Poetry didn’t really come alive for Natalia Spengler until she connected to it through another art form, one for which she’d already developed a passion: theater.
Tasked with memorizing and performing a poem in front of her class as part of the Poetry Out Loud program, Spengler discovered she had a affinity for poetry recitation, one rooted in her experiences with the local acting company Theatre in the Rough. Spengler, a sophomore at JDHS, will be bringing those skills to bear as the Juneau representative in the state finals for Poetry Out Loud this Tuesday, March 19, at the JACC. She’ll be competing with nine high school students from around the state for a chance to move on to the national finals in Washington, D.C.
For Spengler, who has been acting with Theatre in the Rough for the past two years, moving poetry from a literary art into spoken word performance was key to digging into the form and making it her own.
‘I approached it sort of like a monologue or a speech from a play – who am I talking to, what do I really mean by this – things like that,” she said.
“I’m definitely more appreciative of it now -- and I get it more, too, I’m understanding it more.”
Though the Poetry Out Loud competition provides guidelines for students on how to make the recitation of their chosen poems more effective, Spengler said she based many of her performance decisions on her acting experiences with Theatre in the Rough. Like acting, reciting poetry is largely about forming an emotional connection with your words and your audience, she said.
“Poetry, it’s not just like talking to someone, it’s a lot like music or a song, you’re putting a lot of yourself out there that you normally keep hidden and that’s hard to do. You’re pretty vulnerable -- you have to do it that way or it’s not going to be that beautiful.”
Poetry Out Loud is a national program organized by the National Endowment for the Arts and the Poetry Foundation that encourages high school students to learn about poetry through memorization and spoken word performance. Launched in 2006, it is organized in a pyramid structure that starts with memorization and recitation in local classrooms, building to school-wide, regional, state and national competitions over the course of several months. In Juneau the competition is organized through the Alaska State Council on the Arts and the Juneau Arts & Humanities Council. Tuesday’s state finals will include students from Nome, Kodiak, Fairbanks, Sitka and Chugiak, as well as other locations.
Spengler’s teacher at JDHS, Kristy Germain, made the competition part of her regular classroom instruction, and organized outside opportunities for her students to read their poems in front of a live audience.
In addition to helping her nail the delivery, Spengler said her theater background has been helpful in terms of memorization and in keeping nerves to a minimum.
“For the Juneau competition, I wasn’t nervous when I got up there. I did the poem. But then I got down and I looked at my hands and after I was done my hands were shaking,” she said. “But I wanted to go up there and do another one.”
Spengler said two of the poems she chose -- “Ode” by Arthur O’Shaugnessy and “The Affliction of Richard” by Robert Bridges -- appealed to her in part for their range of tone; one is light, the other darker and more emotional. Her third selection, “Zoom!” by Simon Armitage, is a more contemporary piece, very different from the other two.
Choosing only three poems was difficult, she said -- but she already has ideas for next year. in the meantime, she hopes to get a chance to feed her appreciation for spoken word performance through the Woosh Kinaadeiyí Poetry Slam, a local poetry event offered every third Friday at a different location (this Friday it will be at the downtown library; see brief on C3).
Spengler’s first stage experience was a play in elementary school, but it wasn’t until she was introduced to Theatre in the Rough’s Katie Jensen and Aaron Elmore by her cousin, Megan Behnke, that she really discovered the theater.
“I didn’t really get into it until eighth grade, when I did the first Theatre in the Rough show, ‘Our Town.’ And after that I was like, ‘How have I not been doing this forever?’ I’m pretty hooked now.”
Behnke, Spengler’s cousin, was also a Roughian before she left for college, and the two girls acted together in “Midsummer Night’s Dream” and “Our Town.” Spengler also played one of the witches in the recent production of “Macbeth.” Currently, she has taken on a new role with the theater for their production of “Equivocation,” working backstage to manage the running lights and sound.
“It’s been great to learn more about different sides of theater. And it’s a different experience. You have to pay a lot of attention because ... this show has a lot of light changes, it helps tell the story almost. I’m definitely going to appreciate whoever does lights for us in the future now that I know how hard it is.”
Set in Shakespeare’s time, “Equivocation” builds on a fictional premise that the playwright has been asked by the king to write a play based on the Gunpowder Plot. But Shakespeare has his own ideas, and ends up formulating ideas for Macbeth -- a nice tie in for Theater in the Rough fans, who got to see the troupe perform “Macbeth” this past fall.
“The playwright was able to mesh those stories together and put them into this really cool, really interesting story,” Spengler said. “This play is pretty special. There’s not really anything like it that I know of.”
Recently Spengler has become involved in another art form that has also sprung from her experiences with the theater: dancing. She’s been working with Ricci Adan at Juneau Dance Unlimited, a specialist in theater dance.
“Ricci is really great because she does acting too, so she knows where I’m coming from,” Spengler said.
Unlike many of the dance students her age, Spengler’s dance experience is limited to ballet as a young girl.
“There are really good dancers in the class who have been dancing for years and then there’s me, but Ricci knows I’m doing it to help my acting,” she said.
Spengler also plays the piano.
Between her school work, practicing piano, working backstage at the theater, going to dance class and preparing for the poetry competition, has she been feeling a little overwhelmed lately?
“I’m almost reaching that point, maybe this is as much as I can do,” Spengler said with a laugh. “These are all things I enjoy. I want to do all this stuff. But nothing more, I think.”
Looking ahead, she has no concrete plans, but says she knows the arts will figure in as part of her future.
“I definitely know, even if I don’t do it as a career, I’m going to act for as long as I can. And I’m going to keep on dancing. And play piano too, I’m going to be doing that forever. I don’t know where I’m going to go but I’ll be doing those things.”