Gold medal for audiences

Column for Newcastle’s Journal newspaper-published Friday 10th August

I am starting to get worried now. What if my newfound interest in sport carries on after the Olympics? What if I become one of those people who can’t attend weddings without nipping out to check the score? What if I want to buy a nose clip to go swimming in and am able to answer something on “A Question of Sport?”. I know it’s not just me. A month ago would not have found me and the nice lady doing my nails chatting animatedly about the best way to avoid a disqualification in track cycling. The optimism of the Olympic Opening Ceremony hasn’t worn off either. It’s got even worse during my week at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. Everything seems bathed in a rosy glow. Instead of seeing the crowds as “Those pesky people blocking the path”, I saw them as “Those wondrous folk who are open to new cultural experiences”.

Lots of them are at the shows Northern Stage are curating at St Stephen’s centre in the New Town under the “Made in the North of England” banner. It really is bathed in a rosy glow, because they’ve transformed this old church into a cosy, welcoming, contemporary space with a cafe where my pot of tea was served in actual vintage china. Whilst it may be entertaining to step into a fringe venue and know you can see anything from a man swallowing his own testicles while singing the Marseillaise to an elf performing all of Shakespeare’s plays in Mandarin Chinese, it’s also satisfying to step into a fringe venue and know there’s a handpicked mixture of shows that won’t be rubbish.That’s another disturbing thing though. I didn’t used to think I liked theatre either. It was too full of actors acting and constructing pauses more overplayed than Chris Tarrant’s on “Who Wants To Be a Millionaire”. But Northern Stage produce fantastic conventional plays and also the increasingly popular theatre in which audiences get to actively participate. Like The Suggestibles’ Gary Kitching’s one man show about a man and his ventriloquists dummy which depends partly on audience suggestions, and Newcastle based Unfolding Theatre’s show about the humour and pathos of sport, where you might get to play darts among other things.

Then there are plenty of North East acts at The Stand comedy club, and hopefully more coming through in future years thanks to their Newcastle outpost. The likes of Gavin Webster, Tony Jameson, John Scott, and Lee Fenwick whose “Geoff the Entertainer” show I saw and is a brilliant piece of character comedy and pathos which also blurs the boundaries between theatre and comedy and gets the audience involved.

Former North East Arts Council boss Mark Robinson wrote in his blog this week about the way lottery funding transformed sports in this country and wonders if similar shouldn’t happen for the arts. Proper investment’s contributed to the massive leap from the one gold medal we won in Atlanta to the haul we’ve netted so far this time. What if artists also benefitted from the type of long term investment that would enable them to dedicate their lives to becoming better at what they do? I suppose one problem is that measurement is not as straightforward. Paula Radcliffe can prove she spent the money wisely because she clocked up two hundred miles a week and wore all her limbs away. A writer might be able to show you two hundred used tea bags and a slightly hurty thumb. In very different ways, however, organisations like Northern Stage and The Stand are making that investment in talent by helping bear the costs of them having the massive showcase that the fringe provides.

The next bit of the medal winning equation is the element that’s proved so helpful in the Olympics- a supportive audience cheering the home team on. Not everyone can become a medal winning athlete but we could all play the part in the glorious Utopian theatre that’s been the Olympics by being a brilliant audience for other live events and thereby invest in the next generation of talent. Never been to theatre or live stand up comedy by someone not on the telly? I bet a month ago you didn’t have a view on the best way to dismount a pommel horse or win an omnium. For the cost of a cinema ticket, you could help Northern talent go for gold and feel better about the world into the bargain.

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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?