finished and made, and now just needs to be consumed.

RTM: Well, who is the audience for this?

CR: I think that this play is in many ways quite recognizable by people who are not necessarily experimental writers, although experimental writers get every line, and often other audience, members do not.

GH: It's not that they get every line. They get something else. They may not care about these narrative arguments at all and have no interest in literary theories. But it really doesn't matter with this play because these characters, these entities are so physical and sensual, and they do have a relationship to each other and to the space and to the audience and to the language—which is almost a third character. It's funny; and there's a lot of story without a lot of plot.

CR: There's story, and there's character, but there's not narrative in the traditional form. The character and the stories are there because they give a certain kind of pleasure, and not there because they're part of an organization that's desired to reproduce somebody's idea of what reality is. It's much more open-ended than that.

RTM: It's interesting that it's such a pleasurable piece. How do you see the lesbianism of the characters relating to the play?

CR: It's that intimacy theme again. The lesbian community is a sort of hothouse for intimacy, as any group that is all women can be. Possibly the private life of couples is played out a bit more in front of friends and others than in the straight community.

Also Fear and Technique have very different views of sexual identity, that is, their identity as lesbians. To Fear it is a riddle that undoes itself. For Technique it is a lyrical expression of a kind of logic. Fear is more innovative, really, because she's not only lesbian, she's femme. This is a location with more than one source of knowledge.

Also, sexuality. Their sexual relationship is metaphorically realized in the play. The context for this is the explosion in play and discourse concerning sex in the lesbian community over the last twelve years. It's almost a kind of community cannibalism, feasting off the body.

RTM: But this was an intellectual idea before it became these characters in the language that they're aspiring to.

CR: That's true, but I was also wanting to look at the intersection of theory and sexuality, theory and relationship; to look at story and character to see what kind of pleasure they can give.

Z: I think you've also jumbled the balance which most people are used to in the theater, in terms of how much they are feeling with the characters or for the characters, and how much they have to think about how this piece is being made, or what are the conscious steps we go through when we assemble experience, for example. The audience has to put those words together with those images, and they might not necessarily fit or be as clear as what we encounter in our daily life; I mean, that's if you don't have any imagination.

RTM: There is a deep sense of recognition, though, in this piece for the audience members. What is it that the audience is identifying with?

CR: I think this is a very intimate relationship and the characters have a strong presence. It's not an experimental piece in the sense that there is no character. Some of the dynamics of intimacy are what people recognize. They recognize the misunderstandings, the lying interpretations of reality, and the comedy of that.

Let me put in something here about writing the dialogue. That, to me, was just like an explosion, it was so much fun, and provided a whole new set of directions: to imagine the 'words in the mouth' rather than on the page, and part of that was being willing to eliminate descriptive writing. When you're doing dialogue a lot of descriptive setup just gets dropped, and that means that you have a certain kind of multiplicity; you have many perspectives rather than one; you have constant relationships rather than a solidified view of the world. That was tremendously exciting to explore—It's still exciting. There's a way that images in writing function to contain desire, to turn it into something static. If you take that out, then you have this interesting field of possibility that's very physical.

RTM: There isn't an imposed authority or particular view. As you're saying, this validates all perspectives.

Z: There's no omniscience.

CR: Right, and what you have instead is this complex relationship which is like a system rather than a point of view. It also has a kind of organic body of its own. It parallels what Gina was saying - the language is a third character.

RTM: If your experience is that there is not an omniscient point of view, that there isn't a single consciousness or 'correct' or single personality, then does that change the form of your writing?

CR: I think that it's a simplification to try to reduce everything to one voice. It's understandable that people would attempt to do that, but I don't think that it's very accurate. When you have groups of people - a couple or any group - that are relating together, there are certain patterns that they have that are part of, not each one individually, but of their relationship as a complex whole. That's the level of reality that this play is working with. The more traditional view is that there is an objective point of view that can describe what's going on that's outside of those dynamics.

GH: There's no outside in this play.

Z: Very confusing! What you are saying here is, this conflict between the two characters is not a resolvable one, and what one character may consider a resolution won't be for the other one. I think that's much more realistic than the traditional way we approach drama - what happens to the conflicts, who gets what in the end, and blah blah blah. In a way, it's open-ended; the only possible conclusion can be some kind of balance which includes both kinds of realities.

RTM: There are irreconcilable differences that you live with.

Z: Right. Something that would happen frequently when Camille and I first started talking about the script would be: I would pose a question and say, "Well, is it this or is it this'!" and she would say, “Well, it's both," and I would say, “Uh, huh, okay." There was a lot of me trying to make sense of things. It became clear that this was not the kind of world where anything goes, but the kind of world that could assimilate different points of view simultaneously and different realities simultaneously. There was a lot of work for me at the beginning about distinguishing points of view because there was the possibility that it was objective reality, or that it was in Fear's mind or just the way Technique saw what was happening. There's a lot of shifting going on, and it's not all clear. Sometimes it's clear to the audience through lighting or something, but even then many of these people don't get it. There's a lot of shifting, and the play is exciting that way.

RTM: Fear has a very powerful imagination.

