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Spoken Word: Tips for Performing Literature

Originally written in December 2013

Down the past five years, performances at spoken word events have been a regular feature on my calendar and I've seen the full range of performances from the incredibly moving to the incredibly drunk, from the cockiest poet to the most nervous first-timer and everything in between.

Understandably, the idea of reading out your own work fills some writers with total abject horror and there are plenty of people I know who flat out refuse to do it. Of course, its a big step taking to that lonely stage - especially when faced with a room full of other creatives, some of whom have already grasped the mic by the throat and delivered a masterful set. Its not a step to be taken lightly, but I firmly believe in its power and benefit to your writing as a whole. It lets you hear the nuances in your writing, the rhythms, the ebbs, the flows - and it can suddenly and brutally show up a badly structured sentence or a terrible line of dialogue. The ear is a magical, much underused organ in writing and it can be an absolute saviour. So even if you never take to an open mic, you must always, always, always read your writing out loud to yourself and let your ear do its own edit.

But for anyone thinking of taking that step from the wings to centre stage, I've compiled a list of tips for live reading literature. These are not exhaustive, but they address some of the most common mistakes I see at spoken word nights, as well as the most common errors made by first-timers. But before the list begins, remember this above all else: reading your stories or poems is theatre. As the great theatre practitioner Peter Brook said, all that is needed for an act of theatre is for one person to walk across a stage while someone else watches. Everything from that point on is theatre. You are there behind that mic, in front of that room to perform....

Tips for the Performance of Literature

> The Mic is Your Friend - Don't get scared of it, don't shy away from it, don't spend half an hour trying to adjust its height or angle. Grab it and get your mouth round it. Fellate it if you need to. Stick your voice right in there and let it do what it does best. Too many people fall at this hurdle: I've seen readers stand a full two metres to one side of a microphone, or shrink away to the back of stage and they end up losing their whole story and the audience in one quiet unheard little mumble. The mic is an absolute godsend and you can use it to your advantage in many fantastic says. I love to growl lines of dialogue into it, or breathe heavily into it for a laugh or to build tension. Work with the mic, not against it.

> Perform It - You don't have to get too elaborate here - no acting or improv - but try to avoid delivering your literature in one mono-toned drawl. Add drama with shifts of tempo and emphasis; linger on poignant lines, give voice and style to your characters. Throw in a few careful hand movements if you like; tiny, simple little actions to lend flavour to your performance. Remember: people are watching you as well as listening to you. Don't be afraid to use props if you fancy it - and costume and members of the audience etc etc. Embrace the theatricality - the audience will love it.

> Print Your Words Big - Your eyes will betray you - especially if you are tired or tipsy or the lights of the venue are not entirely conducive to seeing 10 point Times New Roman. Print it big, 1.5 or 2 spaced. I know some readers who annotate their text to tell their performing selves when to pause, what to emphasise etc. Again, that bit of paper is a useful tool: make it work for you.

> Know When You'll Be On and Be Ready - Most of the organisers of the events will tell you when you are due to be on, so make sure you know - and don't be afraid to request a time if you want to get it out of the way or you want time to psyche up. Knowing your timeslot really helps you keep nerves under control and gets you mentally prepared.

> Don't Overstay Your Timeslot - Time yourself before you come out and stick, as much as possible, to the timeslot you've been given. Keep the organiser and the audience on side and don't outstay your welcome - control of this will give you massive 'brownie points' with everyone. Also, its good to know before you go just how long 5 minutes is and how much you can do in that timeframe.

> Pick the Right Story to Read - Tricky one this, but important. Try to pick the story or poem that will sound best performed. You might want to opt for one with points of humour or moments of powerful poignancy rather than your transcendent philosophical thought-piece where nothing much happens - no matter how beautiful and profound the prose on that piece may be. The audience is there to be entertained - made to laugh or cry or frown or nod. Try to pick a story with a great hook in the first line - really seize control of the crowd's attention before it slips and wanes.

> Look at Your Audience - Make eye contact, look at everyone and make them look at you back. Draw them into you, dominate and hold them. You are the one on stage, this is your moment - make those fuckers pay attention. Seriously. If you withdraw too much into yourself or your paper the fickle people will feel ignored and left out, and that's when phones and yawns start to come out. In addition to this - don't be put off if you do see someone flicking through Twitter while you are pouring your creative heart out. There's always one and, you know, screw 'em. Its their loss.

> Slow Down - Whatever you do, don't rush it. Once you are on stage, forget about how much time you do or don't have (you should work this out before you go, if you can, see above). Relax, take your time, tell your story. Allow time for the moments of your tale to sink into the minds of your audience. You may well have subtleties in there; layers and complexities - all these will be missed if you speedy gonzales your way through them. Pause, breathe, keep the flow slow and smooth.

> Practice Before You Go - I find this to be crucial and I do it every time. Your story and your mouth might collude and try to work against you: certain lines will tumble off the edges of your tongue, odd words will catch in your throat. Find these little gremlins before you head out and eradicate them as much as possible. You will thank your earlier self for it

> Listen, and Pass On Your Compliments, to the Other Readers - For god sake, don't turn up to an open mic, perform your piece and then immediately bugger off (unless you've got good reason of course). Stay, listen to the other readers, think about their stories, watch their performances carefully. Pick up performance hints from them, look out for their mistakes. And then afterwards, talk to the other readers: discuss their stories, lend your compliments. It doesn't take any effort but the rewards are endless.

Above all remember this: you are on stage reading your work. Despite those fizzling fears, there is nothing to be scared about. You are not going to die. Quite the opposite: at that moment in time, as soon as you stand behind that microphone, you are crowned the king or queen of the room. Feel regal. Feel cocky. Feel blessed. Swell your head, fill your chest, indulge in your moment of greatness. The audience are your subjects, you are their adored leader, now lead them; take them, giddy, into the beautiful world of your art.

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