Whenever I confess to a new acquaintance that I’m a performance poet, they will invariably respond with one of these stock phrases:
“Do people actually come to see poetry shows?” “How do you make any money?” and “Don’t you get scared performing on stage?”
The short answers to these questions are “They do.” “I don’t.” and “Are you kidding me?!”
I’ve been performing for about seven years now (obviously not consecutively) and even now I still get the dry mouth, wobbly legs, and sick, fluttery feeling that comes from being summoned to the mic. But you know what they say: pre-show nerves are a sign that you really care about what you’re doing and there is something pretty incredible about challenging yourself. Pushing beyond your comfort zone to do something new and exciting.
Which is all very well, yet it doesn’t actually help much when you’re standing by the side of the stage, looking into the crowd and wondering whether to run, faint, or throw up on your own shoes. However, it does become less scary the more you perform and there are lots of things you can do to help ease the anxiety before your first show.
Here are a few suggestions:
Check out the venue ahead of time.
If you can, go to the event as an audience member first, and get a feel for the place. Speak to the hosts of the show, and chat to some of the performers too. I totally recommend checking out the vibe in this way because it helps to squash that daunting feeling of going into an unfamiliar space for the first time. It also gives you the chance to check out whether an event is welcoming and friendly (And here’s a hint: the vast majority are!).
Practise, practise, practise.
Knowing your material inside out is a really good way of boosting your confidence, and it gives you more room to have fun on stage too. But don’t feel under pressure to perform everything from memory. It doesn’t matter if you’re reading from the page, or reciting stuff ‘off-book’, or if you’ve got your poem written in a text message on your phone. As long as you’ve practised it a little bit – and you know how you want it to sound out loud – you’ll come across as polished and well-rehearsed, and the audience will really appreciate it too!
Bring a friend with you.
Sometimes, it helps to have a comrade in the audience, poised to snap your picture, and ready to clap and cheer for your performance. A friend also comes in handy when you’re too exhausted to drive yourself home post-gig, or when you need someone to persuade you that you’ve earned a greasy fast-food burger on the way back from the show…
Go on your own.
…However, not everyone feels comfortable with loads of familiar faces in the crowd, and sometimes it pays to go poetic incognito. Often, it’s easier to perform to a room full of strangers, as there’s no sense of expectation from people who don’t know your stuff. (This will get harder once you become super-famous, but for now it’s pretty good advice.) When you’re incognito, you can just rock up, perform, and then melt away into the night. But you’ll probably be so relieved/excited after the show that you’ll suddenly want to chat to everyone in the room, and end up making loads of new friends at the bar. Networking – easy as!
Do some exercise.
If you can, go for a little walk round the block before the show starts. You’ll be amazed how much of your nervous energy can be dissipated by engaging in a bit of movement. If you’re not able to go for a walk, or you’ve got restricted mobility, gentle stretching can help refocus your mind and quieten down those anxious voices in your head.
Get a good night’s sleep before the show.
This one is vital for me, because my nerves are always more jangly if I’ve had a crap night’s sleep the night before. It’s not always something that’s within your control, but definitely worth thinking about if you can influence your bedtime routine.
And remember, the audience want to like you!
The audience have paid to be at this event because they love spoken word / music / dance / theatre (delete as applicable) and they want to be entertained / amused / challenged / confused (delete as applicable). Absolutely no one wants you to have a bad experience on stage, and they’re all literally cheering you on!
So get out there and give it your best shot. Good luck!
Changing a sound that you have built up over years of practice is always going to be challenge.
As a musician, you learn or write a song and often it will get played in exactly the same way every time you take it out to a gig, especially when there are only two of you in the band, you really get set in your ways. In fact, Lon and I have been playing together as a duo for so many years now, that we don’t really practise our music much anymore, until it comes to learning or writing a new track.
We had a long hard think about how to change our sound, as we had decided that it was getting a little stale. So, we decided to expand the band from a duo in to a five piece. This is a brand new challenge and I would like to think we have certainly grabbed the bull by the horns! We have added Bass Guitar (Joe Doyle), Drums (Matt Hellard) and Saxophone (George Mitchell). We have only had a few rehearsals as a full band, but the sound seems to be coming together very quickly and all of us could not be more pleased with it.
