Preserving Audience Expectations

About three weeks ago, I received an e-mail from a poet who’s planning a book tour and was looking to promote it later this year, either in an existing event or as a one-off collaboration.

I was rather excited by the idea. This poet is quite well-known on the Scottish scene and to have her along at Hotchpotch would be a terrific boon.

On the other hand, our open-mike night is not set up to place the focus on one person. Instead, everyone who comes along on the night is given equal time and prominence. Furthermore, we’ve already arranged to vary the format in September and November this year to welcome an established company. The question was whether a third time might have been too much.

As such, I made the suggestion of having the book launch before the open-mike. I also urged the poet to contact another organiser whose events do have a headline act.

I then received a message from the other organiser at the weekend saying this person was ‘quite a scoop’ for his event. Although the door is still open for a Hotchpotch tie-in, I still feel it was a good call to preserve the open-mike element and therefore the expectations of the audience.

Wherever this poet chooses to launch, I look forward to seeing it happen.

A Surprisingly Unpopular Event

I received a message from someone local who’s currently working on a community-focused project that launches this weekend. It’s aimed at encouraging people to think more about the clothes they have, the memories they represent, and imagining what might happen when these items are passed on.

One of the proposed events was to bring in local poets to respond to the above themes, but as the organiser didn’t know many poets, she wanted to tap into my connections. I was happy to help out, and I spoke to two of my poetry groups.

After a week, I was surprised to receive virtually no response to my messages, especially as the clothing event was intended to take place in person. As an organiser, I’ve found that people react to staged events more positively, as the public has become weary of so many virtual ones.

I explained this to the organiser but added that I would still like to contribute. My starting point was a T-shirt from 1996 that I still own, and the resulting piece became an exploration of when I met my first girlfriend at age 12, and how my approach to relationships has changed between then and now.

I don’t know whether I’ll actually be able to attend, as something more pressing has arisen, but I wish her all the best with the project.

How The Live Scene is Doing

This entry serves as a kind of companion piece to last week, where I talked about still being able to hold the open-mike night Hotchpotch.

It did indeed go ahead, but with substantially reduced attendance. On any other night, we can normally welcome upwards of 30 people in the room, with more than half of the attendees taking a turn on stage. But last week, we saw less than ten readers.

To be fair, a few of them had called off in advance because they were either away for Christmas or didn’t want to catch anything before seeing relatives, so we made the best of it. Dispensing with the timer, anyone who wanted to read was allowed two turns, with a drinks break in the middle. I’d encouraged the absentees to come instead to the virtual version that Sunday, called Hotchpotch Beyond.

But a smaller pub attendance didn’t translate to a larger online presence. There, we welcomed two genuine readers – one Scottish, another from Russia – while two troublemakers were booted out and reported to Zoom. In November, the Beyond event had to be abandoned altogether because only one other person turned up.

Yesterday morning, I made an executive decision to suspend Beyond, and I told the pub regulars before the wider membership. Nonetheless, our previous online presence has shown we’ve been able to reach an otherwise untapped market.

I can’t stress enough that it’s never the fault of the audience if they don’t turn up. It’s up to me as an organiser to attract attendees, and to show them a good time once they’re through the door, so it’s us who needs to adapt. It’s a much bigger question how we’re going to adapt to reach that otherwise untapped market, but it’s one that we’ll work on.

Changing Times and a Change of Time

I’ve left it until the last minute to write this entry. It’s not entirely because I’ve been busy – although that’s a factor – but because I wanted to hear the announcement today from the Scottish First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon.

Tomorrow is the next instalment of my open-mike evening Hotchpotch, and it was expected that new restrictions would be brought in today on account of the Omicron variant of COVID-19. Happily, nothing in the announcement affects our ability to hold the event tomorrow, even if more members might choose instead to attend our virtual event on Sunday.

Last week, we were also able to run a new version of our gameshow The Literal Flow Test, involving Christmas-themed topics, as part of a wider programme of events. I might come back to this topic in a future week as there’s a story to be told there as well.

The one event that isn’t back in person is National Novel Writing Month (NaNo). As that organisation has a largely top-down approach, all the regions in the world have been advised not to meet except online, even if our local authorities allow it. Which brings me to a point about the timing of my weekly blog posts.

