Four Possible Futures For Performance Poetry

This week I was asked by someone writing for a Uni newspaper to write a bit about performance and slam poetry and about how I “saw the the future for performance poetry in Britain”. I realised that my view of it’s future had shifted quite a lot since the change of government and shake up of Arts Council funding. How realistic are any of these scenarios?

1. It continues as a grass roots activity with small, enthusiastic audiences and occasional break out performers impact on other fields: eg Hip hop or stand up comedy.

-In most cities there are at least one or two regular events where performance poetry is part or all of the line up. Still, even the most marginal sports (ice hockey say with average attendances of 5000 attract many, many times larger audiences.)

2. It gets more funding and support as a non commercial art form, is used more widely as an educational tool, and borrows platforms and values from subsidised theatre and theatre venues – whilst also developing its own reflective practice and criticism.

-It feels like this is the way things were heading pre Funding crises. Things like the “Lit Up” initiative were spearheading a spread into larger venues. Artists like Inua Ellams, Polar Bear, Molly Naylor and Zena Edwards were working in ways and forums also used in experimental theatre. Aisle 16 & others continued getting Escalator East funding to take shows to the Edinburgh Fringe and many poets worked on Creative Partnerships projects in schools. Apples and Snakes continues to advocate for the medium- & the Arts Council sees it’s funding of an Olympic S
Am project as a strategy to widen it’s educational use. Much less money around than there was though- & the Poetry Society seems to be having a bit of a meltdown over a division between how much they should focus on widening poetry participation through education. A reflective practice among artists and critics would be nice though. Universities might have been pulled in in an era of more humantities research, but that seems likely to be delayed some years now.

3. It breaks out into the mainstream like stand up comedy and becomes a commercial art form supported by British versions of the visionary Russell Simmons of Def Jam in the U.S.

-Yeah right. As many performance poets as non performance poets seem perfectly happy to play for small audiences and not “sell out”.

4. It diversifies and re integrates into other art forms in the way it used to in the early 80s and you get performance poets valued in music, comedy, traditional literary events, academia and even the corporate world.

-Personally I think the diverse portfolio of work that the Saturday Live (Radio 4) poets do is a good example of this. It may not quite fulfil my dream of a mainstream platform promoting greater inclusivity, but a reminder that poets can write accessibly and to order on a wide variety of issues (as also done by Ian McMillan on Radio 5 in the 90s), it means that you can see performance poets in sports arenas, health conferences, er…supermarkets, Literary festivals (as the novelty act though). Live in forlorn hope that Carol Ann Duffy might include performance poets in things sometimes….sigh.

Not included in these scenarios though is the melting pot/melting poet most commonly, not exclusively working in London. Crossing page/performance boundaries. As likely to be found in post in a literary residency as in a one person show in Edinburgh (Helen Mort for example) and less likely to reject out of hand the occasional label of “performance poet”. Their future is more closely tied to the general poetry funding/audience situation in the country (hence, a but precarious but probably safely subsidised to a degree for the foreseeable future).

Or none of the above?

Where’s My Theatre Invitation?

Mostly I’ve been a radio journalist, then a poet. I don’t know much about theatre apart from that I don’t like sitting watching actors pretending to be other people and ignoring the audience. That just feels like a dysfunctional family to me. Or some sadistic kids in the playground saying you can watch their game but not join in.

From what I read, it sounds like for many theatre practitioners,  an antidote to that- immersive theatre -is so done to death already. (Even today in the Guardian, the director of Punch Drunk says that loads of people are bringing audiences into their shows, but they now want to take their shows into reality, confuse people about what’s real and what’s fiction and are researching a show in which they send people off on a three day adventure  http://www.guardian.co.uk/stage/2011/jun/08/crash-of-the-elysium-punchdrunk)

What can I say, I’m a late adopter. But, in the past two weeks I’ve seen three theatre pieces with an immersive element and finally realised that it wasn’t theatre that I didn’t like, just the Western, character based, fourth wall stuff. I had begun to get an inkling of this anyway, when I went to see the writer/director Tim Crouch speak last year and nearly cheered when he said he didn’t like to see actors acting.  Also, when writing my first one person spoken word show, I was determined to use stand up comedy conventions so that I wouldn’t have to suddenly erect the fourth wall that seems to be what many poets build when they start “doing” theatre.

However, now, having seen three (as it happens all Yorkshire based) practitioners immersive pieces, I am remembering something I knew all along but had forgotten. Sham’s Reykjavik-http://www.shams.org.uk/productions/new-work–  (I caught it at ARC, Stockton which has become a hot bed of interesting theatre experiences) saw us dress up in boiler suits and goggles and head off to a gauzey white set, on a tour of the character J’s memories of a doomed relationship. We were guided through Reykjavik, Paris, a disco, a hot tub and his splintering emotions. I am ever so suggestible- and when something like this is done as well as it was, I felt like I really, fully had been on that poetic, ice coated journey. I loved it! Then, Northern Stage in Newcastle transformed itself into a “Theatre Brothel”  where you could were directed to particular pieces depending on your answers to a questionnaire. I cheated because I knew I wanted to see “Tea is An Evening Meal” by Sheffield based creative Faye Draper (http://www.northernstages.co.uk/programme/tea-is-an-evening-meal) which I’d liked the sound of. Sure enough, we were treated to a sophisticated, sharp analysis of the power and status and regional differences conveyed by domestic set ups like meals and tea drinking- but all in the form of being guests having a cuppa at the house of a warm and chatty host. Then, last night I went to ARC Stockton’s Scratch Night and, there was another immersive piece. At a very early stage of development- but Ellie Harrison’s (http://ellieharrison.org/) exploration of grief by means of getting three audience members at a time to be trained in elephant grief assuaging techniques (site generic to hotels which will become the elephant therapy centres)- is going to be a light touch, but I think, really powerful way of looking at an emotion that society is still a bit crap at dealing with.

