Friday is grab-bag day – opinion pieces, reviews, shout-outs for cool stuff I think you’ll like, etc. I’m calling it ‘Tim Clare’s Cone O’ Tragedy’ after my dear departed blogspot blog. If you have any requests for stuff you’d like me to cover, let me know. If you have any books, albums or video games you want me to review, get in touch via the ‘Contact Me’ button, and I’ll let you know where to send them.
I’m kicking off with a little piece about gigging and attitude. Love to hear what you think in the comments below.
On Wednesday I turned up for my gig only to be told that the venue had double-booked the room with a thrash metal band. There was no PA. The bar manager (whose cock-up it was) reluctantly allowed us to clear a few tables out the way so we could perform next to the bar. He then turned up the jukebox so the gig was competing with not one, but two metal soundtracks blasting into the room.
At this point, with 5 minutes before the gig was due to start, the audience consisted of three people. When one of the organisers tried to collect door money, it turned out two of them were going to the gig upstairs instead.
Someone said their mate had a PA. He was duly phoned. He rushed down with an amp and mic (but no stand). While he set up, his dog shat prodigiously all over the stage area. Literally six or seven ice cream scoop sized lumps, in a line.
I have done a lot of gigs. I wouldn’t call myself a veteran, but I’ve taken three shows to Edinburgh, in 2009 I did two straight months of touring every day, I’ve done pretty much every notable UK festival, and I’ve toured in China, Australia, Brunei and Denmark. I’ve had an assload of things go wrong.
In one of my first gigs, a guy jumped up on stage beside me and held a Stanley knife to my throat. Once, in Lancaster, a guy opened a side door, hurled food onto the stage then released three dogs. I’ve been heckled a lot – sometimes mildly, sometimes by horrible, shitfaced bellends hellbent on making the gig all about them.
But those gigs are rare. Most of the time, crowds are awesome. Being an audience member at a spoken word event is demanding – you’re meant to laugh at some bits, listen intently to others, the quality of the material and performers can be variable. It takes a lot of goodwill, a real willingness and optimism about trying something different. When it all comes off – as many of you will know – it’s glorious. There’s nothing like it.
The gig on Wednesday was such fun, you guys. This was largely down to the enthusiasm and plucky determination of the organisers, who pressed on regardless of setbacks, the quality of the support acts (I breathed a sigh of relief when Johnny Fluffypunk arrived – a performance poet both hilarious and robust), and the goodwill of the audience, who gave a lot back and helped make it a brilliant, warm gig.
In the clip below, John Cleese talks about a Monty Python gig in Bristol where the audience just didn’t laugh, and how, halfway through the show, he realised they were right – it wasn’t funny. Then in the evening performance, the audience laughed, and the material was funny again.
I love what he says about comedy being brittle. It’s true of live poetry too. There are so many circumstances outside the performer’s control that can conspire to stop a set working like it should. It’s very easy to take such setbacks personally, to think that – if only you had the skill, the material – you should be able to win over any crowd, no matter the circumstance.
I don’t think you always can. Certainly, some poets – Kate Tempest and John Hegley spring to mind – seem more able to deal with tough rooms. That’s partly down to experience and work ethic – they’re both incredibly hardworking – but I think it’s also to do with the attitude someone brings to the gig. I’ve never seen either John or Kate phoning it in. Even when we’ve been at events that have been badly organised, with an indifferent audience or noise bleed from competing shows or a weirdly laid out room with bad sightlines and a glitchy PA, they’ve always approached the set as something winnable – assuming the crowd want to see a good show, not sulking, giving it their all.
Nine times out of ten, this attitude – combined of course with having great material – has worked. People warm to it. Most audience members want to be entertained. When it doesn’t, at least the poet can leave with some self-respect, knowing they did their best.
Even in a predominantly hostile or indifferent crowd, there are usually still a few engaged, supportive faces. It’s important not to punish their support by doing a deliberately lacklustre set, just to spite the majority.
It’s fine to gauge a room when you enter – to work out if sightlines are okay, to take the temperature of the crowd: do they want upbeat, funny pieces? Or something more considered? Will they mind swearing? That’s just smart.
But once you get on stage, babies, you gotta be nice. Assume the best of the audience, lest you create a self-fulfilling prophecy. I’ve lost count of the number of times I thought a gig was going to be foul, only for it to turn out wonderful. By the same token, some crowds I thought would be generous turned out to be surly arseholes. When that happens, fuck em. You did your best. You gave them your heart. Their loss. Often you’ll discover a few people in an apparently quiet crowd loved your set, despite the tough room. Well done. You just earned yourself some new fans.
If you have a really nightmarish gig, be glad. Bad gigs come with a sweet experience point bonus. Do enough, and you’ll level up. (levelling up as a performer is a real thing – I’ve seen people do it live on stage, and they’re never quite the same) You can’t tell anecdotes about the night you smashed it without coming off as an arrogant cockhat. But the night you faceplanted off the stage and had to be helped up by Howard Marks? That will live on, my friend, and you’ll learn to treasure the memory.
Performance isn’t about showcasing the genius of a single person. It’s a collaboration. As a poet or a stand-up or a musician, your job isn’t to be glorified. It’s to turn up and play your part. Oh, and try not to tread in dog shit.
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