Week One: Performance Poetry
Ask yourself the following: Are all performance poets of a particular age? Can you name any performance poets? What is it about their style that you do or don’t like? Poets like Maya Angelo, Zefenia, Pam Ayres and Rappers like Kanye West, Jayzee etc. Would you consider rapping to be a form of poetry? What is the difference between that and performance poetry/Spoken Word?
Firstly listen to a couple of performance poets online. Look out for the following:
a) Length of sentences
b) The tone
c) The speed of delivery
d) The power of the pause
e) Is there a particular way that the artist uses or says the words
and if so how. Can you explain?
f) Does the piece rhyme?
g) What is its rhythm like? Does it have a rhythm
h) What is the piece about - politics, personal, issue based???
i) Does the artist make his/her point succinctly? Where is the bias
Before we can perform, we obviously need something to perform. Rather than spend all day sweating over writing a poem lets try something else. Write about something that you’ve observed recently (could be making a cup of tea!) or something that chimes with you - something you are passionate about or passionately opposed to. Try writing 8 lines minimum.
Now, practice saying the piece out loud. Play with the delivery of the words, repeat some of the phrases or lines. Hold longer pauses or keep flowing where there would normally be a natural pause. Think about the poets/performers you checked out earlier and experiment using something like their style. Think about what it was that you liked or didn't like about their style.
As with every performance it requires practice. So, go ahead and practice your piece at least 3 times until it is familiar to you at least. Most performance poets know their pieces by heart. If you are able to commit yours to memory all well and good but if not don’t worry. We won't hold it against you (just note it in our big black book!). Seriously though, this is all about having fun and getting started.
Centre yourself: Take in 3 deep breaths through the nose, count up to 4 and then out through the mouth, count up to 6. Do this three times. In the normal course of things if you had a live audience in front of you it is always best to take your time. Stand with legs hip-width apart, soften the knees (no, we're not going into a yoga pose) and draw your shoulders back. Breathe from the belly. Imagine you have an audience in front of you and image you are engaging eye contact with them - let them know you are there, that you have this and they are safe in your hands for some good entertainment. Positive thoughts help to ground you and give a better delivery.
Try a wee smile - unleash ‘you’!
Begin - introduce yourself. Tell your audience the title of the piece and, if you like, how it came about. Take no longer than 90 seconds.
When you’ve finished delivering the piece do not scurry away. Acknowledge the audience, receive the applause and congratulations offered, thank them and then leave.
Why not try the above and post it as a video on the Facebook Group page? It would be lovely to see what you all come up with!
Some examples of those done in the first week of this challenge are below.
Week Two: Writing to Movement of the body
So, today we’re thinking about writing to movement - and no, its not bowel movements! (which is what my husband’s first response was). But why do it this way I hear you ask. Well, dear Whisperers, there’s a really good reason for that … From mood enhancement, relaxation to full-blown oneness with the cosmos (ie as a musical aid with meditation), music has the ability to powerfully shift our state of mind. Albeit bringing back memories, to motivating (for those of us gym bunnies) to uniting people … think of Auld Lang Syne and when it’s usually sung. Given this and our proven ability to write it stands to reason that the two mediums will work well together.
As a student (just a wee while back … erhem) I used Baroch music to sustain me through the late hours while puting together my essays. It did work - honestly. I use music to reframe my mindset, with upbeat music I often find myself dancing in the kitchen (sometimes with a wooden spoon to enhance the performance!).
Certain tunes will take me back to events in my life, both happy and sad. But for the purposes of this session we are going to use music to help us to write and possibly move us into places that we haven’t delved before. Trust me, it will show up in your writing in ways that will surprise you.
What we are going to ask you to do requires a bit of space. A pen and paper to the ready and no distractions. If possible have a timer to hand. You can use Youtube to find the music we suggest:
Pull up to the Bunker : Grace Jones. (3 minutes)
Play and dance to this for three minutes - then directly after write continuously for five minutes. Write whatever comes to mind. If you get stuck continue to write - write for five minutes until something else comes to mind. Do not worry about spelling or grammar
Respect - Aretha Franklin (3 minutes)
Again, follow the same routine as noted above. It is up to you if you want to pick up the writing where you left off or start on a completely new tack.
