Sunday, 21 April 2013 12:00

ETC Spring Tour, day 2: A portrait of the artist as a young woman

Written by Ioana Burtea

Time flies when you’re on tour. Day 2 of the ETC Spring experience brought us to the coquette town of Liege in Belgium, discussing how young students can access the theatre industry and find work.

Nathanael Harcq, director of the ESACTA School of acting in Liege, talked about what his institution does to facilitate the transition from theatre school to work. According to him, the school is already part of the profession of acting, as the students are given the chance to stage their own productions and work. In this respect, the ESACTA functions like a workshop where rules are created collectively by the students and their teachers. The youngsters are thus encouraged to get to know themselves better and find out what conditions they need in order to flourish as professionals. They are even given electronic keys so that they can go in and out of the school at any time.

Taking this theme further, E&M spoke to one of the young artists on the ETC Spring Tour, namely spoken-word poet Deborah Stevenson. The 23 year-old wunderkind from East London is the founder and director of The Mouthy Poets in Nottingham, a group in which young people learn how to express themselves in verse. She worked with Chanel 4, The Roundhouse in London, The British Council and has been published by Louis Vuitton. Here’s a short interview with Deborah on our busy tour bus.

You told us you’ve been a full-time poet since you were 20. How did you take up poetry in the first place?

I started around the age of 13 or maybe younger. I probably would’ve been 10, actually. I saw a friend doing it and he won a competition. I just thought that was awesome. Then I started writing poems and showed them to an English teacher, who thought they were good. I started going to The Roundhouse project and really I was in an ideal position – a lot of spoken word poets were coming up from East London, a lot of them came to The Roundhouse.

Why poetry? What drew you to this form of expression?

I honestly don’t feel like there was a decision to be made. I was doing a lot of things: dancing (which I still love), acting, visual arts. I think the decision had to be made more clearly when I was choosing my BA. Even then, I applied to Philosophy, Psychology and I was thinking about Law as well. But when I went to see universities I realised all my interests could be pulled together in one place: poetry. I can address psychology and philosophy and dance and drama and the visual arts through poetry. I was working with Charlie Dark who runs a club for performance poets and he did the same, he brought his interests together in poetry. Then when I was 18 I was published by Louis Vuitton, so you have fashion, visual arts and poetry blending. It just felt like a through-way to all the other things I enjoyed, so I studied Creative Writing. It felt very instinctual. But that’s a retrospective assessment of that situation. At the moment it just felt like that made me happy.

Photo: Ioana Burtea
Deborah Stevenson performing in the bus

How did you get into teaching?

I did a lot of shadowing since I was 17, when I shadowed the London team poetry slam. Then I would just shadow anyone, anywhere I could. I’m a very reflective person, so it really felt like every time I was being taught I was shadowing that teacher. I don’t just do the exercise, I corner off a section of my page and write about my experience as a learner and look at the learners around me to see what they’re experiencing. I try to relate that to teaching theory and understand how I want to be as a teacher. Basically, two things happened simultaneously: in my second year of university I was getting very itchy, I didn’t want to work as a waitress, I didn’t want to move back home with my mum, so I needed to be paid to do poetry. There was a strong sense of immediacy. It’s so easy to take on a part-time job waitressing or in retail, but then that kills your enthusiasm and inspiration. You’re tired, it becomes a lot harder and so on. So, I asked the university if I could do a summer school to promote the course, even for free. They said they actually had some funding so they paid me to run promotional workshops for the course. That indicated to the people higher up on that degree my interest in education. At the same time, I was working unpaid for Lyric Lounge in the East Midlands and they liked me so they asked me to teach. After that, as it happens when you get your first teaching job, it validates the quality of your work and the university offered me a bigger part. That inspired me to start Mouthy. Everything just came together – all my experience, all my contacts.

How is your interaction with your students, being so young?

I was really scared. I started teaching when I was 21. I just tried to take a very honest approach to it. I wasn’t going to pretend like I was better than them. I was honest about what I had to offer. I really love what I do, I graduated top of my class, I got an 85% on my dissertation – so, from an academic level I explained that I could support them. But I actually just care, it’s the main thing, I want to help them. And irrelevant of the type of writing you want to do, you will need to be able to speak. I can guarantee if you haven’t made a conscious effort in that regard, that’s going to have an impact on you professionally and personally. I’m not saying I’m a genius or I’m better – everything happened to me because I was like a rabid dog and I just wanted it. I want it equally as much for them.

We were just talking on the tour about the transition between drama school and the industry. How do you see that happening in the UK?

I’m really trying to move on from my biased position on this. Immediately after graduation I got a bit pissed off about it. I think a lot of things need to happen – specifically if we’re talking about Creative Writing. Universities need to create stronger relationships with the community and organisations. They need to integrate those things into the degrees. The practical side of our work needs to be integrated in the course. Theory can’t happen in isolation of practice and high quality practice does not happen in isolation of theory. I took that responsibility on myself, but I know that I’m weird. I was lucky that I found all the things that I love very early and I was on a BA that let me experiment. But there needs to be a better infrastructure to teach young people to have initiative. Students need to take on something practical and school needs to be more reflective of life.

What do you find interesting about this tour – what will you take back to the UK?

I found out about it a week before it started and I was just coming back from Japan, so I didn’t know much. That was quite nice because I’m usually so organised, so I enjoyed the ignorance. Now I’m engaging more with it and becoming Deborah again. Just earlier this year I started developing poetry for theatre and I didn’t know if I could do it. This tour is creating a really nice foundation of information for me to get more involved in that – the talks, everyone here and the discussions we’re having, all the cities we’re visiting, the architecture. That empirical attack is a nice foundation to have and it made me think of themes for my future work. It’s a good space to be in and we’re talking about the right stuff.

How can people find out about Mouthy and get involved?

You can google us – there’s no other group called Mouthy Poets. We’re currently developing our website – www.mouthypoets.com. It’s not as developed as our blog though, which is www.wordpress.mouthypoets.com. We’re quite artistically strong, but organisationally weak. We still need to work on the website, on defining the kind of work that we do for the online environment. We’re figuring that out, but we know what we stand for and the things that we achieve for young people that we work with.

Tell me what the future will bring for you.

I just got a publisher for my first pamphlet – that will hopefully be coming out in the autumn. I’ve also got enough for a collection of poetry and I’m talking to a publisher about that – that’s a bigger decision to make. A pamphlet can be representative for me as a young writer, but a collection is going to be something heavier. I’ll also have a show coming out for me next year at the playhouse, hopefully. And we’re applying for touring money for Mouthy – we might be touring the Midlands in autumn.

Mouthy’s next event is on the 15th of June at Nottingham Playhouse, during a mini-festival of drama and poetry.

The ETC caravan’s next stops are Switzerland, Italy, Slovenia, Slovakia and finally Croatia.

Last modified on Monday, 22 April 2013 19:29

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