Tag Archives: performance

Learning by doing

There are some things you can really only learn by doing them. The process of doing something when you really don’t know how to do it tends to feel exposed. In the beginning, you may be awful, which can be off-putting and might be very uncomfortable. How will people react?

Sometimes very experienced writers of essays, short stories and articles can jump straight into novel writing and make it work. For most people, the first novel is a hot mess you hide and never speak of. Until you’ve tried to write one, it’s hard to grasp what it takes to write a novel, and just how many ideas you need to make it to 60k words – which is short by book standards. It’s not until you try and write a book that you can really get to grips with how pacing works, and character arcs and themes. There’s a lot you can learn from reading, but it’s not the same as doing.

Playing music or singing with people when you aren’t working from a written composition brings similar issues. You can learn to play your instrument, you can learn songs, and there’s a great deal of theory that can be handy for this, if it suits how you think. You can only learn how to play by ear by doing it. You can only learn to sing with other people, or to join in by improvising, by doing it, and you have to do it with other people.

There are things about being on stage and interacting with an audience that you can only learn by experiencing it. This also applies to giving talks, being on panels and being interviewed. There are a lot of things you can learn by observation, but in order to learn how to navigate yourself through this sort of thing, you need practice.

This is why it is so important to have safe spaces where people can have a go. If the only spaces you can find are for professional people who already know how to do these things, there’s no scope for anyone else to advance to that level. Accessible, grass roots spaces where people feel welcome and supported as they learn, are absolutely essential. The only way we get people who are great at these things is if we support them while they aren’t great. No one comes fully fledged into their creative powers, everyone has to spend time learning and making mistakes.

If you’re an organiser, this is something you can factor in by creating opportunities. If you’re an audience member, your willingness to be kind and supportive is hugely important. Mocking people and knocking them down will stop people from becoming all that they could be. Kindness, support and encouragement helps people grow and develop. Often the single biggest issue for people putting their stuff out is confidence – nerves can mangle performances or stop people showing up. Help people build their confidence and you help them become all that they can be. 

It may be tempting to think that surviving setbacks and hard knocks is a good way of weeding out the wimps and only getting the really committed performers. This isn’t how it works. Confidence and determination don’t have any relationship with quality. I’ve seen some really confident people doing terrible things in public places and no amount of negative feedback will slow them down. It’s the more sensitive people, the gentler people, the ones already knocked around who suffer most from being put down. Those qualities are good qualities in a creator, and might be worth more than the ability to disregard all criticism. People learn a lot when you can tell them what you like about what they do.

Connecting with an audience

When you’re performing, connecting with your audience is a major consideration. There are people whose audience connection and engagement is so strong that they can get by with weaker technical skills for other parts of what they do. Audience engagement can be the centre of how you perform. In most circumstances I prefer to focus on the quality of material and how I use my voice, but there are many ways into this.

The person who taught me stagecraft was of the opinion that primarily what a person needs to do is fill the space with their own personality. If you’d got a strong enough personality, everything else would flow from there. He was certainly able to work on those terms. Much of that approach depends on confidence. You’ve got to be able to walk into a space and demand attention, not just with your voice, but with your whole self. You’ve got to know in your bones that you are entitled to be there and that it is in everyone’s best interests to pay attention to you.

Winning an audience over is an act of will that can feel a lot like magic. It’s a relevant ritual skill, as well as a performance skill, and I think it’s well worth considering on more magical terms. To captivate an audience, you have to assert your will. When an audience is cooperative, that feels fairly rational as a process.

I have taken less cooperative audiences by force on a few occasions. Noisy pubs are the worst in this regard, where you have a lot of people who have come along to chat and who treat the performances as audio-wallpaper. Even an audience like this can be made to fall silent. I’ve done it as a solitary singer, and at poetry events, and on one occasion when we were out with the band. In some ways it’s easier with an exposed voice rather than instruments because most people aren’t so used to hearing that.

Uncooperative audiences can be intimidating, but stepping out there with the intent that they are going to be quiet and listen is an essential starting point. You can’t expect an unruly audience to become polite and attentive, but you can demand it of them. Audacity can get a lot done.

Given the kind of material I take out, the best measure of audience engagement for me is often silence. Not merely that people stop talking, but that they don’t move. The absolute stillness of an audience means that you’ve successfully enchanted them. It’s an entirely different process with comedic material because there, the small sounds of amusement through to the unmissable guffaws will give you a lot of information. Then there’s the material that demands toe tapping and that calls upon bodies to move, and even if they don’t jump up and dance you can feel when an audience is responding that way. It’s all in the sounds, and it’s much easier to judge sound as a whole than to try looking at individuals. 

