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.

7 thoughts on “The Feeling Of Bettakultcha-a review”

  1. I love Bettakultcha for its simple, effective structure, and the shared sense of wonder, awe and passion that it provides- and is missing from so many other events. As a presenter I was unbelievably nervous beforehand, and mildly intoxicated afterwards. A few people said they liked my presentation. Which was nice.

    I suppose my opinion about Killing Amy is split. On the one hand, no topic should be off limits here, we are adults, censorship is not appropriate surely. My only concern would have been the surprise of being confronted by a film one had no knowledge of during a slide show presentation, no announcement, no warning.

    I am quite sure the director wanted to make a disturbing, challenging, provocative film, one which angered, shocked and alarmed viewers, one that presented a very real insight into a very real – and dangerous – reality. The film was clearly made to horrify. It worked.

    So far, apart from the lack of an introductory context, so what?

    The bravery of the Bettakultcha project is the trust that they have – that a presenter is unlikely to stand up and say ‘Blacks go home’ or ‘I like kiddie porn’ or ‘Women should be seen and not heard’ or even ‘Bring back hunting’ or ‘I vote Lib Dem’ – you send in your slides and they trust you to present something that will delight the audience.

    To my knowledge, they have mostly got this right. There have been a few oddballs, but mostly spot on.

    But this was different for three reasons. Insignificant elsewhere, but really important here.

    Firstly, the film must have been seen by Bettakultcha before screening. They knew exactly what it was in advance. Now, a rogue presenter – well you could say that was an accident – but a film? There are lots of films that I have no qualms about watching, but would not necessarily show unannounced to a room full of people.

    So perhaps our unease (and yes, I found it pretty unsettling viewing – especially in the light that it was based on a BK presentation…) was made all the more intense by the feeling that this was planned and intentional, that this was perhaps sanctioned by Bettakultcha, outside the randomness of the presentations – was this some kind of statement from the management?

    The second reason is that they broke their own rules for this film. Not only did they allow it, they changed their format to allow it. And for me, that was not entirely unforgivable, but perhaps unwise. It made the film bigger than the other presentations, bigger than Bettakultcha for a while – and that is not right.

    Finally, the technical hitch meant the film was truncated, left hanging, like one half of a tasteless joke, leaving nothing but questions in the mind – and not in a good way.

    As for the reactions and recriminations – my advice to the director (and BK) is – if you make a film about a subject that is powerful, contentious, dangerous and so close to the very real experiences of many victims of unspeakable crimes, you probably need a pretty thick skin. People will get angry. They should. If you don’t like angry, irrational reactions, make (and show) films about something else.

    1. Hi Nick,
      Thanks for replying.
      I agree with what you say about the special wonder of BK and of how the director of that sort of film should be prepared for possibly strong reactions.
      I think the BK statement is a really good apology- and it seems like in future the organisers and presenters will all be much more aware of when pre warnings meant be appropriate.

  2. Kate an excellent review, thank you.

    Last night was my second #bettakultcha event, and they certainly pack a punch.

    My first was in Bradford and it was a fantastic evening. Some of the content was in a way quite outrageous, especially one talk from @irnaqureshi, a Muslim woman, on growing up in Bradford. I won’t repeat some of the gob-smacking, cringeworthy things she came out with, always a with a big smile, but the amazing thing was that you ended up with a much deeper understand of some very difficult experiences she and her family had growing on her council estate, and clearly how she triumphed over them. It was a little gem of a presentation really.

    Re the film incident, I think what we have to avoid here is any kind of knee-jerk response. Yes, maybe some sort of trigger warning was necessary – maybe. And maybe the compare might have addressed and managed the audience reaction a little better or even at all.

    However, you compare the evening to one of stand up, but for me, the spirit of #bettakulcha is one of free speech, individual passion and openness – far removed from the sharp-tounged, risqué, provocative content and at times hostile audience/performer interactions of the comedy club.

    I don’t like how stand-up comedians sometimes seem to want to control, manipulate, embarrass and even “victimise” their audiences when they react. By contrast, and as you point out, last night’s #bettakultcha audience, aided via social media, managed to handle things for themselves (for better or worse), and the debate that has ensued, of which we are now a part, has been healthy, democratic and worthwhile.

    As you say, it is probably a rite of passage for these type of speaking events, but rituals often mark a phase of growth, and my hope is that #bettakulcha will only grow bigger and better from last night’s experience.

    1. Thanks for your reply Simon. Hopefully see you at the next Bradford BK if you go as I’m now speaking there!
      I agree that stand up comedy set ups often have more hostile atmospheres and powerplay interactions (though prob not the best ones because they thrive on an audience feeling truly connected) but, I certainly felt at Bettakultcha that, having become a bit jaded with stand up comedy and performance poetry nights, here was something truly open and exciting.
      The subsequent tone of the debate seems to show that BK is indeed going to grow from the experience.

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