Tag Archives: performance

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.


Performing your online identity

The internet, and social media especially, encourages us to perform. We record and perform our lives to a watchful audience that may judge us on a scale that most humans have never had to deal with before. The pressure to look good performing can have a distorting effect on what we do, what we value and what we think is useful. We’re all caught up in this and mostly need to be kinder to ourselves about it. However, here are some things I’ve noticed that I think need mentioning.

Performance activism puts the performer centre stage. Not the issue, or the afflicted people. It’s not about raising awareness or solving problems, it is a performance piece to show how good you are. It’s important to focus on what will help and make a difference, and to put the issues centre stage.

The performance ally works in much the same way – putting themselves centre stage. It’s important not to speak for or speak over the people you are supposedly helping. This is of course tricky when you’re not sure who else is present – so often the way of it online. There can be a lot of diversity in experiences and what helps one person feel supported may offend another.

Performance friendship. The fine art of making big claims, promises and declarations in public spaces. It might look good in the short term, but when you can’t follow through on it, the harm done is considerable.

Success performance. When you only talk about the good things and paint your life as perfect, you can undermine your own wellbeing. It’s hard to ask for help if you keep telling everyone that everything is great. If we get into displaying our success through images of objects, this can fuel consumerism and doesn’t help the planet. The kind of performances we put on around health, weight and diet could often stand some scrutiny too. The idea that weight loss is success needs care and careful thinking.

Warrior performances. It’s easy to be an online warrior, to shout people down, pull them apart, pick holes in their work and criticise them. This achieves nothing. Making real change requires real work and a good deal more effort. A warrior performance may help you feel good about yourself and persuade you that you’re doing something useful, but the odds are that no real good comes of it at all.

Misery performances. If you know plenty of nice people then misery performances will win you care, support, warmth, affection and positive reinforcements. Now, I think it’s really important that we all have space to share our struggles and issues – it’s an important counter to those relentless success performances as well. However, if all you do is act out misery, it isn’t good for everyone else, or for you. It is better all round to try and find some small good to share as well. The odds are if you can get online that you have some resources and your life isn’t just shit, and focusing on the good bits when you can will help you.

None of us are real online. Being here is an act of creativity and construction. We all make deliberate choices about what we share and how we do it. But, because those choices are so deliberate, we all get chance to choose what kind of performances we will share. I believe that our most authentic selves are the ones we most deliberately and consistently choose to be. So, while no one is truly real online and everything we share is partial and performed, at the same time, anyone can consciously choose to be the person they want to be – and thus manifest their most authentic self.


Deliberately unattractive

I find it really interesting going out to perform in public as a deliberately unattractive character. I used to play monsters a lot in a mumming side. At the moment, I’m taking Hopeless Maine’s Mrs Beaten out to events.

I created Mrs Beaten for the Hopeless Maine blog – www.hopelessvendetta.wordpress.com She’s a complicated, conflicted creature. It is entirely possible that she is part machine, and whether the departed Mr Beaten was her husband, creator or jailer, or combinations thereof is hard to tell. It seems likely that she killed him in self defence. And although she hates him, she also misses him which isn’t unusual for abused people. But, she’s not sympathetic – she’s judgmental and unkind. Through her judging others I can get her to say things that nicer characters wouldn’t say, but that tend to need saying.

Going out to perform as Mrs Beaten I do not look my best. An austere hair arrangement. Little exposed skin. I might powder my face if there are going to be stage lights. I don’t smile much. I glower. I use a voice that is sanctimonious and/or harsh. She’s a figure who can both get laughs and make people uncomfortable and I enjoy playing with that.

At the same time, there’s something liberating in going out dressed not to be attractive. We all tend to make a lot of judgements on how people look. The pressure on women to be attractive, in professional life, in workplaces, in leisure, is a serious thing. I’m female appearing even though I don’t really feel that way, but people judge what they see. And Mrs Beaten judges back. I enjoy going out with no invitation to find me visually appealing. I enjoy not conforming to those pressures, and putting on a face that does not appeal.

Any man telling my Mrs Beaten character to smile, would, I promise, end up wishing he hadn’t said that.

Here’s me glowering for the camera at a recent Stroud Short Stories event where I read in first person as Mrs Beaten. I’m rather pleased with how this unflattering photo came out!

Photo by Tim Byford.

If you hop over to the page you can compare my presentation with the things other women reading have done with their faces. Although Kate Keogan also presented fierce, which is cool.

http://stroudshortstories.blogspot.com/


Community creativity

My local theatre festival happened over the weekend. I was, at various times, a paid worker in a venue, a performer, a volunteer and an audience member. I went to three of the ten venues and saw six of the forty shows. It was an intensive sort of weekend.

It struck me how innately good it is though, to be moving between those different roles. To be a performer, and also an audience member. To be someone who moves the chairs around, and someone working the door, and to experience an event from most of the available perspectives. These are wonderful opportunities to have. Over the weekend, it was very normal to see performers going to other people’s shows, and volunteers who had been on stage in other years.

