A couple of weeks ago, I was invited to a fundraising event featuring open-mike slots. I’d gone along under the assumption that the stage was reserved solely for musicians, and there were a number of talented ones there. But after a chat with the organisers, I discovered it was open to anybody.
If you know me, you’ll know I’m always willing to perform. This, however, would be a tough crowd because a music audience is different from a poetry audience.
Your average pub rock group expects to encounter some external noise, like audience chatter or the noise of the till, but three or four instruments with amplification can easily compete against that. By contrast, a poetry audience knows to be silent because the performer has only words to convey; even with amplification, it can be hard to talk over a noisy audience.
I drew upon my experience to pick two suitable poems, and they received a better response than I could have hoped for, even with a lot of background chat. One of the poems was a humorous and surreal piece about personified biscuits; I’d picked it because it seems to appeal equally to poets and non-poets.
The following night, I performed the biscuit poem at a dedicated poetry night with an open-mike element. While the audience did hold a respectful silence, they were harder to excite than the pub group crowd, perhaps because many of them had heard it before.
While drafting this entry about the two aforementioned evenings, I was then unexpectedly invited to perform at another gig.
I sing in the church choir on a Sunday, and the organist was organising the music to entertain their Wednesday Club. Most of the choir performed solo songs, but I was asked to perform a couple of poems. I turned again to – you guessed it – the biscuits.
This time, I was uncertain how it would be received. I knew the audience would lend me their silence, but not whether they would consider it appropriate for the event. But I needn’t have worried, as I heard some great feedback both on the night and at the next Sunday performance.
There is no foolproof way to tell how an audience will react. However, by performing often enough, it’s possible to gauge which pieces to perform – and sometimes it pays off incredibly well.
Last week, I was working in Birmingham, so I took the opportunity to see the TV writer John Osborne in Wolverhampton. The Arena Theatre wasn’t busy when I entered, but I didn’t expect to be one of just two people in the audience.
It must have felt frustrating for Osborne, especially as he plans to take the show on tour, but he didn’t let it show as he took the microphone. He was there to promote his book No-One Cares about Your New Thing.
And what a performance it was, with the first half devoted to poems and the second filled with a personal humorous story centred around his late grandfather’s collection of old Radio Times magazines.
At the end, he offered us both a complimentary copy of the book, though I did pay for mine; I’d planned to buy one from the moment I heard the first poem.
I’ve also had experiences where there’s far less of an audience than I expected. There’s nothing else to do but make the best of the situation.
At one meet-up of Hotchpotch a couple of years ago, there was me plus five attendees, far removed from the dozens we attract today. Since it was a mild summer night, we decided to head into the beer garden and hold an open-air event.
Incidentally, it seems that the Arena Theatre holds a similar open-mike event called PASTA, short for Poets and Storytellers Assemble. Unfortunately, I’m not going to make it to their upcoming events, although I might manage to see the poet Jess Green in March.
For a few years now, I’ve been going to the StAnza poetry festival in St Andrews. On Saturday, I was invited to compete in the Slam, hosted by Paula Varjack. Although I’d applied some time ago, I was only told that week I’d been granted a place.
There are a few simple rules:
The running order is drawn from a hat.
In round one, everyone is allowed to read a poem for up to two minutes. You’ll be stopped if you run over.
In round two, after the interval, the top four scorers from round one are given 2½ minutes each to read another poem.
The 2017 Slam Champion is crowned.
The first poem was always going to be Crossing the Road, published last year; it’s punchy and takes less than a minute to perform. The strength of this Slam is that there’s no ‘house style’, so the contenders spoke on subjects as diverse as ageing, love, insomnia and contemporary politics. Just about everyone put in a sterling performance, including the other first-timers, and I thought I made a good job of mine.
The exact number of points given by the judges were not revealed, but five people progressed to round 2 because two contenders had scored exactly the same, none of which where me. The ultimate victor was Kevin Mclean, who goes on to compete in the Scottish Slam.
