“We created a body-centred roadmap” – Q&A with Rose Condo

After I worked as performance mentor on Rose’s show, The Empathy Experiment, I asked her some questions about how our process had been for her. I’m very grateful for her answers, which have helped me to assess and value my own practise, and which may prove encouraging for other performance poets out there wondering what support they would need to make a spoken word theatre show.

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Why did you feel like you needed performance mentoring on this show?

The Empathy Experiment is my third solo show. I created my previous two shows with a small amount of input from others, but this is the first time I have had the resources (thanks Arts Council!) to develop a project in full collaboration with other artists. I knew I wanted to bring together people who could support specific areas of development. Dominic Berry  helped me with dramaturgy and how to effectively incorporate audience engagement. Kate Morton brought her design expertise into how I could create a simple but unified look for the show. Eleonora Rosca composed and recorded original music for the show. And I knew you would be great as a performance mentor.

Even though I have a background in theatre and feel confident performing in front of an audience, I felt like there was more that I could explore in my performance in terms of how I use my body and my voice. The Empathy Experiment is different from my previous two because it follows a continuous narrative arc all the way through. I felt like I needed someone to be an outside eye to help me build that storytelling journey using movement, voice and characterisation.

What did you expect out of our day together, and what was it actually like?

To be honest, I wasn’t totally sure what to expect. I imagined we would probably do some activities playing with different ways of using my body and then matching them with different parts of the show.

It was really useful to have our Skype meeting beforehand. You asked great questions about what I hoped we might explore together.  In particular, you commented that you knew my performance style was often very still and poised, and you wanted to play with different ways I could use my body. You were very understanding when I said I often struggle with anxiety and that I may have to work through some of that in our session together. You struck a great balance between listening to my ideas and offering suggestions for what we might try together. You asked me to have a think about different kinds of physicality at different parts of the show.

On the day, we leapt right in. After I did a run through of the show for you we dove in to creating different bodies for the various stages of the performance. You came to the session with lots of specific ideas for me to try in each section. For example, we watched a YouTube video of the Red Hot Chilli Peppers’ song ‘Give It Away’ (which is what my poem ‘Put It Away’ is modelled on) and you asked me to play with how I can infuse that raw animalistic energy into my performance. We drew pictures related to the ‘Little Match Girl’ poem, which then gave me specific things to visualize when I perform it. We discovered very distinct physical differences between the two voices in my ‘Mirror Mirror’ poem (about Trump speaking to a magic mirror) which has sharpened the performance.

We hit an emotional nerve when we played with tension and anxiety in the penultimate poem, which is written to be a crisis point in the show anyway. You were very compassionate and receptive to my unexpected outpouring of emotion. After a bit of a break, we talked through how I can access that emotional intensity in performance with care and caution, which felt very reassuring.

The whole process was incredibly organic. I feel like we created bodies that I can authentically embody in performance. I feel like we created a body-centred road map that I can journey through in performance. I feel like this work has added another layer to the full experience of performing the show, and has hopefully added a depth and richness for the audience watching the show.

It was a super intense day, and I still can’t believe how much we achieved!

What made you choose me to help you on this project?

I knew you had seen me perform several times, so I knew you had a sense of my work and my performance style.

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Performing my solo show The Moon Cannot Be Stolen, 2014

Having seen you in performance a few times, I always noticed that your physicality worked in tandem with your poetry. You often move in intentional and nuanced ways that connect with the words you are saying. I really admired this and wanted to explore incorporating that into my own performance.

I also really enjoyed the workshop sessions that you facilitated when a few of us poets gathered to prepare an opening set for Shane Koyczan’s performance in York in summer 2017. You led activities that gave our group an authentic and organic process for deciding what poems to perform. When we rehearsed our pieces you offered feedback that strengthened our performances, using language that was full of imagery. Your overall approach was joyful and enthusiastic. You guided us to discover nuance and technique in how we shared our pieces. I liked the compassionate and detailed way you worked. I found I really connected with your development style, and this led me to wanting to work with you on The Empathy Experiment.

What could other poets and theatre-makers gain from employing a performance mentor?