We’re so used to being entertained by people who aren’t even in the room. Television and film give us distance between performer and audience, and no sense of moving about. If you watch alone at home there is, for most of us, no sense that other roles might be available. However, go to a community event like this and getting involved in some capacity is easy. There’s no barrier between performer and audience. No one is so grand that they can’t do a shift on a door, or help set a room up.

There’s also something very powerful about sharing this kind of experience with other people. Over the weekend I talked to other people about shows I had seen, shows they had seen, shows we had both seen – and that added depth to the whole experience. Performers talked to me about how their shows had gone. The feeling of involvement was delightful and made me realise how little most of us get of that in the normal scheme of things.

If you can only ever be an audience member, only a consumer of other people’s creativity, you miss out on a lot. I feel strongly that everyone who wants to should have the opportunity to be creative and expressive. The way in which we hive off creative roles for the few – especially at the level where you might earn enough to live on – frustrates me. It’s not how I want to do things.


Bard Attitude

The attitude a person expresses when performing can have a huge impact on how a piece is received. The right kind of bard attitude will serve you well, while some approaches are a lot like shooting yourself in the foot.

The classic mistake, especially for the new bard is to start by apologising and saying why it might not be very good. Sometimes it is worth saying – if for example you have a cold that’s going to impact on performance ‘forgive the cold, bear with me if I start sneezing’ is all you need. Don’t apologise for new material, or untested material. Tell people you haven’t done it before, by all means, but that can be a gift to them, not a shortcoming. Don’t make your first expression as a bard one of putting yourself down.

I’m not usually a member of the ‘fake it till you make it’ school of thinking, but this is one of those times when it really does help. Acting confidently puts your audience at ease. If you are nervous, they will be nervous with you and for you. If you aren’t confident, then fake it as best you can. Practice faking your confident presentation. Eventually it will stop being fake and you will simply be a confident performer.

Being overconfident, too pushy, too self assured, too cocky… these things are often not attractive and can alienate the audience. Too much faking of confidence can push a performance into the realms of the unappealing. And if this is who you are, just be aware that people will be watching for you to fall flat on your face and will enjoy it if you do. If you have no natural capacity for a bit of humility, consider learning how to fake it, because like confidence, humility helps keep you in good relationship with the audience and these things need balancing for optimal effect.

A bit of bardic bombast can be an excellent thing. There’s much to be said for being slightly larger than life, attention grabbing, energetic, lively and wild. If this is what comes naturally to you, then run with it. However, this is something I don’t advocate faking in the hopes of becoming. People trying to be more bombastic than they really are can come across as strained and false, and if you don’t have an innate sense of how to play that way, it’s easy to misjudge it and look like a prat.

For some, a quietly authentic expression of self is going to be more effective. You can be a strong presence without leaping around, or dressing up, if that suits your nature.

Back when I was learning to MC, it was pointed out to me that what works best for performance is when you simply fill the space with who you are. Your own personality writ large, or let out, is going to serve you best. It is easier to maintain than anything else. There’s an aspect of trusting yourself in this – most of us do not have the kind of personality disorders that mean who we are should not be writ large now and then. Enjoy yourself!


In search of a voice

Finding your voice is a key part of development for any creator working with language. In non-linguistic arts, finding your own style is just as relevant, so all of this can be applied more widely.

Give me a keyboard or a pen, and voice is not an issue for me. I started looking for my voice some twenty years ago. It has changed over time, as I have changed, but it’s not something I have to reach for any more. I know what I sound like on paper. That holds even if I’m working in first person and using a voice not strictly my own.

When it comes to performance, voice is something I’ve not sorted out. I can sing – in the most literal sense of having a voice, that’s been fine for nearly as long as the writing. I used to MC, without much confidence, I do talks and workshops at events and I now spend a lot of time in the company of performance poets and storytellers. It has become apparent to me this year that in terms of performing, I haven’t found my voice. I don’t have my own style.

Who do I want to be when I’m performing? What do I want to sound like? What impression do I want to create? I notice that some people have pronounced performance voices that are different from their personal voice, and some don’t. Some people use their everyday language, and some take on a very different vocabulary for the stage. How words are paced, the tones used, the physical movement or absence thereof all goes into creating an overall effect.

Part of what makes my written voice the way it is, is that I pause to consider my phrasing. I’m not the sort of person who has to sweat out each line, but I don’t rush, either. Then I read it back and check that it does what I want it to do. I care about exact phrasing, because I want to convey specific meanings. I also want to avoid dogma, authority, accidentally excluding people, and unnecessary verbal aggression. When I’m speaking, I can’t edit. I can of course write ahead of time and commit it to memory, but that can result in a more stilted performance unconnected from what’s going on around me.

The only way forward is to experiment. I need to try out different ways of doing things, and see what happens. I need to be willing to make mistakes, change direction, and feel uncomfortable. I cannot expect to magically have my speaking voice turn up and function at a professional level and I am going to have to learn how to do a decent job in the company of people whose experience and ability far exceeds mine. There is no scope for development without some risk taking. While I’ve no great enthusiasm for falling flat on my face in public, I also have no desire to stay put. Overcoming the fear of looking like a prat in front of people I respect has not been easy, but I think I’m there now.

