Stealing Performance

If writing should be original, so too should performance be personal and honest when performing poetry.

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It is well-recognised that the writers who stand apart and get noticed are the ones who have their own voice. Imitating another writer’s style shows immaturity as an author or poet. That’s not to say writers are not inspired by those who they look up to; on the contrary, appreciating and assimilating elements of style from admired writers is how every writer begins to develop their own voice. There is a difference, however, between absorbing aspects and outright appropriating another writer’s style.

Taking ideas, stylistic elements, or quirks from other writers or artists is entirely acceptable. Even Picasso reportedly said, “Good artists copy, great artists steal.” Although the veracity of this quote has been disputed, even if Picasso did say it, he himself stole it from T.S. Eliot.

Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different. The good poet welds his theft into a whole of feeling which is unique, utterly different from that from which it was torn; the bad poet throws it into something which has no cohesion. A good poet will usually borrow from authors remote in time, or alien in language, or diverse in interest.

The Sacred Wood: Essays on Poetry and Criticism by T.S. Eliot

Eliot clearly explains that to successfully steal, writers need to change and evolve that which they have stolen into something new, and ideally greater than the sum of its parts. Otherwise it is at best a pastiche and at worst a faded carbon-copy.

If, then, writers are to write in their own voice, should performers not perform in their own voice also? After all, the same rule applies: Good performers copy, great performers steal. It is how they steal that will come to define them.

Consider the acting styles of Orson Wells, Glenn Close, Nicolas Cage, Judi Dench, Riz Ahmed, Pam Grier, Al Pacino, Winona Ryder, Idris Elba, and Michelle Pfeiffer. All are outstanding actors, in that they consistently stand out in anything they appear in. All are arguably excellent actors, as they captivate an audience and tell a story. All are different and perform in their own styles. For example, could you imagine the usually naturalistic and immersive Idris Elba acting with over-the-top manic zest like Nicolas Cage? It wouldn’t work, and Elba would not have gained the reputation he has by impersonating Cage—but neither would Cage have been so successful if he hadn’t approached acting in his own unique way. Similarly, performance poets should be individual, and not photocopies of each other.

I have seen many performance poets, and the ones that stand out in my memory are those who perform with their own voice. Unlike acting, poetry is about honesty. It is the poet sharing their soul with the audience—otherwise there is nothing to connect to. With acting, there are characters and a story for the audience to empathise with. A poem is often not a story, and even if it is, it is the poet with whom the audience shares empathy.

It is a shame that many performers write with such honesty and integrity, yet their performances feel fickle and shallow as they are desperately putting on a character to get on stage. If a poet feels their real self is not enough, then that vulnerability is what should be shared, not a front that audiences see through. Poets should show themselves, not caricatures. Some poets put on mannerisms or accents for certain poems—usually to show an element of their cultural or social heritage or upbringing—which can either be incredibly successful if undertaken with raw honesty, or a horrific failure if the intention behind it is fake. Even comedy poetry, using accents to deliver impressions, will fail without a level of honesty in the underlying nature of the poem itself. Why is there a character being portrayed, and what does that tell us about the poet? Without a fundamental answer to that question, the façade crumbles under the slightest scrutiny.

Other poets do perform as themselves—or slightly enhanced versions thereof—yet all their poems sound the same as they are read in a repetitive, obvious manner at the same speed, with the same tonal inclinations and vocal flexing and high and low and fast and slow and hard and soft so it becomes a tedious pattern of predictability after the first poem. For a single poem performance that can work incredibly well, but a whole set becomes very dry very quickly.

Indeed, some poets share vocal stylings with their peers. Small groups of poets who write and perform together, moving in the same circles and only really influenced by each other, all begin to sound alike. No matter how great the writing, the performance becomes tribal and loses its individuality.

This can all come about from a variety of reasons. The poet may be nervous, or lack confidence in their own delivery, and so adopt what they feel is a ‘poet’ voice. The poet may be ignorant and not know any different. The poet may be attempting to imitate as flattery, or to ape the success of another. The poet may simply not realise the subconscious absorbing of the styles of those around them.

The simple fix is twofold.

Firstly, increase your influences by reading and watching and listening to more poetry from wider ranges and places. As T.S. Eliot said, “A good poet will usually borrow from authors remote in time, or alien in language, or diverse in interest.” Look at how Shakespeare is performed, or how stand-up comedians work crowds. Watch actors in films or TV for speech delivery techniques. Listen to radio broadcasts and podcasts by poets all over the world. Steal from more places and put it to better use.

Secondly, be yourself instead of trying to be someone else. Imagine you are talking to someone in person, in a café or bar or wherever. Picture yourself telling an anecdote. The way you tell that story, the way you captivate those around you, that is how you should be on stage. Not some over-emotive performer who is acting-up how much they care about some words they memorised. Not a cheap knock-off of another poet who has garnered moderate success within—or outside of—the local circuit. Not an easily-seen-through cardboard cut-out attempt at being what you think the audience expects. If you are quiet, be quiet. If you are funny, be funny. If you are weird, be weird. Be you—the best, most performance-ready, confident, connecting-with-others-by-honestly-sharing-your-soul version of you—and be proud of it.

The one place artists forget to steal from is themselves. Remember, you have more to mine internally than you could ever borrow from elsewhere, and audiences don’t come to see a tribute act. They come to see you.

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Seb Reilly is a writer, fiction author and occasional musician. He lives by the sea in Thanet, Kent, with his family and two cats.

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