It was not until adding more people to the line up that I realised how having more musicians in your group can really help you to learn and grow as an artist.
I am a singer and will always be a singer who knows very little about music theory and structure. Quite often I just go with the flow of the track and see where it takes me and with two people this is incredibly easy. So it has been really great to work with new people who have a different knowledge of music to myself and Lon! Although with a larger band it can be easy to get completely lost in the music and forget where you are in the song, so this is something that I will certainly be trying to control.
As I have envisaged the full Elysian sound for so long, it’s really exciting to actually hear what I have imagined in my own head for years now. Each space where there should have been more has now been filled out and it definitely sounds more jazzy and soulful.
The music has so much more depth.
It’s also really great to have new members to bounce ideas off and it has been a massively rewarding learning curve so far. Look out for our upcoming shows as a five piece. We can’t wait!
Spoken word, one of the world’s fastest growing art forms
…as measured by YouTube views and its increasing usage in slick advertising campaigns. But why should you get involved? In this handy guide, human person and spoken word artist Stephen Thomas sets out what he thinks are the main benefits from doing spoken word.
It will boost your confidence and charisma
With more automation coming, it’s important for us to focus on the two skills that humans can do better than robots – i.e. being charismatic and inventing short-lived urban dance moves such as the Harlem shake or ‘the dab’. Spoken word can help with at least one of these.
The confidence you will get from performing regularly is a talent that can be taken forward into all aspects of life, from delivering best man speeches to pre-paintball battle cries and even to achingly dull work presentations. Trust me, when you’ve been on stage talking about how much you cried after your last relationship ended, presenting some disappointing growth figures for quarter 3 is a relatively quaint occurrence.
Spoken word places you in the bloodline of one of the world’s oldest art forms. In fact, some scholars now believe that the oral tradition dates back to the Jurassic Age.
You can be part of the non-sexual oral tradition
Spoken word places you in the bloodline of one of the world’s oldest art forms. In fact, some scholars now believe that the oral tradition dates back to the Jurassic Age when caveman (yes, they did exist at the same time as dinosaurs) would perform long, drawn-out monologues about the humble Brontosaurus and how it should serve ‘as an example’ to all other dinosaurs. Your spoken word is probably better than this but it’s still good to know you’re part of something bigger.
Please note that being part of the non-sexual oral tradition does not prevent you form being part of the sexual oral tradition.
The most important relationship you will have as a spoken word artist is with your thesaurus.
You can impress friends with a plethora of new words
The most important relationship you will have as a spoken word artist is with your thesaurus. Searching for the perfect adjective to squeeze into your performance is a fundamental appurtenance of the writing process. It will also make you look really clever so long as you follow the one golden rule of thesaurus-use – it doesn’t matter if you use a word incorrectly, what matters is that no one notices. This of course is a technique mastered by Russell Brand, the high priest of thesaurus skulduggery.
Upon entering your first spoken word event, you will be greeted by a colourful cast of characters and a wide spectrum of orientations – and that’s just the hairstyles.
You will meet lots of interesting people
At the risk of sounding smug (yes, I am one of these ‘interesting people’), the world of spoken word is a diverse and eclectic place, perhaps more so than the world of Earth itself, if that’s even possible. Upon entering your first spoken word event, you will be greeted by a colourful cast of characters and a wide spectrum of orientations – and that’s just the hairstyles. In all seriousness though, the spoken word scene is full of people who are deeply passionate about things – ideas, emotions, other people – and it can only be a good thing to know more people like this.
Writing poetry gives you licence to spend hours sitting in cafes, sipping lattes and looking sophisticated.
It creates an aura of sexiness around you
Writing poetry gives you licence to spend hours sitting in cafes, sipping lattes and looking sophisticated. A good trick is to jot something down in your notepad then look up and nod your head approvingly as if you’ve written a line worthy of The Bard himself. To non-poets, this is seen as incredibly sexy.
