Hi everyone! I’m delighted to be featuring another guest post on my blog today, this time from brilliant writer and performer (and all around lovely human) Carly Brown. I remember watching videos of Carly’s poems online before I even met her and being blown away by her work. Carly performs imagery-laced, tightly-written pieces which often carry important messages shot through with perfectly timed humour. In addition to her spoken word practice, she also writes poetry for the page as well as prose, and she’s currently writing her debut novel! Carly and I had quite similar routes into spoken word in that we both grew up performing onstage: myself in dance, her in theatre. In this essay, Carly shares how her theatre background has informed her spoken word practice. (I wrote a similar post a while back on how my dance background helped me in spoken word—you can read it here).
Hope you enjoy! As always, if you have something to share regarding spoken word creative practices, theory, or the Scottish live poetry scene, I’m always open to feature folks on this site. Just drop me a line through the ‘Contact’ page. Cheers! – Katie
How My Theatre Background Impacted My Spoken Word Poetry
by Carly Brown
I was a theatre kid. I grew up performing in at least two plays a year since about the age of ten. I have performed in operas and in Shakespeare plays, in musicals, in modern comedies and even once as a pretty terrible mime. While I always knew that I wanted to write and tell my own stories, acting was one of the great joys of my childhood and university years, bringing me confidence, an artistic outlet and friends who would happily sing the Valjean/Javert duet from Les Misérables with me at full volume. But theatre also brought me lots of skills and techniques that were of enormous value when I transitioned to becoming a spoken word poet.
Of course there are lots of differences between traditional live theatre plays and spoken word. For one thing, you’re not usually playing a character with spoken word poetry (unless it’s a persona poem), although this concept of ‘playing a character’ gets complicated quickly, which I talk about a little later. With spoken word, you’re also not wearing costumes on stage or using any set or props. And, crucially, you are not interacting with other people on stage (unless it’s a group piece, but even then, that’s very different from a play). Lots of acting, as they say, is reacting to what your fellow actors are giving you. With spoken word you are pretty much alone up there. Just you, the mic, and the audience. No pressure, right?
Yet it is no surprise that many spoken word poets have a theatre background. The two art forms share a lot of similarities and there are lots of lessons and tools that I took from my experience as an actor and applied to my performance poetry. I’ve laid out a few of them here. While my particular style of spoken word is a highly performative one, this piece is for any spoken word poets who might be curious about how the techniques of live theatre could impact their art. But it’s also for actors who might want to try their hand at spoken word. And it’s for those who enjoy seeing live performances of various kinds and are interested in how these two different art forms can interact with and borrow from one another, from the perspective of someone who practices both.
#1 Theatre helped me learn how to memorize stuff
I am of the opinion that you do not have to memorize your spoken word poems, but there are a variety of reasons why you might want to. Memorization eliminates one barrier between you and the audience and often allows you to connect with the audience more fully when you don’t have to glance down at a paper. It also frees up your hands for gestures and further physicality, which can make your performance more dynamic and exciting to watch.
When I decided that I wanted to perform my poems by memory, my theatre background came in very handy! This is because I was already a memorization pro after years of practice memorizing lengthy monologues in Elizabethan English. Memorization is a muscle and, like any muscle, you can strengthen it with practice. By the time I started competing in slams, at about the age of twenty or twenty-one, I had already clocked countless hours pouring over highlighted scripts, making sure that I knew exactly what to say when the curtain went up. Because with live theatre, if you forget a line, it’s not just your butt on the line. It’s your cast members as well who are depending on you.
When I went to start memorizing my own poems for the stage, which were typically only about two or three minutes in length, I was actually relieved. These poems seemed so short. Also, this time, if I forgot a line, A) nobody knew what the line was supposed to be and B) nobody would have to recover onstage from the mistake except me!
Through my decade of acting, I had figured out what worked for me to memorize stuff. For me, memorization is very visual. I see the words in my mind as I say them. I kind of picture the shape of them on the page and that helps me a lot. So I always print off my poems and go through them line by line, adding more after I’ve got one bit down. I wouldn’t go so far as to say I have a ‘photographic memory’ (I’m no Sherlock), but my memory is a visual one. What about you?
