Posts Tagged ‘spoken word’

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This was the third successive year I entertained audiences at a cosy boutique hotel near Witney, in Oxfordshire. Think squashy armchairs and a splendid log fire.

Their Christmas tree looks like a gift from Norway* and is pleasingly decorated with more enthusiasm than elegance. Dogs are welcome: they sprawl like well groomed furry cushions close to their humans, a little anxious in strange surroundings, flinching occasionally at the sound of my voice.

On Christmas Eve I told ScaryTales to so many guests that extra chairs had to be brought, which always makes my inner diva punch the air in triumph. The dear listeners winced and gasped in all the right places, and nobody snored. (That happened on Boxing Day afternoon.)

Who do you please?

Unlike other gigs, at a hotel Christmas session you never know what kind of audience you’ll face. Oh, officially it’s families at afternoon tea time and adults after dinner. But it’s usually the case that any performance – five over three days – must please mostly adults while still being suitable for one or two children, or teenagers.

One set this Christmas had to be tempered for an eight-ish-year-old girl whose parents sensibly let me know before starting that she’s terrified of scary stories. She was tearful even coming in to sit down! Luckily I had my sparkly grey furred Winterbeast in my bag, so he was set beside the little girl with firm instructions to protect her through the storytelling.

I’d chosen a tale with plenty of magic and delight but also a major section of spooky forest and dodgy old ladies… I was hyper conscious of adding or modifying phrases to turn the scary down. A fascinating performance challenge. I like to think the girl began to understand what stories show so well: that frightening situations can be handled.

Competing with a tree…

Another challenge at this type of gig is the physical layout of the room. Any large room has a ‘sweet spot’ where your voice naturally bounces off the ceiling and down to the far end … but not with different ceiling heights created by a minstrel’s gallery. And a hotel lounge full of sofas, armchairs and coffee tables tends to lack a focal point where a speaker can visually command attention.

I struggled to compete with the giant twinkly tree. It was also difficult to position myself to talk towards the good ears of several senior guests with impaired hearing, or even to stand where they could see my face (a lot of people, deaf or not, lipread to some extent when listening to a live speaker). Inevitably there was the hearing aid that squealed. It’s also distracting when hotel staff, despite their manager’s instructions, start clearing the room for the evening cocktail party while you’re halfway through your set!

But stories told live are powerful. And an audience that wants to listen cannot be deterred. “Those stories made my Christmas,” confided one very frail older lady.

Out in the world, war and flood and earthquake and avoidable poverty and loneliness and preventable pollution continued without mercy. And death claimed yet more people whose talents we treasured. In the face of all that, for a few hours, in the comfortable house by the river in the garden, we flew on the magic of words.

* Every year the city of Oslo in Norway sends a huge Christmas tree to London, to stand in Trafalgar Square sparkling with lights, in thanks for help from Britain during World War 2.

NOTES:
♦  Mistletoe Storyteller costume by the amazing AJ at Dragons & Unicorns, based on a design idea by me
♦  Booking now for World Book Day / Book Week in schools: Thursday 2 March 2017. Please contact me soon to avoid disappointment! Year 3 to Sixth Form. Dragon Days as Agent Green the world’s only living Dragon Whisperer. Legends of Britain and beyond as Nightshade, Un-Wisewoman of the Woods.

www.midnightstorytellers.co.uk

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The family show that brought me happy audiences all summer just bombed at a theatre festival. This morning I feel worthless and irrelevant.

I’m drinking coffee from my Never Give Up mug.

What can I learn?

