“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

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.

 

Fringe review 3 – I Felt I Had Earned The Curry

Well that was a strange old day of shows missed and shows abandoned. Having delivered a command performance-slash-dress rehearsal to Sophia Walker in the basement of Forest Cafe, I proceeded to loiter on the wind tunnel that is the Royal Mile in a vain attempt to thrust my flapping flyers into the hands of Swedish tourists just looking for shelter. I then arrived at my venue ten minutes too late to exit flyer Tina’s show, and just in time to miss ‘Yeti’ by Gary From Leeds due to the pressing need to change into performance clothes, warm up, go and do last minute flyering, warm up again and do my first show.

I then went to see ‘Raj Rage’ by Charmian Hughes, which had the exciting premise of a personal pilgrimage to India following the footsteps of her great-grandmother, who escaped the Indian Mutiny and left behind letters containing a species of eye-witness account. Ten minutes into the show and we were still listening to tepid jokes about middle-aged women’s mandatory pixie haircuts and the tribulations of travelling with a friend only to be mistaken for lesbians. When the ancestor appeared it was via the theatrical device of a faintly Victorian looking headband, which was donned before the action continued with no alteration of delivery or language whatsoever. Are these letters real? Was Hughes’ forebear simply an incredibly dull correspondent with no epistolary panache? A thousand words of this painted no picture at all. I left, sadly before the human banana sacrifice promised in the blurb.

I then perched at the back of the Banshee’s torture chamber to sneak a peek at Rob Auton’s ‘Face Show’, which follows the now-familiar Auton format of drawing us in with endearingly awkward whimsy before nearly losing us in a slightly unravelled middle section and then finally approaching what he’s actually talking about via an extended emotional crescendo. In this case, he literally draws us in, as in, draws faces for a while. It’s charming and a bit funny. There’s some energetic facial workouts. It’s absurd and a bit funny. There are a lot of baffled silences. He makes them longer, until they’re a bit more funny. There’s something about mice and aliens, but I was getting a bit tired at that point and had to have a little sit down. Auton is a genuinely lovely and unique performer, and to watch him is to walk a tightrope between confused, bemused laughter and delighted, surprised laughter. Whatever he talks about – the wonderfully poignant interconnectedness of all humanity for example – he talks about from the bottom of his strangely vulnerable heart, often all but breaking mine. I wouldn’t bill him as comedy, though. Not sure it’s spoken word either. It’s Rob.

A swift spell at JibbaJabba ensued, with sets by Jim Higo, Mandy Maxwell and a rather inspired open mic bit from a guy selling his services as a hit-man exterminator of stray helium balloons. Then back across Waverley Bridge to the Banshee for Stand Up Tragedy. An opening set form comedic storyteller John Harding was genuinely funny – it takes some tightly-managed delivery to tell a tale of explosive diarrhoea without being off-puttingly crass. But the next three acts left me and my companions cold, so we absconded in favour of curry, running the gauntlet of Niddry Street after the watershed, when all the people outside venues are suddenly aggressively flyering for shows called ‘Yank Me’, “Phone Whore’ and ‘Sex With Children’.

And now it’s tomorrow already, and I must get some sleep before seeing Jack Dean’s ‘Threnody For The Sky Children’, which may well have just beaten my ‘The Moon Cannot Be Stolen’ for the coveted ‘Most Pretentious Title’ award at this year’s Fringe…

Fringe Review 2 – Rain Didn’t Stop Play

Arrived yesterday, train pelting through a black cloudburst over Dunbar. The hems of hurricanes are soggy places.

Had a great time with Matt MacDonald at his showcase, taking it in turns with him, Jenni Pascoe, Mixy and Robin Cairns to be talented, funny and profound. We were incredible. You’ll have to take my word for it, as there were only 3 witnesses in the audience and 2 of them have gone home now.

The rest of the afternoon was spent settling into my digs and repeatedly pacing the main drag from Cowgate to Tolcross, past where all the lovely bookshops live. Managed to catch Sophia Walker’s other show, last year’s smash ‘Around The World In 8 Mistakes’, which was fab the first time and is now even better – the emotional texture more defined, better use of pace and vocal changes, lots of physical storytelling. It’s an autobiographical piece about the many countries Walker has lived in, and the reasons behind each move. England, America, Belgium, El Salvador, Vietnam, Russia, Uganda…take a guess which one wasn’t a mistake? Nope, you’re wrong. At times sobering, at many points laugh-out-loud funny, this is is still up there as a must-see show.