Another trick is at dinner party or soirées, casually drop into conversation that you’re a poet then instantly walk away. This will create an aura of mystery and intrigue around you which will last for at least the next ten minutes.
But let’s be honest, none of these tricks are necessary. Because following your passions and dreams is the sexiest thing you can do.
With all these obvious benefits and opportunities, what are you waiting for? Your local spoken word event is waiting for you, with a supportive cast of characters and a platform for your talent to grow.
And remember, ask not what spoken word can do for you but what you can do for spoken word.
In my ‘comedy’, the main thrust of what I do is audience interaction.
Give them an experience that is unique to that room and that moment.
Audience interaction in comedy and any art form can be great. It allows the audience to feel part of the show: they are directly engaged with the content, and it gives them an experience that is unique to that room and that moment. As a performer, it’s a lot of fun to watch.
In my ‘comedy’, the main thrust of what I do is audience interaction. This comes in the form of games, from ‘The Jumper Game’ (getting audience members to try and take my jumper off) to getting everyone to stand up and do alternative yoga. It’s fun and I like to think it makes me stand out as a performer. It’s not as easy as saying ‘do this now’, there is a certain level of responsibility to the audience that comes with it.
First off you need to warm the audience up to the idea of interaction. This is especially true with my weird comedy: often I will warm an audience up without them realising it by getting the whole audience to repeat odd noises. This is where you need to demonstrate some authority. There will be, and always are, audience members who immediately switch off to the idea of phonetically saying ‘Zig-A-Zig Ahh’. This could be because they’re not a Spice Girls fan, or simply just don’t want to do anything that requires effort other than sitting and listening.
There will be, and always are, audience members who immediately switch off to the idea of phonetically saying ‘Zig-A-Zig Ahh’
From my perspective though, if they can’t engage with this small task, then they are going to find the rest of the performance hard and unenjoyable. It is therefore key to spot any audience members who are not being involved and single them out. This could be argued as ‘picking on someone’, and although in a way it could be construed as that, what I’m actually doing here is two things:
Showing that they can’t get away with not being involved and as punishment for not doing the task the first time with everyone, they have to do it again with everyone watching. This sets a benchmark and they won’t fail to do some of the harder tasks later on in fear of having to do it alone again.
Setting an example to anyone I see who didn’t do it the first time, and who is thinking about not doing the task in the future, as to what could happen.
It also makes said audience member realise that it wasn’t that hard to do and can be fun. However, this needs to be done delicately and delivered in a friendly manner. Being aggressive and ungrateful to the audience member in question will only alienate them, which in turn will alienate the rest of the audience. You’re playing a game so the best way to act is like you’re having fun and simply want them to join in.
Being aggressive and ungrateful to the audience member in question will only alienate them, which in turn will alienate the rest of the audience.
By doing simple exercises, you are warming the audience up to more interaction and this can be built on by including gestures that they can do from their seats (such as arm movements). Through carrying on like this, by the time you ask people to stand up for more movement based games, it doesn’t seem such a ridiculous idea and is just a natural progression.
As for getting people on stage, that’s a similar matter but also very different. You need to introduce them to the rest of the audience, asking their name and getting everyone to say Hi. When bringing them to the stage, give them a round of applause – this not only gives value to what they’re doing but also makes it quite hard to refuse coming up to.
When on stage, it’s important that the tasks are thoughtfully choreographed, they’ve come up here trusting you. If you don’t know what you’re doing, the performance will lose momentum very quickly and suddenly you’re awkwardly standing there with some audience members. Give them a simple task or give them a deliberately hard task to do that you can achieve but others will struggle with. Humour and entertainment can come from this; whatever it is that you do, make sure your instructions are clear. I often ask them to do something that sounds as an idea really odd but when put into action is very entertaining.
If you don’t know what you’re doing, the performance will lose momentum very quickly and suddenly you’re awkwardly standing there with some audience members.