I think working with a performance mentor in this way can help poets / theatre-makers dig into their performance toolbox (so to speak) and really play with all the performance tools they have at their disposal … like vocal tone, movement, pacing, physicality, characterization, etc. I think poets in particular (and I include myself in this) can get stuck in being talking heads. There is so much emphasis on the words that the body can be forgotten. Working with a performance mentor can bring a performance poet to life and can bring their words to the next level. I also think it’s useful for poets at any level of experience to do some performance mentoring. When we workshopped our pieces for the Shane Koyczan gig, we were all sharing poems we knew really well and (in some cases) had been performing for years. Digging into our performance toolboxes in our workshop meant we were trying new things with familiar material and injecting our pieces with new life and ideas.

How was this experience different from being directed as an actor?

Part of what was different was that I had written the show and so I was very close to the scripted material. It was a good challenge to release any fixed ideas about how I thought something should be performed so that I could be open to your suggestions. For example, I initially felt some resistance to going full Chilli Pepper in my ‘Put It Away’ poem or going full Sandy from Grease in my ‘Dear Facebook’ poem … partly out of feeling anxious

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Rose channelling Sandy from Grease

and self-conscious. But being open to playing and committing to your suggestions gave me space to discover. I also felt like we worked very much in collaboration with what we were exploring. You offered ideas and guidance, but all along the way you checked in about how I felt or what I thought. That sense of joint ownership over the creative process was different to my experiences as an actor, and was really positive in our process.

You can catch Rose performing The Empathy Experiment at the Kings Arms, Salford as part of the Greater Manchester Fringe, on 10th July 2019. This will be a captioned performance. She is then taking the show to PBH Free Fringe, Edinburgh

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Playing With Rose’s Bodies

When I mentor performance poets, I watch their bodies. Are they – static, rigid, fidgety, slumped, blocked? Are they all up in their head, or is their personality coming out to meet me? I imagine I can actually see the movement, quality, even colour of their ‘energetic body’.

Then I get them to build new bodies.

Ones that better express their words. Ones where the non-verbal communication amplifies the verbal.

Rose Condo makes solo theatre shows, full of poems and warmth and humanity. She’s a very good writer, and Very Good People. But, she does have this habit of always keeping calm and still when she performs. So when she commissioned me to be performance mentor on her new show, The Empathy Experiment, I was itching to get her body moving. Fortunately, that’s exactly what she wanted too…

Here are the bodies I created with Rose:

  • The Donald &The Magic Mirror
  • Red Hot Chilli Rose
  • Hopelessly Devoted To Facebook
  • The Memory Arcade
  • Trying Her Best & The Scientist
  • Rose Under Pressure

The Donald & The Magic Mirror

In one poem, Rose plays both sides of a conversation between Trump and a magic mirror. We made sure the mirror showed polite horror through a rigid ‘backing off’ shape. For The Donald, Rose had some good expressions and gestures, but it really came alive when I got her to imagine projecting a huge ‘psychopathic hook’ out of the top of her head.

Red Hot Chilli Rose

“Put it away, put it away, put it away now” – the poem mimicked the classic Red Hot Chilli Peppers track ‘Give It Away’, but we needed the body as well. Using the video as inspiration, I forced poor Rose to flail about in full rock star mode!

Hopelessly Devoted To Facebook

For this break-up love-letter to social media, I wanted to channel Olivia Newton-John in ‘Grease’, but the wistful gazing into space didn’t quite nail it. Once we included a prop for Rose to look at, I could provoke a waltzing motion that was both romantic and confrontational.

The Memory Arcade

Memory Arcade

Three memories form the three stanzas of this poem. For each one, I asked Rose to visualise a tableau and stand within it, creating the scene in her mind as she spoke. Much more effective than you might expect from an invisible technique, and we spent some times drawing the tableaux to fix them in her mind.

Trying Her Best & The Scientist

Real Rose vs Science Rose

These two are the narrative glue, the personas that do all the explanation. They are both Rose, but one of her is less confident, which shows in her looser posture and looping, wandering movements around the stage. The other Rose is more structured and certain, so she stays by her whiteboard and keeps herself straight and ‘plugged in’ to her head.