Finally I dragged my knackered self out to see Jess Holly Bates’ ‘Real Fake White Dirt’, and man, am I glad I did. I almost don’t want to tell you about it because it was her last show of the run and you’ll only be pissed off you didn’t make it. Bates is from New Zealand, and her show is a stunning exploration of cultural appropriation, continual colonialism and white identity. This sounds heavy, the kind of thing you might hear in an academic lecture, and a very funny mock lecture does form part of the text. But this is not a heavy show, it is fleet-footed, intelligent, full of strangely beautiful poetry that slaloms effortlessly around obvious exposition and grabs you right in your non-rational cognition. Bates plays words, phrases, associations like a jazz legend plays scales, using tangents and ellipses to convey a sparkling, energetic map of mental and emotional connections. More than that, she is in complete control of her presence as a performer, altering body and voice clearly and cleanly with breath-taking swiftness and definition. And she’s bloody funny. Amazing stuff, a masterclass in what spoken word could and should be.

Edinburgh Fringe – review 1

So yesterday I took a flying visit to the Fringe to catch a few things I would otherwise miss when my own run begins next week. This is what I managed to fit into five hours…

I started the day with The Good Delusion by Tina Sederholm at Royal Oak, a teeny, tiny, self-contained cellar room at a very welcoming ‘proper’ pub, with seating for around 20. I saw Tina last year at Banshee Labyrinth doing her previous show, Evie and the Perfect Cupcake. My first thought was that this year’s venue is much better suited to her style as a performer, being less gloomy, less gothic, less plagued by noisy, nosy walk-bys in the corridor. Sederholm is most definitely not gloomy, nor is she confrontational or intentionally difficult – she specialises in warm, charming and accessible poetic storytelling. The Good Delusion is more directly autobiographical than the upbeat moral fable of last year, and is maybe less honed as a narrative, using an episodic structure that sometimes seems quite loosely linked to the purported subject ‘being good’. But of course, this isn’t actually an in-depth exploration of a moral construct, it’s entertainment, and in that it succeeds with plenty of giggles and sherbet lemons – though ironically given the show’s conclusion, I suspect she’s still trying to be good enough for us to like her! And we do…

By contrast, Can’t Care, Won’t Care by Sophia Walker is a very demanding show, and rightly so as it deals with serious and important issues around the realities of working in the care system. The audience is cast in the role of jury as the poet/care worker is put on trial for the negligent homicide of a service user. Walker plays both the defendant and the prosecuting counsel, shifting the language of her speech and body rapidly between the two. It’s a strong performance, obviously springing from personal experience and personal conviction (no pun intended), and there’s no let-up to the pace and emotional pitch. It’s a lot to take in – the exposure of the unwieldy bureaucracy of the care industry that fails to recognise the context of individual needs, the savage and ignorant cuts to funding that have left front-line workers exposed to dangerous lone working, the grotesque injustice of their consequent culpability when things go wrong. And on top of this, the performer’s own expiation of a guilt that may really be hers, or may be an imagined scenario, but in any case is delivered full-force. A few more pauses for breath and contemplation would be a kindness. Definitely go and see this, but do what she asks at the end – deliberate, discuss, decompress over a coffee before you head off to your next show.

I didn’t decompress, I rushed off to do a guest slot at Get Put Down, an afternoon poetry cabaret hosted by Edinburgh’s own Max Scratchmann and Alec Beattie. They work well as a hosting team, in an ‘Odd Couple’ kind of way, Max being genial and self-deprecatory, Alec a bit grumpy and sardonic. After a quick set there I had to do the unforgiveable and run straight off to another guest slot at Other Voices, again a cabaret but this time run by Fay Roberts and featuring strong female performers. I was lucky enough to get there in time to hear a beautiful open mic poem from Miriam Nash, and a guest set from Jess Green.

In fact my next port of call was Jess Green’s show Burning Books, another poet taking a scathing look at the impact of government policy and cutbacks on a public service sector, this time the education system. Green recently went viral with ‘Dear Mr Gove’, a poem written from a teacher’s point of view as an open letter to the then Minister for Education. It’s included in the show, alongside equally eloquent, passionate and stunningly-written pieces from multiple characters – the library assistant, the teacher forced to go to a team-building session with a nightmare poet, the teacher with a coke habit. Green has always been an excellent writer and performer, but for me the great thing about this show is the maturity of vision and empathy she shows in stepping outside herself and into these convincingly realised voices. She has teamed up with a guitarist and percussionist to set the whole sequence to music, and I’m not convinced it adds much to the experience other than providing a click-track that helps her overcome a slight tendency to let her emotions accelerate her delivery. But having said that, there were others in the audience really rocking along to the beat, so what do I know?

The plan is to write something every day next week about shows I’ve seen – if my stamina holds up! These shows are all part of the PBH Free Fringe – there is no charge, so if you’re going to the Fringe please budget to make a donation and/or buy some merchandise. For example, I bought Jess Green’s CD of the show for £5.

The Good Delusion, Tina Sederholm, Royal Oak, 12pm

Can’t Care, Won’t Care, Sophia Walker, Banshee Labyrinths, 1.40pm

Burning Books, Jess Green, Electric Circus, 4.30pm

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