Tag Archives: entertainment

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.

Sacred Inspiration

In modern Druidry, inspiration is sacred. To the best of my knowledge, this is one of the things that separates Druidry from other modern pagan paths and so might be less familiar to non-druid readers. After the ‘why does television matter?’ question, I feel this is an issue I need to explore properly.

The history of how inspiration came to be central to modern Druidry is murky, and I could spend a whole blog on it to little useful effect. The Awen is the name we give to the flows of inspiration. The three lines /I\ of the awen symbol (which often have three dots over them) represent the awen. For many of us, these are the three drops of inspiration from the cauldron of Cerridwen. The Taliesin story is a key one for modern Druids – if it’s not familiar the gist is that a young boy is employed to watch over a magic potion meant to impart wisdom to Cerridwen’s son. Three drops spring out of the potion, scalding the boy’s thumb, he gets all the wisdom, there’s an epic shape shifting chase at the end of which he is eaten, and reborn from Cerridwen as the poet Taliesin.

Talking about sacred inspiration suggests something that happens in ritual, deep in meditation or as a consequence of years of bardic training. It’s easy to perceive magical inspiration as distant and unobtainable. However, that’s not how modern Druids see things. All inspiration is sacred. The experience of being inspired, of the fire in the head, is pure magic. When we make our bardic oaths, we swear to use our inspiration for the good of our communities, and the land.

Now, the vast majority of folk who work in creative industries are not bards, have made no such oaths and probably don’t see creativity as either magical or spiritual. Consequently, we have ‘industries’. With my other hats on, I have a fair amount of contact with ‘creative industries’. In these, books and albums are products, creators are producers and everyone is expected to do their market research and keep an eye on trends, and work with an eye to being sellable.

The majority of modern entertainment in all mediums, was not designed to be soulful. It’s meant to be catchy, or a page turner. It is a product for you to buy and part of an industry that aims to make a profit. Creative industries play safe and often stifle creativity and originality as a consequence.  Everything we buy has been designed, invented, created by people. Everything we buy has the potential to be a thing of beauty as well as utility. There is nothing we might own that could not be made with love and offered as an exquisite and unique creation. However, our society likes to pile it high, sell it cheap and not care about it too much. That’s also a long way from being a green ethos.

If you see inspiration as sacred, beauty as essential and soulfulness as a requirement in all things, then cheap plastic entertainment, like cheap, plastic disposable toys becomes repellent. For me, prizing inspiration and deeply in love with the awen, banal low brow entertainment of any sort is distressing. It is, quite literally, a violation of something I hold sacred.

I know we can do better, as a culture. The arts, crafts, and bardic skills in pagan communities are astounding. I’ve been watching the rise to international repute of Damh the bard, whose work is lively, inspiring, soulful, catchy, great to dance to, and lots of fun. He’s out there doing it, and lots of people love him. He’s about as far from shiny plastic pop as a person can get. There are others following behind him, a rising tide of pagan musicians. On the poetry side there’s the radical green agenda of Awen press and folks like Kevan Manwaring, who fill me with hope. I could go on about crafters and skilled, inspirational people doing magical things.

The mainstream still thinks it wants cheap, mass produced, anonymous, ugly trash; the buying and disposal of which continually harms our planet. There are other ways, but converting people is a slow process and quiet revolutions take time. Entertainment is a pagan issue, a soul issue, a green issue, it’s part of our relationships across communities and our relationship with the planet. It is how we express our spiritual selves, or squash that down and bury it under a ton of shiny insipid trash.

Entertainment with a pagan hat on

Cat commented on my ‘making time’ blog with an observation about the value of entertainment and the need to recognise that. My immediate reaction was to want to argue, but I couldn’t figure out how to say it succinctly. On closer inspection, I wasn’t even sure what point I wanted to make. It took quite a bit of figuring out, but we’re there now.

I value entertainment. I love any kind of live performance, I’m fond of film watching, an avid reader, keen on wandering round museums, galleries and events. I listen to the radio a lot – both music and spoken word. I really don’t like television. Some of that is to do with speed – I read, and think quickly and a lot of TV stuff is just too slow for my tastes. It’s also very passive, it’s so easy to sit there and have TV happen to you, without really thinking about it. And this is where my serious issues start to kick in.

Good art, in any form, should be entertaining. For me, being entertained includes being made to laugh and smile, having warm fuzzy moments, being moved emotionally and being inspired to think. I am also aware that for a significant number of people, the ideas of entertainment and thinking are wholly incompatible. I’ve listened to debates on art programs on this very subject. The idea that in a blockbuster film, what we want is a mindless distraction involving no mental effort while pretty, trivial and distracting things happens for our amusement. For me, good entertainment is engaging. It demands something – your attention at the very least. It stays with you, it adds to your life. It isn’t merely a method for killing a few hours.

This is where I think my issue with television really lies. For so many people, entertainment and relaxation are assumed to be the same. That whole ‘veg out in front of the telly’ thing. I want my entertainment to be stimulating and engaging, and my rest to be… well, restful, and I don’t think television does either very well. That barrage of sound and noise – especially when there are adverts – is not really conducive to rest. Most people don’t sleep enough. Actual, sleeping rest is far better than vegged in front of TV rest. Curling up in a warm place with a warm person, or a warm cat, or whatever lends itself, is far more soothing and relaxing.

Again, this is a balance issue. It’s about how we understand the resources available to us, and how we then deploy them. I find I want more of the extremes – I want high levels of emotion and though provoking in my entertainment, and I want deep peace, calm and rest in my rest time. The pagan hat does come into this, because it’s all to do with my own relationship with inspiration. I prize inspiration. Experiencing the creativity of others is part of that, for me, and entertainment is the usual medium of sharing. I don’t want muzak and wallpaper, I want experiences that drip with awen and magic. When we make entertainment into something safe and easy to veg out with, when we make it banal, we deny the possibility for wonder and inspiration. That feels very wrong to me.

I’ve seen my share of daytime television. I have fleeting contact with TV content at other people’s houses, and most of it fills me with despair. So much of it is there to pass the time, or to sell us stuff, or both. Yes, there are good programs in amongst the dross – my son loves David Attenborough’s work, and that’s a fine example of TV worth watching. I heard a guy who writes TV drama the other day saying that he never thinks about the social impact of his work or how it may affect people’s expectations of the medical profession. All he does is write good drama. As though drama exists in a vacuum and doesn’t interact with the rest of reality. The bard in me wanted to write nasty satires about him. Entertainment does contribute to how people perceive the world. If we make it cheap, tacky, misleading, banal, mindless… that’s what we feed to our own souls. Television is not the only guilty medium, by any stretch of the imagination. But we can choose to switch off, walk away, pull the pagan hat down over our ears and head off in search of something better.