Rose Under Pressure

This body contains the heart of the show, and when we found it there was a very emotional, precious moment. I’m not going to talk about it too much. Perhaps you can understand it from the pictures?

Stay tuned for more, including a Q&A with Rose herself, plus I reveal how shiatsu training can make you a better performance poet…

 

After A Break, More Rogues

A big thank you to the lovely folk who came to see my show at Alphabetti Theatre and at Acklam Library recently – here are some of their mug shots for your viewing pleasure. I’m glad so many people are made happy by simple, achievable things, but I am a little concerned for the person who said ‘watching neighbours’ made him happy – I think he meant the Australian soap opera….

Penultimate show of this year’s tour is 7.30pm, 30th September as part of Jabberwocky Market Festival in Darlington – tickets here!

Rogues Gallery!

An hour is a fair length of time to listen to spoken word, even when there are films and funny bits. Which is why, halfway through my show, we all take a break to listen to some music from my tracks-donated-by-the-public Compassion playlist while we draw happy stick-people portraits of one another. Oh, and it’s sort of about getting to know strangers so you can feel kindly towards them.

Here are some of the magnificent drawings produced by the compassionate punters of Hartlepool on Tuesday, complete with doodles representing what makes the sitter happy. May they be well, may they be happy, may they be free from suffering!

The last Teesside show is tonight at ARC, Stockton – 5.30pm, pay what you decide, buy a book for a tenner. More coming next month in Newcastle and Hexham.

Moving On From Otters

Kirsten_KindnessContactSheet.jpgHail and gratitude to everyone who followed my otter madness throughout April! You will be pleased to know that I have celebrated my first successful NaPoWriMo by going to see real life otters at Blue Reef. They were adorable, and very, very stinky.

Now I enter another month of ridiculousness as I try to write a show to go with my poetry collection, including lots of research conversations, field trips, filming of poem films, and of course writing of blog posts.

The theme is – KINDNESS AND COMPASSION. Some may say I haven’t been very kind to myself by leaving myself with so little time to complete a show that is booked to start touring on 11th June. They would be very right. You can help me!! I have a little survey thingie here, it’s only four questions, fancy giving it a go?

I will posting up interesting web snippets as I go along, but if you’d like to keep abreast of performances then you could join me on Facebook.

The picture featured is the contact sheet from a great morning messing around with my friend and colleague Suzi Corker, who is a great photographer and will be doing my posters. Which photo do you like best? (Be kind, remember!)

 

StAnza – possibly the perfect poetry festival

I spent the weekend in St Andrews as a performer at StAnza, Scotland’s international poetry festival. Lucky, lucky, lucky me! Collected from the station, treated with unfailing courtesy and unflappability by every staff member and volunteer, fed at the poet’s buffet for free throughout the weekend, delivered back to my home-bound train in timely fashion – bliss!

This was my first time to StAnza, and even had I not received the perks of performer status I would have been bowled over by the finely-tuned balance of the programming, the range of poetic styles encompassed, and the inventiveness of the ‘extras’ such as table-side performances and hashtag poetry. (By the way, my set -collection launch went very well. There are reviews here and here, which I don’t expect anyone but my mum to actually read. Hi Mum!)

In one day you could attend: a serious breakfast talk about the concept of the body in poetry, led by a diverse panel of poets including multi-award winning Andrew McMillan and arch-innovator SJ Fowler; an intimate gathering in a graceful oval drawing room, hung with green watered silk wallpaper and garnished with immaculate white orchids, listening to Pascale Petit fill it with hummingbirds and jaguars; a lunchtime hour of sheer entertainment from a spoken word show like Jemima Foxtrot‘s Melody; an afternoon of splurge-buying beautiful small press poetry collections and chapbooks;  a double-bill main stage presentation of classic readings by Jo Shapcott right next to multi-lingual near-operatic sound poetry from Nora Gomringer (complete with jazz drummer); and then round it all off with a poetry slam hosted by current BBC Champion Scott Tyrrell.

