Tag Archives: performance

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.


Intuition on the bard path

Intuition is a really important skill for bards. First and foremost it’s about being able to read the room (or grove). Having a feel for your audience that allows you to respond to them is essential for making a connection and communicating effectively. You also have to give yourself space for that – if you’ve carefully planned out every detail of what you will say and do, you’re leaving no space to include what comes up at the time.

Stages feel pretty exposed at the best of times. If you are nervous you may feel like trying to be more open to your audience is a bad thing. This is not something a person is likely to get the hang of at the first go. It’s something to explore once you’re over the worst of the nerves caused by simply trying to perform.

It’s easier to read the room if you start before getting on to the stage. It’s important to check out the space and the audience ahead of time. Flounce up just before your set and you have no idea what you’re walking in to. It’s easier to try and read the mood of the gathering before you start performing. Some crowds respond well to bombast, some will like you more if you come in gently.

Intuition has a role to play at other times as well. Very few bards create in the moment and on the day. It takes time to learn, write, choreograph or otherwise get your creativity to the point where you can share it. What you have to learn to get there, is an issue. The decisions about what to work on happen a fair way ahead of sharing a finished piece. What will be relevant by the time you can share it?

For me, 2021 has been full of intuitive leaps in the dark. I’ve made decisions about what to do and when, creatively, that were at best informed by wild guesses. That’s been going surprisingly well, so far. It’s left me feeling more open to possibility, and perhaps a little more in tune with the tides of existence. Which sounds slightly pretentious, but I can’t think of a more grounded way of saying it!


A sense of self

This is me, onstage at Festival at the Edge this summer. The photo was taken by Allan Price, and I was there doing a Hopeless Maine set (more of that over here – https://hopelessvendetta.wordpress.com/2021/07/20/ominous-folk/ )

I love being on stage. There’s a bit of me missing when performance isn’t part of what I do. I freely admit to craving the applause. More than that, though, I want to surprise, delight, amuse and inspire. I’m happier in myself when I can get out there and entertain people.

During lockdown I’ve done a lot of soul searching. I’ve not felt like myself, and part of that has been about not having the sort of engagement with people that I can have in person. Being on a stage again, I’ve felt more like myself. 

It’s rare for me to have a photo that captures something of how I want to be seen, but this one does. I am clearly ridiculous, with my sparkly horns. I’m wearing the waistcoat I made and embroidered – an act of creativity I am deeply proud of. Eccentric, and unapologetic about that. I didn’t put this outfit together with the aim of looking non-binary, but in many ways it captures that side of myself too. I’m still trying to figure out what I need to look like to feel comfortable, and this is the first time I feel I’ve nailed it. Being fluid and shifty, I will clearly also need to look like other things.

Who we are is such a curious mix of things. What we seem like on the inside, what we deliberately present or hide, how people interpret that, how we feel about those responses, and what we do. So much of my sense of self depends on what I do, what I put into the world. In theory ‘be yourself’ sounds like it should be the easiest option. Trying to figure out what that would mean remains an important area of exploration for me. In this photo at least, I’ve seen someone I recognise and feel comfortable with, and that’s unusual for me.


Learning things by heart

Memorising is a traditional bardic skill and it’s a wonderful thing to do. In learning something you form a much deeper relationship with it, and it becomes part of you. It is scary – performing from memory without a safety net is a really exposed thing to do and you can fall and fail – but you really feel it when you fly. And if you sauntered onto the bard path the odds are that you crave the applause, the audience response and the glory to some degree.

There are people, and my son is one of them, who seem able to absorb vast amounts of text with very little effort. For most of us, it is a slog taking time and repetition. To learn things by heart you also have to learn how much work that takes. It’s easy to be put off and to assume you can’t do it… but it can just be a case of needing to make more effort than you expected. The more you learn by heart, the better your memory becomes and the easier it gets.

Not everyone can commit things to memory. Not everyone who can memorise finds they can perform from memory. It’s worth investing time and effort in building familiarity with material even if you do then need the safety net. It’s vitally important that bardic spaces don’t require you to memorise – that’s abelist. Further, no one should have to explain what their issues are if they don’t perform from memory.

Here are some things I’ve found helpful when trying to learn something by heart…

Little and often is better than big sessions. Go over the material every day.

Start trying to do it – or bits of it – from memory as soon as you can. It doesn’t matter how bad you are. If you just work from the paper you get used to the paper. Trying to reconstruct the piece from memory will really help you, even if you spend most of the time going ‘tum te tum’ between key words.

Play with the material. Messing about helps with learning. But also be careful because you don’t want to learn the wrong words. Comedy versions can be great, but don’t set yourself up to remember the wrong words!