Salento - Rene Aubry (3 minutes)
Again, follow the same routine as noted above.
Now how about confirming just how important your sensory experience is to the mood and level of your writing? How about this? Try writing against what your senses are experiencing. Listen to The Who's 'Won't Get Fooled Again' whilst trying to write a calm, reflective low key piece of writing about fairies and angels and swallows and fluffy bunnies … and … you get my drift.
Then try the opposite … listen to Samuel Barber's 'Adagio for Strings' whilst trying to write some fast-paced thrill-filled horror of a piece of writing. Notice where it sits with you. The places where it jars or feels sublime
What was your general mood before you started writing. Did you have any aches or pains any concerns?
How did you feel after the writing experience overall?
Did your writing surprise you?
Did you find any nuggets of writing that you think you would wish to follow through a bit further.
Follow this practice every day for the rest of the week. Keep all your notes in one place. And share one of the pieces on the group page if you want to.
Week Three: Writing and relaxation
Well let’s face it. We all write better when we are relaxed than if there is a pile of stress hanging over us. Remember waaaay back in the beginning with the first kickstarter for creative writing where we suggested you write early in the morning …. part of that was because you would be more relaxed, not having taken on the usual labours and considerations of the day.
So what do we do to get relaxed. Some of us take a bath (me, I’m a big bath fan … just love locking the door and ignoring all else that’s going on beyond), a walk (me again, especially with the dogs), having some wine … (yep, me again … I’ve been practicing that one a lot lately). But there are other ways - ways that will also help to get you into the relaxation zone and unlock your creativity. So, let’s go ahead and try some.
Breathing: The key to relaxation is slow and steady breathing with a longer out breath than an in breath. The breathing must come from the diaphragm (just beneath the rib cage). Counting the breaths in and out can be of help to some people - inhaling to the count of 5 and exhaling to the count of 9, or whatever ratio best suits you. It can also help putting your hands on your stomach and feel the way your diaphragm moves when you release the air and how your stomach swells when you breathe in. When you breathe out you stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system which controls relaxation.
Body Scan: This is a technique often used by yoga practitioners. With this technique the attention is directly systematically around the body. Often it starts with the toes moving on through the feet to the calves and thighs and up to the stomach, back, chest and shoulders all the way down the arms to the tips of the fingers, then back up to the neck and head. The main point of this practice is to basically become aware of the sensation in each body part and then to take the focus off it to move on to another part. Some yoga practitioners suggest tensing muscle groups as they go. Personally I think this techinique is best done lying down to get the full benefit.
Sensory awareness: This technique is often used in preliminary meditation work and is similar to a technique used in Gestalt therapy. Again, like the body scan mentioned above, it uses a specific pattern to direct attention only this time using sensory information and imagery that is brought up.
Now, get yourself comfortable. Fix your attention to one spot and mentally note what three things come up for you in your periphery vision. Then close your eyes and mentally note three things that you can hear. Now open your eyes and note three things that you can physically feel or bodily sensations. You can go on to repeat the cycle until you run out of things to see, hear, feel then substitute things you can imagine in each category. In some versions of this technique touch and smell are also employed.
Visualisation: why this you might ask. Well, let’s face it, it’s a way of getting you outside of your head without actually going anywhere if you see what I mean. What we’ll be doing is taking you on a short journey and giving you minimal cues and clues so that the images you form pop up in a way that is unique to you. Take your time with the images and allow them to form spontaneously – don’t give them much thought - and it’s not important whether they manifest in pictures, feelings, sensations or anything else. It’s about what works for you.
So, let’s away to a forest. You are walking through it, you decide what time of day/year it is and what the weather conditions are like. You also get to decide whether you are struggling through thick undergrowth or on a path or a dirt track. It is also up to you whether you like being there.
As you make your way through the forest you come across a bottle. Whether there is anything in it is for you decide, similarly whether you take it or leave it is up to you.
