Wednesday, 8 August 2012

How to Perform Your Writing

Writing is so often about the page, but we're seeing, as with music, a resurgence in the popularity of live events. Perhaps it's in response to the increasing virtuality of our exploded social networks, or the nature of on-demand entertainment which trivialises cultural experience. Either way, as writers, we're being called upon to engage our audiences in ways that move beyond the page (or screen). From the oral storyteller of a town to book readings, open mic nights and slam, writers have a strong tradition of performing their work. For a while we seemed to forget that--but as digitisation and digital printing have called the industry to change, some of us are going back to basics when it comes to building audiences and encouraging participation.

Read IdeasTap's article on How to perform your writing for a few choice tips on the art of bringing your work alive.

I have a few more to add. Some of these are connected, because they deal with the relationship between audience and performer, and how we can exploit the expectations such roles set up.

Look at your audience. It might seem obvious, but so many writers glue their eyes to their books and don't look up. For poetry, try to take a quick glance at the next line, and look up as you deliver it. Make eye contact. That increases engagement but it also slows you down. If you race to the end, your audience will miss out on the richness of your story.

Vary your intonation and mode of expression. Poetry can be killed so quickly by a naive adherence to the monotone. When you're reading a sex scene, it might be appropriate to speed up your reading or slow it down, to become breathless, to become more animated. If you're reading a fight scene, wouldn't it make sense to read it faster than you would a character's daydream? But more than that, within an episode or scene, you should also vary your intonation to keep the pulse and rhythms of your writing alive. Think about your breathing. Think about consonance. Too often writers descend into a series of grunts where you can only make out their vowels. Think about how words sound and where you place them on the tongue. Consider the shapes your mouth makes as you read them aloud. Allow that to bring a layer of texture to the experience. Every piece of writing has a kind of music of its own. Your task as a performer is to uncover that music and bring it out.


Challenge your audience. Don't underestimate them. You don't need to explain every reference or tell people what your poem is about. Let it speak for itself. But more than that: think of ways to bring the reading to life. Fellow writer AJ Kirby brings props to his readings and does raffles (once including a knitted Cthulhu made by Jodie Daber). I've invited audience members to take part in performances, such as by writing something of their own, or rubbing cocoa butter on my face, or taking part in a call and response activity.


Move beyond words. How do you gesticulate when you read? Do you burn incense or play music? Is it appropriate to use other senses in your performance? Writing can be very aural, with the audience listening, and very visual, as they try to imagine the world you're creating. But how does that world taste? If you invite, as Malika Booker has done, your audience to break bread with you; or, as Onyi Ekebuisi has done, to light candles and incense for the dead; or, as Amy Lame has done, to put on party hats, pull party poppers and eat party food--how does that change the experience? Does it involve your audience more or does it push them away? Is it right to draw audiences in and then push them away at different points in your performance? Should a performance always be comfortable?

These are some things to think about. Hopefully they'll help you improve your performance skills.

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