  • I am amazing at going on stage and delivering the full experience to an audience of 2. They bothered to turn up. They get their money’s worth, in fact I work harder for them so that, in a big empty room, they feel relaxed and welcome. I believe it’s called being a professional.
  • The festival organiser possibly should have known that, despite last year’s feedback saying “not enough shows for families”, in fact this festival is popular for decidedly grown-up theatre including experimental pieces. But with my previous experience of the festival I should have known this too!
  • The other storytelling show in the festival – that sold out and needed extra chairs, oh my poor crushed heart – featured modern / personal stories, stand-up comedy and adult themes. This is what sells. Traditional storytelling [folktales etc] suits only a very limited number of venues and audiences. I need to devise and offer work with more awareness of this.
  • It’s time for me to grub out the crippling fear that took root in me when I was starting out in storytelling – a fear unleashed when influential storytellers publicly sneered at me, even shouted at me, for wanting to do ‘new’ material. More than ever, I must keep my confidence and continue to create new work. Yes, the magnificent heritage of traditional story must be kept alive through regular retelling. But 21st century themes and styles are also worth exploring in spoken word ‘telling. The person who roared at me “Nothing you’ll ever do can ever stand up in comparison with the traditional tales that have been tried and tested for hundreds of years!” was very, very frightening – but wrong. That is simply not true.
  • Of course nothing really new is possible … but I’m good at bringing old pieces into new settings, new twists, new life.
  • Who’s to say my show must be all storytelling? Why not include, say, one piece of dramatic reading? People love talking books. Actors do well giving theatrical readings. Reading a story aloud can be interestingly different from telling.
  • Many artists / performers make a big deal out of their personal battles with life. I won’t trade on personal misery – although I’ve struggled with depression since the 1970s. As an apparently white middle class ‘privileged’ person […hollow laughter…] I’ve felt it was out of the question for me to make personal sadness part of my performance territory. But perhaps I’ve missed a trick?
  • Audiences choose where to spend their money based on minimal information: usually just the image … and the title. Do not expect people to read any blurb. So I know I look like one of those overweight, chinless, greying arty-farties in ridiculous clothes. There’s no point in me trying to be edgy. And I’m not naturally sweary, I can’t go all Jimmy Carr. But being my age puts me in a great place to have seen the way the world works and to still have energy to rage against it. The London spoken word venue that told me last year to “Stick with storytelling in libraries, dear” might have missed out…

A friend reminds me Don’t make plans on the basis of what you should do, don’t make yourself fit into somebody’s else’s idea of acceptable – pretend there’s a fairy godmother and plan for what you really want to do! Ok: so that’s Chloë presenting a roller coaster ride of exquisite traditional tales, hair raising contemporary pieces, a piece read from the page to provide a contrasting tone and pace – alongside (a) gypsy jazz musician(s) connecting sections of the show with very different sounds and that gypsy energy of heart and blood… There! Easy! ‘Love, Death & the Invisible Woman’ … hmm… Booking now for autumn 2017. Thank you!

profanities

 

Headshot image of ChloeRevered script consultant Michael Hauge, whose blockbuster credits range from Pirates of the Caribbean to Hancock, happily gives away trade secrets at www.storymastery.com .

A young wannabe wrote to Mr Hauge of his frustration at getting no response from Hollywood script agents. The submitted scripts, intended for mainstream USA audiences, featured Sikh characters and included roles for the writer, who’s also ‘an aspiring actor’. He asked if he must ‘write to sell instead of writing good quality screenplays with unique characters’. You can read Michael’s beautifully honest reply on the Q+A page of www.storymastery.com

Michael’s response might be tough for a frustrated writer / actor /director to read. That’s why it’s so valuable.

I believe that ‘commercial and ‘good quality’ are not mutually exclusive – in fact the creative challenge to balance those elements is a big part of the fun!

To me, creative process means communicating my ideas – in ways that will win audiences. Grab them, hold them, provoke them into thinking (that’s hard!), give them laughter and other reasons to go on living.

Emotional power

Obviously I’m white British, irretrievably middle class and now sagging into middle age. Yet somehow I’ve always been aware of long established respect for Sikhism in the UK. When I was aged six or seven I loved the serial in my weekly comic about a Sikh army officer. I was also a child who suffered horrible nightmares. Time and again I summoned up the image of that warrior in his turban and uniform as I prepared to face the wild landscapes of night; the thought of that character made me feel protected.

So let’s think Life of Pi. Think Slum Dog Millionaire. Those films involve cultures outside the experience of a large part of western cinema audiences, yet the stories have vivid characters about whom you really care, they have visual magnificence and narratives that corkscrew between magical romance and raw survival. Cultural settings are secondary to the films’ emotional power.

5 year plan

But that young Sikh writer-actor must also remember that British creative industries have gatekeepers who tend to revel in their power and who only deign to give the time of day to their chosen clique. Outsiders are almost never allowed in. I suspect the USA, land of opportunity, is no different when it comes to film and television.