At some point in this forest you find a key. It might be beside a tree, on the path or some other place. Again, you decide what the key looks like. Allow your mind to make the decision quickly. Whether you pick the key up or leave it behind is entirely your decision.
Finally you come to a wall - you decide what the wall looks and feels like. Is it covered in moss or ivy, is it smooth or old and crumbling with spiders in its cracks. The wall is tall and there is no way you can get past it that you can see, nor is there any way over it or under it. So, what do you do? and what do you imagine or sense is on the other side?
Now write for ten minutes about the sights and sensations you have experienced from using any the techniques noted above. You may also want to express what you have experienced through colour - either painting, or using pastel or simply drawing.
What do we want them to do? For instance:
Try one of the relaxation techniques above and then sit down and writing something meaningful to you. You can then try another relaxation technique and see what else you focus on. Choose your favourite piece and post it to the FB page if you like.
Next week is writing the senses …
Smell is also closely linked with memory, probably more so than any of our other senses. Scientists refer to the phenomenon of smell kicking off specific memories as The Proust effect. Essentially smell can evoke particular memories and emotional responses; for my part the smell of engine oil always reminds me of my father who was a mechanic when I was a child. He would come home with the smell of it on his overalls. The smell of freshly mown grass reminds me of the school playing fields in summer. We will all have our own particular associations with certain smells.
Now take 5 minutes writing down a collection of smells that have particular memories for you. Now pick two of the items you have written down and spend 10 minutes per item free writing everything that you associate with that memory. Don’t worry about grammar or spelling - just write and surprise yourself with what you have conjured. Some of the memories can be pretty powerful but if you can, stay with it, keep writing.
Now I want you to chose a specific smell and take at least 7 minutes describing it. It doesnt have to be accurate or precise, write in metaphors. Play with the words, make the language work for you.
Taste is another sense connected to the limbic system and as such has similar properties as those of smell. In fact the two are very closely linked. I know that certain tastes will transport me right back to specific events in my life. I cannot eat Ceviche without being reminded of my time spent in South America, eating this dish in the early mornings with the fishermen as soon as they’d beached their catch. Or Parma Violets, I can still remember holding that little roll of sweets in my tiny hands as I ran home from the sweet shop.
Take 5 minutes writing down a collection of tastes that have particular memories for you. Now pick two of the items and spend 10 minutes per item free writing everything you associate with that memory
Touch. Think of all the different sensations that can be derived from touch. The rough and the smooth, the soft and the hard. A Mother’s touch, a lovers hand, a dog or cat’s fur. I could go on but hopefully you’ll catch my drift. So, let’s have a wee experiment. Try and gather together a bunch of different textures for instance: Ice, sand paper, pineapple skin, and an eggcup of jam. Now touch them individually, close your eyes, go on, no-one’s looking. What emotional response does it evoke? How would you describe it? Spend a few minutes for each piece jotting down your thoughts.
I want you to describe a person as a touch. Spend at least 7 minutes on this exercise.
Sight. We have all had an experience where the sight of something has brought about an emotional response. Think of the many hours we’ve sat in front of the TV consuming a programme or documentary. The parties we’ve been to, the weddings, christenings, funerals. The pictures we’ve seen on our mobiles, computers or if you are as old as me, my photo albums. All of these and more serve to prod and provoke memories and emotional responses.
Gather together a small collection of pictures. Random or otherwise, and spend some time looking at them. Spend at least 10 minutes making notes. Now pick out two from your collection and free write on them for at least 7 minutes.
Sound: We’ve covered music and movement in an earlier session. There’s plenty of research out there to show that music moves us emotionally and also ties in with memory. I’m tempted to ask you to try experimenting by listening to music you usually don’t listen to.
Try some heavy metal then contrast that by listening to soothing Baroque. Make notes on how this affects you, what images and feelings are conjured up. But the sounds I’m most interested in getting you to listen to are the natural ones. The ones around us that can be heard for free.