Don’t worry about getting it wrong. The chances many people – or for that matter any person in your audience knows the material better than you do, are small. If you present the piece with confidence and a smile, people will be persuaded that you know it. Mistakes delivered with certainty are seldom noticed. If you need to brazen it out, that was how Granny always said it, or ‘folk process’ are always options. As a bard, a good story can be more pertinent than a disappointing and useless truth. If you go off-text you can also always say that you were in the grip of the Awen and that’s simply what turned up!


Off to the Edge

Today, Hopeless Maine is off to Festival at the Edge in Shropshire, in the UK. This is an exciting development for us. We’ve had a performance aspect to the project for some time, but this is our first time out with a script and a show. There are four of us, with songs, Maine folklore, and a story.

Hopeless, Maine started life as a graphic novel series. It was my husband’s idea. I came in to write scripts for the comics, then got into colouring and other things. It’s a world other people have wanted to play with, so we have a role play game and novellas and all sorts of other things going on. We’re always looking for ways to let more people in and do more good stuff.

Some years ago we were invited to participate in our local book festival, and given a stage on the Saturday night. What do you do with a comic at a book festival? It’s not like readings are realistic. We took a selection of short stories, some folk songs and a couple of extra people, and from there, the idea of performance grew.

I’ve been to enough events to know that authors at events aren’t reliably exciting. Unless you are already into an author, listening to them talk about their life and work isn’t interesting. And sometimes even when it’s an author you like, this isn’t a reliably fun way to spend an hour. Not all authors are good speakers or performers. If you’re a fairly obscure author – like me – then the odds of drawing an audience to your sales pitch aren’t great to begin with. But, people at events want to be amused. By offering something more interesting than a thinly veiled book pitch, I can usually get an audience.

With this in mind, we’ve been developing a performance side to Hopeless Maine ever since that first book festival event. We’ve taken songs and folklore to folk events. We’ve taken something like a radio show to a number of steampunk events. I’m plotting other things that can include more people. I’d rather be more entertaining. I have more fun at events being there as a performer than I do stood at a table.


The Performance of Beauty

Last year at Stroud Theatre Festival I saw a woman perform beauty. It was in the context of a one woman play in which that one woman was playing many different roles. The character she started out with was quite dowdy. I watched her create an impression of beauty and glamour with just a few minor costume tweaks. The rest was all body language and attitude. Part of me remains convinced that it was also witchcraft.

That a person could be captivating, charming and irresistible because they have chosen to present themselves that way, is a thought I have wrangled with rather a lot. Having seen the contrast between the dowdy character and the glamorous one, I have to concede that appearance might be a very small part of what we register as beauty. It also suggests that beauty is not an inherent quality some people have. It’s not something you have to starve yourself for, or buy expensive clothes for. It’s a way of being in the world.

Advertisers invest a lot of time and money in persuading us that we aren’t beautiful unless we have their products. Most of us never get to feel good enough as we are. We don’t imagine that a presentation shift – even If aided by a few modest props – could be the key. I’ve seen it done.

To perform beauty is to deliberately draw attention to yourself, to your body, your face, your presence as a sexual entity, the possibilities of you. We can be persuaded to admire the people who present themselves as worthy of admiration – I’ve seen it done on a few occasions by people who were, to my eye at least, not especially beautiful. But then, what I find beautiful in a person has everything to do with kindness, soulfulness, and the bodily quality I most reliably find beauty in, is the voice.

I’ve never set out to do beauty as a performance. I can’t really imagine doing it. Where I’ve seen people doing it effectively, I’ve often felt uncomfortable with it. I acknowledge that envy is part of that, but I also have a deep unease about using that kind of glamour to entrance people. I’m not at all sure I like how that works or where it goes. I’d like to think that if I believed I could perform beauty in that way, I wouldn’t do it. Mostly it seems to be about getting attention, and I’d rather get attention for making something beautiful – be that my clothing, or my song, my stories or my dance.

I’m increasingly persuaded that beauty is created by what we do and has precious little to do with appearance. Sometimes it means performing in-line with other people’s expectations about beauty, and that tends to be the territory that makes me most uneasy, because currently the performance of beauty is so often about women performing for the male gaze, which is narrow, and restrictive.


How to have nice things

Over the weekend, I was involved with Stroud Theatre Festival – the 8th one, and a decidedly ambitious venture during a pandemic. It is a fine example of how we can have nice things. Over the weekend there were many live performances in front of audiences, and all of it within the current covid rules and handled in a way that will have kept everyone safe. It worked because everyone – organisers, performers, venues and audience – cooperated to make it work. That, in essence, is how we can have nice things.