There is some danger here with an audience and individuals as once you’ve involved and interacted with them in this way, some audience members may feel that means they have licence to chat to you onstage or heckle. They are not at fault here – they simply want to contribute – but it’s important that you manage this correctly without breaking the friendly atmosphere you’ve created. Goodwill come downs are important, bits of material that you can have in your pocket ready, stuff along the lines of ‘alright, it’s my turn now’. If you deliver it in the same good nature as you have been already, the audience will stay on your side and hopefully the heckler will get the hint.
In conclusion, this all may seem quite manipulative and could be construed as bullying or picking on people. I never mean it to seem like that and the difference is often always the way this is delivered. Once you understand how to work a crowd, the possibilities are limitless, and in turn can create a fun atmosphere that no-one was expecting when they walked in the door. The whole audience connects as a group having to go through the same thing.
Getting a crowd strong of 160, to stand up and perform alternative yoga has been one of the highlights of my comedy career.
For a long time, I only did these exercises in small audiences thinking that I wouldn’t be able to handle big audiences, however lately I’ve been experimenting more with bigger audiences. Getting a crowd strong of 160, to stand up and perform alternative yoga has been one of the highlights of my comedy career. By the end of the gig, I (and hopefully the audience as well) felt like a bond and a warm atmosphere had been created in that moment unique to that night. And that is something to always be striving for.
In complete honesty, I didn’t know what to write about for this, so I’m gonna just waffle and see what happens, maybe tell you the story of Homeless Shakespeare…
I was seriously struggling with mental health whilst writing my first album Politicality (which apparently, in linguistics, means the politics of politics).
At the time, I was in a band that would take 3 hours to get to rehearsals, show up high and play Tekken. The fact I was anxious and unconfident made me unable to express my frustration, which they were fine with showing me when I started my solo venture. Either way, we had this residential room; it was a pile of crap. Concrete floor layered with wood chip bricks and cheap carpet tiles. The walls were plated plasterboard with a 6″ hollow gap between them.
Rehearsing while other bands were there was like pass the parcel, kinda had to take it in turns doing songs. Regardless, it was 24 hours and we got away with hot boxing it hard ways, so it wasn’t all bad. I started writing acoustic songs when I was still working full time at Slug & Lettuce, and I would often do a 14 hour shift then proceed to the residential room to write, rehearse and practise for 6 or 7 more hours. Though, a lot of that time was spent shouting, screaming and screeching at the walls and ceiling, asking for quiet and for them to ‘shut up’.
I don’t know who they were, or if they existed, but I often heard voices imitating people I know criticising me, putting me down, or even defending and praising me. I didn’t want any of it, particularly the latter.
This was the start of my psyche convincing myself that I was telepathic or psychic, which is an entirely different story. I self harmed and was often in severe distress there, but I stuck too it and held my ground. As insufferable as it was, I have to say that it contributed so much to my music. One song, Lonely Man Blues in particular. I would often cry while rehearsing the bellowing tune. It’s also the track that I had a bit of a mental breakdown to on stage at Duffy’s last year, where I finished my set by grabbing all the guitar strings and bungy-ing the guitar until they snapped, throwing the guitar to the ground. I tried putting this torture into the recorded version, which is more noise than music.
Taken from the Fried Rice Jam – a prime example of company in creativity.
I guess the conclusion to this is that, no matter how bad it gets, consider how lucky we are to be artists and to be able to express ourselves so freely, even if it seems inadequate for what its portraying at times. Writing poetry and music has essentially saved my life. I have one song Autumn Land, based on a woman I – well, the many ‘head voices’ – had convinced me that she was ‘in love with me’ and ‘the one’ (as a virgin, which a lot of you probably didn’t know about me, I’m quite easily smitten). I met her at one of the worst points of my adult life so far.
I didn’t want to be anything, any where, but I happened to be contently aline in the Firebug garden when she approached me and gave me company and conversation. She invited me back to hers where after listening to the radio & talking over a couple of zoots, I slept on the sofa. I would send her hundreds of messages commentating the back and forths of my mental conversations, treating this poor girl as a blog, narrating my unstable thoughts. It goes without saying that it wasn’t until writing lyrics that I was able to find closure and better see it from her perspective.
