An act that does… An Interview with James B. Nicola

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The best playwrights have much to teach us about navigating life, but also about the craft of writing. On Saturday, October 21, SWBC welcomes James B. Nicola, for Suspense on Stage and Page, a workshop that explores the micro and macro tools that writers use to captivate their audience.  For Nicola, “…art is not an object that is, but an act that does; it only becomes art with the experiencing of it.” The best art makes co-creators of the audience, engaging them so deeply that the painting, the music, the story, becomes their own,
James Nicola is a Yale graduate as well as a composer, lyricist, and playwright, He has been giving both theater and poetry workshops at libraries, literary festivals, schools, and community centers all over the country, including his children’s musical Chimes: A Christmas Vaudeville premiered in Fairbanks, Alaska, James’  poems have appeared in the AntiochSouthwest and Atlanta ReviewsRattle, and Poetry East. His nonfiction book Playing the Audience won a Choice award. His two poetry collections, published by Word Poetry, are Manhattan Plaza (2014) and Stage to Page: Poems from the Theater (2016). He won a Dana Literary Award, a People’s Choice award (from Storyteller) and a Willow Review award; was nominated twice for a Pushcart Prize and once for a Rhysling Award; and was featured poet at New Formalist.
(Hollis Shore) First, would you give us a little background about your life and work? What roads took you to becoming a poet and playwright: what sparked your early interests, what role did formal education play, and were there particular mentors that helped you along the way?
(James Nicola) I grew up in Holden during the peak of the Baby Boom, where we all learned early in life how to make our own entertainment, including putting on talent shows, carnivals, and plays. The first poem I had published was when I was in the second grade, on the editorial page of The Evening Gazette, in defense of Worcester acquiring a zoo. So poetry for me started as a form of persuasion, or rhetoric, just as it was for the ancient Greeks.
I quip fondly of my two college experiences that “Clark University (1976-1978) was a great school: everyone there was a socialist though no one could quite tell me what a socialist was. At Yale (1978-1980, BA), no one was a socialist, though everyone could tell me what socialism was.” I jest, of course, but it is true that one got swept up in waves of activism at the former, and in the tide of academism—sheer learning—in the latter. These two forces would become pillars of my personhood as well as my process.
(HS) You are a poet, a playwright, a lyricist, and have written a non-fiction book as well. Can you talk a little about how you approach a writing project both as a matter of inspiration and of craft? What sparks your interest as a writer, and how does your process change as you go from one genre to another?
(JN) I have discovered that each writing project forges its own path, be it poem, play, song, essay, or whatever. I carry a journal with me and write down ideas that may alight at any time or place during the day. If one idea burns overnight, that becomes the piece I wake up to in a frenzy the next morning, trying to fashion something from it. Putting any “finished” draft in a drawer for six months, then rewriting with fresh eyes, is essential to writing in any of the genres. Workshops (like the 7 Bridges group) have been extremely helpful in seeing/hearing with the fresh eyes and ears of others. With plays, of course, you need actors interpreting and audience experiencing to help you see “what’s there.”
(HS) You majored in music at Yale, with a concentration in songwriting. What effect does your musical background have on your writing? How important is rhythm and language in creating a drama for the stage?
(JN) I could talk about this for hours. Suffice it to say that in my Writers Circle group at my local NY library branch, colleagues have noted the lyricism in my prose. I have found that getting into “the zone” for essays, for me, is much like that for lyrics, poetry, or plays: I can try twenty versions of a sentence or paragraph over the course of a day’s revising, trying to achieve that bolt of lightning Mark Twain talks about instead of settling for the mere lightning bug.
In drama, the rhythmic unit is not actually literary, but dramatic, that is, units of suspense, or energy cycles (tension/resolution-another tension), even in a play with no words. We will try some exercises to illustrate this at the workshop on 10/21—and to try to apply these dramatic principles to other genres.
(HS) Playwrights often talk about duel structure of drama: the suspense plot and the emotional plot. How do you define suspense and its function in storytelling?
(JN) I don’t think I define it: you explore it and exploit it to keep your audience on the edge of their seats. I talk about it in Playing the Audience in terms the audience’s cycle of “What?-Ah! What?” This can take the form not only of “what’s going to happen,” but also “what’s going on,” or “whodunit,” or “why is the writer telling me this” or even “what exactly does that title mean.”
(HS) In Playing the Audience: The Practical Actor’s Guide to Live Performance, you talk about “the beholder’s experience” as essential to drama (and by inference to literature). What is the role of the audience in bringing a performance to life?
(JN) To arrive open, ready to be engaged, and then to engage—and care. But it is really up to the performance to hold the audience, which is getting harder and harder with the population’s lower attention span. It is interesting that the word “entertain” comes from the French entre tenir: “to hold between.”