Frankly, what this kind of programming says to me is that the team who put this festival together know their poetry, widely and deeply, and are passionate about it in all its various glories – at times to the point of fangirldom! If you have any love at for poetry, you should go. And it doesn’t hurt that a. St Andrews is charming and b. it has both gelaterias and second hand book shops. Perfect.

 

Basketball poetry? Really?

Got a small new poem for you, written from a workshop with the prolifically superduper Jacob SamLa Rose at ARC Stockton last week. The workshop was part of Fuel Theatre’s outreach activities for their new touring spoken word show, The Spalding Suite, a physically spectacular piece built around a series of poems by Inua Ellams and other poets, and all about basketball. I wrote a review of the show, which I’m now keeping with all my other reviews from here on, at Tumblr.

there is a ball in your hand

grey as fingernail gunk

red as old blood

a severed head in a lizard’s crop

scrape the raised grain

use one hand to balance

to contain

the curvature

feel the horizon with your furthest whorls

it is the size of Jupiter

you are on alien land

coloured tape parcelling pitches

foreign scripts, hieroglyphics

there is a ball in your hand

it wants to fall

drop it and the planet throws it back

your dumb hand back-turned to the slap-back

elastic transit surprises when the core is so, so black

it is denser than physics

it want to eats the earth

it wants to bounce

keep a short leash and run after, child

it is a wolfhound, shoulder high

it is a steeplechaser, where is your bridle

when it leaps?

you knew it would unseat you

there is a ball in your hand

and you have neither the arms

nor the legs

nor the heart

for everything it wants

of you

Demeter In Winter

Have I really not been in touch since November? So sorry, been a bit distracted, got a new spoken word show on the go…

GOTH In WinterThe initial idea was pitched to Radio 3 for their Verb New Voices commission last year – I got down to the final three, but wasn’t selected in the end. So I’ve been mulling over how to take a short radio piece and turn it into an hour spoken word show. Still not quite sure, but research and development has so far thrown me into the on-coming traffic of FAR TOO MANY IDEAS, to the point where I’m deliriously uncertain what I’m even writing about any more – the impact of the built environment of mental health? Greenham Common and feminist approaches to creative non-violent protest? Greek myths about spring? Rape culture? Yes, probably/possibly/definitely/maybe…

Lucky me, I was given a week at Caedmon Hall in Gateshead, and a most welcome wee pot of money, by NEADN in order to be confused in a more productive manner, with the helpful input of director Matt Cummins and composer Ed Carter. This is the first time I’ve had the luxury of a residency at this early point in a project’s development, so I wan’t really sure what to do with it. Let’s face it, this is only my second show, and the first one was autobiographical so I kind of knew how it was going to end, which seems like a bit of a cheat in hindsight. Anyway, if you’re massively curious about what goes on during a residency, here’s what I managed: in five days

  1. ‘Found’ DeDe’s posture and way of moving through experiment and rehearsal
  2. ‘Found’ DeDe’s voice through performing a poem in her body – learned the poem by heart
  3. Wrote a short scene between DeDe and her daughter and had a good old think about how that might be performed
  4. Researched Greenham Common protests and wrote a ‘found’ poem using first-person accounts of demonstrations
  5. Wrote a ‘found’ piece using The Handbook Of Urban Survival and started blocking out possible ways of performing it
  6. Took walks around Gateshead guided by local residents, looking at areas that were meaningful to them, places that ‘worked’, places where they felt uncomfortable, discussed the impact of their environment on them
  7. Took solo walks as DeDe and documented it with photos and notes towards further poems
  8. Took lots of video footage towards a possible future filmpoem/AV aspect to the performance
  9. Spent a day taking field recordings and learning how to make simple, layered soundscapes to accompany poems
  10. Recorded two poems and made two different sketches of the same poem with different combinations of field recordings
  11. Was videoed doing an interview about the residency
  12. Met with GIFT to chat about possible audio-tour presentations of the show as it progresses

You can keep up with the explosion of my head via the Pinterest board for this project, where I am randomly scrap-booking images and preoccupations as they assault me.

Review – North East Rising by Rowan McCabe

I was recently one of ten people selected to write theatre reviews for the North East Artist Development Network, which of course has made me very happy and has also forced me to admit that I know very little about reviewing. So my cunning plan is to do some warm-ups on here.