I’m not disheartened by my placing. I’m accustomed to performing in front of large audiences, but not with a competitive element. So what I want to do now is sharpen my skills even more by studying what other poets do and how they appeal to the audience.
Elsewhere at the festival, I witnessed excellent performances from Jackie Kay and Sarah Howe, and I chatted to the latter for a while. I also bought Paula Varjack’s book, and filmed performances from poets inspired by looking around St Andrews.
I spoke a little about my upcoming gigs in the last entry. This week, I want to pass on some of the advice I’ve picked up in the years I’ve been performing.
A live performance is a great way to introduce yourself to a new audience, and to add extra enjoyment for your existing fans. So it’s crucial to make a solid effort. The advice below should be treated not as strictly unbreakable rules, but as guidelines to make your event flows as smoothly as possible. Some of the points were made in a 2015 entry, but have been updated as I’ve gained more experience.
Think about your introduction.
Check with the organisers what content you need. Sometimes you need to give an introduction; other times, you’ll be asked only to read the piece. If you do need to introduce your work, it’s worth making brief notes, such as:
Give your name
Thank Tracey Jones for organising
Story is called On the River Tay
Taken from collection The Pie Seller
Published by Law Hill Books
Brought copies, happy to sign
Then on the night, you might say, “Good evening, my name’s Mary Walker. I’d like to thank Tracey Jones for inviting me to read tonight, and the piece I’ve chosen is called On the River Tay. It’s taken from my collection The PieSeller, and that’s published by Law Hill Books. I’ve brought some copies and I’ll be happy to sign them afterwards.”
Explain if you need to, but don’t apologise.
Some pieces do require an explanation. Perhaps the work is unfinished; perhaps it’s an extract from a longer work and needs context. But whatever you have to explain, keep it as brief as you can and certainly don’t apologise. If you feel an apology is necessary, ask yourself whether the piece is ready to be heard in public.
Before reading to someone, read to no-one.
The best way to identify any weak parts in a piece is to read it aloud – and that’s the last thing you want to happen in public. So find a space on your own and read it out when nobody can hear you. Are there any long sentences that need to be broken up? Are there words that are difficult to say clearly when grouped together? Can you add or take away any alliteration or rhyme?
If you don’t have the luxury of solitude, the next best method is to use text-to-speech software and listen to your words through headphones. There is plenty of suitable software available online, and some programs allow you to adjust the speed and the type of voice.
Make sure you also time yourself and keep it within the constraints laid down by the organiser. This might mean writing a longer introduction to expand a short piece, or reading out only a section to reduce it.
Practice your page turns.
Unlike a rock star, the great thing about being a writer is that you’re often allowed to take your notes on stage. When reading from a book or from sheets of paper, it’s a good idea to turn up the corner slightly or stick a post-it note to the back to help turn it more easily. When using an e-reader or tablet computer, practice tapping the correct area of the screen to turn the page. Make sure to account for any delay, as not all devices instantly show the next page.
Make sure everyone can hear you.
In my experience, smaller readings tend not to use a microphone, so you need to project. Avoid tilting your head down to read the piece; instead, hold your manuscript higher and off to one side so it doesn’t muffle your words, or look down only with your eyes. Always speak slowly than you would in normal conversation.
If you do have a microphone, ask the sound engineer if you can test it out beforehand, especially if you’re unfamiliar with using one.
Most microphones collect sound from the top, but some designs mean you need to speak into the side, like mine (pictured). Either way, make sure you know which one has been given to you. One of the biggest distractions for an audience is a sound level that vastly increases and decreases, especially at random. Whether the microphone is handheld or on a stand, keep it at the same distance from your mouth.
Avoid too much alcohol or a heavy meal before the gig.
I fully understand why many people need Dutch courage before going on stage. But a drunk speaker rarely makes a good impression, especially during a paid gig, so strictly control your alcohol intake. It takes some concentration to perform, and too much booze impairs that concentration.
