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Welcome to the Stage: Hosting Spoken Word

Originally written in November 2014

Spoken word evenings succeed or fail at the hosting. A good host will have the right levels of charisma, control and coordination, while a bad one will drain, irritate and frustrate an audience and can often derail a whole event. Typically the host will also be the chief architect of the night itself, the person with the over-laying creative control and the principle vision, which can certainly be a boon, but can also quite easily be a curse. A host has to be particularly wary that they don't fall foul of ego-tripping at the Look-At-Me show, or end up treating the night like a second birthday party. And, of course, there are always external forces to be careful of: a host may have to keep not only their authority but also their cool in a room of disgruntled consumers or twitchy creatives. They might have to find ways to deal with hecklers, disruptive performers, tetchy venues or dreaded technical gremlins. But most of all a host has to keep control of themselves and, hand-in-hand with this, keep a totally clear vision of what the event itself is trying to achieve.

Last week I hosted my first ever solo event (if you don't count my book-launch, or the events I've hosted in conjunction with others - particularly Flashtag). This was Fauna at The King's Arms in Salford which was part of the Rampant Chaos Festival - one or two of you may have tuned into the live stream (oh hell yes). Fauna was an animal-themed spoken word event with a smattering of music which I created, curated, promoted and hosted, while the fine folk at Rampant Chaos sourced the venue and did all the fiddly organisational stuff. I was very fortunate with the venue; the excellent King's Arms is clearly very experienced at all this performance malarkey and smoothly accommodated all my technical whims - which really is half the battle sometimes. Mark Reid at Rampant was brilliant too, giving me total creative freedom and supporting me on the night itself with the get-in and get-out. So I was fortunate and well supported and my performers were as professional and as excellent as I knew they would be and, as a result, the night went very well indeed.

For my part, I did a heck of a lot of prep to try ensure that the night ran smoothly and to time. I also attempted to achieve, wherever I could, that crucial balance between my personal artistic doctrine (in this case it was quite specific: animals in stories), and the presentations of my performers. I deliberately kept the night quite small-scale and flexible so that I could change things around if needs be, and I made sure I didn't get too precious about any of the smaller details. For example, I had prepared a slideshow introduction of the Fauna Manifesto but I was fully prepared to ditch it if the projector and screen didn't play ball (fortunately they did). I also had a bunch of emergency stories stashed away in case my performers dropped out last minute and the order of my pre-arranged line-up was totally shift-able. Most importantly, on the night itself, I went with the flow. I started slightly late to allow for more audience arrivals, I ditched a few minor flourishes without second thought and shifted a couple of performers around as per particular requests. I trusted my earlier self that I'd done enough preparation to keep the night going and I smoothed over any bumps and cracks that cropped up. In the end, it went fine. Crucially, I remembered about five minutes in to shut up, relax and enjoy myself. Because there's no point creating and hosting an evening of spoken word if you can't then sit down and actually enjoy it. But I mostly have my brilliant performers to thank for that (thanks guyz).

So, tips for hosting spoken word? Here's a few from the top of my Sunday evening head:

1. Treat your performers like deities - be ultra-nice, be welcoming, be apologetic, be uber-friendly, be thankful and praise, praise, praise. As much as you possibly can, accommodate their whims from the whimsical to the weird, and never turn against them or blame them for anything. And, unless they are really taking the piss, never, ever interrupt their performances or hurry them along. Instead, make it clear to them well in advance of the event how long they have on stage and - if you can - roughly what time they will be on stage. And once they step up, let them get on with it.

2. Don't take up too much time yourself - you may want to read a piece or tell a few jokes or go through the fire evacuation procedure, which is fine, but remember: you are not the reason the audience came. Intro, outro, and some bits in between, but not too much. And if the night is overrunning, ditch your unicycle Dolly Parton routine and get the event back on schedule. You are the timekeeper, it is your fault if the audience depletes for last trains before the night is done.

3. Deal with problems like a super-suave pro - you'll be amazed how much power you have, so if you encounter difficulties meet them head-on. Particularly hecklers: single them out, make the whole room turn on them and they'll soon shut up or get out. And, despite tip number 1, if a performer is being an arse, bring them in line. A quiet word will usually do the trick. As for technical blips remember Peter Brook: all that is needed for an act of theatre is for one person to walk across an empty space and another person to watch. Perhaps you don't need that glitchy microphone after all?

4. Keep a close track of time, but don't be too rigid - try plotting out the timeframes before-hand and give everything a slot - every performer, as well as breaks, introductions and any other bits and pieces. You will never run precisely to time so don't fret about it, but aim for a finishing time and try desperately to stick to it. For events that start around 7:30-8ish try not to go beyond 10:30pm at the most. 10 is the sweet spot.

5. Keep your cool and don't be apologetic if you don't need to be - things will go wrong. You cannot reasonably hope that every tiny thing be perfect, because that's not the nature of theatre. So when things get tricky, don't worry, don't freak, be calm and cool and deal with it, as per tip 3. Typically audiences are extremely forgiving. They desperately want the events they have invested their time and money in to be good so they are more than happy to laugh off any little gremlins. Work with that attitude and integrate problems into the 'rough theatre' of the event. And try not to get apologetic because too many sorries and slumped shoulders will really drain the night of its energy and once an event is drained it's really hard to re-fill it.

6. Enjoy the event - this is the most important tip: don't forget to enjoy the event. You've put in the hard work to put the show on so let the magic of Bacchus take over the theatrics and tune-in to the performances and the atmosphere and the joys of the thing. Don't go too wild (and certainly do NOT get drunk), but once proceedings are underway loosen up and relax. If that means you miss or forget something, meh who cares, forget it and move on and cry about it later. At that time, in that moment, you are the ringleader of the circus and the clowns are tumbling to your call. Revel in it, bask in it, and do it all again at the next town.

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