Rowan McCabe
Rowan McCabe

I’d really like to tell you about ‘North East Rising’ by Rowan McCabe, and I will, I will – but in all fairness, I must declare an interest. I’ve been working with Rowan in my capacity as Apples and Snakes co-ordinator since he started as a performance poet. He’s come up through Scratch Club, had performance mentoring from me, been programmed and commissioned by me on a range of projects and most recently I acted as a freelance mentor helping him edit the text of this show. Fairly obviously, I think he’s good, but then so do all the other people who have supported him to write this first solo pice – Arts Centre Washington, Arts Council, ARC Stockton and the like.

North East Rising is based on a simple observation, that the portrayal of the north east and Geordies in the popular media is unfairly skewed towards negative, vulgar or impoverished stereotypes. It’s grim up north, always has been. What McCabe sets out to do is to use his own experiences as a north-easterner to set out a stall of alternative exemplars, exploring what for him is the true ‘essence of the north east’. He does this through a series of character sketches in poetic form, ranging from poignant to lyrical to comedic, linked loosely together by an imagined walk through Newcastle and beyond, up the Tyne valley. The overall tone is one of relaxed, chatty comedy, as he moves from poem to poem via links that are scripted a little like stand-up routines, and this all works extremely well. He’s an affable presence, the audience is always on his side and happily jumps up to twerk with baked goods for his Stottie Rap! And the final piece, stretching out its fingers towards this new positive ideal of north east community and culture, is truly moving.

If I have any reservations, it’s about the support acts. In keeping with the stand-up nature of his delivery, the show is presented within a cabaret format, with a first half consisting of music from Alix Alexandra (who was sublime) and poetry from Jess Johnson, all hosted by Robbie Lee Hurst. This is a fantastic format, it really makes sense as a structure given the feel of Rowan’s piece, but I was a bit taken aback by Jess’s set. She’s a tremendous actor, incredibly vivid on stage, and I’ve seen her in late-night cabaret settings and laughed until I hurt. But the same material shifted to early-evening theatre struck a different note. Her themes are sex, jealousy, domestic abuse, drug-use, drunken brawling and council estate slaggery  – so, many of the negative stereotypes that Rowan’s show is trying so hard to move away from. Her set seems to undermine his in its content, but this could be mitigated if the pieces were delivered with more invitation to empathise, and there’s plenty of space to do that as she’s writing with heart and not to judge or mock. Instead they are spat at us, obscenities lobbed like bricks, angry and confrontational. It’s like being blasted with a flamethrower.

I know there may be tweaks made to the support set for the next three performances, so I really wouldn’t let my responses put you off, not least because you may enjoy Jess’s piece very much, there were plenty of others around me finding it funny. And the main show I wouldn’t have you miss for all the pasties in Greggs.

North East Rising can be seen at Northern Stage, Newcastle on 21 October and at ARC, Stockton on 23 October

Fringe Review 5 – 6 – All Days Become One Day

I’m home, I’ve slept for twelve hours, I’ve failed to keep a daily blog. But here’s the round-up of what I saw on Friday and Saturday.

After my final show on Friday I took my only trip out to the Stafford Centre in New Town to see Hannah Chutzpah’s ‘Asking Nicely’, a show about permission delivered from a feminist perspective, which sounds like it might be short on laughs but which is actually full of light-touch humour and bubbly poems. This is a show that falls into a model I have decided to unilaterally declare as ‘the poetic lecture’. Basically, a poet takes some of their existing work (and maybe writes some new stuff too, ratios may vary) and links the poems together with a unifying theme, often one that links to their own lived experience. Tina Sederholm’s The Good Delusion, Rose Condo’s The Geography Of Me, and Sophia Blackwell’s Becoming Wonder Woman would all fall under this heading. The best ones are marked by several common features – clarity and coherence of the overall structure, non-threatening audience participation activities, effective use of props. Of the ones I’ve seen, Hannah’s has been most obviously set up as a pseudo-lecture, with white lab coat and all, and I really rather liked that. I also really liked her hand-drawn A2 sketchpad illustrations! And I’ve found myself looking around for any instances in my own behaviour where I seek permission, so it’s made me think. Belter.