I suggest that, given he knows what he’s capable of when he gets his break, the young man needs a 5 year campaign:
1) To build a good reputation in the right places as a Sikh actor. Be available in many countries, do the widest possible range of work to learn how different aspects of the industry create success (and to see how NOT to do many things!) Respected actors do get opportunities as writers + directors.
2) To offer scripts to specialists in making films that feature Sikh culture.  Initially he should not ask to act in his own films, until decision makers know and trust his writing and his acting. So where are the Sikh film makers, all around the world? Hollywood is not the only fruit.
3) To trust that all experience is useful as he works towards writing scripts that celebrate his Sikh culture and weave that material into a wider (western) context that will hook Hollywood decision makers’ attention. If he still wants that.
4) To network, study, work ordinary jobs to pay his bills and discover life; and keep writing. NOTHING IS WASTED even if it isn’t used this year … or next…

All about the money

I know all about failing to see beyond my own potential. “If only bookers/audiences would see how brilliant my performances and material are…”

And my work is constantly devalued, even when people enjoy it. “It’s just storytelling. It’s just for kids.” “We’re a charity.”

Just last week a conversation went bad because someone said “It’s not all about the money” to which I responded “But money is important. I have to pay the rent”. They couldn’t assume that I deliver my work fuelled by a lifetime of experience, 15 years of full time commitment and all the artistic integrity of which I’m capable. Instead they leapt to the easier assumption that I’m crassly commercial.

Right now I’m wriggling my material around to reach a new market. The world première of my first all-contemporary story cabaret Scheherazade’s Shed was hailed by the director of Cheltenham Poetry Festival 2015 as a “highlight of the festival”. I should have done this years ago!

Terrified

But when I started out in 1999, the senior practitioners of my (very small) creative industry terrified me into believing that only one kind of work was acceptable. They were the gatekeepers so I did what they said they wanted. And 15 years on I’ve realised that didn’t work either! Sometimes the doors aren’t just locked against you, they’re bricked up. Time to stop banging my poor bloody head against a brick wall.

But if I’d been more confident, I’d have found the way round much faster. If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll only get what you always got. Creative work MUST be influenced by commercial demands, i.e. what audiences like. Otherwise your work is just amateur self indulgence.

Cheltenham Poetry Festival logoIt was a delight, dare I say even moving, to hear the poetry choices of Cheltenham’s election candidates last night at Cheltenham Poetry Festivals world first Poetry Election.

The town’s current MP is Martin Horwood, a Liberal Democrat. He won the Poetry Election with a pair of poems that included Shelley’s Ozymandias (‘Two vast and trunkless legs of stone…’) which stopped being a cliché when Martin explained the poem’s original, harshly political context: the Peterloo massacre, repressive Corn Laws and vicious poverty.

The event in the echo-ey vastness of Frances Close Chapel on University of Gloucestershire campus was very sensibly free, so nearly 100 people including the be-chained Mayor of Cheltenham and plenty of arty types packed the front pews to hear readings and a short debate. For an informal arts event in Gloucestershire, that’s an almost miraculously good house.
Other things were revealed. Only the Green candidate Adam Van Coevorden knew how to use a microphone. Labour candidate Paul Gilbert had thought about how the arts enhance education. UKIP newbie Christina Simmons didn’t seem to have an arts policy at all and put austerity far ahead of support for the arts. Martin Horwood vaunted the array of Cheltenham Festivals, quite reasonably on the basis of his involvement in helping to win funding for them. Everybody on the platform got stuck in to their poems with gusto, even indie candidate Richard Lupson-Darnell who confessed to loathing poetry at school.
Call it creativity…
But none of the candidates showed any real understanding of the arts world. Cheltenham’s wonderful Playhouse Theatre – that welcomes professional, semi pro and amateur performance in a way that some of the town’s posh publicly funded venues dismally fail to do – never got a mention.
Beyond the official Festivals, and a yearning for the long lost Axiom centre, the candidates clearly had no concept of working in the arts. If you call it creativity, by the way, the elitist overtone goes away.
Nobody spoke about how creativity – received or participated in – supports mental health, potentially saving the NHS fortunes as depression attains epidemic proportions in the UK. Nobody spoke about how millions of creative people in the UK today – dedicated, intelligent people who train to a high standard and who commit their finances, heart and soul to their work – are unable to make a living.
The thing that makes your heart sing
Nobody spoke about how ‘working in the arts’ carries such a stigma now that it’s almost better to be outed as a banker.
Nobody spoke about how most creative people must, for the whole of their adult lives, consign their talent to a mere hobby to be fitted around zero hours contracts, inadequate wages and exhaustion. If you have any spark of creativity in the UK today, but you’re outside the elite cliques of arts stars and large scale commercialism (film, musical theatre, video games) then all you can expect is sneering discouragement.
Your ability, the thing that makes your heart sing and gives you a reason for living – will be dismissed with a cry of “Get a proper job!”
Cultural desert
After 15 years working full time as a spoken word performer, and observing a wide range of theatre and music from the inside, I’ve concluded that Gloucestershire is a cultural desert where nobody wants to go to anything except the pub, and if they drag themselves to a show they certainly don’t want to pay more than the price of a pint.
Oh, all right, there’s a thin cadre of intellectuals who rather joylessly patronise opera, literature, smart exhibitions and the snob end of culture. Often nowhere near Gloucestershire, let alone Cheltenham or oh my goodness rough old Gloucester.
I could be wrong. It could be that 15 years battling the dead weight of indifference has skewed my view.
Last night’s Poetry Election showed that even politicians can be moved by – and can reach other people through – a thoughtful choice of poem.
But the cold truth in Cheltenham as in most of Britain is that the general public has no interest in what creative people can do. They don’t know, don’t care, don’t go. I’m good at only one thing: telling stories. I have to face every day knowing that very nearly nobody wants what I do best.
Story Cabaret entertainer, spoken word artist Chloë of the Midnight Storytellers

