Two days ago (Sat. Jan. 24), I attended a master class in Edinburgh with the London-based spoken word artist Francesca Beard hosted by Rally & Broad. The workshop focused on how to establish a persona and a physical presence onstage when performing spoken word poetry. It was very well-attended and proved an excellent source of new ideas, discussion around performativity, storytelling, and poetry, as well as providing lots of new writing inspiration.
Francesca opened with one of her own poems, which flowed brilliantly and seemed rooted in the storytelling tradition. Beard has a wonderful way of performing her poems as if telling them for the first time, rather than as if reciting a memorised piece. She spoke about the importance of the element of improvisation in performance: how vital it is that the piece feel live and exciting onstage. Watching her, I was reminded that pauses and appearing sometimes to not know the next line for a moment (when fully in control of the performance) can actually be a good thing, as it increases the suspense and puts the audience on the edge of their seats, making them interested not only in the poem but also in the act of telling the poem.
The main emphasis of the workshop was establishing a persona onstage. From the moment the poet stands up to take the mic, the audience begins making assumptions about their identity based on physical cues such as race, gender expression, clothing, etc. Body language (posture, stance, vocal dynamics, etc.) also affects whether the audience perceives the performer as confident or meek, arrogant or timid. Beard pointed out to us that the performer may not have control over the initial assumptions the audience makes about him/her, but does has the opportunity to define his/her identity through the way he/she introduces his/herself and his/her poems. Indeed, it can be more than an opportunity but a responsibility to take control of this identity expression: otherwise the performer is wasting a chance to take control of how his/her own identity is perceived by others. So much of the power of spoken word poetry lies in sharing one’s identity and learning from the way others do—this is how the form can break stereotypes—so it seems important to seize the chance to self-identify in a confident manner, whether this means confirming or disproving the audience’s assumptions about oneself.
To illustrate the power of revealing certain bits of information about oneself publicly, we played the classic theatre game in which a person in the center of a circle asks a “Who Here” question (for example, “Who here has broken a bone?”) and whomever has done that act has to run into the center and play musical chairs. We then wrote list poems of “Who Here” questions. This sparked a discussion of when a list becomes a poem, and it was generally agreed that the list would become a poem if it is “curated” and conveyed a narrative: for example, a shopping list for a family that has just lost a child, if arranged and performed in a certain way, could tell the story of the family by showing it. The old adage “show, don’t tell” is quite relevant with performance poetry, and a list poem is a great way to convey a narrative without saying it outright. The “Who Here” activity emphasised how asking questions of the audience can be a great way to mentally engage them. By having the audience consider the experiences they have had in their lives, a space is opened for people to realise shared experiences and common ground, and through this spoken word can cultivate a feeling of solidarity. For example, a Who Here poem that includes lines such as “Who here has not broken a bone? / Who here has a skeleton intact,/ has racked their brain for reasons to break, / has broken in many ways except for the physical?” invites the audience to consider the history of their relationships with their bodies and to understand that any traumas there are not unique to them (lines are from my initial draft written at the workshop).
Next, Beard gave us an exercise to write an introduction to a theoretical set we would be performing while paying specific attention to how we presented our backgrounds. Folks at the workshop shared our their introductions, which ranged from the hilarious (“I’m an escapee from a lab experiment in Kilmarnock”) to the very personal (“I have been homeless”) to the whimsical (one person used the Four Truths and a Lie format to make the audience guess which elements of her presented life were true). I realised during this exercise that most of how I introduce myself is my geographical background (“I’m from the States”) even though that is a) already evident when I open my mouth due to my accent, and b) not a major part of my identity in terms of what I consider important about myself. I’ve begun considering other ways of introducing myself onstage that shed light on other aspects of my identity that seem more relevant to the poems in my set and feel more true to the persona I wish to express onstage.
The main focus of the latter half of Francesca’s workshop was an emphasis on physicality in performance. She had us stand and gently warm up our bodies, rolling our shoulders, drawing awareness to our posture, and rotating our hips. She also had us make ridiculous faces, not only to warm up the muscles in our faces but also as a reminder to not take performance too seriously. Beard emphasised what can be easily forgotten in spoken word poetry: that it is a physical performance rooted in the body. Like with theatre, it requires preparation for the voice and body to perform at their peak. Beard had us introduce ourselves first with no self-confidence then with maximum self-confidence in order to feel the drastic difference that body language makes and draw our awareness to how we hold our bodies in the room. We also were made to walk across the room and stop in the middle as if taking the mic so that we became conscious of the way that even the transitional moment of walking onstage affects how the audience perceives the performer.
I come from a dance training background and thus I have a specific way of preparing for dance performances: I am conscious of what and when I eat that day, I stretch, warm up my limbs, become aware of my breathing. This practice not only physically prepares my body but also mentally settles me into a focused frame of mind for live performance. However, I realised at the workshop that I currently do not have such a routine for spoken word performances. I tend to run my poems earlier in the day and I do not drink at shows when I will be performing, but I currently don’t have any physical preparatory practice. At the workshop, even the simple act of rolling back my shoulders and drawing awareness to my posture placed me back into my performing, dancing body, and I felt so much more prepared to perform. I must’ve grown two inches when I straightened my posture, and not only did I appear more confident but I felt more confident as well. Thanks to this workshop, I will now begin developing a physical preparation before going onstage to do spoken word. Even if it is as simple as a few shoulder rolls and some deep breaths, I feel that entering that focused mental state and becoming rooted in my body is necessary in order to deliver a peak performance, and it will also increase my consciousness to how I am holding my body onstage and the persona that is conveying.
If there is enough interest, Rally & Broad are hoping to turn these master classes into an ongoing series. I would highly recommend that folks come along! The next one is Saturday, Feb. 21 with poet Salena Godden focusing on the performance of autobiographical narratives: tickets are available here but going fast. Thanks very much to Francesca Beard for a wonderful afternoon and to Rally & Broad for hosting the day!