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.