Performing and Overperforming

When reading aloud on stage, how do you walk the line between performing and being a clown?

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I’ve been to hundreds of poetry events. I’ve seen actors fling themselves around the stage in desperate grips of heart wrenching sorrow and I’ve seen poets bring in props and costumes and shout to high heaven… and I hate them.

Not like “I hate this person,” but rather I think of the disservice done to the poetry. (Nothing against props, but the point of a poet is poetry, first and foremost.) It’s easy to think that performance means being as loud and powerful and all over the place to capture the audience. In reality, you’re overpowering your words and they get lost in the image of you as a clown. Reservation and subtlety are two of poetry’s most powerful tools over stand-up and music and acting, and if we’re gathered to hear poetry, we’re there to see and hear poetry.

So how do you balance performance with the dreaded overperformance?

I like to imagine two circles on the floor first. The first circle is as wide as my shoulders (standing feet shoulder-width apart with your hands on your hips is proven to increase confidence, it’s called a power pose) and this circle is my anchor. At no point will I allow both feet to leave this anchor spot. The second is as wide as my arms can reach around me, and this is the maximum I can move; any step forward must leave one foot in the first circle and extend no further than the second.

So why limit movement?

I’ve seen poets move all over the stage and pace and emote wildly, and having spoken to audiences I can tell you, it makes them feel seasick. They’re trying to focus on what you’re saying and your face, so when it’s bobbing and weaving they’re trying to follow it, and by trying to follow it they are taken away from your words.

So what do I do?

Watch someone who talks with their hands. These are natural movements that have subconscious links to what is being said. These can be as simple as a hand laid on the chest when the word “I” comes up, something soft and morose, or it can be a solid fist; a show of confidence, violence and power. It’s a simple action that is immediately understood by audiences, letting them get back to your words without thinking, “Why are they doing that?” Peppering these hand actions throughout your piece creates enough movement to stop the audience being bored but it doesn’t take away from your poetry.

The volume of voice can put people off as well. If you start your set shouting, where are you going to take it? You’ve come out the gate at 100% and now you’ve got nowhere else to go, so your poetry may be loud but it’s all in one emotional register.

Instead of trying to be loud, enunciate. Pace isn’t everything. The ability to spit bars at lightning speed is not an innate gift, it’s the result of practice. Anyone can slam all the words together and create a horrible incoherent buzz but, by dedicating time to diction, it’s possible to lay down some impressive lines with clarity. I’ve practiced with George Watsky’s Pale Kid Raps Fast because I am a pale kid who aspires to rap fast, but that doesn’t mean my poetry is delivered at 100mph. I switch between fast and slow to build an atmosphere. If you are going to talk fast, pay attention to the diction and make sure you don’t blur words; regulate your speed so you can speak effortlessly clear. This dedication to diction is something that comes with practicing your poetry. People forget you have to train your mouth to the piece because weird words crammed together, combined with pauses, can all affect your speech.

Pushing your voice to 10% above the volume you usually speak at gives you a nice push to the back of the room, and you still have the ability to rise and fall based on the emotional context of the piece. Contrast is more powerful than volume. You can do this by speaking from the diaphragm.

There are five things to work on to better project your voice:

  1. Breath support
  2. Posture
  3. Eye contact
  4. Enunciation
  5. Confidence

Stand up straight, not hunched over your page, and try to push your voice from your belly button.

There’s an exercise to help build this skill. Lie on your back with your knees slightly raised and your feet on the floor. Place both hands on your stomach and try to breathe from where your hands are. You should be aiming to push your hands up and down as you breathe. Once you’ve got the hang of this, you can place a book on your stomach and try again. Once this is natural and easy, stand up and repeat the first half of the exercise.

Doing this, and focusing on your diction, might mean you speak slower. That’s okay. Audiences like to take the time to appreciate the piece anyway, and it’s pointless coming out with incredible lines if no one can properly understand you. Strike a balance so not all your lines are lightning fast, but keep all your speech crisp and effortless.

While up on stage, behind the mic, a lot of poets get nervous about how their voice will come across. We spend all of our unamplified time hearing our voice a certain way, through the bones in our jaw, travelling up to our ears, reverberating through the cranium. The voice you hear from the mic will be different. Don’t worry, you’re just not used to it but to everyone else, they’re fine with it. Just keep the mic about three inches from your face, try not to blow straight down it and everything will be fine. You don’t have to take the mic out of the stand if you don’t want to, but, if you do, just keep the distance in mind.

Lastly, I want to address something that is sometimes a point of contention amongst performance poets. Memorising your poetry can really bring everything to life, and there are few things more enjoyable as a performer than being 100% aware of what is going on as the poem comes fluidly from within. That being said, it is not essential! Very few poets will do everything from memory. Once you’ve practiced and performed a newly written piece a few times, maybe even a dozen times or forty, you might notice things pop into memory. Recite at home, while doing the dishes, and see what sticks. Even if you can’t commit the whole poem, building chunks where you can go free is a great chance to shine. The less you’re looking at the page, the more you can be looking and connecting with your audience. Being transfixed by the page will mean you skip or flub lines because you’re so intent on reading everything there perfectly. I have a piece that I refer to as my slam piece and I’ve been known to miss out a whole couplet while I’m in the zone. It doesn’t matter. Just keep going and don’t let it register and everything will be grand.

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Connor Sansby is a Margate-based writer, editor, poet and publisher through his super-indie Whisky & Beards publishing label.

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1 Comment

  • Chris Vannoy says:

    There is a wealth of advice for the performing poet in this article Connor. I think the biggest mistake a poet that performs makes is that they over-act the piece. Timing and purpose should guide the poem. If the poet is to move…there should be a definite REASON for that movement. your advice on breathing and modulation of voice is right on!

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