Try listening to the early morning sounds. Try getting up for the dawn chorus, I do it regularly (I know, I’m rather bonkers) but I promise, you have a real treat in store. Failing that, take a stroll in the woods and sit quietly for 10 minutes and make notes on all the sounds you hear, all the feelings and thoughts it evokes and also afterwards, check in with yourself. How was your mood before and after? If by any unfortunate circumstance you are not able to take a walk or listen to the dawn chorus simply try opening your window and listening to the everyday sounds going on around you. Again, make a note of what you hear, what thoughts they bring up and how you are feeling in yourself.
Now chose 2 sentences (between 6 - 10 words) from each of the senses exercise and take 10 minutes to make a piece of free writing with these sentences. It doesn’t have to make sense, play with the sentences and just respond to what your subconscious mind throws out.
Week Four: Writing the Senses
Well, this is an interesting one to play around with. Writing with the senses. There is so much here to stimulate and provoke a writing response I hardly know where to start. But start I will as we don’t want to be dallying about.
The first sense I am drawn to is the sense of smell. For my own part smell is very important to me. I once lost my sense of smell for some three years following a bad car accident. Not only did it affect my smell but also aspects of my taste too, anything red (tomatoes, red peppers etc., tasted of metal.) It was a strange saga but one that made me look deeper into the importance of smell. As it turns out the perception of smell consists not only of the sensation of the odours themselves but of the experiences and emotions associated with these sensations. Our olfactory receptors are directly connected to the limbic system, the most ancient and primitive part of the brain, which is thought to be the seat of emotion.
Week Five: Performance Storytelling
Well for a starters, let’s look at what we mean by performance storytelling. I think we’ll start with what it’s not.
It’s not :-
telling a wee story to your children or grandchildren
telling a whopping fib to your husband about how you’ve spent the housekeeping (do people still have housekeeping these days?)
telling a story to a bunch of your cronies while out for a bevy. Yes, it might be entertaining but it doesnt constitute performance storytelling.
What it is:-
A story that has been rehearsed
A story that is told from memory without a script in hand or in front of you.
A story that is told (generally) to a body of people, not necessarily people you know.
Storytelling at a professional standard is a craft - make no mistake. A good storyteller will make a performance look seemless. They will tell a story that will entertain, resonate, make you laugh, think, cry and engage you. To me storytelling is about orally using words to paint a picture that you the listener can see or conjour up the world they are telling about in your minds eye.
Again, I’ll start with the ‘what not to do’
Dont mutter, whisper, mumble, stop mid-sentence with errr now where was I? Speakup so that all the audience members can hear you. Check in with them that they can hear you too.
Try to stand reasonably still. Some storytellers do move and make their movements enhance the story
Dont race through the story, take your time, enjoy - this enables your audience to relax and enjoy it too.
Dont look at your feet, off to the side or worse, directly at your fingernails while telling. To engage with your audience you need to look them in the eye (but please, not a hard, challenging stare. One that is warm and non threatening)
Watch what you do with your hands. Don’t put them in your pockets or fiddle with something - this will distract your audience and can potentially ruin a great telling.
So, given all those little details - lets go ahead with a story. I think its best that you pick a simple story to start with. One that will take 5 minutes to tell. Children’s stories or wee tales (like Aesops fables) are the best place to start, but don’t take on one that is too complex. We want to build your confidence not have you so petrified at the start that you wont remember all the plot. (Which is different to loosing the plot)
Remembering the story:
There are several ways to remember a story.
Take an A4 piece of paper fold it in half and then fold it into three so that you have six squares. Now break the story down into six columns using few words or draw it if you like. Use this as your reminder and rehearse the story.
Another option is to break the story down into 7 words (like a mnemonic) then rehearse. Take it (the story) for a walk, have a bath, talk it through while cooking. Phone your mother, phone a friend, tell it to the dog. Tell it at least 5 times
Watch how the story morphs and develops - its ok, so long as it doesnt get out of hand.
Ensure you have the outline fixed in your head so that if you do embellish you are able to come back and pick up on the outline.
Whatever you do - DO NOT memorise the story word for word. This will make it stilted and forced. You want to be natural and fluid. Memorised stories show in your face!
Now that you have done all that - you are ready to perform. Every first time is nerve wracking. I know, Ive been there. My knees knocked so badly I was sure everyone could hear them. Getting through to the end and receiving your applause is worth it.