So, whizz back up towards Cowgate, filling a stray half-hour with a dip into a real lecture from the Sceptics Society about de-bunking psychics and alternative therapists, part of the science and rationalism strand within the PBH Free Fringe. Very enjoyable, and funny, it was a bit unnerving to see so little difference between this and some other stand-up shows! Hmmm. (Starts thinking about lecture formats for next year’s Fringe…)

Then on to see ‘Shame’ by John Berkavich at Underbelly. Berkavitch has no need of little me reviewing the show, there are plenty of reviews to be read here, and all you have to do is mention his name to get an immediate gush of how fantastic the show is. It is, it’s bloody impressive, slick, super-high-tech in comparison to nearly all other spoken word shows (it’s not Free Fringe, obvs), massively entertaining and ultra-cool the way he uses his breakdance team of three as Greek chorus/living stage set. I particularly liked the way they transformed into a cappuccino machine at one point, a bicycle at another. So what is this mean little corner of me that wants to break it down? Mini-meanie-me. I’m just going to say it – take away the dancers and the tech, and this is a show with good but not amazing writing, well-delivered but sometimes with an unlikeable and confrontational tone, using a cut-up flash-back narrative structure that is now standard in contemporary theatre, dealing with an emotional subject in a fairly glib and superficial way, using anecdotal examples that are uniformly predictable. Phew. And now I wait for the gods to strike me down. Don’t worry, my opinion has as much weight as thistledown.

That was Friday.

Saturday started off as a shitty, shitty, upsetting day for me for various reasons that I won’t bore you with. However, I made two excellent decisions – firstly to drop in on the Scottish National Gallery for their Edinburgh Art Festival exhibition ’25 Years of Contemporary Scottish Art’, and secondly to go to ‘Talk About Something You Like’ by Byron Vincent at the Pleasance. Sitting in a room for an hour laughing till I piggy-snorted at stories of someone else’s enduring mental health issues proved a real tonic. This show has all the real bravery (ugh, horrid word), the genuine honesty and vulnerability that Berkavich claims at the end of Shame, but I don’t believe Berkavitch for a second. So he was a bit of a shit. He’s not lying in front of me re-enacting his failed suicide attempt, breaking my heart and still fucking making me laugh. ‘Talk About Something You Like’ takes its title from a set of hilariously inappropriate ‘top tips’ for patients incarcerated in a secure mental hospital, where our hero spent time after being sectioned. Vincent’s trademark talent is for gallows humour delivered in swooping, hyperbolic, surreal similes – seriously, he’s so very good at it. And yes, it’s all true, so you have to laugh or else you’ll cry. Fuck it, do both.

A Nicholson Street saunter took me up to Kingshall to see Fringe First award-winning play ‘Confirmation’ by Chris Thorpe, sometime partner in crime with the spoken word loveliness that is Hannah Jane Walker. It’s about confirmation bias, the human tendency to see the world in ways which reinforce our prejudices, assumptions and received beliefs. Chris seeks out someone who is ideologically as far away from his own belief system as possible – a neo-Nazi, but an intelligent one – and the two of them talk, exposing both the unbridgeable rifts between their world views and also the surprisingly extensive areas of overlap. For a more in-depth look at the piece, including Chris’ own thoughts, please go here, and then for god’s sake SEE THE SHOW. Really. It’s mind-blowingly good. I’m still finding it popping up in my head for another little chew-over. Please go.

And that was all I could manager before the BBC Slam final, where I got to the last bout but lost out to worthy opponent David Lee Morgan, whose show ‘Pornography & Heartbreak’ I’ve already mentioned on a an earlier blog.

Things I didn’t see and should have done, and now feel very guilty about – ‘Be Kind To Yourself’ by Tim Clare, ‘What The Fuck Is This’ and ‘Crap Time Lord’ both by Richard Tyrone Jones, and probably a metric fuckton more. But enough. It’s good to be home. Godspeed to the manics still up there doing the full run, you have more stamina than me, mateys.