(HS) Artur Schnabel said, The notes I handle no better than many pianists, but the pauses between the notes, ah, that’s where the art resides. How does silence create drama and suspense? And what are some of the tools used by writers and dramatists to convey mystery—all that is unspoken, unacknowledged, or unknown?
(JN) Well, that is of course the definition of “art” in all forms: that what’s there implies, evokes, or stands for something not there. In the performing arts, though, the piece takes place over time as well as space (and in the mind and heart): hence we use the word suspense, as opposed to just movement or involvement. I think that any artist, writers or dramatists included, doesn’t convey as much as evoke that unspoken thing.
Think of titles. What exactly is “Portnoy’s Complaint?”—you don’t find out till the end. Or of plays, such as “A Streetcar Named Desire,” “Moon for the Misbegotten” or “Rabbit Hole”: Absent any knowledge of plot, you can tell that the first probably involves a journey and lust, the second involves some kind of misfit thrust into a moment of lyricism, and the third involves a descent down a dark place, as out of control as Alice in Wonderland. The other great secret a writer would do well to think about after the first draft is: Holding Back: What can one get away with NOT saying, yet? So Marianne Moore’s most famous poem was first published without a title, its first line being “I too dislike it”—but you didn’t find out till the last word what “it” signified.
(HS) In Playing the Audience, you note that the word “act” is in the middle of the word “character.” What is the relationship between action and character development? And what role does character development play in creating suspense?
(JN) It’s really only after the growth of psychology in the twentieth century that playwrights started to think that a play could be a vehicle for revealing the psychological makeup, through some past event, of a character. From the Greeks to the Victorians, from Oedipus to Hedda Gabler, it was action that defined character. What is this character going to do now, in this new situation—and by extension, what would you do if you were in his or her shoes? That was the dramatic experience. Now there are many plays where the point of the play is the conversation, or the unveiling of some event that happened during childhood, or whatever. The trick with these plays is to make the dialogue delicious, the wit rife with wisdom, the unveiling worth the wait.
(HS) Could you talk a little about the theatre and live performance in general? What does an audience get from a theatrical performance that they might not get from a movie or a book?
(JN) There is some wonderful, indescribable thrill at knowing that you are in the room when the events happen: that for whole two hours, you might just be able to stop the tragedy from befalling, if only you speak up! The live theater, then, implies that there is hope. Or that every time you laugh, you affect the running time and make the actors hold up for a second, altering the performance. In film or literature, there’s nothing you can do to change the piece.
(HS) Which playwrights have taught you the most, and how have they influenced your own work?
(JN) I have favorites, but I don’t know if they have taught or influenced me, as I don’t try to write like anyone else unless it is a pastiche per se. Since I have directed Shakespeare more than I have anyone else, he’s probably at the top of the list as having “taught me the most.” Mostly I have been attracted to visionaries who happened to write plays. Tennessee Williams has taught us that the brutes have won—and are still winning, apparently; William Inge, that you can’t really know anyone till you put yourself in his/her shoes; and Chekhov, that the protagonist/antagonist or hero/villain construct pales compared to an ensemble drawn from life where folks are simply full of foibles—and that the human soul seems rather divine nevertheless.
(HS) You have published three volumes of poetry, including Manhattan Plaza, the most recent. How did these projects evolve, and how do they reflect your own evolution as a poet?
(JN) My published poetry collections, by next spring, will be four:
Manhattan Plaza (2014) a book of New York poems.
Stage to Page: Poems from the Theater (2016).
Wind in the Cave (2017) inspired by a quote from Theodore Roethke, “My desire’s a wind trapped in a cave” (though there are poems about other things that give you that feeling in your gut besides thwarted desire).
Out of Nothing: Poems of Art and Artists (2018).
I have seventeen other collections, as yet unpublished. Each has evolved by living, caring, and having a pen in my pocket when an idea for a poem came, and eventually realizing that, wow, I have a whole slew of poems about New York, or the theater, or whatnot—it’s a collection!
(HS) Who are the poets and playwrights that you turn to in your own reading? What craft books do you consider essential reading for those interested in learning to write poetry or plays?
(JN) Dickinson’s at the top. But I have a list of a few hundred poems that have given me that visceral “ah” moment—a shiver—that I go back to again and again. Several favorites are from Thomas Hardy, Robert Penn Warren, Robert Frost, E. A. Robinson, Babette Deutsch. Come visit me in New York and we can take them off the shelf and I’ll share my favorites.
Ted Kooser’s The poetry home repair manual is great. Playwriting by Louis Catron is the best one on that topic I’ve read. But required reading, of course, is Playing the Audience by yours truly!

Suspense on Stage and Page, with James Nicola
Saturday, October 21, 2017, 10:30 a.m. – 12:30 p.m.
Thayer Memorial Library

For more information, click here.