Tag Archives: audience

Bard skills – Being a good audience

Being a good audience may not seem like an essential skill for a learner bard, but it absolutely is. First up, you will learn more about being a performer from listening to other performers than you will by any other method. You can learn material, presentation skills, technical tricks of all kinds, from the close observation of others.

Secondly, a developed ear and good listening skills work in a great many contexts, to deepen your awareness and insight. If you want to perform, you have to be able to listen. It also means you will be able to listen to yourself as you practice, and sometimes as you perform, to see how to improve, and to strengthen your abilities. In becoming a good audience for others, you become a good audience for yourself, and help yourself develop. By listening, you deepen your relationship with all things bardic; with individuals, with performance in the moment and with the tradition as a whole.

As a bard, obviously you want an audience that will sit attentively and focus on your performance. If you totally invest in listening when in a performance space (or in joining in where appropriate, if that makes more sense) then you invest in the space. You support a receptive audience. If you’re chatting at the bar until it’s your go… if you’re part of the open mic culture that rocks up, does its slot and leaves… why are you going to be treated any differently? It’s possible, in the moment, to get an audience to behave like an audience, and focus. Oddly enough for bands, getting up and dancing can be the best way to make this happen. In most spaces, attentive listening and applause can help draw others in to listening more attentively.

We’re collectively used to passive entertainment where our engagement isn’t called for. The TV doesn’t care how little attention we pay. Recognising that being an audience for live performance is a whole other thing, is really important if we want to make bardic spaces thrive.

The bardic audience

Prompted by a very good point made on Facebook by Robin Herne, I want to explore a set of skills that have huge value, but are seldom talked about. I’m warming up to teach a Pagan leadership course over at http://www.patheos.com . Robin pointed out that there may well be as great a need for information on how to be a good follower, and I think he has a very good point. These are not skills we teach, either. It does not help that normal culture muddles this kind of thing into being subservient, which it isn’t.

It is really hard to do well as a performer if your audience are crap. It doesn’t matter how skilled or talented you are, a really shit audience can wreck an evening. Bad audiences aren’t listening, don’t care, talk to each other, have their mobile phones go off, get up and walk around in the middle of things, break atmospheres, show no respect and generally make the job hell for the poor sod at the front. Gigs where this kind of reception can be expected, are called ‘wallpaper gigs’ because that’s all you are – a musical backdrop. Performers take them because they need the money, but being wallpaper is soul destroying.

Being a good audience is about more than just sitting there quietly with the phone turned off. It is a skill, and you can hone it. A good audience is not merely listening, but engaged. It cares, it responds, it sings along, and participates, taking an active role in making the event work. One determined bardic audience member can shift the whole tone of an event.

As a young human, I always used to get up and dance if there was live music. I loved dancing and was not self-conscious about being the only person on the floor. I have observed repeatedly that most people are not willing to be the first one up, but when someone goes, others will follow. All of a sudden that which would have been a wallpaper gig turns into a meaningful interaction between performers and audience. The performers are boosted by this, so they play better, give more. The audience responds, and so a powerful feedback loop is created.

I’ve done it in the street, actually stopping to listen to buskers and applauding them at the end of a tune. Other people will feel able to join in. I know perfectly well that I’m capable of being an influential presence, and if I give someone my focused attention, it’s discernible. Other people get on-board.

Anyone can do this. Just give of yourself bit. Give your care and enthusiasm, your applause, your willingness to dance. Give your stillness and quiet, your respect. These are all good bard skills, and well worth honing. They also turn what might have been lacklustre evenings into engaging events. A performer cannot do it on their own. Singing, playing, storytelling into the void, or the noise, is unworkable. Just one person who is listening, who you can address things to, changes the entire nature of the arrangement.

We are too used to amplified entertainment over which you need to shout to be heard. We’re used to the darkened anonymity of big performance spaces, and we are accustomed to entertainment as wallpaper. It takes a bit of a wriggle to leave those ideas behind, and get back to a real engagement between performer and audience. That’s what bardic work is all about, but the performer cannot do the whole thing themselves.

Virtual Creativity

I’ve talked before about how much I need to create things. I’ve been this way for as long as I can recall. In recent years, the creativity has included a great deal of virtual work, building websites, blogging, and of course writing books. I used to write all my fiction on paper and then type it up. Sometimes I still do that, especially with poetry, but in many ways it’s more convenient to go straight to the computer.

Yesterday I spent building a website. I started the day with a list of things I would need to include and by half past three in the afternoon, www.hopelessmaine.com was operational. It’s not as slick as it could be and I’ve a lot more I need to learn, but it exists and the current graphic novel is on it. I have the epic task of uploading book one waiting for me.

The trouble with websites is that there’s nothing you can hold in your hand at the end of it. I get much the same problem with writing on the computer as well. At the end of the day you cannot lift up the thing you have made and test the weight of it.

Creativity is best shared. When we make something tangible, we’re sharing that creativity with the rest of reality. A substance has changed shape, a space is differently occupied, there’s a sense of being in dialogue with the rest it. Perhaps there are people who experience computers and virtual things in the same way. I’ve certainly encountered people who seem to relate to what they do in computer games as being as real and meaningful as anything done in the non-virtual world. I struggle with that, yet I managed to hold together a relationship for over a year, with only the computer as a means of communication. But then, one of those activities involves another person, while the other frequently, does not, and that’s the difference.

