Reminiscent of Robert Frost’s 1960 trip to the University of Arizona to inaugurate its Poetry Center, the poet’s illustrious personality will return to the Grand Canyon State in Andrew Dolan’s one-person play "Robert Frost: This Verse Business."
Emmy-winning actor Gordon Clapp (NYPD Blue’s Detective Medavoy) stars as Frost, bringing the poet back into public in a way not seen since his death in 1963. The play fuses performance with history as Dolan pairs the poet’s words with Clapp’s experience as both an actor and a Frost aficionado.
“I’m so familiar with Frost and with his voice, which I heard at an early age, and it’s a sound that I grew up with,” Clapp said. “It’s as if I was trying to channel him in some way, put his clothes on, fit into a mold that was already there.”
Invited to Flagstaff by Northern Arizona University’s Center for Ecosystem Science and Society, Clapp will perform Dolan’s piece at the Coconino Center for the Arts Saturday, Sept. 29, at 8 p.m. In its 10-year run of over 100 performances, this will be the westernmost show and one of its smaller venues, which Clapp and Dolan agree will improve attendees’ experience.
“It’s going to be an ideal space at Coconino; it’s quite intimate,” Dolan said.
The venue is also fitting because Frost had his own connection to Arizona as a close friend of Arizona Congressman Stewart Udall. It was Udall who recommended the poet to John F. Kennedy for his 1961 inauguration and who also encouraged Frost’s visit to the Soviet Union, where he famously met with Nikita Khrushchev, General Secretary of the Communist Party.
Dolan and Clapp were brought together by a love of poetry and, especially, of Frost and his work. A recording of Frost speaking at Harvard inspired "This Verse Business," which Dolan calls “my attempt at Frost’s greatest talk.”
Using various archived materials, including Frost’s poetry — which makes up about a third of the script — letters and notebooks, Dolan fashioned a cohesive 75-minute performance which emulates one of Frost’s “talks” — poetry surrounded by his personal musings on subjects from art to politics which he delivered to audiences across the country.
“It’s really beautifully cobbled from what [Frost] called these ‘occasions,’” Clapp revealed.
These talks were particularly remarkable, Dolan believes, for their humor, insight and inclusivity.
“He had a way of discourse that is sorely lacking today, it seems, in public places, in politics, especially. He’s a person who was able to bring in a wide spectrum of people, and everyone was able to feel that sense of belonging and sense of kindred spirits that his work and his personality were able to bring out.”
In the same way, " This Verse Business" can be appreciated by everyone, not just poetry enthusiasts. Clapp noted that audiences are “kind of kidnapped by the wit and charm of the piece.”
The play illustrates Frost’s belief that metaphor comprises poetry.
Clapp described, “A poem as a whole is a metaphor for him, a momentary stay against confusion. That just for a second, if the poem is doing its job, it will give you just a moment’s clarity on something. It may not stay, but it’s there for a moment and it’s a wonderful moment.”
Audience members have a chance to experience this manipulation of poetic time through Clapp’s performance.
“The poems and the way Gordon delivers them create that momentary stay, that aesthetic arrest,” Dolan said.
Since the play was first performed at the Peterborough Players in New Hampshire in 2010, the work has evolved both in content and presentation. As Dolan’s research of Frost continues, he adds tidbits of new information — sometimes even another poem — to the script for the future performances. Clapp conveys Frost’s personality, not just his words.
“He performs the poetry,” Dolan said. “It’s not like going to a poetry reading and seeing a poet read from a book. It’s nothing like that. He just takes off and brings everybody with him into a poetic space as he launches into the work.”
At its core, the play is an evening with Frost as he invites audience members from a lecture hall setting to his cabin, speaking his poems and sharing insights as they go along.
“It doesn’t feel like a one-man show,” Clapp said. “It feels like a 250-man show, the audience is such a part of it.”
The two settings allow viewers to glimpse both the public and private sides of Frost’s life.
“It’s an opportunity to not only experience the work of one of our most celebrated poets,” Dolan said, “it’s a chance to experience a unique personality, the work of an incredible artist. People are in for a great treat in witnessing a wonderful actor hold his own on stage for 75 minutes.”
No matter their interests, vocation or background, attendees can learn from, or simply laugh with, poet Robert Frost by experiencing his character firsthand in "This Verse Business."