Today, I have the very gifted Emma Whitehall on the blog to give some advice on performing your work. I’ve seen Emma read on numerous occasions and I can attest to how brilliantly she performs.
I think most of us could do with taking some tips from Emma. Thanks for sharing your expertise, Emma!
Performing Your Work.
I was sitting in a pub in York when it hit me. I was surrounded by writers I didn’t know, all of us reading our work aloud for an audience. I was excited to be around new voices so that I could listen to the work without my reaction being clouded by the speaker being a good friend.
I was listening to a gentleman reading, when I noticed how little confidence he had in reading his own work. He would finish the last word of the last line, and almost before the word were out of his mouth, they were swallowed up by “andthenextpoemisabout…” No change in his speech pattern, no pause to let his words be absorbed by his audience – and, worst of all, no time for us as an audience to show our appreciation of his work. I was genuinely enjoying his work, but the edges of his poetry blurred into his unscripted introductions, making his reading a bit of a mess.
It got me thinking about all the times I’ve seen this from writers. People who have great words, but little to no experience speaking in front of a crowd, who are frightened or ignorant of the audience, and who squander their opportunity to get their voice – and their work – heard. They mumble, they stare at the floor or their piece of paper, and make a dash from the stage as soon as they finish reading.
I came into writing from five years studying performing arts. I’d always written for my own amusement, but my love at the time was the stage. Even now, ten years on, I get a thrill from being on-stage that is unmatchable. Because I’ve always had a knack for learning lines (as well as my crippling social anxiety making it difficult to make friends), I spent a lot of those years performing monologues. I learned of spoken word from Jessica Johnson, co-founder of one of the best, most boisterous, raucous, and talent-filled nights I’ve ever been to – Pink Lane Poetry and Performance. I cut my teeth there, before moving on to open mics like Jibba Jabba, Hot Words at the Chilli (now The Stanza), and Poetry Jam, where I moved from writing my own monologues into creating short stories, and eventually into poetry. A lot of writers I know got into performance poetry the other way around – finding platforms to read their work at after spending months, if not years, writing.
Here’s the hard truth; if you want to read your work aloud, you have to be able to perform. Anyone who has listened to teenagers read Shakespeare can tell you; even the most wonderful words, filled with the most beautiful meaning, can be made to sound terrible coming from unconfident or uninterested speakers. You wrote these words because something in you felt a spark of inspiration – when reading aloud, your voice is what passes that spark along, just as much as the words on the page. Reading your work at events can be a great way to establish a new following, and hopefully help you sell your work, so it is worth learning how to do it well.
I decided to write this article to try and pass on what I’ve learned in the four years (how has it been that long?!) that I’ve been performing my own work. However scary the stage can look, don’t worry – it is conquerable, and can even be exhilarating and deeply rewarding.
Be Prepared – Learning poems off by heart is difficult for some people, but you will be far less nervous when you get on-stage if you have a grasp of the poem and how you want to perform it. Plus, if you are constantly looking down at a page, your voice will hit the paper, making it more difficult for you to be heard. My favourite tip is to learn a few lines at a time, building and building upon it as you go, until you can recite the whole thing. Run it to yourself while you do the housework, just before bed, or – if you feel brave – when you have a quiet moment at work.
Nerves are normal – Everyone gets nervous before getting on-stage to perform. You are baring a part of yourself when you show people your own work. But I promise you – it’s never as daunting as it seems once you are up there. Take a deep breath, smile, and go for it!
Projecting – Projecting is about making your voice as loud and clear as you can. This can take a while to get the hang of, but the best way is to imagine your voice moving in a straight line, hitting the back of the room. A good warm up is to hum with a closed mouth. Play around until you feel the sound vibrations tingling your lips. This is the correct place for your voice to be “coming from” to be heard well when you speak.
Eye contact – Everyone has different levels of comfort with this, but part of performing is connecting with your audience. It could help to have a friendly face in the crowd to “perform to” – although I purposely avoid my boyfriend’s gaze when he comes to see me perform. However you feel, a good trick is to aim your eyes at the top of someone’s head, or sweep a general portion of the crowd – with the bright lights, there’s a good chance you can’t make out any individuals anyway!
NO APOLOGISING – Sometimes, things will go wrong. I personally had a nightmarish open mic slot a few months ago, where I panicked as soon as I got on-stage, and wobbled and stumbled my way through a poem that I’d known off by heart only a few minutes earlier. But, when I tearfully talked to my friends about it, my performance hadn’t been nearly as terrible as I thought – they’d noticed me pause a few times, but the performance on the whole was ok. The thing to remember is this: if you read your own work, no one else knows the piece. They don’t know if you mixed up two adjectives, or if a long pause is a deliberate dramatic choice or a lost line. And, if you don’t panic and apologise, you have the chance to take a good, deep breath, calm yourself, and begin the line again. Which brings me to my next point…
Pauses are your friend – Silences on stage can be terrifying – sometimes, even more so than actually speaking. But a well placed silence can help your words really land with impact. Chose them carefully, and with purpose. If you are scared of the “Oh, are they finished?” reaction at the end of a piece, give the audience a small nod and say “thank you.” I often find myself crossing my feet and bowing a little at the waist, but that’s the actor in me. Also – and I can’t stress this enough – let the audience applaud you. Don’t try and talk over them if you can, and certainly don’t rush off-stage, no matter how tempting. They liked your work and they want to show you that – enjoy it!
Utilise your time – I’ve been guilty in the past of performing tiny poems; only four or five lines long. And while I love these poems, sometimes you are done and off-stage before the audience can really get a feel for who you are and what you do. Be mindful of time. If you are lucky enough to be asked to do a set of pieces, pick them carefully, and run the whole set before you perform it, timing yourself. You want to make the most of your time on-stage, and showcase your work properly. However, be very wary of seeming self-indulgent. One of my biggest bugbears at an open mic is a performer hogging the microphone, outstaying their welcome or even going back a second or third time! Everyone deserves a chance to perform, and one amazing piece is better than three lukewarm ones. Learn to use your time on-stage wisely.
Find your people – Performance poets are, in my experience, some of the warmest, funniest, most accepting and supporting people I’ve met. Talk to people – compliment their work, find them on social media, ask them questions. As a whole, we love to chat! There are always workshops, writing groups, and open mic nights to attend that will help you improve. In the North East, we have Scratch Tyne; a monthly workshop, where writers are invited to work on their pieces in an accepting, constructive environment. Sometimes there is a theme, sometimes we just play around and see what happens. New voices in the community only brings more interesting, diverse work, so make yourself known!
I am not a “performance poet” – at least, not in the way a lot of people I know are. I don’t want to perform for a living, or create a one-woman show for the Fringe Festival. But performing my work has led to some of the best things in my life. I’ve made friends, had amazing experiences, and grown as a writer in ways I never could have if I stuck strictly to the page. I hope my advice has made the stage a little less daunting, and maybe you can find a new angle which can help your writing grow and reach new audiences you maybe never imagined before. Break a leg!