It becomes addictive.
Now, go and have fun!
Week Six: Comedy Writing
My goodness, can you believe it, we have now reached week six, yes WEEK SIX of this creative journey. Give yourselves a pat on the back!
So this week we are going to have a big laugh! It’s Comedy Writing – and Stand Up! (Yay, wild clapping and cheers of joy from all of you out there). I know, it sounds fun, but really, it’s enough to send you scuttling off to a dark corner to quake quietly. I know that feeling, have been there, worn the t-shirt and considered changing my underpants. But have faith my dear ones, there is light at the end of the tunnel. This course is not about frightening the bejeebers out of you, no, it’s all about having fun - and that is precisely what we are going to have with this particular aspect of the course.
So, eyes down and read on ...
Firstly, remember that what we want to do is achieve laughter but not at someone else’s expense. So, please be mindful and try to ensure that the material you use will not cause offence.
Earlier this year Mary and I went on a comedy course - largely because we both admitted it was something that terrified us but we still had a hankering to do. So, armed with fresh changes of underwear we set off prepared to bare our souls to Edinburgh’s Comedy Circuit. (Roll of drums and gasps from the audience) and we did it and had an absolute hoot.
Material: The essential nuts and bolts of the course started with the premise - find something to rant about! What is it that really makes your blood boil - something that annoys you? There might be a number of things. Spend a few moments jotting them down. These are generally the nuggets that comedians hang their material on. Go on, there has to be something that gets on your wick … for instance with Mary it was Ninja cyclists, and screaming teenage girls.
If you get stuck and just can’t think of a single thing why not try using this list of questions to prompt ideas - they might lead on to moments of hilarity that you recall or generate a mad idea.
Where were you when you had your first kiss
If you could invite anyone to dinner with you who would you invite and why
Where about in the world would you like to explore
What was your most memorable interview and why
What was the most dramatic bust up you’ve ever had and why.
What is your favourite comfort food.
What was the most consistent comment about you on your school reports.
Did you ever play hookie from school.
Tell us about your most interesting fashion faux pas
Who was your favourite popstar when growing up.
What was your most embarrassing travel moment.
What school activities did you participate in.
What is the biggest personal change you've ever made
Have you ever done anything embarrassing in a public place
What is your attitude to people who don't pick up their dog’s pooh?
What would you do if you were a lone survivor in a plane crash
Does your pet/s do any tricks
What is the worst job you’ve ever had
Do you believe in Aliens
What would be your ideal boyfriend
Have you ever poohed your pants
If you could go back in time where and what era would you go back to
Who would you hate to see naked?
What is the strangest thing you’ve ever eaten
What was the last item of clothing you bought.
What tv or radio show do you secretly enjoy
If you could bring a fictional character to life who would it be?
What is your favourite song
If you could have a super power what would it be and why? (or what would you do with it?)
What's the wildest thing you’ve ever done in a hotel room
What is your guilty secret?
Now, having jotted them down … (go and find a place that is private), spend three minutes on each subject and just rant out loud – Mary found the car very good for this though she did get some odd looks from pedestrians at the traffic lights. Yes, use all the sweary words and mad ideas you like (no one is listening… yet), just get it off your chest and while you are doing this record it on your phone. Listen back and pick out the points you have made. Is there anything funny or that could be expanded upon? Look closely, you are bound to find something.
Now write it up. (You are aiming for 3-5 minutes maxium of material) and try loosely performing it in front of someone or something, just to get a feel for the material. I used my dogs for mine. They were really appreciative. It’s always good to have an appreciative audience.
Emphasis: Now, go back to the material you’ve written and think about where to put the emphasis on certain aspects/words in the text. When I say emphasis I’m talking about voice, tone, facial expression, pace of delivery. For example, when I introduced myself on the comedy stage I wanted to make an impact, get the audience on side by making them laugh within the first few seconds. So I stood in the middle of the stage and for approximately 3 seconds said nothing, just looked at them (making sure I had their full attention), then I started. ‘Hello, my name is Lea Taylor’ - with a lot of emphasis on TAYLOR. I then paused and said, ‘I know, like Liz Taylor but without the bling!’ Bingo, I had my first laugh. So, how you would deliver the words and where you place the emphasis all adds to the impact you are looking for.