My rule is not to take alcohol before speaking, only coffee. Afterwards, however, I sometimes enjoy a red wine. It’s also a good idea not to eat too much in the hours before the performance, as a heavy meal can also slow down your thought process.
Decide where in the room to look.
I know one poet who deliberately looks at individual audience members and delivers a few lines before moving on to the next person. However, this is not what most people do because it can be unnerving to make eye contact. Fortunately, there are some techniques to make this easier. One of my favourite methods is look between two people, so the person on the right assumes I’m looking at the one on the left, and vice versa. Another way, which is particularly good for a theatre setting, is to look beyond the back row. This has the advantage of keeping your posture correct.
Sometimesthe audience reacts wrongly.
I’ve had experiences where an audience didn’t laugh when I’d expected, or chuckled at a serious point. You have no control over this. Should it happen to you, don’t point out the anomaly or repeat it. Wait for the laughter to die down if there is any, then move on without comment. But if you find different audiences keep reacting in the wrong way to the same part, you might consider revising it or editing it out in future performances.
If there’s a cock-up, keep going.
In a live event, something is likely to go wrong. Perhaps the microphone fails, perhaps you forget the words, perhaps somebody walks out. The best course of action is to keep going. The audience will easily forget a slipup if they’re engaged with your narrative. Conversely, they’ll remember the person who stopped the show early, and they’ll remember for the wrong reasons. It’s true that there is no easy way to recover from forgetting your words, other than picking up from the last section you remember, but keep saying something.
Two years ago, I was invited to read at Dundee University Students Association. I was debuting a poem called Housekeeping. I now know this piece back to front, but if you’ll excuse the terrible picture quality, here was my first attempt at memorising the words:
Signalthat you’ve finished.
At the end of a piece, the audience doesn’t necessarily know whether you’re finished or simply pausing for dramatic effect. But an audience can pick up on your gestures. You can lower your manuscript, step backwards slightly, or say, “Thank you,” whereupon they’ll take the hint and applaud.
Do it again.
It’s an eye-rolling cliche, but the more you stand up and speak in public, the easier it becomes. Over time, you’ll learn little nuggets like which techniques work or don’t work for you, which pieces always or never provoke a reaction, &c. Ultimately, a good performance can sell more books.
Last night, while stuck for something to watch on TV, I came across an old Rich Hall DVD. I’ve been a fan of his for some years, whether as himself or in the guise of country musician Otis Lee Crenshaw. This DVD featured both personas. In the Crenshaw part, he performs a couple of template songs using the details of audience members to fill in the blanks.
Regular readers will know that I encourage every writer to stand up and read their work in front of other people, and one area I like to explore is customising the material to that particular situation. Writers can easily use those same principles of comedy at a reading.
Not too long ago, I saw a poet walk on stage with a rucksack. He started his act, and midway through, he took off the rucksack and walked through the audience, giving out small bars of chocolate to everyone who had performed before him and to anyone involved with organising the event, adding briefly why he considered each individual to be, “awesome.”
The last time I tried a tailored act, I read out a story consisting of six passages from six viewpoints. I placed each passage in an envelope, marked each one with a letter from A to F, and passed a beanbag around the audience. Whenever it was caught by a new person, I asked them to shout out a letter and that would determine the order of the story.
Some acts thrive on audience embarrassment, but that’s not to my taste unless anyone is heckling or generally being difficult. When I threw the beanbag, I made it clear that whoever caught it would not be hauled up on stage or embarrassed in any way. And with regard to the rucksacked poet, who doesn’t like free sugary treats? These two approaches kept the audience on-side, while allowing the performer to customise the reading to that particular location on that particular night.
In fact, even this entry is situation-specific, as the subject would have been totally different if I hadn’t seen that DVD last night. Rich Hall is also responsible for one of the most bizarre situation-specific incidents I’ve seen on stage. At the Edinburgh Fringe a few years ago, he unexpectedly brought Radio 4 stalwart Barry Cryer on stage as a guest vocalist.