Be it in ritual or on a stage, there’s often nothing more powerful than silence. Most especially, the silence that falls sometimes at the end of a piece where no one wants to move or break the spell. If you can hold an audience in stillness and silence, you’ve got them.

It’s difficult to pin down the precise mechanics that make this possible. However, magic is in essence about putting intent into the world, and good performance always feels magical, so perhaps it makes most sense to approach this as an act of magic and prepare accordingly. Believing in your own power is a very good place to start.

Singing to the space

How your voice functions in a space is a big consideration for anyone on the bard path. While microphones can be a bit intimidating when you aren’t used to them, they do have a lot of advantages. Not having to use your voice at full volume is the obvious one – and over a longer set, projecting is hard work. If you have a decent sound person, someone else is sorting out your relationship with the space and making it work. You don’t have to do anything especially odd.

However, not everyone has their own kit, not all spaces require it, and sometimes you can end up in places where amplification would have been a good idea, but there isn’t any. At this point, being able to make best use of the room acoustics becomes really important.

It’s always worth getting into a space ahead of performing and looking at how the sound works. This is even true outside – where you stand in relation to the wind direction can make a lot of odds. Sometimes the shape of the land or features in it will give you small advantages if you work with them. The two main considerations are where to stand, and where to direct your voice.

This is something to learn by trial and error. However, if you get into a space and explore how sound works, you can figure a lot out. Wander around talking or singing to the space and notice any changes in what you can hear. Some places will amplify your voice for you. Some places will give you so much echo that it gets in the way.

Below is a video of The Ominous Folk at Shrewsbury earlier this year. You can see that we’re all singing to about the same spot. We’re also stood a lot closer to the audience than the performance space suggested. This, we rapidly discovered, was the bit of floor that gave us the best volume, and we’re singing to the big of the wall that was most helpful.

When you can engage with a space so that the place itself is supporting your performance, it often feels quite magical. It’s a way of interacting with a space and connecting it that brings you into immediate relationship with spirits of place. So, even if you aren’t performing for others, bringing your voice into a place and exploring how to connect with a place through sound can be deeply rewarding.

Making a set list

When you start out as a bard, the odds are you’ll only play one or two songs at any given event. However, if performance becomes important to you, then you may get to a point of doing more than two pieces. Once there are more than two pieces, a set list becomes a consideration.

The order in which you perform pieces, and the pieces you select for your setlist will have an impact on how people experience your work. There’s no magic formula here, but there are some things that are worth considering.

Picking your setlist should be about deciding what you think will best fit the audience, the event and the space. This gets easier with practice. Early on you may be performing everything you know and not be able to pick and choose. When you’re going into an unfamiliar space, this is only ever a best guess, but it does always help to think about what might work best.

The first consideration is your voice, or in the case of other kinds of performance, whatever it is of what you do that is most vulnerable. Give serious thought to how you are going to manage your personal resources as you perform multiple pieces. This is much easier if you aren’t solo, because you can take it in turns to do the heavy lifting and give each other breaks. A minute off while someone else introduces the next piece makes a lot of odds.

Your most showy pieces are also likely to be the most demanding ones. It is worth having some easier material in your set so that you get breaks, especially if you are a solo performer.

It’s a good idea to start with something attention grabbing. Put more ponderous pieces, and pieces you are less confident about in the middle. End with something you are totally confident you can do well even when tired.

Practice your set in order, before you do it live. It’s worth checking how things fit together and making sure you can do what you intended. Also check the timing and make sure it fits the time slot you have. Have a plan for if you need to cut your set, and a plan for if you need an encore. If you come in a couple of minutes under your time slot you’ll be far more popular than if you over-run.

Ideally your set should maximise diversity to make it interesting for people, while balancing the need to make things smooth. If people have to watch you tune a new instrument ahead of each song you’d better be able to engage them by talking while you do it. Maximum showing off doesn’t always make for the best set, and it is important to remember that entertaining people comes ahead of impressing them. Focus on giving your audience a good experience and a lot of other things will be easier to figure out.

Bard or Performer?

What you think it means to be a bard probably has everything to do with what you think historical bards were. I’ve seen people say that if you’re interested in your own fame and fortune and if there’s any amount of ego in it then you aren’t a bard. I guess these are people who have not considered the implications of being a court bard (Taliesin) or the kind of bombast and self promotion that figures in Welsh and Irish mythology tend to go in for. Scotland’s Thomas the Rhymer is hardly a self-effacing figure, either.

You can of course serve the gods, spirits and whomsoever else you wish to serve with secret, private bardic activity. But for anything involving people, being a bard really does involve being good at grabbing, and keeping people’s attention. 

