In this interview, the founding editor of Plays Inverse Press, Tyler Crumrine, discusses the ways in which contemporary, experimental verse drama can change how we think about poetry, theatre, and the performative dimensions of any text. Plays Inverse has recently published works by authors including Catherine Theis, Dalton Day, Meg Whiteford, and C Dylan Bassett.
Zach Savich: What needs do you hope Plays Inverse Press addresses?
Tyler Crumrine: In his prologue to the Shoemaker’s Prodigious Wife (1930-ish), Lorca has this great quote on poets and the theatre:
The poet does not ask benevolence, but attention, since long ago he leapt that barbed fence of fear that authors have of the theatre. Because of this absurd fear, and because the theatre on many occasions is run for financial reasons, poetry retires from the stage in search of other surroundings where people will not be shocked at the fact that a tree, for example, should become a puff of smoke, or that three fishes through their love for a hand and a word should be changed into three million fishes to feed the hunger of a multitude.
Since then—and in no small part thanks to Lorca and others—experimental (poetic) practices have become far more common. In theatrical publishing, though, the stigma still exists—largely because of the financial reasons that Lorca alludes to. Most play publishers profit from performance royalties—not book sales—and treat plays more as instruction manuals than literature. As a result, plays that are too difficult or expensive or niche to receive large volumes of performances don’t get nearly as much publishing attention.
Growing up in rural Pennsylvania, I fell in love with theatre by reading plays more than seeing them. And it wasn’t until I moved to the city (first Pittsburgh, then New York, then Pittsburgh again) that I was really exposed to experimental theatre. With Plays Inverse, I want to help more of the kind of experimental plays I love receive publication, and—because theatre more than any other genre of literature is limited by geography—I want to give readers the chance to experience niche work too.
I also want to encourage more writers—especially poets—to overcome their “absurd fear” of playwriting. To utilize the unique genre advantages of drama, to embrace their creative urges, and to trust that readers, actors, directors, and designers will largely rise to the occasion when confronted with poetry. Furthermore, I want them to know that if they decided to write these plays, that Plays Inverse is a press willing to read them. Even the “impossible” ones. Actually, ESPECIALLY the impossible ones. We need more cross-pollination in the theatre, and the more hybrid work I can encourage/champion, the better.
ZS: The phrase “plays in verse” brings to mind both canonical and avant-garde traditions. Could you describe how one or two of the books you’ve published fit (or don’t fit) into dramatic and poetic lineages?
TC: Sure! The Plays Inverse wordplay ideally operates in two ways. For some of our books, Inverse is meant to invoke “in verse.” Toby Altman’s Arcadia, Indiana (releasing this summer) strictly adheres to traditions like the sonnet and the five-act tragedy. In his words: “This is a poetics of trash, in which the repressed and discarded parts of literary history return (like used plastics) to strangle their point of origin.” And in Justin Limoli’s Bloodletting in Minor Scales [A Canvas in Arms], Justin makes extensive (and beautiful) use of pantoums. A lot of practices that may be considered old hat by the poetry community can find a new life in the theatre, where verse has become so uncommon that it’s often fairly radical.
Other times, the Inverse refers to plays that “invert” audience/reader expectations of what a play can be. The one-act plays in Dalton Day’s Exit, Pursued, for example, are rarely more than a single page, and Mike Kleine’s The Mystery of the Seventeen Pilot Fish has a secondary plot taking place offstage that the audience can’t even see. One of my favorite things a script can do is make someone (myself included) think “whoa, I didn’t realize a play could do that,” and one of the best ways to fight stagnation in the theatre is to frustrate audience expectations. So while I definitely have a soft spot for plays in verse, we’re interested in work that pushes the boundaries of dramatic literature in general as well.
ZS: When you are selecting plays for publication, how do decide if a work will “frustrate audience expectations” in a worthwhile way—rather than in a way that’s frustrating but less interesting? Or maybe you’d consider all frustration to be worthwhile? Are there plays or playwrights or theories about theatre that you keep in mind to help guide these decisions?
TC: It can definitely be a hard line to toe, and I think a lot depends on the frustration’s purpose. There’s a difference between intentionally frustrating audience expectations to communicate something and disregarding an audience’s feelings entirely. Take the unexpected death of a major character, for example. It could be used to make a larger point on mortality, randomness, etc. or it could just be the playwright lazily killing off a character they don’t know what else to do with. And while the distinction may seem a bit arbitrary, you’d be surprised how adept audiences are at spotting the difference.
The same applies to experimental forms and readerships. There’s a difference between how Dalton Day’s micro-plays utilize condensed length as a focusing element and a short play where the author says “well, it’s experimental, I can do what I want” and just doesn’t write a conclusion. Which is true, they can do what they want! And I may entirely miss an author’s point! But I also want to make sure readers/audiences aren’t so frustrated that they walk away from a piece, and as someone who eats and breaths this type of work, if I’m missing the point, chances are folks less entrenched in the genre won’t fare much better (although being a niche press also means we don’t have worry about books being the right fit for EVERY audience). And a Plays Inverse rejection doesn’t necessarily mean experimentation is misguided, either, it may just need more work or be a better fit somewhere else.