Crucially, in all these experiences, the performers really, actually see you the audience- you don’t have to disappear. Your body gets to take part in the experience too- and for me, that’s maybe the thing that means those pieces can really connect up the disparate parts of me. Brain, heart, body all get involved and make my feelings so much stronger.

I tend to still need a massive Invitation to go to things like this though. I went to the ARC things because I’m a member of their professional development programme- so they were free. And I was invited to Theatre Brothel as a press night person. If I’d seen an advert for “Immersive theatre piece in a disused ironworks” or something, I probably wouldn’t have gone, because I wouldn’t have read it as an Invitation for me. Just as I don’t read a theatre company assuming that I’m familiar and happy with all the usual conventions of theatre as an invitation to suspend my belief.  I’ve performed in theatre shows (and particularly enjoyed being involved in two promenade pieces- Changing Ways by Major Road Theatre Company way back in 1988 and Fuente Ovejuna which was directed at my University by the bloke who now produces the Electric Proms for the BBC) but there was always a very clear Invitation then to participate.  I know I’m strange, but I bet there’s loads more potential theatre goers like me who just need a bigger Invite (Sort of “You- yes you who think theatre’s shit but quite like Laser Quest and Coronation Street- you might enjoy this as a visceral experience honest, and we don’t like pretending either.”)

In fact, the last time before that that I remember another clear invitation to participate was from the Leeds based Blast Theory in 1998. (http://www.blasttheory.co.uk/bt/work_kidnap.html). You could enter into a lottery to be kidnapped. How cool! I thought. They wouldn’t tell you if you’d won, you’d just get taken off to a filmed room for 24 hours. Unfortunately the day of the potential kidnap co incided with the day of my driving test. I had to tell my instructor (but I didn’t mention it to the examiner), not to worry if I got taken off by some people in masks and bundled into a car. I was quite disappointed when they didn’t come for me. Though I did pass my test.

This has all set cogs whirring for me about how to use that particular element of theatre in performance poetry. Still keeping intimate with an audience, and getting their bodies and imaginations more actively involved. The theatre world might have been doing that for years (though it seems, only recently have these more experimental practices begun to enter mainstream venues), but for poets it would be an innovation.  A respectful kidnap of an audience if you will.

The Feeling Of Bettakultcha-a review

Event MC Ivor Tymchak (@ivortymchak) pondered aloud why so many people were at the Leeds #Bettakultcha event, when a night of slide show presentations sounded more offputting than a comedy club with it’s simple aim of provoking laughter. What feelings did Bettakultcha provoke in people?  he wondered, perhaps we could let him know.

Obediently, I thought I would try and name and categorise my feelings and those that I perceived in my fellow audience. I’m nerdy like that- and as a stand up performer myself, and one who has run a variety of spoken word events in the North East, I’m fascinated by how performers and audiences react to each other.

It turned out to be a prescient question on a night that seemed to have aroused a wider variety of emotions than is usually at a Bettakultcha event. My first, the event’s ninth.

I heard of “Pecha Kucha” presentations last year and thought that a short format of talks sounded a good way to get through lots of information. Then, via Twitter, I heard about a variant in Leeds and Bradford attracting big audiences. “Bettakultcha” seemed to have the inclusive spirit I’d tried for in running spoken word events. My favourite bits were so often just hearing people talking about things they were passionate about. I began to think about trying out my own version in Newcastle. But first, I would need to make a recce and see how it worked elsewhere.

My iPhone battery was dead so my impressions were all based on feeling the audience, and my own emotions during the night.

As I found myself a seat near the front, I picked up snatches of conversation and a bit of a murmur around finding the venue darker and less conducive to conversation than previous venues. I noticed that the stage was high and quite distant from the first row of chairs. Something that, in my experience, reduces the intimacy between performer and audience. Lots of the presenters said they couldn’t see the crowd at all and the audience itself was dispersed around the upper gallery, standing, as well as sitting on the stairs and chairs.

The way to kill a comedy night is to make the venue light enough so that an audience feel self conscious about laughing and showing their feelings, and to split them up so there are big empty spaces and they don’t get the communal effect of the contagion of laughter.

The nightclub lights and set up of the Leeds Student Union Stylus venue then were both conducive to people unselfconsciously laughing (or grimacing or cheering or groaning), but less likely to lead to an intimate atmosphere.  It would be more of a show than a communication between presenter and audience. Fine by me, I was just fascinated to see what people would talk about and how the format of five minute presentations with 15 seconds across 20 slides would work.

