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In 2001, the musician Darius Danesh failed to make it into the later stages of Popstars. When he announced this to the others, he tried to sum up their positive thoughts by saying, ‘How much love is there in this room?’ A clip of the incident is below:
Much fun was made of this statement at the time, although his later career has been better received. He did have a good point about the mood of a room, as it’s something I think about when I’m performing.
On Friday of last week, I was invited to perform at a poetry night called Blend In – Stand Out. This was something of a risk on the part of the organiser because previous events had been held in Perth, whereas this one was half-an-hour’s drive away in Dundee.
However, I detected good vibes from the start. A number of the members already knew each other, and many had already started drinking, which some folk need before they feel confident. Every performer is allowed two turns. When I stood up, the audience reacted just as I’d wanted, especially the second time.
The following evening, I was again due to perform in a very different venue to a much wider audience as part of a community soul choir. This first involved a dress rehearsal for a total of more than three hours, including a technical run-through.
The show went marvellously, with the audience out of their seats by the final song, helped by our extroverted conductor. Many were there because they knew one of the 300 or so singers on the stage.
But sometimes, the mood of the room simply isn’t with the performer. At one event last year, I was on the bill between two musicians, so nobody was geared up to hear poetry. It also didn’t help that the audience hadn’t come specifically to hear the entertainment; rather, it was a place to rest as part of a wider arts event.
It’s unfortunate that even when the audience isn’t engaged, people will still look less favourably on the person who stopped halfway through. And if it’s a paid gig, the promoter might even withhold all or part of your fee.
So whatever the dynamic in the room is, my advice is to continue performing the set. A good technique is to identify one or two people who are paying attention and direct your words to them.
That is unless the mood is at the stage where you feel physically threatened. I’ve never seen that happen, though, and I hope it never will.
I feel as though I’m giving you a cop-out entry this week because it exists only to link to other posts.
This is partly because I haven’t had much time; I’ve spent a lot of it on a new long-form piece. And it’s partly because another poet has put together some excellent advice that I’d like to share.
A couple of weeks ago, Andrew Blair asked his friends what advice they wish they’d known before taking part in their first open-mike night. The advice he received – including mine – appear in his entry So…you want to do an open mic night.
Last week, I talked about how I hadn’t been reading very much. By contrast, I’ve had a lot of time to read over the last seven days, thanks to a six-hour train journey to Stockport and the same coming back.
Today’s entry isn’t just about reading, but reading out loud.
A friend mentioned last week that he didn’t like hearing back recordings of his own voice. I sometimes forget that most people feel the same way. I’ve long been accustomed to hearing mine through volunteering at student, community and hospital radio stations. I’d often listen back to shows and figure out how I could improve them.
I don’t recall exactly when I stopped paying attention to how I sound to myself, but it’s a useful skill to develop. When I play back my work, I can focus on the words, the timing and the structure without distraction.
I sometimes say on this blog that reading your own work out loud to nobody is a key step to refining it. On top of that, the ability to listen back can be just as useful.
A good example is The Purple Spotlights EP, which I released almost exactly two years ago. When I listen to it now, I can hear that I focus too much on the technical quality of the recording and not enough on the performance. When I release my next EP, I’ll aim to correct that balance.
I also like to participate as often as I can, and I’m always happy to give advice to those who want to do the same. I’ve updated my guide from 2016, and I stress that it is only a subjective guide, not a textbook.
Talk with the organisers about what’s required
Ask the organisers to talk you through their plan for the event. This will typically include, but is not limited to: how long you’ll be asked to speak for, what type of content is required, whether you’ll be given an introduction, where you should wait before you’re called up, and whether any fee is payable.
If it’s an unfamiliar venue, be sure to obtain the exact address and check how to access the building. Don’t forget to arrive in plenty of time.
Think about your own structure and running order
The organisers will take care of the overall structure and running order, but it’s wise to plan your own time so you don’t miss a step. A typical note-to-self might read:
Give name and say you’re reading from short story collection The Pie Seller
Briefly mention editor at Law Hill Books
Tell obesity clinic anecdote
Read out And an Onion One Too
Thank Tracey Jones for organising
You’re happy to sign copies
Read out The Crust of the Matter.
Note that the thanks isn’t placed at the very end. This structure means the audience are more likely to go away with the ending of your work in their head.
Briefly explain if you need to, but don’t apologise
Some pieces do require an explanation; perhaps a work is unfinished, is an extract from a longer work, or was written under certain circumstances. But keep it brief and don’t explain anything that the audience will take from the piece.
If you feel you can’t read a particular piece without apologising, either take it out of your set or work on it until no apology is necessary.
Read out loud and time your words
The best way to identify weak parts in your set 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 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. When using an e-reader or tablet computer, practice tapping the correct area of the screen to turn the page; there might also be a delay on some devices.
Don’t forget to use a stopwatch so your words fit within the agreed timeslot.
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. Whether the microphone is handheld or on a stand, keep it at the same distance from your mouth. One of the biggest distractions for an audience is a sound level that increases and decreases at random.
Avoid too much alcohol or a heavy meal before the gig
I fully understand why folks need Dutch courage before going on stage. But a drunk speaker rarely makes a good impression, especially during a paid gig.
My rule is not to take alcohol before speaking, only coffee or a soft drink. 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 a few poets who deliberately look at individual audience members. However, 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.
Keep going through the cock-ups
Perhaps the microphone fails, perhaps you forget the words, perhaps somebody keeps chatting during the show. A performer has no control over these factors.
The audience will normally forget the problem if you ignore it and keep going. Conversely, they’ll remember the person who dries up and leaves the stage or screams at noisy attendees. However, if you find different audiences keep reacting in the wrong way to the same part, consider revising it or editing it out in future performances.
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, and so on.
Ultimately, a good performance can increase your fan base and help sell more work.