When I started writing this blog, I was able to update regularly at 5pm on a Monday. This evolved into 6pm on a Tuesday, and that lands squarely during the NaNo meetings. That used to make sense because I would talk to people around a table while using my PC to type the entry.

Because I’m now using my PC to talk to members and write at the same time, it’s not so simple. As such, from next week, I’ll be updating this blog at 8pm on a Tuesday. The time is still subject to a trial run, but expect my entries to appear a couple of hours later.

Cleaning Up This Town

Regular readers will know that I run Hotchpotch, an open-mike night for writers rather than musicians. Over the last 18 months, we’ve been holding it online and experimenting with different formats.

Last week, it was confirmed that we were able to go back to our previous venue. For the foreseeable future, however, it won’t be as simple as just turning up with a microphone and some poetry.

The main health hotspot is the microphone itself, which can be shared by between ten and 20 people of an evening, and can therefore pick up a lot of bacteria.

As such, I’ve bought 400 disposable covers for the top. After every reader, the surface will be wiped down and a new cover applied. Because I address the audience for a few seconds after each speaker, I’ve also cut down on cleaning by buying a headset microphone for my own use. There will also be the option for readers not to use the sound system at all.

This is what 400 disposable microphone covers look like.

That, however, only caters for the people who come along to the pub. We’ve seen a thirst over the last 18 months to participate from outside our home city. For many, it was inconvenient or impossible to travel into Dundee, while others weren’t able to navigate the stairs in the venue, or are not ready to mix until the public health threat passes.

In response, we’re trialling an online edition called Hotchpotch Beyond. This works the same way, with the sole exception that priority will be given to those who weren’t at the in-person version. The trial will last for three months to gauge interest.

To join in either of these events, Hotchpotch is on Wednesday 15 September at 7pm in the Hunter S Thompson pub, while Hotchpotch Beyond is on Sunday 19 September at 7pm on Zoom.

Making Trade-Offs to Keep an Event Running

Yesterday saw another edition of Hotchpotch Presents… on Zoom. We had a marvellous time, and with a relatively small group, so it felt more intimate.

This format is based upon the in-person writers’ open-mike night I would otherwise run, simply called Hotchpotch, with the difference that the line-up is decided in advance, rather than improvised on the night. In my own experience, our free-and-easy vibe has worked in person, but it’s proved necessary to have an established running order for our online events.

This format has evolved over the last 15 months as a result of the trade-offs we’ve had to consider.

Hotchpotch Presents… currently happens once a quarter. What’s great is that it always evokes a colloborative spirit, shown last night when audience members volunteered to perform in place of absent readers. On the other side of the coin, these events are also more difficult to arrange, and I know some members avoid chatting online outside of work as they do it so often during the day.

In the other months, we use YouTube, where – by contrast – members can submit in their own time with less pressure to perform, and it’s far easier to compile a playlist than to control a gathering. However, you also lose that community spirit.

All being well with the easing of restrictions, the plan is to hold the next Hotchpotch as a live event over the next few months. Failing that, we’ll revert to Presents… as a plan B in September.

But that easing also brings its trade-offs. Members have become accustomed to being able to view the event without having to physcially be in Dundee, which is ideal for those unable to travel or navigate the stairs down to the pub basement.

But one question is: the pub is traditionally a self-enclosed space, so will other members be willing to read if strangers are listening over the Internet? Even if we do it that way, will the technical side become needlessly complicated?

However, one factor will help in the decision-making process. I like to keep a ‘cabinet office’ of trusted members who can offer advire. We have a group chat that currently contains 18 regulars.

Since any decisions made about the group will also affect their experience, I know that if we can come to a consensus about a given issue, then it’s probably the right path to take.

Building an Archive

Just before I settled down to write this, I spotted I’ve published exactly 400 blog entries since beginning in 2013.

On the one hand, that’s not surprising as it equates to approximately one post per week, yet it’s still a powerful demonstration of how regular and consistent writing can help to build a useful archive.

Let’s take my own work as an example. In the folders containing my poetry and short stories, I have more than 320 distinct pieces. I also like to keep revisions, so many of them house multiple copies showing the evolution of each piece: some complete and others abandoned.

If you’re a new writer, I strongly advise you to keep all your work, even if you don’t like it at the time. If there’s one lesson I’ve learnt from a decade of writing, it’s that some pieces need to be left in a drawer for a while and looked at again with fresh eyes.

