As a poet with a background in theatre myself, I was intrigued to check out James B. Nicola’s new collection Stage to Page (Word Poetry). Nicola, a stage director and playwright by profession, is a widely published poet whose first book, Manhattan Plaza told the stories of the occupants of the residential complex for performing arts professionals that helped revitalize the Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood beginning in the 1980s. With Stage to Page, he turns his focus specifically on the theatre.
Through verse form and clever rhymes, Nicola illustrates a life in the theatre, warts and all. He separates his collection into three “acts”, much like the classic dramas he has studied. The first act, with titles like Audition Tips and Elocutionary Advice, illuminate the world of the prospective actor. Shakespearean Actor tells the tale of an immigrant who works himself up from the mailroom and onto the boards. The Waiters celebrates the traditional fallback for the aspirant.
The second act focuses on survival in the theatre business, with titles such as Freelance Director, Outdoor Drama, and Bachelor Actor. In On Staging With No Bows, a production of a Greek tragedy ending with the requisite stage covered with dead bodies paralyzes the audience with the power of the absence of the traditional blackout or curtain.
The third act increasingly enumerates the individual personalities, both great and small. Nicola pays tribute to Leonard Bernstein, Charlie Chaplin and Spalding Gray, and includes personally felt remembrances of the Greenwich Village playwright Harry Koutoukas and the aging dancer Bella Malinka.
Nicola’s greatest accomplishment is in illustrating contrasts at play. The opening line of the collection, in the poem To Players, says “You are not what you are, but what you’re not…”. Three pages later, Billing begins “We are not what we are but who you say we are…”. The opposing forces of Art and Commerce. In A Broadway Show, the stage star Laurette Taylor (increasingly forgotten today), whose participation bankrolled the original production of The Glass Menagerie, largely paraphrased her performance, relying on her popular persona. But this led to Tennessee Williams’ written words becoming legend. In Denizen, Nicola draws a portrait of an actor enduring the diminishing returns on his early success, while in In the Dimness, we meet a man completely unsatisfied with his commercial success who champions a saloon singer.
I would recommend Stage to Page not only to readers interested in stories of the theatre, but also to poets who are interested in developing collections which follow a specific theme. see http://www.wordpoetrybooks.com/nicola_stage.html