An Introduction to Performing
Performing is a fun experience, and one that I’d recommend you try if you get the opportunity. Whether you’re performing poetry, short stories, or even public speaking, it can be quite challenging if you’ve never done it before. Here are some tips for somebody getting started from someone who, not too long ago, had never performed in their life.
What You’re Reading From
Nerves is a very real thing to contend with. When you’re standing in front of a crowd, your anxiety levels go up and that can cause your hands to shake. It’s not uncommon to become a bit self-conscious about this, especially when the crowd can see your paper shaking too. During my first performance, I kept moving the paper to my other hand to get a few seconds of respite from the shakes and repeating until I was done. What you need to remember is that it happens to everyone, and nobody’s going to judge you for it. You’re allowed to be nervous. Having said that, if you get particularly shaky then read from something heavy and compact. It’s noticeable when you shake with paper because the tiniest move ripples along the sheet. It’s much harder to notice when you’re reading from a notebook. If you go with a book or binder of some description, just pick any notebook you like the feel of. You can hand write your poems, or just print them and put them into the book.
What you probably shouldn’t do is read from your phone. Now, I do read from my phone, so I’m not one to talk, but better performers than me say you shouldn’t, for two very good reasons. Firstly, phones are very complicated—as opposed to a piece of paper or a notebook—and present the possibility of many technical problems. You need to know where all of your reading material is and how to access it quickly, and finding things on a phone can be tricky under pressure. Phones lock automatically, browser tabs refresh, you cannot rely on signal in some venues. Secondly, and more importantly, reading from a phone means you will be entirely looking at a tiny screen and not engaging with the audience. People will not be receptive to you. I get around these by setting my screen to now fade out or lock, having my poetry prepared on there in advance as a set-list, and looking at my phone as little as possible.
To Recite or to Read
When I first started going to poetry readings, I saw a lot of people reciting their pieces from memory. It’s something that I never thought I’d be able to do myself, and it’s I still haven’t been able to achieve it; mostly because I’m not trying to. Reciting from memory is definitely the better of the two. It allows you to engage with your audience more, it allows more freedom of movement, and makes you look professional. Having said that, however, there is nothing wrong with reading. A well-read poem is better than a moderately well-recited poem. If you want to capture some of the engagement of reciting, what I’ve found is that with a little bit of practice I can finish a sentence once I’ve started without reading it. So, I’ll look at my poem, start reading a line or stanza, look up at the audience, and finish the line or stanza. I find that this fits nicely between the two and is a balance that I’m very comfortable with. You can recite your work from memory if you’re able to and want to, but it’s not necessarily the gold standard that it first appears to be.
Perform, Don’t Read
I’m not saying that you have to dress up and dance around the stage like you’re in a play. You can do that if your work calls for it but you don’t have to. The best analogy that I can come up with is likening your poetry performance to reading a story to a child. A small child. You don’t just read the words deadpan, you add inflections. To perform properly, whether reading or from memory, you have to vary the intonation, pause for dramatic effect, and add emphasis. The reason you read this way to children is that it’s interesting to them and keeps them engaged and listening, and the same thing goes for adults. It’s also very easy to do with minimal practice. Adding body movements and actions that fit with what you’re reading is a good thing to do, but is quite a lot to do when you’re new to performing. For me, I’m focusing on reading and adding movements isn’t a natural thing for me, so I have to consciously do it. There’s only so much my brain can focus on at once so I don’t worry about moving around very much.
Talk to Your Audience
Say hello. Introduce yourself even if you’ve been introduced by the host. Ask them if they’re enjoying themselves. You don’t start having a full conversation with them, but throwing in that kind of small interaction builds a report between you and them, as well as helps to calm some of your nerves. And be friendly. Even if your poetry is dark and gritty and you want to come off as this angry person who hates everything, you can still be friendly to your audience before the poetry starts.
This is the most important thing. If you’re not having fun, your audience isn’t having fun. It’s a nerve racking and, at times, terrifying experience but once you get through all of that it is quite enjoyable. So, have fun. Enjoy yourself up there. Audiences are generally quite respectful so even if you’re terrible, they’ll be nice to you.
This is by no means an exhaustive list and will certainly not make you a good performer, but mastering these basic strategies will start you on that path. This is general advice for life too, but practice does make it easier and helps you to improve. So, go out there and try your hand at performing.
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© 2018 David Chitty
Available under the Thanet Writers Education Policy
David Chitty was born and raised in Thanet in the 90s. He devotes most of his energies to writing fantasy fiction novels.