Being larger than life, charismatic, and compelling are all good qualities to try and develop in yourself as a bard. There is magic in enchanting people, and there’s a lot to be said for having no qualms about putting yourself centre stage and demanding people pay attention. Of course if that’s all you’re doing, people will soon lose interest. Whether a performer intends to be a bard or not, they need to have something going on beyond a desire for attention.

The idea that wanting to be popular necessitates being crappy comes up a lot around ‘literature’ as well as bardic pursuits. To be serious, worthy, high brow one must also (according to some people) be elitist, obscure and write things that aren’t accessible to people who don’t already know all the things you know. I think this is by far the bigger ego issue than the natural human desire for attention. People need good art. There are a lot of people who want good art. Trying to make things for a larger audience doesn’t invalidate it. There is no conflict between trying to do something a lot of people will like, and trying to do something substantial and anyone who says otherwise is either a snob, or trying to justify why their work isn’t much appreciated.

What makes you a bard is that your work is driven by ideas, the need for beauty, principles, vision, inspiration and a desire to make the world a better place. If people pay you for that, you are no less of a bard. If you see creative work as a quick way to earn a lot of money… this is mostly not how anything works anyway. It’s surprisingly hard to have a creative career as a soulless mercenary who only cares about the bottom line.

Musical plots and plans

At the moment, a lot of my time and creative energy is going into a project called The Ominous Folk of Hopeless, Maine. We’re a four person singing group, doing a mix of original stuff, covers and folk.

This all started some years ago when the Hopeless, Maine graphic novel project was invited to participate in the local book festival. What do you do with a graphic novel on a stage? We put together a mix of stories and folk songs, because folk traditions have always been a big influence. James and I have been singing together his whole life. We added Susie to the mix and last year took our first Hopeless, Maine show out into the world, debuting it at Festival at the Edge, in 2021.

We’re gigging a lot – at Steampunk events, folk things and local stuff. We’re now in a conversation about recording an album in October, which is an exciting prospect.

This isn’t my first musical project – I played in a blues rock band in my teens, gigged as half a folk duo in my twenties and have been involved in assorted things that were mostly for fun. I love performing. I love how this group works – the balance of silliness and gothic, folk horror vibes, the getting to play with kit, and the ways in which we can increasingly do things by magic.

This is performance with no safety net. We sing unaccompanied, so there’s nothing to refer to for pitch. There are also quite a few songs that start with two of us singing in harmony, and we’ve got to a point where it just happens, we simply hit the notes. We’ve learned to breathe together, and to be able to make sense of what we’re each doing even when we are stood in a line far enough apart not to be able to easily see each other in peripheral vision. I get a massive kick out of this. It’s definitely magic, no two ways about it.

Presenting as a Druid

I’m always interested in how we define or experience authenticity, versus when we see things as fake, in ourselves and when looking at other people. For me, authenticity is very much part of what it means to live as a Druid. To act authentically, to show up as a person not just a performance and to connect with people and others from a place of honesty. 

However, as soon as you put clothes on and use words you’re engaged in a process of deliberate choices. Part of being human is how we express ourselves to others, how we want to be seen and understood. There’s a hazy area between aspiration and performance. If I want to become a kinder and more patient person my best bet is to try and act like a kinder and more patient person until the process of doing that becomes ingrained in me and part of who I am. There’s not much difference between that and the person who simply wishes to seem kind and patient acts and either person can mess up and let something else show.

When you look at another person, it is hard to tell if they’re undertaking to fake it until they make it. Maybe they are showing you their most authentic self. Maybe they are a people pleaser trying to perform the role they think you most want them to play. Maybe they are an abuser with a persona that protects them and enables them to groom new victims. From the outside it can be impossible to tell what anything really means. Inherently charismatic people are good at persuading others of their innate worth. Socially awkward people can come across badly but still be full of wisdom and compassion.

Druids who are wise, knowledgeable, experienced and compassionate will often discourage others from seeing them as leaders and authorities. Druids who want to be important may go to a lot of effort to present as plausible leaders and authorities. Some Druids step forward to lead and offer authority because they have valuable skills to offer and want to help people. Some Druids pretend to be humble because they’ve figured out that it’s a good look.

I can’t know what’s going on in someone else’s head. I do know that it is very human to feel judgemental of other people. We get social reinforcement by looking around and identifying people to feel we are superior to, and people to look up to as role models and leaders. How we judge each other may have a lot more to do with our own desires to know where we fit than with anyone’s innate qualities. 

It’s good to think about what we’re attracted to, what we find convincing and engaging and what seems laughable or insubstantial. Are we drawn to beauty, charisma and glamour in our potential leaders? Are we deeper people if we mistrust those things, or is that just a different set of values, prejudices and performance styles at work? Any time you feel moved to say ‘that Druid is superficial and insubstantial’ it’s worth looking at exactly what we’re rejecting and why. Humbleness and self effacement can be just as much a performance as fancy robes, and can be a highly successful one. It depends on what buttons you have to push.

