The Broad Stage’s Red Hen Press Poetry Hour explores timely topics through verse and performance

By Meera Sastry

Though the Broad Stage never anticipated that its 2020/21 season would take a virtual turn, this switch has allowed for an exceptional collaboration that would have been otherwise impossible: the Red Hen Press Poetry Hour.

Each hour brings together theater and performance artists (from the Broad Stage’s side of the collaboration) and poets (from Red Hen Press), uniting them in conversation around a timely theme. The first episode of the second season, titled “Finding Truths and Creating Art in Exile,” took place on July 16, while the second hour, centered on climate change and the environment, will air on August 27.

As co-founder and managing editor of Red Hen Press, Kate Gale, says that this series is made possible by the digital medium of the internet and the COVID-19 circumstances that necessitated a transition to online performance. With travel costs absent and touring schedules emptied, an amazing range of poets and performers can share their work with a community eager to listen.

“The pandemic has given us the opportunity for a new kind of collaboration,” Gale says. “It’s allowed us to get poets from all over the country and world to come in or to send in videos. And with it, life itself has slowed down to the pace of poetry.”

The first season of the Red Hen Press Poetry Hour in the spring was a success, despite its abrupt beginning. The Broad Stage and Red Hen Press have collaborated numerous times in the past. The new project came about easily and organically, as poets were more than happy to share their work from home with a new audience and community. With the second season, however, the organizers strove to find a cohesive theme for each event, as Broad Stage Director of Artistic Planning Eric Bloom explains.

“We decided to focus on some social justice issues and identity issues, things that were really relevant to what people are talking about these days, in terms of diversity and equality,” Bloom says. “Each of the three artists really represent an idea and a topic of conversation that we felt was important to convey: migration and immigration, environmental themes, LGBTQ themes, feminist theory. And Red Hen took that and ran with it and curated poets that could also speak to those issues.”

In addition to these thoughtfully selected themes and lineups of top poets and performers, the series benefits greatly from its moderator and host, Sandra Tsing Loh. Loh is a writer and actor in her own right. Her personality and incisive questions guide each discussion masterfully, pulling together a range of voices and creating a program that listeners can resonate with, no matter their prior knowledge of the topic.

For the first installment of this second season, Loh spoke with Nassim Soleimanpour, whose play “Nassim” will be put on by the Broad Stage in their upcoming season, along with poets Sholeh Wolpé, Lory Bedikian and Nathalie Handal. The roster of poets was easy to pull together, says Gale, as all are artists in exile from Iran and write from and about that cultural space. The poets and playwright spoke on themes of language, family and identity. Each of their works added something new to the conversation and emphasized both the diversity of thought available on the subject and the timeliness of these themes in our current cultural climate.

The upcoming poetry hour on August 27 will pivot to tackle environmental themes and the issue of climate change. The talk will feature science journalist and theater performer Alanna Mitchell; poet and naturalist Elizabeth Bradfield; and poets Natalie Diaz, 2014 Los Angeles Poet Laureate Luis Rodriguez and Utah Poet Laureate Paisley Rekdal, along with Loh as the host. The work of each of these artists touches on the natural world and our relationship to it. Bradfield’s latest book is about her work as a naturalist and her travels in Antarctica. Mitchell’s one-woman show “Sea Sick,” an adaptation of journalistic work she completed while on a series of scientific expeditions, is slated for performances at the Broad Stage next April. Through their performances and conversation, they hope to weave a thread of connection between their audience and the natural world they write about, explains Bradfield.

“For us to care about climate change, about the Anthropocene, and our role within it, art is really important,” she says. “Information isn’t enough, right? You need to be able to connect both with your mind and your heart. That’s what literature — and poetry in particular — can offer. There’s a lot of amazing biologists and naturalists and scientists that I’ve been inspired by, and that straddling of worlds, between the science world and the literary world, is something that’s really exciting for me. I hope more and more people feel comfortable moving between them and feeling like they’re part of the conversation in both of those worlds.”

The August installment of the Red Hen Press Poetry Hour thus promises to be both timely in its topic and a comforting balm to many of us who have been stuck in the city over the past few months and whose heart could use a connection with nature.

Beyond it, though, viewers can expect four more sessions, running through the end of the year. The September event will center on the theme of feminism, and feature artist Monique Jenkinson, who made history by becoming the first cisgender woman to win a major drag queen pageant and who works to examine questions of gender theory. The rest of the artists participating in the upcoming installments are to be announced. So stay tuned to keep some excellent poetry and performance in your life throughout the fall.

The August 27 installment of the Red Hen Press Poetry Hour will stream live at 6 p.m. next Thursday; in the meantime, the July 16 event, along with all episodes from the first season of the series are available to watch at thebroadstage.org/athome. Visit facebook.com/thebroadstage for updates.

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