If you’re an actor looking to try out spoken word poetry, this practice memorizing texts will serve you well. You already know what works for you, and what doesn’t, to get those words into your brain. And if you’re a spoken word poet and want to memorize your own work, I’d suggest developing your memorization skills by trying to memorize a poem or a dramatic monologue that you did not write. Maybe a short one to start? Pay attention to what works for you (and doesn’t work) when trying to memorize it. Maybe you picture the text in your head, like me? Maybe not. At the very least, your new memorized poem will be a cool thing for you to whip out to impress people at parties (if, like me, most of your friends are on the nerdy side). At best, you’ll have developed that trusty Memorization Muscle and made it easier to memorize your own work in the future, if that is your goal. Katie has also written a lengthy blog post dedicated to memorization tools, so definitely check that out as well!
#2 Theatre helped me to recover if I forgot words onstage
We all forget our words from time to time. I’ve done it in plays and at spoken word shows. Sometimes the words come back to me, sometimes they don’t. Sometimes I just say: ‘Well, they’re gone. The words have chosen to take a holiday today and not invited me along. On to the next poem.’ It’s fine. It’s human. My theatre background taught me to forgive myself and to recover when I’m stuck.
I always think back to that time when I blanked on the lyrics to the song ‘Look at Me I’m Sandra Dee’ when I played Rizzo in a high school production of Grease. I just twirled around onstage and cackled and fluffed my hair until I remembered the lyrics again. Theatre gives you the confidence to know that you can mess up and you can recover. That audience at Grease did not know any different. And even if they did notice, they probably didn’t care. Just keep going and the audience will move on with you. They want to have a good time and they don’t want to see you suffer. As Harold Zidler sings in Moulin Rouge: ‘The show must go on!’
So if you’re an actor, remember that you have the skills to recover if you forget a line in your poetry or stumble over your word. You can improvise until you remember or just move swiftly onto the next bit. You’ve been there before. And if you are a spoken word poet, channel that ‘show must go on’ mentality and just crack on, even if you forget or make a mistake. Roll with it. Most of the time, nobody will notice or care. They will be too busy being wowed by your wondrous words to worry about the fact that you forgot that one line in the middle.
#3 Theatre taught me to project
On fairly technical level, I learned from acting how to project my voice, using my diaphragm, into a crowded room. Also how to slow down, stand up straight, breathe, and not rush through the words so quickly that nobody can hear them. These skills are useful for delivering anything live and they help make sure that you are clearly understood and heard by your audience. Mics are often used at spoken word events, which is great. If the audience cannot hear you, they cannot interact with your work.
#4 Theatre helped me overcome stage fright
I think one of the hardest things about spoken word is those first few times that you get up on stage and read your work aloud to a live audience. It’s scary. I remember so vividly doing it at a student union in St Andrews – my shaking paper, the crackle of the mic, my friends with their eager smiles in the front row. I was super nervous, even after years of performing in plays. But there’s something different when it’s your own work. Something more vulnerable. If people don’t like the lines I’m saying in a play, they can blame Tennessee Williams. If they don’t like the lines I’m saying in my spoken word poem, they can blame me.
Nevertheless, my experience on stage acting helped give me the confidence to get up on stage to try performing my own work. I knew that I had gone on stage before and I had not died. And, as with the memorization thing, the more that you do it, the more confident you become.
So if you’re an actor, you’ll be ready to weather the nerves and get yourself on stage, because you’ve done it before in another context. And if you’re a budding spoken word poet who really suffers from stage fright, maybe dip your toe into the water of spoken word slowly by maybe signing up for an open mic (especially one you’ve been to as an audience member). Or practice for friends and family, your partner or your cat, first, before performing to a room full of strangers. Or try an improv class or a spoken word workshop, as well. Anything that gets you up, in front of people and saying things, will be good practice.
#5 Theatre helped me access emotions on stage
This is probably the biggest way that my theatre background has helped me with my spoken word and it’s definitely not something I expected.