There are a lot of plays that have helped me expand the way I think about form, but one of my favorites is Sarah Kane’s 4.48 Psychosis. The play is VERY intense (TW: Suicidal thoughts, depression), but it uses typography in some really stunning ways and ignores speaker attributions entirely. It definitely makes the reader work harder to figure out who’s talking when, but pays off by creating a unique flow/space and a script that allows extra freedom for directorial interpretation. As far as frustration and content, I’m also a big fan of the Grand Guignol’s “La douche ecossaise,” or, the “hot and cold shower.” It describes how when a sharp contrast of moods occurs within a piece or between multiple pieces—like intense tragedy followed by intense comedy—one emotion can help accentuate the other, similar to how turning water back and forth between very hot and very cold causes an intense reaction. You see it a lot in Martin McDonagh’s plays, and that kind of emotional whiplash can be every effective in waking an audience up (as long as you don’t break their necks in the process, which is easier said than done).
ZS: People often mention theatre when discussing current politics, in relation to the reality TV spectacle of the Trump administration and to protest art, in relation to state-sponsored surveillance and to mass media. What role do you think plays in verse—and Plays Inverse—can play in this political moment? Do you see distinct political potential in this kind of “niche work?”
TC: It’s definitely something I think about a lot, and I think a lot of small press publishers had a kind of “oh shit, we need to do something to address this” moment in the wake of the election. Looking back at our catalog, though—including the books we’d accepted before the election—I was energized to realize that I didn’t necessarily need to “recalibrate” the press’s focus moving forward. If anything, I believe that supporting these authors’ works is more important now than ever. I’m proud to be publishing books by Joshua Young that take political figures and religious dogma to task. I’m proud to be publishing books by Justin Limoli and Dalton Day that struggle with grief and loneliness and the necessity of love. I’m proud to be publishing books by C Dylan Bassett and Meg Whiteford that shine lights on queer experiences and struggles. I’m proud to be publishing books by Mike Kleine that force audiences to think and to think harder and better. I’m proud to be publishing books by Catherine Theis that put power and agency in the hands of women. I’m proud to be publishing books by Toby Altman that dig up the trash that haunts our society and that refuses to biodegrade. I’m proud to be publishing books by Virginia Grise that seek to replace individual self-care with collective self-defense. And while these themes and priorities certainly aren’t exclusive to Plays Inverse (or plays in verse), publishing hybrid work helps you reach both wider and more niche readers, and there’s a lot being said right now that needs to be heard.
Also, while theatre gets a lot of credit for its politics, there’s still a LOT of work to be done in reaching larger audiences. I strongly believe that a core purpose of theatre is to cultivate empathy, and while this isn’t necessarily a criticism of any specific play or theatre or playwright, that doesn’t always happen when most theatre is produced in blue states for liberal audiences. You get a lot of nods and standing ovations, but not a lot of changed hearts and minds. The NYC theatre scene is still EXTREMELY important in fostering national conversations, but more needs to be done to meet regional artists and audiences where they are. And while part of that process is getting more boots on the ground, making work more available in print for folks who don’t have local theatre scenes of their own is important too.
ZS: To publish challenging work also serves the “verse” side of things, and the titles from Plays Inverse that I’m familiar with wouldn’t seem out of place in a bookstore’s poetry section. You discussed some roles that the books play in light of contemporary theatre. Do you have a related sense of their significance in terms of contemporary poetry? For example, while reading Joshua Young’s forthcoming book, I realized that I was imagining the potential (if impossible) performance of many phrases, and that I might do the same when reading books of poetry that don’t invoke theatre; that is, I might imagine the “meaning” of any phrase is in its potential performance, the gesture it offers, not in what it reports.
TC: Exactly! And I’m so, so glad to hear that. We actually encourage bookstores to shelve Plays Inverse titles wherever they feel is appropriate for their shop/customer base. A lot of small booksellers don’t even have a new drama section, so our books more often than not wind up in poetry by default—especially if they have poetry already by the same author. Which I love! Categorizing these books as “poetry” means there’s a chance that a poet or poetry fan might pick one up and be exposed to the joys of dramatic literature, not to mention writing techniques they didn’t realize could be applied to poetry. The same goes for shops that shelve them alongside other plays. My sincere hope is that when customers at NYC’s Drama Book Shop pick up our titles that they helps inspire playwrights, actors, and directors alike to read, write, and perform more poetry.
I also agree that reading dramatic literature in general (even outside Plays Inverse / plays in verse) can help train you for a unique style of reading. It teaches you to approach texts from a kind of “first-person adjacent” point of view, if that makes sense. You’re not inside a character or a poet or a narrator’s head, you’re seated in an audience. And regardless of whether you actually see the text performed, approaching it as a “script” adds a 3rd dimension to your reading experience. The same can be applied to books of poetry. How does treating a poetry text as a transcript of a hypothetical performance change the way you approach it? How does imagining a narrator in a short story sitting in front of you recounting events affect your perception of them? Sometimes not at all, especially when that isn’t what the author is going for. But I think having that awareness in your back pocket can help unlock new, interesting styles of writing and storytelling in your own work too. Which is one of the best goals of publishing—to inspire more writers and new styles of writing.
Zach Savich’s most recent books are The Orchard Green and Every Color (Omnidawn, 2016) and Diving Makes the Water Deep (Rescue Press, 2016). He teaches in the BFA Program for Creative Writing at the University of the Arts, in Philadelphia.