The Next Stage

I’m a big fan of spoken-word events. This month alone, I’ve seen the Scottish Slam Championships final, then the rapper Loki and a couple of support acts on Friday evening, and there’s a student-run event at the University of Dundee tomorrow.

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.

To use my microphone, you have to speak into the side. It connects to a PC with a USB cable, and works with no additional software.
My USB condenser microphone.

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.

Signal that 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.

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The Stand-In

At around 5pm on Monday of last week, I received an e-mail from my former tutor Eddie Small. He was to stage his play The Four Marys on the Wednesday and Friday to mark the publication of the script, but one of the actors had dropped out for family reasons.

The Four Marys by Eddie Small – note that Brian Cox is the actor, not the professor
The Four Marys by Eddie Small – note that the foreword is by Brian Cox the actor, not the professor

I immediately agreed to step in; everyone would be reading their lines from paper so there would be little to learn. The play takes a humorous look at the history of Dundee through the eyes of four real historical figures who shared the same first name. My role was that of a bored tour guide who comes in at the beginning to usher a dignitary through her duties and appears again at the end to release two tourists who have been trapped in a museum for the whole play.

Although I’m accustomed to performing poetry, acting is a different skill: you’re reading someone else’s words and directions, whereas a poetry reading can be more flexible. Additionally, poets are often allowed to read from the page, although not always, while a professional actor must memorise each line.

Both performances turned out well, and I was particularly excited about being allowed to improvise so there wasn’t an awkward silence as I reached the stage. An ad-libbed line about being on a zero-hour contract went down particularly well with the audience.

It’s definitely an experience I would repeat; in fact, I would like to take part in more improv. I believe it’s one of the best ways a writer can sharpen their skills. When you’re in a scene, you’re under pressure to recall what you already know or to make it up on the spot.

Some desk research suggests that The Four Marys – published by The Voyage Out Press – is for sale locally, but is not yet available online. Here’s where you can find out more about the play.

Press play.

Recently, I’ve rediscovered the art of playwrighting. National Novel Writing Month used to have an offshoot called Script Frenzy. In 2012, its last year, I wrote my first and only full-length script: a stage play for two actors. Since then, I’ve become more comfortable with dialogue in prose, and how it can be used to imply action, or indeed how an action can omit several lines of speech. I haven’t yet edited my Script Frenzy work, but I imagine I could tighten up the dialogue and cut out many of the directions.

One thing that strikes me about penning a play is that you must have a clear idea of where it’ll be performed, not just which venue, but where in the world. A radio drama, for instance, will be radically different from a screenplay, and done on a vastly different budget. Even taking a stage play from London’s West End to Broadway will require the script to be laid out in a different format. But once you know where it’ll be set, the rest falls into place.

Scrivener, for instance, offers several different templates, including all the ones mentioned in the last paragraph, and any that aren’t shown by default can probably be downloaded. You tell the program your next action by pressing Enter or Tab at the end of each line. I’ve found this software a joy to work with for novelling, and just as good for scripts.

It’s most important, however, to remember that playwrighting is not for control freaks. The moment you give it to a director, he or she will have different ideas about how your words should be presented to an audience. You might imagine your characters sitting opposite sides of a table dressed formally, but the director might see them in jeans cuddled up next to each other. The writer has limited input in this process. The only way to guarantee it goes the way you want is to become a director yourself.