Last year, I tasted this from the other side when I started taking art lessons last year. One recurring problem – especially at the beginning – was when I knew something was wrong with my drawing, but I didn’t know how to fix it. Perhaps one day I’ll be able to go back and see what’s wrong.

I’ve also had a hand in creating an archive of other people’s work.

Since March of last year, my open-mike night Hotchpotch has maintained a YouTube account in lieu of live events. I was initially disappointed that we receive perhaps five submissions per month compared to the 25 or so who would perform in person. But those small contributions each month have steadily built up to a library of 73 videos at last count.

When people now ask what our event is like, we can now direct them towards that page. For that reason, I’m keen to maintain it even once we can meet up again.

Poettiquette

I was invited to take part in a poetry reading on Sunday night, spanning not only the UK but other countries in the Anglosphere.

This was a mammoth four-hour stint, even with a time limit of ten minutes per poet, plus just one five-minute break. My spot was halfway through, but I stayed the whole time because I wanted to listen to the rest of them, most of whom were event hosts like me.

I performed one serious piece and two humorous. Although there was no audible feedback, I could see some of the faces in the crowd and read comments in the chat box. The set seemed to go down well.

At that point, I received a friend request on Facebook. I was glad that someone enjoyed my work enough to make that request. Furthermore, I’d been in a planning group with some of the other performers, so we were acquainted already.

It must also be stated that the public part of my profile clearly states ‘Not open to friend requests’, yet as of Monday morning, I had four requests waiting. One of them sent me a message acknowledging that he’d seen my profile, and was basically trying his luck. I admire his gumption, but I told him he could either follow my Hotchpotch open-mike page or my Twitter account instead.

On the back of this, it occurred to me that when people perform at my events, they might also have the same view, and a lot of folk don’t feel comfortable telling someone to back off. To this end, I’ve added a disclaimer to the open-mike. It’s likely I’ll tinker with the exact wording, but the spirit will be reinforced in event promotions:

Unless consent has been given, the host and contributors are not open to friend requests.

This alone is unlikely to stop the issue; three people have either not read my profile or wilfully ignored it. However, it acts as a pre-emptive reminder to keep some distance from those who don’t want to interact so closely with others.

Almost a Live Show

Regular readers will know that I run an open-mike evening called Hotchpotch, where members can come along either to read a poem or simply to listen to others. However, we haven’t been able to run in its classic form since March because of restrictions on live events.

So far, we’ve been using YouTube as a substitute, and posting members’ readings to our channel. However, we’re holding a one-off event called Hotchpotch Presents… next week.

For this, we’re moving to Zoom, and the most notable difference is that the line-up is advertised in advance, not comprised of those who turn up on the night. We have 11 performers ready to perform seven minutes each, and they’ll be introducing each other to keep the flow.

We have experience of this format before, having trialled it as a live show in April 2019 at the Rep theatre in Dundee. There was quite the vibe that night, and I do hope we’re able to channel for this second airing of Hotchpotch Presents… on Monday 19 October.

Remote Control

Regular readers will know I run Hotchpotch, an open-mike night for writers.

Earlier this month, we not only celebrated ten years as a group, but we managed to have our last gig before all the pubs were ordered to close on Monday 23 March. This attracted a sizeable crowd under the circumstances.

We’d planned to reconvene on Monday 13 April, but that’s almost definitely off the table. I’d always half-joked that if we ever had no venue, we’d meet up in the street. It’s not something we’ve ever needed to do, and – considering the nature of the threat – wouldn’t be appropriate.

So if we want this night to continue, we need to move temporarily online, as many poets and musicians have done. Our challenge is somewhat larger: we don’t just have one or two writers, but easily 30 or 40.

While mulling over the problem, I remembered we use a GMail account and that Google gives us a YouTube profile with that. So over the next two weeks, we’ll invite members to send in videos of themselves reading their work and post it to the channel.

It won’t be a patch on the vibe that happens when we all assemble, but it’ll keep us going until this lockdown is eased.

I also run a separate writing group every Tuesday evening as part of National Novel Writing Month; this also can’t meet because of the restrictions.

In this case, we’d already set up a Discord server where members can chat via text. Last week, we set up a voice channel alongside the text, and we were able to speak to each other, almost as if we were in the same room.