Shared Curiosity; I think that turned out to be one of the main feelings the Bettakultcha audience is subject to. What will this speaker talk about? What on earth is interesting about tattooing (by @kristalsmile), ice hockey (from @thedows), music therapy (@rubberplucky) or the 17th century publisher John Dunton?  Lots as it turned out, all conveyed by the enthusiasm and passion of the presenter, who sounds all the more entusiastic for having to cram their passion into five minutes. A bit breathless and excited- which helped the audience feel excited too- and temporarily inspired to get a tattoo, watch an ice hockey match, make a silk screen print or collapse the financial system.

A Sense Of Connection; In nearly all cases the speakers weren’t giving knowledge in the role of an expert for our betterment, as in so much Death by Powerpoint- they were sharing- giving an enthusiasm, or knowledge that they had to us. Particularly in Emma Bearman’s (@culturevultures) mea culpa about Twitter addiction which saw her admitting to doing it on the loo “That’s normal isn’t it?” and judging by the frantically thumb tapping, fellow victims of RSI- it was.

A Sense of Awe- There was still an undercurrent of being impressed though. Partly at the fact that the speakers are up there at all in the face of one of the key fears humans share,-of exposure. Also, at  an impressive feat like Tom Scott’s  (@TomScott) clever Twitter programme which instantly collated audience answers to questions to show who was the nearest, and that the wisdom of the crowd is usually wrong.

Then, the Sense of Shared Amusement. Engaging 19 year old farmer’s daughter Lydia Slack’s (@lydia_slack) punchline perfect presentation could have been a stand up comedy set. But, offered as a slideshow on her parents “Awkward Age” and the embarassment of a life in tax deductible clothes, it felt more generous than the “Me, me” agenda underlying the type of stand up comedy that doesn’t really connect performer and audience.

Then, amid this swirl of positive humanity sharing came an awkward set of emotions that saw the audience divided- and I think the particular set up of the venue was a contributor to that. A film called “Killing Amy” was introduced without context. It stopped and started and had to be cut off before the end because of technical problems. It seemed to be about a spoof Bettakultcha presenter talking about stalking then killing a woman. It contained a porn clip of a naked woman writhing and an actor talking in a creepy misogynistic way about how to find a victim. I was waiting for an ironic denouement, some sort of undercutting, a clever twist. There didn’t appear to be one. Then the filmmaker (@Chance4321)  told us how (but not why) he’d made the film and referenced a Czech actress he’d sourced via a bloke in Amsterdam to do the porn bit. This whole interlude provoked a tangible change in the emotions of the audience. A mixture of Uncomfortableness, Anger, Amusement and Uncertainty I think. I gather that offstage afterwards a woman confronted the film maker and he left.

In a stand up comedy gig, a compere can’t afford not to acknowledge when something has happened in the room to divide the audience. The atmosphere goes weird, or there’s a disturbance or something that doesn’t fit with everything else, the compere’s role is to pull the audience back together again, summarise the conflict and by doing so, help disperse it. To make the separate communal again. Well- this wasn’t a stand up comedy night. Also it was a dark venue with a literally divided audience where it was hard to see what was going on, and I suppose the compere would have been aware of moving things along and not wanting to disparage a presenter in an event where there’s a strong code of free speech. Nonetheless, the lack of acknowledgement of a division left an unhealed rupture.

The audience as a whole repaired it. Clapped politely. Maybe made more effort to throw themselves into being absorbed by the next presentation. But some damage has still been done to that sense of communal enjoyment that is clearly so much a part of the Bettakultcha experience (and of any successful speaking event- they tend to be able to bear playful division, but it’s difficult and dangerous for an audience to tolerate a division in which some people suffer pain and some don’t).

Those people who had powerfully upsetting emotions triggered had nowhere to put them, except possibly Twitter. Other people were a bit miffed that they didn’t get a seat but mostly unruffled and wondering what all the fuss was about. Others experienced a range of emotions across the night and enjoyed them as all part of life’s rich tapestry, and others became defensive of what they perceived as a threat to free speech and the right to sometimes confront uncomfortable feelings and subjects.

As co organiser and compere Ivor Tymchak said more than once; “We’re just making it up as we go along” and I think having a procedure ready to anticipate an incident like that straight away, would be difficult.

I’m almost thinking that it’s an inevitable rite of passage for a speaking event. I say so because I know of two regular spoken word events in Newcastle (I ran one of them) where at an event a couple of years in, in both cases, many of the audience felt a speaker had stepped well over the lines of what was acceptable and were upset.

In neither case did we have the opportunity of healing discourse that the strong social media connections of Bettakultcha affords to help move back towards that sense of communal enjoyment, curiosity and safe exploration of the world that it so brilliantly offers.

Overall I came away uplifted and exhilarated by the talks that I’d heard, and dying to try out my own night in Newcastle at some point (provisional name Slidereal), but I’m glad that I was also reminded of some of the pitfalls of making both the stage and audience a safe, but not sanitised, space.