Tag Archives: performance

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.


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.