Interview with Genevieve McClean

Anna Forsyth chats to Genevieve McClean from New Zealand ahead of her visit to Melbourne to feature at a range of events in September.

You have an upcoming show, FLOCK coming up for National Poetry Day in New Zealand. How did you get the kernel of the idea for this show? 

I’d had a desire for a long time to invite poets to work with a theatrical process. Apart from that, the ideas are all the poets’ own. Even though I am the director, it’s been a very poet-centric process. I imagined all the elements except the poetry as happening in the space. It’s the third time over the last 8 years, that I’ve directed a theatre production across different disciplines that relates to the history of the space that it’s in. I toyed with managing the shape of the poems that came to me, but ultimately, the poems have re-informed the work all over again.

FLOCK is an innovative work. What fascinates you about working across different art disciplines, such as dance, theatre and poetry?

I was always driven by wanting to do the thing that was new. I was introduced to the concept of post modernism at university when I was seventeen. At the time I was living with a blues band in Ponsonby. Thanks to a teacher at Auckland Uni, Roger Horrocks, I entered a contemporary school of thought that looked at original approaches to words across forms. I was delighted, and two years later I was in Dunedin singing in a band and studying theatre and directing and making sets and convincing the band to use more theatrical elements, and experimenting in all directions.

FLOCK, is dance theatre poetry performed by poets. Dance and poetry are actually quite close, closer perhaps that theatre and either form are. Dance is abstract, and allows for the performance to exist in that post structural place where it sets on arriving with the audience. FLOCK is also an opportunity to get a group of poets together. We have created a physical vocabulary between us, using some aspects of butoh (Japanese dance theatre) and different training experiences I’ve had, in voice, and physical work.

What were some of the challenges putting Flock together? It is quite a groundbreaking work. Would you do it again? What would you do differently?

I like to think it will be groundbreaking. It’s certainly going to be unprecedented. I always want to give people those experiences that I had when I was shown something new and it made me remember it. The new is often a merging of forms into a hybrid. The difference though between interdisciplinary work, and multimedia work, is the hybrid result as it is received by the audience. I would love to do it again. I think the potential is there for it to come out quite differently, without trying to. In a different space for example, the resonance of the poems would change. This show is informed with a strong sense of community and urgency. There’s something these poets are trying to tell people. They’re not actually just getting up on a day-to-day basis and waxing lyrical, and so we’re using that. However, with a different cast, different times, different environment, we might make a show in collaboration with a lighting designer, about a particular aspect of the world, like rivers in the amazon, or if the group were all skilled in other ways, we’d incorporate that, acrobatic work, for example or choral work.

Do you identify first and foremost as a poet, actor or film maker? If you had to choose one, which would you choose?

When I’m traveling I always answer ‘writer’. Sometimes I say writer/actor, or writer/teacher/actor/film-maker. But I never usually answer poet. It’s something I never stop doing. It’s almost forbidden as an ‘occupation’, because it’s not an employment, but it is a profession when you think about it. I am an actor, in the theatre or on screen according to other people’s whims and interests on the whole. I do love the craft of acting and I would always like to do that, and to make films, but ultimately, choosing to be a poet at all, is different kind of identifier. It’s a political choice to be a poet. I’m proud of that.

You were instrumental in bringing a form of slam poetry to NZ from the US. Do you think the form has evolved? What state is it in currently?

Well first of all there was a visit from a group of poets from the Def Jam Poets community, I think they were here as guests of the arts festival. I remember seeing them in the St James Theatre in Auckland, and they got a standing ovation, because no one had seen anything quite like it. People were blown away. I didn’t know about slam, I just saw a team of wordsmiths on stage doing their poetry with a lot of gusto and a lot of pride. I had recently graduated from drama school, so it must have been about 1999 perhaps?

Some time later, I had returned from Europe, and I was performing at the grey Lynn bowling club as it happens, an extreme noise poem, and a Canadian man came up to me. Several people came up to me and were saying ‘I got you’ or ‘I didn’t get you…but good on you’, (like New Zealanders do) and this guy Corey Frost says, ‘I think your stuff would go down really well in New York.’ We do a tour of New York, which culminated in a night at the Nuyorican. They were having a tournament slam for New York finals during that time, and I’m not certain what heat it was, but what I remember is how hot it was and crowded and silent; so devout was the reverence for the poets performing. Also the audience there was two-tiered, and shoulder-to-shoulder, and when the poets were on stage, honestly, there was no noise, just a ribbon of cigarette smoke curling through the air, and I was one of maybe, 6 people in the whole place that was white.

The poetry blew me away. It wasn’t what we know as mainstream slam. It was hip hop, theatre, song story and poetry, quite beautifully blended without losing the integrity of any of these forms. I grew to understand the difference now between this style of slam, and the Def Jam Poets’ style of slam. In NY at the time there was a Def Jam Poets TV station running. So I was also quite impressed by the populace, and the multitudes as well as learning about slam and how it works. We went to a number of different places there, then set off for Philadelphia, & New Orleans, to do gigs and eventually Austin, where I got invited to return to America to present my work as a wild card poet for the American Slam finals which were coming up in Austin.

We now have slam tournaments happening in New Zealand. It’s accounted for in the huge groundswell of new voices. The brilliant thing slam has done here, and hip hop, and rap before that, is give voice to young people all over the country irrespective of race or gender. But what I’m really enjoying witnessing now, is that our ingenuity, and our diversity is coming through the slam in our own way. I had the privilege of being a judge of an Auckland slam final a couple of years ago, and there was a lot of talent.

What other projects would you like to do in the future?

I would like to do a work along the lines of FLOCK again, maybe with other elements. Maybe with a bigger group. 

I would dearly love to create theatre in situ for various means and purposes. I have plans for all different things, but I also have a lot of writing to do of my own. To be clear, I would like to write a couple of film scripts and a novel or three, but it seems I have to find some magic portal that allows me to actually go and do that. I have some other ideas up my sleeve for making innovative performance art that I can’t tell you about. I may have to sit on the more expensive plans I have for the future, until I get the funding I need!

Tell me a bit about your upcoming mini poetry tour to Melbourne and what you would like to see there.

Oh well I’ve never been in Melbourne. I’m expecting to go on a tram. Also I’m certain I’ll be doing some poems at poetry readings and that is all I know! That’s it. I’ve done no research. For years I’ve heard people talk about Melbourne, and they seem to beam when they do, so I think it’s going to be just pretty marvelous.

Also I’d like to see the top book shop attractions, and the markets. I will need coffee distractions, and I would like to go to the theatre, and see if there are any parks with Australian flora and fauna, that would just be a bonus. Not spiders. OR Snakes! Just, that would be superfluous to requirement.

Genevieve McClean will featuring at Girls on Key on September 7.

Anna Forsyth
Latest posts by Anna Forsyth (see all)