Z: And inspires us, too. I think the beauty of that character is that we can go with her and not question things the way we might if we encountered her on the street—where we might think, “This woman's out there!"

But in the theater we can enter her.

RTM: Would you say that she is poetry, and Technique is more prose in style?

CR: That's an interesting point of view. I think that Fear and Technique tell different kinds of stories, that Technique tells stories that are not like Fear's. She constructs explanations. But when you see her operate you realize that a lot of what prompts her to do that is her imagination; Fear is driven by her imagination. So in this play one can't say that Technique is the more realistic character. One thing that's revealed about her over the course of the play is how she fails to really get the control that she wants to have through her theories, and so there's an equality in her relationship to Fear that you might not think would be there in the beginning.

Z: It's very interesting: what's set up as given at the beginning is pulled totally into question by the end of the play, in terms of the characters. But I also think that each of them are poetry by themselves in their own self-worlds, but in encountering each other, in seeing each other, they see prose.

GH: As a performer encountering Fear, it was very important that I understand her as poetry and not as a character who grew up in the suburbs and who had ten brothers. The play gives little hints in fits and starts about what her past could have been or was in her mind. But there's a fluidity that poetry can have and that Fear is.

Z: I think Fear is who we all want to be, in the sense she is someone who has taken creation to the max, which we're so conditioned to be afraid of. But she is really in the moment and is willing to follow her mind.

GH: And her body.

Z: . . . and her body, right, in a way that can be very alarming to people who are looking for logic. Because we're so trained to look for that logic and use it to understand what is happening: point A goes to point B. So it can be threatening or disconcerting to see someone who is not connecting the dots.

GH: Well, I think some people get scared for her too.

CR: I think that's primary, that people get scared for her, but they also feel very attracted to her. She is really an attractive character in the play.

RTM: I think one recognizes oneself, sort of .the dark-self, the self of excess, in Fear. She articulates things that to the rest of us, as you say, are a little bit dangerous. She wants an enemy, and she says that she wants one. I find that interesting.

CR: Another paradox is that, in some way, because she's been overcome by the world, she's more in and of the world than are other people who are more 'competent'. Somehow she's not just in touch with what's going on, she is what's going on.

GH: Well, I find it actually liberating and wonderful to be her because she is very different than I am in many ways. Fear tells stories differently.

RTM: What do you mean she tells stories differently?

GH: Well, before I was Fear, I felt in some ways awkward telling stories. I'd feel as if I was either taking up too much room in telling a long narrative story about my past or feel like I had to know someone very, very well before I would reveal in that way. Fear takes up all kinds of space with her language. What gives her the most pleasure in the world is to see where her stories take her, both in her own mind and in her speech and in her adventures.

RTM: One of the things that interests me, speaking about space, is the kind of space someone takes up in language. That seems to be a particular issue, I think, for women more than men.

CR: That's an interesting point. I think that the kind of space that Fear takes up is somehow very feminine. She tells a story full of power and experience; we tend to think that feminine stories will not have those qualities.

RTM: And that they should not take up so much space. I think that men are allowed more space than women when it comes to speaking and the kinds of space that they take up in that way.

CR: Technique, in a way, in being theoretical, has some resemblance to the way men take up story space, and yet what becomes of her character is very different than what you would expect, given that. There's a surprise there that I won't give away. The way those two things playoff of one another is interesting, too.

RTM: What hasn't been done in theater that you would like to see done? What kinds of things would you like to exploit or work with yourself?

CR: I'm tremendously interested in the mind of multiplicity that's available and the conflict that you get from having different voices without a single narrator in the background who is basically setting everything up. The other thing is that, when I'm writing, I feel that I'm writing for the mouth rather than for the page, and that really makes the process of writing more physical for me and also I feel that more of my body is involved even though less of my body is described. It's an interesting contradiction; it's something that I like a lot. I think that when you have live performance, you have a lot of leeway to be very experimental with the language and not lose your audience because you have the characters on stage who give all the physical clues. To me that's an opportunity to really go someplace different in terms of the writing.

RTM: It requires the audience to come in with an open mind, without expectations.

Z: I wouldn't say that—because you're not going to get one coming in without expectations, but I think the play gives the audience credit for being able to take in something that might not be immediately consumable. It is so often the case nowadays that people think they can understand something in a split second; whereas this requires a little more processing; I find this kind of art pleasurable.

CR: It involves letting go of understanding every little thing as a goal.

Z: Or putting them together in that way, "If I miss this piece, then I won't get the next piece."

CR: Right, this is a piece where you can miss one thing and get another thing and get another thing and miss something, and that's really fine. There's no sense that you're excluded as an audience member because of that. For some members of the audience, it takes them about halfway through the show before they really realize that that's how it's going to be. At that point I noticed, particularly on one night, they just opened up; they just all got a lot looser.

RTM: So, the play sort of shatters, then, the hierarchy of meaning?

CR: Well, what is the hierarchy of meaning? [laughter]

Z: That's the whole point.

GH: It's definitional.

CR: It shatters the idea that there's one right answer.

You can read a recent a 2008 interview with Gina Hyams published previously on this blog  here. Among other things, Gina discusses Fear's blood red  velvet spandex mini dress!

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