Chloë: new contemporary Story Cabaret

Notes

•  The Jordans Cheltenham Poetry Festival runs 20 April – 3 May 2015: from the world’s gloomiest poet (who will have you in stitches) to duck infested canal poetry, plus bands, hip hop and poetry for children.

•  Scheherazade’s Shed – the world première of my new contemporary story show for adults is Monday 27 April 9pm at Cheltenham Playhouse, ticket £7 or concession price £4. Please pre book from the Playhouse 01242 522 852

Cheltenham’s parliamentary candidates, in alphabetical order, are:

Cotswold Life magazine requested spooky local yarns for its online pages during October. I sent them a true story… Here’s The Museum in Black – don’t have nightmares!

Come and enjoy Hallowe’en family storytelling and adults’ Story Cabaret

during October

starting 12 Oct. 4pm with Sunday Afternoon Tea & ScaryTales at the Burrow Café, Stow on the Wold, Gloucestershire

Chloë at Hallowe'en

Chloë tells scarytales [photo by Ken Skehan]

…Would have a career! Here I am mixing up a potent cocktail of performance skills: from high drama to stand-up comedy with the odd moment of pure poetry. Making some people drift into dreamland, and some reach for the sick-bag.
(Hmm.. A new ad theme? – Chloe’s work kicks like a Moscow Mule, sparkles like vintage Veuve Cliquot, and is salty round the edges with a worm at the end!?!)

But because I’m a ‘storyteller’ – oh dear, it’s got that nasty childy mocking whine of stor-y-Jacka-Nor-y.  And I’m dead.  No English theatre, no trendy venue, no hip broadcaster wants to put  ‘ickle floaty-birdy-pretty-bunny kiddyfodder in their main schedule! Because that’s all they can imagine storytelling to be!

It is set in stone for entertainment agencies, venue bookers, broadcasters and the general public that ‘storytelling’ is for 5-year-olds. They cannot fathom the idea of Story Cabaret packed with gripping narrative designed to entertain adults.  I cannot meet someone for the first time and be introduced as a storyteller without them gushing Oh How Lovely, D’you Go Into Schools?

It makes me want to do to them what the Japanese storm god does to his sister’s pet pony…
Not nice. Lots of blood.

My latest Story Cabaret (aha! trying another name, see?) at National Trust property Hidcote Manor was sold out. The definitely grown-up and indeed sophisticated audience contained not one person who’d experienced performance storytelling before.  (I asked.)  They’d only come to the show because it was called ‘Tales of Lust & Chocolate’ and frankly anyone with a pulse would come to that.

Even the event organizer was startled by how spellbinding a story show can be. In one hour we experienced naughtiness, heartbreak, temptation and scary trickery. The audience laughed, blushed, grieved and shuddered – sometimes to the same story.

Good spoken-word stories are emotionally powerful and thought provoking. Traditional stories can seem simple; yet they deal with the whole smeary rainbow of human behaviour. New stories – eg urban myths, and the much-maligned-until-recently personal stories – highlight our age, our world, in all its absurdity and contradictions.

Now, do you still think this material is suitable only for 5-year-olds?