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Mind-Reading: Performing Literature from Memory

Originally written in May 2014

This Wednesday gone I took to the Bad Language stage, introduced up by host Fat Roland as a 'veteran' of this particular event. That I am: I was among the first writers to grace BL's microphones way back when they first opened them, four years ago. It was super nice to return to the BL stage again, after a good few months of not performing at it.

I've done many things on the BL stage; some of them faintly ridiculous, some of them best forgotten, some of them quite unmentionable. But one thing I've never done - and this extends to all the spoken word/open mics I've read at, in all their various forms - is read a full story from memory. I, like many others, take great comfort and solace from the grasped slip of paper: a sort-of shield against the terrifying, unpredictable dragon of performing live. Even if I know the story really well (there are a few from Threshold I could probably recite without looking), I've always preferred to have that bit of paper there. For me, its part of the 'image' of a spoken word performer: I believe in its power to help get the audience 'on side' with the performer, as it were: a visual message that says: 'don't hurt me, I'm trying my hardest: look, I wrote this, maybe its not finished yet, please be kind :,-)'

But: live performance should always be a challenge. Last year at the Flashtag Short Short Story Slam, the winner Simon Sylvester committed all three of his stories to memory and delivered them beautifully. He was able to liberate his hands and eyes from the ubiquitous paper and put them to good use elsewhere: in gesture, audience eye-contact, and character embodiment. Suddenly, the spoken word performance had embraced its innate theatricality and the story was shown as well as told. As I've mentioned before in my Tips for Performing Literature post, theatricalising a spoken word performance is often key to its success.

So I figured it was about time I followed suit. I picked a 300ish word piece called Spiderseed (published last year in the Re:Imagined anthology) and spent a good few days embedding it into my short-term and then dragging it into my subconscious and the fringes of my long-term. I stole away for quick breaks at work, found quiet rooms and whisper-talked my way through it. I walked into town and back repeating it over and over again until it stuck. I kept getting it wrong, kept dropping words, sentences and, at one scary point, a whole paragraph. But eventually it fixed hard and I had it. Thankfully, the performance itself was spot on - although I was pretty darn nervous about nailing it.

In the process, I came up with a few tips to help in the learning of a story, in case any of you lot out there fancy taking this next step in performance:

1. Don't try to parrot-learn it. Weird tip, no? The best way I can describe this is: tell the story. Embody the narrator (and it helps if its a 1st person narrative): become them, let them rise through you, desperate to tell their amazing experience. This was a piece of advice I remembered from my acting days back in A-Level Drama and it relates to learning Shakespeare. The bard is hard to commit to memory for obvious reasons, but if you work hard to understand what Shakey is actually saying, what story he is actually telling, it becomes an awful lot easier. Your brain sticks nicely to storytelling because it processes things from a beginning to an end: it narrativises life. Memory is often structured around the process of storytelling: turn that to your advantage.

2. Once you've got it, speed-say it. Try and say it all in as few breaths as possible, from beginning to end, really, really fast. Your mouth and lips will learn a sort-of muscle memory around the form of the words and, when it comes to the performance, they will slip their way to the next word for you even before your brain has realised.

3. Don't make it look like you are recalling. Don't play up to the fact that you are doing it from memory: play it cool and easy. People hate show-offs but love actors.

4. If you are brave enough, don't get up on stage with the story in your pocket. I bottled it and had it snug tucked away in the back pocket of my jeans, like a warm blanket. But there's something to be said for forcing your brain to remember it by taking away its safety net. Scary, but it could be the clincher.

5. You can never over-learn something. You can under-learn. So just keep going over and over and over and over and over until it grows out of your head like a fifth limb.

6. Don't panic if your memory fails you: be patient, be calm, don't flap and it will come back. Take a moment, hit refresh, take a pause, take a breath. If you are confident in the practice you have put in, it will kick in.

7. The audience always forgives. No-one is judging you, everyone wants you to get it right. In the theatre, when an actor forgets their line, they beat themselves up about it afterwards. The audience are too embarrassed to mention it and will happily pass it by. Remember: most people watching are thinking: if that was me, I'd forget it all. They wouldn't, but that's what they're thinking. Generally, audiences are very forgiving people.

Got any more tips for performing stuff off heart? Stick em in the comments below.

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