Article

Connie Wanek interviews poet Louis Jenkins and Tony Award-winner Mark Rylance about their collaboration on the play "Nice Fish" and its evolutions from page to stage, as they prepare for the Guthrie's world premiere this spring.
By Connie Wanek
October 24, 2012
Duluth-based poet Louis Jenkins

Photo by Phil Dentinger, courtesy of the author

Actor, director and two-time Tony Award-winner, Mark Rylance

Photo: Hugo Glendinning, courtesy of the artist's website

“Sometimes a man who has recently had a haircut asks me, ‘What is the use of poetry?’”

---Mark Rylance in his forward to Before You Know It: Prose Poems 1970-2005


Across the state, theater patrons are eagerly anticipating April 6, 2013, when the Guthrie will feature the world premiere of Nice Fish, a play based on the poetry of Duluth resident, Louis Jenkins, and co-created by two-time Tony Award-winning actor, Mark Rylance. Here is the Guthrie “teaser”:

Nice Fish centers on two men who have gone ice fishing on the last day of the season; the ice is melting and the DNR is watching. They are hoping for something essential, immortal, when a construction worker roars across the ice on his snowmobile, spear, dynamite and fancy dress in hand! And the last blizzard of the season is about to begin...

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DRAMATIS PERSONAE:

Louis Jenkins, American poet and co-author of the play; author of 13 books, widely anthologized, featured on The Writer’s Almanac and A Prairie Home Companion, see: louisjenkins.com

Mark Rylance, British actor, co-author and co-director (with Claire van Kampen) of the play; winner of Olivier and Tony Awards, star of stage and screen, first Artistic Director of Shakespeare’s Globe in London, see: http://www.markrylance.co.uk/

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ACT ONE: in which the genesis of the play is explored...

Connie Wanek: Louis, you spent most of your growing-up years in Enid, Oklahoma. When and why did you move to Minnesota?

Louis Jenkins: Ann [the artist Ann Jenkins] and I met in Denver. She was from Duluth and we visited here several times before we moved here and got married on a very cold night, the day after Christmas, 1970. I think it hit -30° that night. I liked it here and we have stayed on forty years, or so.

[Some pertinent lines from the Jenkins poem “Back Home:” “I moved away from there a long time ago, when I was a young man, and came to the cold spruce forests of the north. The place I thought I was going to is imaginary, yet I have lived here most of my life.”]

Connie Wanek: Have you always wanted to be a playwright?

Louis Jenkins: No. I never had any aspirations to theater.

Connie Wanek: Did you meet Mark Rylance when he was in Robert Bly’s adaptation of Peer Gynt at the Guthrie in 2008?

Louis Jenkins: No. I saw the play but I was not expecting much because Peer Gynt seems… well, improbable. But with Robert’s translation and Mark’s performance, I was very impressed. Mark managed to make the character come alive. I did not meet Mark then, even though we had mutual friends in Robert and Ruth Bly and in James Hillman and his wife, Margot McLean.

Connie Wanek: Have you any idea why Mr Rylance recited your poems as Tony Award acceptance speeches (for Boeing-Boeing in 2008, and again in 2011 for Jerusalem)? How did you find out that he had done that?

 Louis Jenkins: It was a total surprise to me. I didn’t watch the Tony awards in 2008, nor do I ordinarily watch them. I got an email from Margot McLean saying that Mark had recited one of my poems as his acceptance speech. I had to watch it on YouTube. In 2011, because I knew Mark by then, I had a heads up and watched the show. I learned later that Mark had recited my poems on several occasions, including the Drama Desk Awards.

[Mark Rylance has written an engaging account of the awards ceremony in his forward, mentioned above, to Jenkins’s Before You Know It, published in 2009.]

Connie Wanek: You have seen Mr Rylance on stage in several productions, I believe. Impressions?

Louis Jenkins: He is absolutely brilliant. I’m not an especially good judge of actors, but I was struck by his talent from the beginning. People have said that he is the greatest actor of our time, and I believe it.

[As evidence from the “Feeling is Mutual” department, these words from Mark Rylance: “I eat Mr Jenkins’s poetry like bread; like a tortoise eats greens and you know he’s ill when he don’t. Jenkins is a necessity of survival to any tortoise on this hare brained grand prix derby day winner takes all racetrack of these, our sunset glory dinosaur days.”]