There were challenges – the outdoors venues in October were always likely to be cold. But, there were no shortage of tickets sold for those and the actors braved the weather. There were challenges with only being allowed much smaller audiences in the indoors venues – but everyone dealt with that. People wore their masks indoors, queued thoughtfully, used the hand sanitiser, bought tickets in advance and were fabulously patient.

It was a really lovely event to be part of. I was on the door for one of the venues and I saw two plays. I found it really affecting the way people were cooperating to make good things happen.

Live performance is something that is essential for me. It’s not some sort of luxury add on, it’s a key part of how I stay emotionally functional. Getting by with no theatre and no live music during lockdown was really hard. I honestly don’t know how so many people seem not to need it in the first place. It does things that pre-recorded performance never can. There’s magic in the immediacy of it, in the engagement and the sharing of space. It has meant a lot to me to be able to have something of that back over the weekend.

It all felt very safe, and this in a context where local case numbers are rising. It was far less stressful than a busy supermarket or a crowded street. Especially the outdoors performances.

When we support each other, take care of each other and work together, we can have nice things. Cooperation makes room for more joy, delight and happiness. If we let it, this virus will destroy the arts. It will close down venues, and make music and theatre impossible, which in turn will put many people out of work. Not just the performers – all the technical and venue people, all the folk who work behind the scenes and go unnoticed. It’s a huge sector, and an emotionally valuable one as well as a commercial consideration. If people cooperate, we can have live performance safely.


Performance magic

Sometimes, when you take a piece out and perform it, it does not go as planned. Sometimes, there is magic in the moment and the whole nature of the piece and your relationship with it can change. I’m not talking here about things that go wrong, or things that come up when you are under-prepared, but the way in which a space, an audience or an atmosphere can radically change a piece.

When you learn and practice a piece – be that a song, story, tune or poem – you’ll bring certain emotional tones to it. Much of what you bring will be about your feelings for the piece itself and what it evokes in you. Context can shift that – the mood of an audience, the impact of the performance space and so forth. I’ve done a little bit of singing in churches and those are massively unpredictable spaces for me, and I’m never sure how that kind of setting will shift how I perform.

The acoustics of a place can have considerable impact on performance. The differences between singing in a cave, and in a windy field are enormous. Some places invite you to slow down, to linger, while others encourage livelier performances. Some places you can use your voice quietly and still be heard. Some performance spaces can only be shouted into. This can mean you are working against the vibe of your piece, but sometimes it’s a magical shift that brings the material alive in new ways.

Sometimes it’s all about the audience. It’s effective to dig in with whatever suits the collective mood. Some audiences don’t respond well to certain tones and feelings. The feminist fury that gets you a ‘hell yes’ in one place may fall in awkward silence in another. Some audiences respond well to bawdy humour, others less so. The presence of a child in a room can encourage you to skip hastily over some kinds of detail.

One of my best audience moments was in a poem where I made a joke about bestiality, and the one dog in the room picked that moment to emit one loud bark!

I find it’s best not to fight these things. Going with what happens in a space, in a moment, with an audience gets powerful results, while fighting it seldom works.


Fool Magic

There is incredible power in foolishness. There is freedom and delight in being willing to make an arse of yourself, but it goes further than this. Being willing to be foolish opens up space for people. If we all have to be super-good, correct, dignified, and successful then it’s really hard to jump in and have a go for the first time. Willing fools create spaces in which it is possible for others to safely participate.

The man who taught me most about performance and stage craft had this down to an art form. While I learned a lot at the time about how to perform, it’s only in recent years that I’ve started thinking in earnest about the impact of his playing the fool. Because however badly I messed up, he would guarantee to make a bigger fool of himself than I could manage on my own account. I learned to feel safe in that space. I’m thinking more about how I might do that for other people.

I’ve always done it around dancing. I will be the first person up, I do not fear the empty dance floor and I do not need lubricating with alcohol. My often sore and weary body has led me towards ways of dancing that involve more drama than effort. It is easier to get up and dance when someone is already there waving themselves about excessively, as is my habit.

For my fortieth birthday party, two friends donned a selection of colanders with the intention of being the first ones up to make sure people got moving. It was all rather wonderful.

I see this kind of thing in the gleeful preposterousness of Steampunk. The permission we create for each other by not taking ourselves too seriously. The way in which you can go into something with enthusiasm, and wholeheartedness and absolute willingness to be ridiculous, and how this creates joy.

Mirth can triumph over fragility and ego alike. It can overcome fear, and undermine insecurity and undo pomposity. It’s a powerful tool for growth, it enables happiness and helps us engage gently with each other. If we can be ridiculous together, we never need to fear certain kinds of judgement.