This is Esmarelda. Last Valentine’s day, I took my guitar on a legitimate wine & dine date to suppress the looming loneliness. It worked. Took her to the Soundhouse this year too…
Hide & Seek is the most blatant of my tracks associated with mental health. It was written and recorded in a day, I guess it just all needed to come out. Fantasy is about falling in love with a dream. Like, literally, a dream. That was weird. Worm Right Through, my first ‘gyp-hop’ track is based on the internal conflict of greed vs. philanthropy.
So, it may sound odd me saying this, but as much as mental illness sucks, we’re lucky to be so different.
I often avoid talking to people about my or their issues, because there is no way to truly understand each others’ pain. I find it somewhat superficial to offer someone help when they want to find the strength in themselves. Or maybe that’s just my approach.
Either way, to all you mad, insane, unwell individuals out there: don’t worry. Find your means of expression and express!
People always tell me, “You know what you should write a poem about?” and then tell me their pet peeve.
Now I tell them that is what THEY need to write a poem about. People ask me; how I start writing something? I tell them to capture the moment when they have the will to communicate. When something happens, that means you have to stop everything and you need to phone up your friend or family, someone, anyone, you need to tell that story or you’ll burst. I see storytelling everywhere, there are passionate people communicating on buses, in cafes, in staff rooms. The secret is to spot that desperate need to speak and sit and write it down first! Once you phone a friend and they hear you out, you feel satisfied, the feedback loop is complete. Everyone has a voice, and when speaking in public, the feedback loop with the audience teaches you how best to express yourself.
Two and a half years ago, I had never been on stage. I made music at home whenever I’d had a bad day at work I’d bash the keyboard for an hour before I had a shower. I wrote songs and tried to sing and play at the same time but it wasn’t until I met a gentleman in my local pub who told me about Jess Green’s Find The Right Words that I considered there was an audience out there for anything I’d written. I took six poems with me in December 2014 and raced through them at breakneck speed then sat down shaking with applause in my ears and was instantly hooked. I had moved to Leicester for a girl, and when that ended, the monthly poetry shows were the best thing in my life, so I started to go to open mic twice a month, then twice a week.
I remember the first time I performed at House of Verse, in St Martin’s Square, everyone had put on such a good show, I felt like I really had to raise my game. As a performer, I love that the audience are always superb, always really eager to get on board. As an audience member, it’s the variety that makes every show memorable, from beautiful, classical, acoustic guitar from Jim Ghedi or Bartek one minute to hair-brained comedy games from Dan Nicholas the next, I guarantee you’ll find something that you didn’t know you were looking for at House of Verse.
You learn something every time you do a show.
Sometimes you learn that the thing you were so excited to say didn’t work out how you imagined, and that’s hard to take, but when you get past that, you realise that everything is a work in progress and nothing is ever finished; it frees you from getting too disheartened when a lyric gets lost. The thing I like about performing is that everyone is making what they think is missing, I’ve seen one poet do stuff about the cruelness of enslaving cows for milk, and another poet do a poem about the plight of the dairy farmers struggling to survive while supermarkets skim the profits. There are no taboo topics in live performance, there is freedom to be found on stage that is hard to find in the real world.
At the poetry events, I’ve organised and hosted as Poetman, I’ve encouraged people in the audience who have never taken the stage before to write something during the break and do their poetry debut. Poetman’s superpower is to create poets, I put blank postcards and pencils on the tables, providing people everything they need to discover what it feels like to perform. I love performing, and I love to help others find out that they like it too. Last year I had begged venues all over Leicester to let me do a comedy show but kept hearing back Established Acts Only, and thanks to Gray’s Cafe, I put on an hour show at LCB Depot and I felt proud that 35 people came.
This February, I am doing shows in Attenborough Arts Centre and Y Theatre. I’ve been hitting up every open mic again, getting in condition to make the Leicester Comedy Festival, the Best-of-all the shows I’ve ever done, its going to be fun, I hope you can come!