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.
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.
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
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!