Cheryl Martin talks about Alaska

Cheryl Martin returns to Contact’s Flying Solo Festival with Alaska, one woman’s extraordinary story of how she survived growing up with severe depression. A raw and powerful performance, with humour, heart and soul, in the intimate setting of a city centre flat.’

Dave:   How did this play come about?

Cheryl:   I started off as a performance poet and a jazz singer, became a playwright, and then I took this course called Live and Direct which was for emerging Black and Asian theatre directors at Contact. And so it turned into directing, which I did exclusively until doing this. And then I wanted to get back to performing. Originally it was going to be made out of all the poems in my book. We laid out the poems in chronological order and Darren [Pritchard, the Director] asked me what was happening in my life at the point where I wrote each poem. In the end he said ‘that’s the show, your life in those poems’ and I thought he was right, so I went with that.

So Darren always said the show was the poem that wasn’t in the book. It’s what’s behind the poems – this is what was going on in my life at the time I wrote all of those poems. Hopefully it works better for people as a theatrical experience.

Dave:   The show is structured around beautifully illustrated cards that members of the audience select. How did this structure develop?

Cheryl:   Well, originally we had projections, so those illustrations that are on cards were originally projections. Then half way through rehearsals we had some industry friends come and see it, because you know you get that thing where you don’t know if you’ve got a show or not, which I call rehearsal psychosis, you think it’s great and then you get it out to the public. They saw both versions and they thought the second was the better one – where I was just sitting around a table. So we decided to take the plunge and do it that way. And I think that was the right call. Because the projections were so elaborate they were controlling me, rather than without them I’m controlling the show. And that was the difference and that now you feel more connected to me.

No matter what cards come up, I know what they all mean. I don’t explain them, but I hope that the audience can get the connection as I go through the show. I love those illustrations, they were by a wonderful collaborator, Tommy Ollerenshaw, and I couldn’t bear to lose them. Then I also thought, it’s a way that I can interact with the audience that works for me because I love playing cards.

Dave:   Where do you think the balance lies between telling a completely autobiographical story and creating characters to tell the story?

Cheryl:   Well, I think it’s slightly harder when it’s you, and you have more need of an outside eye, so that it doesn’t slide over into self pity or self indulgence or any of those other things that start with self that aren’t really fun for other people to watch. And also that you have to be a bit ruthless about the honesty. This is about how I grew up with the mental illness, and the effect that had. I think that for me, this is the first time I have actually talked about it. I refused to revisit the memory of when I overdosed all those years. It was a huge fear, that whole period I was terrified of ever being again like I was in my twenties. Harshly exorcising that fear is what I’m doing. And thinking about it, it’s still raw. I think when it stops being raw, this show will stop working. I’ll stop doing it.

Dave:   When you see the show it’s clear how huge a role music plays in your life.

Cheryl:   You know, again, I’m talking about stuff you can’t talk about, and you can’t reduce a poem that’s already been reduced. Well, there’s stuff you can do with music that you can’t do with words, there’s something about singing that stuff that transforms it.   Some lyrics are like poems. Some lyrics don’t look like they’re saying much, but you put them together with really good music and it just goes right through you like nothing else can. So a lot of times, music can reach me when nothing else can. And when I’m actually at my worst I can no longer listen to music. That’s part of how I know how sick I am. But most of the time it makes me feel better.

I grew up with the legend of some smoky New York club, that’s because my dad actually went to them. My father was an alcoholic but he had really good taste in music, so he was listening to Monk and to Miles, to Dizzy and to Sarah Vaughan, and to Billie and to Nina Simone. I remember one of my favourite songs was this funny song from Nina Simone called Forbidden Fruit.

(Cheryl starts to sing beautifully)

Eve and Adam had a garden, everything was great,
Till one day a boy says, ‘Pardon, Miss my name is Snake’.

It’s just so cute; when we were little we really loved that, and that’s how I got introduced to Nina Simone. So this is like the soundtrack of my childhood, and I think it’s part of my keeping faith if you know what I mean.

Dave:   And which poets do you respect most?

Cheryl:   I have to say Wallace Stevens. He’s my favourite. I did English twice at uni, so the English major in me loves Wallace Stevens. Then there’s Nikki Giovanni; when I was little, I didn’t even understand what she was all about. But I loved her. And TS Eliot, and Ezra Pound. Oh my god, Yeats! When I default. You know on Burns night you’re supposed to read Robbie Burns, but then I break into the Yeats. ‘The best lack all conviction whilst the worst are full of passionate intensity’.

I like the short imagistic poems. There is a poem called The Red Wheelbarrow by William Carlos Williams.   Very short, it straddles down, but not in one line. I just love it, it’s so beautiful. Ezra Pound, he had this one really short poem called In A Station of the Metro. That’s two lines, that’s gorgeous, that period is probably the biggest influence on my own writing. That tight imagistic sort of thing.

I’m a poet who has done theatre, and a singer, so your first genre is actually something else. So when you come to theatre you bring something of that with you.

Cheryl Martin performs Alaska on Friday 13 and Saturday 14 May as part of Contact’s Flying Solo Festival 2016.

 

Theatre lover, amateur director, occasional actor, writer.

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