How deliberate is your presentation style? What are you putting into the world as a Druid? How deliberate a performance is your Druidry? Does the idea of Druidry as public performance make you feel uneasy and inauthentic, or might that be an entirely valid aspect of what it means to be a priest, a bard, a celebrant? How does anyone else benefit from our Druidry if we don’t perform it in a deliberate way? Is it enough to live your truth, or is it necessary to make that more visible?

Outrageousness and the bard

I spent the weekend at an excellent Steampunk event, where I got to see a number of extraordinary performers. It got me thinking about the importance of how you invest in your own work as a performer.

If you perform feeling self conscious, awkward, silly or afraid of being laughed at, this will show. If you walk onto a stage and treat what you’re doing like it’s perfectly reasonable, it’s amazing what an audience can be persuaded to go along with. Embracing the preposterous to make it your own is a really powerful choice, allowing you to do, embody, or vocalise things that more cautious people simply can’t.

This is fundamentally about your relationship with your own material. If you believe that people need what you’re doing, then it works very differently from getting out there with material you are suspicious about. People need to laugh, and there’s power in being comfortable with inviting the laughter. It’s good to invite any and all emotions. People also need to be surprised, unsettled and taken out of their everyday perceptions, and there are many ways of doing that. Sometimes people benefit from the comfort of familiarity, but too much of that just becomes banality. 

To be powerful as a bard, you have to be totally invested in whatever you’re doing. You have to be willing to take people with you. There’s a certain kind of magic that’s only available if you’re prepared to throw yourself wholeheartedly into whatever you’re doing.

I was utterly enchanted by Ash Mandrake’s set, he has a lot of youtube content for anyone who is curious, and you can start here for flavour –

Trust and inspiration

This is a photo from one of my new ventures. I’ve wanted to do this for a long time, and at the recent Steampunk event in Gloucester I was able to pull a team together for some improvisation-heavy theatre. I’ve wanted to do scratch theatre in a steampunk context for ages. It has to be a bit cobbled together because we weren’t able to meet before the event for rehearsals and this would always be the way of it with steampunks travelling from all over the place to events.

I wrote an outline. Craig Hallam brought poems – the setup was a literary salon run by a psychopath (me, being Mrs Beaten) with Craig as Hopeless Maine poet Algernon Lear. Other cast members took on characters suitable to the setting, while John Bassett played Reverend Davies.

I’ve been dabbling with plays for years – mostly mumming plays, which are short, anarchic folk plays with a format around death and rebirth. Usually I write characters based either on traditional material, or for the person who will be playing the part. Getting to see someone bring to life a character I did not write for them has been an affecting sort of experience. 

For me, what’s most exciting in this kind of creative project is the mix of trust and uncertainty. I knew I had a great team, and they were willing to trust me that we could do this thing. We had a framework, but no one really knew how any of it would work or what would happen in the moment. And there were some wonderful moments with people interacting, sparring verbally, or at one point literally sparring with a cane and a massive spoon… When people collaborate amazing things can and do happen.

We made a space and a possibility. We held that space between us, and supported each other in being entertaining and funny and a bit weird, and I am really happy with how it all went. There will be more of this, and it means I can include more people.

Inspiration and Performance

Often, we talk about inspiration as being the act of creating a piece of work. That’s not quite what happens around performance. It is possible to be a really good performer – of music, poetry, theatre, dance… without creating original pieces of work. There are a number of ways in which inspiration can manifest.

Firstly there’s the choice of material. An inspired choice will be a powerful thing. This is about finding the perfect piece for the setting, the time of year, the audience, the mood on the day. When this works it can be truly magical. As you’re preparing material and won’t necessarily be able to fettle those choices in situ, how inspired you are in your choices can make a lot of odds.

There’s a lot of work involved in learning and arranging a performance. A lot of your own creative energy will go into this. What you do with your voice or body to bring a piece to life is very much yours. The preparation work you do will also inform how you are able to interpret and perform the piece in the moment and what you can do to tailor it to the space, audience etc. Whether you prepare with the intention of doing it in a way you’ve settled on, or whether you prepare to try and have many options on the day is also a factor.

Then there’s what happens in the moment. When you step into a space and decide how to perform what you’ve brought with you. The more confident you are, the better. The more sure of your material you are, the better. But there’s also always that scope for something magical to enter in and influence what you do. Performance itself can be inspired, and when it is, there is a considerable difference.

Creativity is a way of being in the world, a way of being open and interacting with the material, the spaces, the audience. Inspiration is a strange, glorious process that can strike at any time. Anything we do can be lit up with inspiration and can be made more wonderful by having that extra spark in it.