6: Styrofoam and paperclip

Photo credit: Julia Forsman


Large paperclip
Small paperclip

Photo: A.C. Smith


I was initially inclined towards writing dialogue for this piece. I wanted to discover what conversation was happening between these two women.

But there was one major problem: space.

As always, I had started the experiment with getting a feel for my medium by writing out the words ‘This Is A Play.’ I thought I would have a comfortable amount of space, but the need to carve the words into the styrofoam – alternating between gouging and scraping – put a limit on how small the text could be.

It was coarse styrofoam. It came away in chunks and large bubbles, so the letters were crude. It was challenging to keep their shapes clear, particularly on letters with curves like ‘S’ and ‘C’.

The letters had to be large and they had to be in all caps.  The styrofoam simply couldn’t accommodate detailed work, even working with the smaller paperclip.

The other limiting factor was the irregular shape of the styrofoam pieces.  To make legible letters, I needed reasonably flat surfaces to etch into.  The rear side of the styrofoam block was full of crannies and holes that left little room to write; it was difficult to even get your hand in at the right angle to form letters at all.

Photo: A.C. Smith

This left me with only the front side (a series of flattish planes), the outer frame, and a small bonus piece to write on.

Photo: A.C. Smith

I had been on a workshop at the Bush Theatre the weekend before, and it was the perfect warmup for tackling this challenge. Having just seen the magic that five minutes of a tightly structured exercise can create, I was excited by the discipline of tackling something tight.

I had to stick to little words. In one line, my first impulse was to say ‘great secret’ instead of ‘big secret’; but with those extra two letters, it wouldn’t fit. In the end, I liked the simplicity of this language.

The problem turned into a blessing. Not just for that line, but for the piece as a whole.

The space limitations directly shaped the structure. I could manage to write a full sentences around the styrofoam frame, and another across the flat area of the larger piece.  But he biggest writing space could only hold short words. So it became a play with longer sentences book-ending this collection of short words.

Photo: A.C. Smith

This was one of the more painful exercises so far.  I had bent out the outer edge of the paperclips to create a point to write with.  However, finding a way to hold the paperclip to sustain the force required to carve in the letters was a real challenge. My fingers became a claw.

The surface area to grip is very small, and the paperclip has to be held close to the tip to maintain enough control against the resistance of the styrofoam. Writing took a lot of repetitive movement – going over the same line repeatedly until it began to show clearly. My hand began cramping almost immediately.

Photo: A.C. Smith

Each letter was a feat to finish carving. There was no flow. But it imposed a deliberateness and physicality that connected with the feeling of effort and persistence in the inspiration photo.

I kept alternating between the small paperclip and the large paperclip. I had expected that the large paperclip would work better on the larger grain styrofoam, and the smaller would work better on the smaller, and might allow me to write in smaller, finer letters.  However, there was no marked difference in the effectiveness of the two. Instead, I switched between the two paperclips just to give my hand a bit of relief.

At first I kept trying to pick the bits of styrofoam off the end of my writing tool, but partway through I just gave up.  By the end, bits of styrofoam covered the table and the room, and clung to my hand like needy children.

Photo: A.C. Smith

There was effectively no room to rewrite or second guess. Once these words had been carved in, they could not be erased. And anything I chose to cross out or discard would waste part of my precious, limited space.

So in the end, I could only allow myself one word that to be discarded or cut. Initially, I started by listing the objects that made up the tally of a life and existed in this woman’s experience.  I wrote in the word ‘Flowers’ – a symbol of beauty and growth, and already present in the colours and textiles of the image. But imagining downstream, having a piece made only of objects felt strangely empty.

This is a verb woman.  Even in the image she is moving: engaging, not reflecting.  So I crossed out ‘Flowers’ and proceeded with active words.  To me, that communicated more of the wonderful energy that’s present in Julia’s photo.


Photo: A.C. Smith

The result might read a bit like a corny Instagram post.  But I also think this could be really beautiful performed by an actor with a life behind them.

Several years ago, I had the privilege to write two plays for the RADA Elders Company, a community group of actors aged 60+.  Writing this, I kept thinking of the Elders Company, and what a mistake it is to discount the energy or capability of older people.

I imagined one of them reading the piece.  I think it could be lovely.

Looking at the finished product afterwards was an interesting experience. This is the first challenge I’ve done that doesn’t have any pigment or contrast between the letters and the writing surface. It was hard to find the right angle to photograph. Laid flat on the table, it was almost impossible to read out some of the words. To see the play clearly, I had to hold it up to the light.

Photo: A.C. Smith

Sometimes the shadows were enough to see the words. But some wouldn’t become clear until held up against the window and illuminated from behind. I kept rotating the piece, turning it to be able to read the sentences in the right sequence. Given the size of the styrofoam, it was a two hand proposition to manipulate it. It was interesting to have reading be such a physical thing.

It’s not a coincidence that ‘Grow’ and ‘Go’ bookend the start and finish of the piece – or that it ends with a ‘Stop’ and an exit. The play is supposed to mirror the journey of a life in a little, contained way.

The question that would direct the editing process is: what words and what order? Anything so small needs to be perfectly shaped. It deserves a bit more attention to make sure these words are the right ones.

Still, a life governed by these things can’t be too bad of a life, I think.


PASSING (working title)

A short play written for going down a hallway.  

Don’t go too quickly.  

Each step deserves a full sentence or word.



There’s no big secret












Life is in the little things


Photo: A.C. Smith

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