I know that my main aims are to be more relaxed about the whole thing and more able to trust my spoken voice. I’d like to be a better public speaker. Beyond that, I don’t know – which is also why the process is so important. There are many things I can’t figure out by wondering, but will come to understand by doing.


MCing as a bardic skill

At first glance, taking on the role of master of ceremonies for an event might look more like organising than bard craft. However, to do it well, you need a quicksilver tongue and the ability to improvise. A good MC is a good bard. The job of MC means reacting off the cuff to all the performances and to any other unforeseen events. To shape the enthusiasm of many into something coherent takes skill, and to make an evening out of a bunch of people doing stuff isn’t as easy as it looks.

If an event is being run by someone who gets up to introduce and thank performers, then the style of that person will shape the whole gathering. Whether it feels competitive or inclusive, whether there’s a sense of hierarchy or an equal footing, whether some performers are more valued than others, will often be determined by what the MC does.

Of course the being judgemental is important – the bard praises the excellent, and may try to find ways to quietly re-direct the people who are way off the mark, and will act to stop the disruptive and so forth. That judgement will often come over in the nuance of a turn of phrase, or a hint in the body language because if you are heavy handed you can lose the audience.

When the MC is relaxed, good humoured and encouraging, more people may feel empowered to have a go. A good word at the end of a piece can lift a performer and inspire them to renewed efforts and greater confidence.

The MC creates the flow of an event, smoothes the transition between performers, gives shape to what might otherwise be chaos. The MC is the one who makes sure that a bardic space does not simply get taken over by the loudest and most confident, but holds room for those who aren’t as brash and assertive. Without someone in this role, it’s easy for a dominant few or a clique to take over a performance space and exclude anyone who is not one of their own, or not pushy enough to get in.

Often, when an MC does a good job, you barely notice them. They foreground the performers and keep things running smoothly, and they will barely feature in your memory of what happened. Those who have taken MCing to another level may be doing it as performance in its own right, which is also a fine way of working. MCs who can make the audience laugh, and can drop their own gems into the mix without breaking the flow can be very engaging to watch. MCs who are performers can be the opening act for the event, using their own performance to warm up and settle down the audience to the benefit of everyone else.


Bardic – creating spaces

One of the things you may be called upon to do as a bard, is to create a performance space. There’s no way of doing this that is right, it’s a case of considering the space, and the intention and nature of the gathering.

If you use a performer/audience model with the audience in rows and the performer(s) at the front, then you elevate the status of the performer and encourage the audience to be an audience. It can take longer to get performers on and off, and if there is more than one performer then someone must act as master of ceremonies and handle the changes. In some venues, this layout raises issues of who can see and hear – a stage is often essential, amplification may be necessary. If there are a lot of people, this is often the best layout to use.

Working in the round puts everyone on an equal footing, there is no ‘front’ and everyone is able to interact, so there’s much less divide between audience and performer. If most of the audience are also performing, this can be preferable, and quicker. It does create a more casual atmosphere, and does not give the same status lift to performers. It can make the space slightly harder to control. In a circle of under thirty people, this layout is viable, but if it gets to be a larger crowd, you may have to have inner and outer circles, which will cost you some of the inherent democracy.

When you’re running a space, it’s good to test the acoustics of it and find out if there are any sweet spots for getting your voice to carry, or any dead spot to avoid using altogether, or encourage the accordion players into! They don’t need any help to be heard.

Never try and run an event from a position of having your back to the door. Make sure you can see the majority of movement in the room. If you’re outside, try and find something to have at your back – a tree for example – so that people can’t creep up on you. To hold a space you need to know what’s going on in it.


Bardic skills: Tricks for remembering

Longer pieces are inevitably harder to learn than short ones. On the whole, where there is a story I don’t find learning longer ballads especially difficult. What’s really tricky, is learning something that has no narrative logic. I’m going to talk about one specific song for this post but there is plenty of material out there with similar issues.

So, here’s Lay the Bent to the Bonny Broom – listening is not essential, but it’s an excellent song! This is Brian Peters, and it’s his arrangement.

 

The difficulty with this song is that you have a set of nine riddles followed by nine answers, and really the answers need to come in the same order as the riddles, and remembering all nine is easier if you get them in the same order each time. There’s no narrative order to the riddles, but there is a slight escalation, and the one on its own at the end is the one at the end – this kind of thinking is an aid to remembering.

However, the method that helps me most is to get the rest of my body involved. I run the riddles through my fingers, using the same finger for each riddle every time I sing it, and the same finger for the answer as I did for the question. It’s a small physical prompt, and it definitely helps. I’ve used the same technique on other songs where order matters but at the same time there’s nothing much to help hold that order together.

Remembering is not just a brain activity. We have muscle memory – essential for learning tunes and dances. We can remember all kinds of shapes and patterns. If a piece is difficult to learn, looking for other ways to remember it can really help. Using physical gestures, patterns of movement, or just this simple trick of counting on fingers can get other kinds of memory involved to make the process easier.