What matters for me, is audience. I love having an audience in the same space as me, but that’s not always possible. If I sell a novel, the reader could be hundreds, or thousands of miles away after all. A real person, somewhere on the other side of the technology, or the medium, is what makes it real for me. It’s not enough to create for myself, it has to go somewhere, do something.

At present what I did yesterday feels a bit hollow, but I know from experience that as the hits come in, one by one, that will change. As people look at it, use it and (I hope) enjoy it, the work gains meaning. Virtual creation is not so very different from writing a book that no one ever reads. There’s the same kind of dead and empty feeling.

We can of course offer our work to the gods or the spirits instead of a human audience. I wonder about this one. I wonder about the idea of deity as uber-parent, there to be eternally pleased with us. Except I suspect they probably aren’t. The trouble is that most of the time, my experience of gods and spirits is that they don’t feed back. They don’t do much to let you know they were there, and heard, much less whether they liked it or not. From a faith perspective, that offering to the unknown with no scope for reward could be a powerful kind of sacrifice. That’s never really worked for me. I have to know that someone is getting something productive out of what I do.

I have on occasion found cats who go wild over my violin playing, and other amusing, and curious non-human responses. Sometimes the sound-feedback from a space can be incredibly rewarding as a room reverberates with music. I’ve had conversations with other druids about sharing emotions with the elements, and giving less priority to human relationships. I’ve pondered a lot about seeking to replace that hunger for human interaction with something a bit more abstract. But there is a magic and a wonder in human interactions that does not compare to anything else, for me at least. I can share with people in a way that I cannot hope to share with a mountain. We are all fleeting and fragile, and communicating is not easy as we all hear and understand differently. But when there is a flash of connection, a sense of understanding and something shared, that, for me, remains one of the most magical experiences.

And frankly, I get nervous enough about how my human readers and listeners and watchers might respond. The idea of inviting attention, and therefore criticism, from the divine is beyond me. A sense of divine approval might be a good ego massage, but I think I’m sufficiently paranoid that I’d assume it was invention on my part, not something real. It’s probably the case that I could only interpret divine disfavour into my experiences, and I’m not quite masochistic enough for that.

So to any gods peering into the depths of my computer today, please just assume I’m not worth the hassle, it’ll be easier all round.

Art about issues

I’ll start by sidestepping the whole issue of whether art, music, words etc need to mean anything. What I want to talk about is how to handle it when you want your bardic expression to reflect something you consider important. When you are working this way, there is a balance to strike between getting the point across and creating good art. If the meaning takes over, and the art is purely a delivery method, you can easily turn people off rather than communicating with them. Bard work is all about communicating, and if people don’t hear the message, the message has not been served.

Forgive the dash of ‘plug’ here, but I’m going to talk around this by using an example – a recent story of mine under the Bryn Colvin name – The Taste of Her. For a long time now I’ve wanted to write something around the issues of domestic abuse and its consequences. It’s a huge, complex and under-represented issue. For a long time I didn’t write it because I couldn’t see anything that wouldn’t be too preachy. To portray an abusive relationship in fiction might get the point across, but would be miserable reading. I could have pulled it off perhaps in the context of a murder mystery or thriller, only I very seldom write those genres and can’t claim to be any good at it. Plus, doing that puts the emphasis on high drama, on something out of the ordinary, not the kind of every day, smaller scale abuse I’m particularly wanting to highlight.

What I plummed for in the end – without giving too much away, was a second hand perspective, people who see from the outside but are not themselves victims. There was room to give a voice to the victims and put some stories in there – stories based very much on truth. But at the same time the main thrust of the narrative is not entirely about one abusive relationship, so it’s not a hideous grind to read. Anything that fully represented the daily reality of the issue would be no joy for a reader, and good art should be entertaining. Grinding people down does not solve the problems of the world.

I think this is a critical balance to strike. Flagging up the issues without making the audience feel like they are being beaten over the head with them. Telling stories around issues so that they become part of the action, rather than what feels like a sales pitch. The traditional solution of the druid is satire. People always like to laugh. If you can flag up a wrong and encourage mockery, then you can tackle it without demoralising the audience. Satire is very powerful that way. But some subjects just do not lend themselves to it. How could we talk about extinction, child abuse, torture, or climate change in a satirical way without somehow lessening the issue? Another balance to strike. A skilful satirist might be able to handle such emotive subjects, but not me. I can point and laugh at the selfish idiocies of certain individuals, but when I want to weep, my capacity for satire dries up.

Banging on about an issue doesn’t make for a story. You need to tell it through the eyes of real people. Characters in a situation, are emotionally engaging. You don’t need to show everything to make a point – often less is more. A sense of the aftermath, a hint of the consequences and let the reader or audience do the work, put the pieces together and realise something.

There is nothing wrong with weeping, or with making your audience cry. A good story, song, poem or picture can fill people with grief and sorrow in order to make a point or tackle an issue. The problem is, if you keep doing that relentlessly, people move away from it. The crying has to give something back to the person who is moved. It needs to be cathartic, or go alongside a feeling that there is indeed something we can do about this. To make people weep and then empower them to find solutions is amazing, if you can pull it off. Just making people weep can demoralise them such that they become ever less able to act, and that’s no help at all.

My personal feeling is that good art should be about something, there should be meat on the bones and more to it than just a pretty surface. Art, in all its forms should affect us in some way, change us, leave us thinking or feeling things that might not otherwise have occurred. If it shows us the issues rather than lecturing us about them, it works better. So, polish off the soap box, and make your words do something in the world!