Add these details as notes on the manuscript that you have written in the previous exercise - mark the points that you want to emphasise (underline, colour, or write notes in the margin)
Body Language: With pace, tone and facial expression let’s consider the following, let’s say you are trying to express something in a conspiratorial way. Whispering loudly would convey that effect, add in looking from side to side with your eyes as if to make out you are checking no unwanted listeners are about and you have a greater emphasis and better impact.
Again, add these details as notes on the manuscript - YES even your body language is written down for delivery!
Laughs per minute: Ideally you are looking for how many laughs you can generate per minute. If it doesn’t generate many laughs, edit or cut it out. Again, try practicing this on a friend or recording it and really critically studying your performance.
On your comedy manuscript mark where you think the laughs will come! Do this to give your audience a chance to laugh before launching into the next section.
One aspect that we really can’t ascertain here is being able to read your audience. Usually, performance (in all contexts) relies on this. Not getting the response you anticipate or the audience you are expecting does happen at times so you need to consider swtiching your material to ensure you are engaging them appropriately. I know there have been moments in my storytelling career where I have stood in front of an audience and before even starting I’ve realised that I’d need to switch my material to suit. But given that we are doing this via video it doesn’t apply - so I’ll just shut up … unless you are planning on taking this further?
‘The funny’ is so subjective, though and that always has to be borne in mind so try to develop the skill of reading your audience. There are all sorts of theories about what makes the best comedy audience often involving copious amounts of alcohol, dimmed lighting and groups of friends. However, we’re talking about the delivery comedic content online here so just imagine you’re in a comedy club with the requisite elements in place – folk all revved up and ready to laugh. Imagining the perfect environment will affect your pace and your delivery.
‘The funny’ is also about what kind of comedic content you want to create. This is something to think about deeply as the best comedy often comes from a place of authenticity. Are you naturally someone who is drawn to observational comedy? Just take a look at Jerry Seinfeld on youtube, then. Are you drawn to character-driven comedy? Look no further than Victoria Wood! How about fast-paced one-liner comedic delivery? Tim Vine’s your man! Whoa! We could be here all day.
All of the comedy greats have their own influences so a good starting point for the development of your own style and material is to spend a happy hour or two watching stand-up comedy on youtube. The Comedy God that is Billy Connolly credits the late, incredibly great Chic Murray with being the biggest influence on his comedy career. If taking inspiration from someone else’s material is good enough for Billy, it’s good enough for us. (Favourite Chic Murray joke? Hmmmmm. Oh so many … hang on … hows about … ‘It’s a small world but I wouldn’t want to have to paint it’.)
You’ll also want to think about how to sequence your comedic content. In this respect, it’s interesting to experiment with the rule of three. Try it out – a trio of events, characters, jokes are all funnier than those that come in ones or twos. Pantomime is famous for sticking to the rule of three like glue. It explains why the Ugly Sisters are reckoned to be its favourite characters, sticking like comedic glue to any principal on stage such as Buttons or Cinders, forming a comedic trio. Do try this rule out for yourself, and in so doing bear in mind (wait a minute, see what I did there … you’ll get it in a minute …) the comedic effect of the thrice-uttered ‘Who’s been sleeping in my bed?’ in Goldilocks and the Three Bears (ta dah!). The pacing and the comedic effect wouldn’t be the same if there were only two bears or a whole load of bears (what’s a load of bears called anyhoo? A roar?
Now that you’ve all had some practice at performing (poems, stories from previous sessions) you will have some understanding about what makes a good video. Try not to move about too much unless someone else is filming you, don’t speak so quickly that we can’t make out what you are saying and remember emphasis, expression and pace.
Practise your comedy routine until you have it word perfect and then record it on video (and post to the Book Whisperers Facebook group!) We can't wait to see what you come up with!
I can’t say any more than that. Now, off you go and start being the wonderful comedians that I know you all are.