Connie Wanek: Poetry has always struck me as a solitary, individual enterprise, whereas theater seems to be the work of a collective. In what ways (if any) are they similar, do you think?

Louis Jenkins: Words.

Connie Wanek: “Nice Fish” is the title poem from your book of selected poems from 1995. Is the play based specifically on that book? 

Louis Jenkins: The poems come from all my books and there are some new ones. The play shares a title with the book but is not “based” on it.

Connie Wanek: In what sense is Nice Fish (the play) a collaboration between you and Mr Rylance? 

Louis Jenkins: Mark is the director, co-writer and lead actor. I contribute bits of dialogue here and there but, knowing nothing about theater, I’m mainly along for the ride. We get together when possible, Mark has an incredible work schedule, I mostly lay about. Otherwise, we keep in touch by email.

Connie Wanek: Many of your poems seem to be spoken by a “voice,” a “character” who is not “Louis Jenkins,” so it’s not hard to imagine them spoken by actors on stage. Still...Describe this theatrical piece constructed out of individual poems. How does a group of poems become a play?

Louis Jenkins: I don’t know really, the whole thing was Mark’s idea, his story, his dramatic action. When he first suggested this piece, I thought “My poems as a play? That’s not going to work.” But when Mark put on a one-night, one-act performance of the play in New York in December 2008, I liked it, and the audience seemed to like it.

Connie Wanek: Yes! Your wife, Ann, videotaped that version of Nice Fish, and I was lucky enough to see that video. Funny, fascinating, and winning, as well as different from what I expect from a play. Can you describe this “Ur-Nice Fish” a bit more? What was it like there in New York City? I believe you gave a reading, too, at the Stella Adler Studio of Acting.

Louis Jenkins: I had some email exchange with Mark after the first Tony Award and he proposed the play based on my poems. How could I say no? We met up in New York in 2008. It was all great. We got to see Boeing Boeing, the play for which Mark won the Tony best actor award, got to meet Christine Baranski who was great in that play, and Matthew Cowles who played the other ice fisherman, Eric, in Nice Fish, the director, Matthew Warchus, Scott Thompson, the producer, and lots of others who helped with the production. I was treated very well.

Connie Wanek: How has the play been changed/expanded from that earlier, one-act version (more poems/material, narrative, characters, or...)?

Louis Jenkins: Mark has the final say on the structure of the play, but together we have worked out the plot, characters, etc. I’m hoping the finished product will be a surprise and please the audience.

Connie Wanek: A question for Mr Rylance: Charles Simic, who was a Poet Laureate of the United States, has said of Mr Jenkins’s work that it compresses a whole novel into a paragraph, and that “To imagine what it means to be another human being is an act of love. (Jenkins)...is a great lover of the world.” Do you agree, and could it be that “love” that helps the poems’ transition from the page to the stage?

Mark Rylance: I love Mr. Simic’s description of Louis’s work. Love is the link in the poems we have selected, and the new characters are also very much essential expansions of the theme of love, love of meaning, love of beauty in the present world and time, now -- a great hunger for love, the deep love beneath the melting ice.

Connie Wanek: Finally, Louis, what’s next? Are you going to be involved in casting the play?

Louis Jenkins: I plan to be there, for some of the process, anyway, and to watch and learn. On the other hand, given the opportunity, I have a hard time keeping my mouth shut.

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INTERMISSION

more to come...

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Related links and information:

Two-time Tony winner Mark Rylance and poet Louis Jenkins's Nice Fish will be on stage at Minneapolis' Guthrie Theater April 6 through May 18, 2013. The Guthrie began auditioning cast for the play this month. Wanek will touch base with both the poet and the playwright again later this winter, as world premiere draws nearer.

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About the author: Connie Wanek is the author, most recently, of On Speaking Terms (Copper Canyon Press, 2010), which was a 2011 nominee for the Minnesota Book Award for Poetry. Her work has appeared in Poetry, Atlantic Monthly, Virginia Quarterly Review, Narrative, Poetry East, and many other publications and anthologies. She has been awarded several prizes, including the Jane Kenyon Poetry Prize and the Willow Poetry Prize, and she was named the 2009 George Morrison Artist of the Year. Poet Laureate Ted Kooser named her a 2006 Witter Bynner Fellow of the Library of Congress. Her poem, "Polygamy," was the grand prize winner in the last iteration of mnartists.org’s What Light competition.

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