How to Spell Love is a compelling spoken word theatre project. Centred on the work of acclaimed poet Anisa Nandaula, How to Spell Love combines Nandaula’s poetry with the free jazz of drummer/ percussionist Benjamin Shannon and musical director Alasdair Cannon, and the dance of Prue Wilson. The work had two performances during the 2019 Queensland Poetry Festival at Brisbane’s Judith Wright Centre for Contemporary Arts.

The ‘Judy’ was a perfect location. A little like How to Spell Love, the Judy has been under development for an extended period of time—and although there may still be a little work to be completed, audiences will be rewarded by keeping a close eye on the development (and by planning to visit again).

How to Spell Love is an innovative combination of music, dance, multimedia and the spoken word. Nandaula’s poetry is at the heart of the show, in which Shannon and Wilson respond to Nandaula’s work, drawing out key emotions and enhancing the impact of the spoken word. From the very start, the audience was enthralled—concentrating on every word and nuance of the poetry, and watching as some of the words slowly appeared on the floor of the stage.  

The multimedia crossword was a compelling device (so much so that I missed it when it was paused during the show). Establishing tracks for the poet to walk along, it provided a structure for the piece as the words slowly filled the grid. A list of some of those words might suggest that the focus of the piece was political: Repress, Race, Commodity, Colonised…. But love was an equally important thread within the work.

Demonstrating that the personal is political is not a bad thing. The promotional material notes that the work is based on Nandaula’s personal experience of love and relationships as a migrant woman in contemporary Australia.  It is difficult to pick a highlight, but we all enjoyed the ironic humour of “This Smile,” and the poignant ‘My Number is Still the Same’ touched the heart. Although the poet may “yearn to write happy poems,” the work demonstrates that love is not always the happiest of emotions (“I’m still wearing the trust issues I borrowed from your closet. You’re still wearing the smile you borrowed from my face”). The heartbreak of love can result in a thought-provoking theatrical experience.

The dance-music-poetry intersection was at its strongest for me with the ‘supermarket’ credit card swipe imagery (" The cashier asks if I’d like to pay with cash or card. I give her every second chance I have left in my pocket. She tells me I have overpaid. I say forgiveness is the only currency this world has taught me to use”). Including a dancer in the performance certainly enhanced the spoken word, and often worked well (particularly when Wilson interacted with Nandaula, and also with Wilson’s first piece). I loved the music; Shannon’s performance combined with Cannon ‘s soundtrack to provide a great counterpoint to Nandaula’s poetry.  Just occasionally, I felt that the impact of both music and dance was not fully-realised by their being toward the back of the space. A small point, but perhaps keeping more light on Shannon, or moving the drums slightly forward on the stage, would have allowed the audience to revel in the drummer’s work.

How to Spell Love is a collaboration between the three co-directors (Nandaula, Shannon and Wilson), musical director (Cannon) and production team (Tim Loydell [Producer], Thomas E.S. Kelly [Project Consultant], Toni Wills [Assistant Producer], Peter Golikov [Audio engineer] and Josh Bilyj [AV and lighting]). The creative development of How to Spell Love was supported by the Arts Queensland Judith Wright Showcase Program, and during development the work also benefited from the input of Ayeesha Ash (Blackbirds Theatre) and Sanja Simic (La Boite Theatre). Described as a ‘work in progress,’ the creative team held a post-show discussion, seeking feedback and suggestions. As with the rest of the audience at the show I attended, suggestions for changes are few. Perhaps there is an opportunity to use different colours to punctuate chapters, or to more clearly identify the intersections of the four key themes (for example, coloured light boxes, or projecting the four themes on the walls or stage), or even to project some of the key lines from the poems onto the backdrop.

Nandaula asserts that “Words is currency.” This was certainly proved in How to Spell Love. The artist demonstrated that, in the right hands, words can be used to establish a powerful and though-provoking exchange about the choices we all make. Even if the poems were not all “happy”, the audience was certainly content, moved, and delighted to have experienced this work in progress. I look forward to seeing the show again.

Verdict: Look out for a future iteration of How to Spell Love—or any opportunity to hear Anisa Nandaula’s poetry and the work of Benjamin Shannon.

Audience tip: Unallocated seating, so arrive a little early and aim to sit in the central seats you can. 45 minutes. 15+ Adult themes. Tickets for the 17 August 2019 shows were $15. Look out for future performances of How to Spell Love, and anything including Anisa Nandaula or Benjamin Shannon.

Catherine Lawrence

The reviewer attended the Saturday 17 August 2019 work in progress event (7:30pm).

Photograph supplied by How to Spell Love production team.


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