When you write a poem, the emotions that you’re writing about (heartbreak, frustration, longing, full on existential crisis etc.) often feel very true and very real for you in that moment of composition. However, when you go to perform it months, sometimes years, later…not so much. Those emotions and those situations might not be relevant or so emotionally charged for you. You might not be able to connect with the poem anymore. It might feel like a different person wrote it.
Yet you must find some way of connecting with it in order to deliver it to an audience in an interesting and dynamic way. You must bring it to life in the best way you can by conveying those emotions, one way or another. This is a lot like acting. In fact, you could even say that it is acting. It is playing a character. That character just happens to be an earlier version of yourself.
I personally reconnect with the material in two ways. The first way is that I imagine a situation, person or object that feels relevant to me that day and channel that as I’m delivering the poem (it’s been a while since I studied acting, but I think this way is tied to the Stanislavsky method and also to method acting). For example, if I’m delivering a poem where I’m meant to be angry about something I’m no longer actually angry about, I’ll think of something that, right now, makes me angry. Maybe I’ll think of President Donald Trump, for instance. Or if I’m meant to be delivering a sweet poem and need to convey emotions of love or affection, I will think about my partner. Or a friend I really care about. I picture that person, their face, the way they make me feel. (It’s cheesy but it works!).
The second way is that I try to tap into the emotions of what I was feeling at the moment that I wrote it. After all, the person who wrote the poem was me (at one point in time). So I try to remember those emotions. What did this situation that I describe feel like? Look like? How can I best convey those feeling to an audience with my voice and body?
#6 Theatre taught me about pace
And once I’ve tapped into those emotions, using one or both of those techniques, I try to vary it up a little bit as well. There’s no point in keeping the volume turned up to Emotional Level 11 for the whole poem. People will tune out if you’re just straight up screaming at them the whole time. Of course, this depends on the poem. But my acting background taught me to think about how I can vary things up and find different emotions and layers in my own writing. When I write, I often try to include various different emotions and tones within one poem.
Even if you’re a performer who is not particularly theatrical with their delivery, it still usually pays to vary up the pace. If you read everything at the exact same pace, with no pauses or emphasis or variation at all, you risk people tuning out (which I’ve learned the hard way). Theatre taught me to really look at a piece and consider the different emotions and tonal shifts within it and how I can convey that to the audience.
#7 Theatre made me love live performance
One of the things that I loved most about live theatre is that it’s, well, live. Every time you deliver a monologue it’s different because the audience is different, the space is different and you are different. Same with spoken word. Theatre has taught me to not just barrel ahead with my memorized poem, doing it the same way each time, but really thinking of ways that I can make it new, that I can emphasize different words or perhaps pause at a different moment. Then seeing how the audience reacts. In a sense, it’s new each time.
Different audiences will also react wildly differently to the same material. Live theatre helped me make peace with the fact that one audience will howl with laughter, one will nod reverentially, and one will fall asleep. It depends on them, on you, on the space you’re in and myriad other factors. It’s that strange alchemy of doing it live that you cannot always predict or control.
Yet there is nothing that compares to connecting in that moment with complete strangers in a dark auditorium and hearing them laugh or sigh or occasionally sniffle with tears. It makes me feel magical. In a way, it kind of is. Live storytelling is ancient. Before we wrote anything down, we were sitting in circles around a fire and telling each other tales. When you step on stage, that’s what you’re connecting to. Centuries of stories and storytellers. Which is pretty amazing.
Live connection with an audience is the main thing that these two art forms share and if you love one of them, chances are you’ll enjoy the other too. Even if you’re an actor who doesn’t want to write spoken word poems, check out a poetry slam or an open mic and see what those incredible poets can do in only three minutes. Or if you’re a spoken word poet, buy a ticket for a play in your local area and see how those actors dive deep into their roles and bring that story to life, in that moment. I think you’ll find that each art form has much to offer the other.
Bio: Carly Brown was Scotland’s National Champion of Slam Poetry in 2013 and placed 4th at the World Series of Slam Poetry in Paris. She’s the author of a poetry pamphlet, Grown Up Poetry Needs to Leave Me Alone, which can be found here (https://www.etsy.com/uk/listing/560444307/grown-up-poetry-needs-to-leave-me-alone), as well as a children’s picture book, I Love St Andrews. Carly is currently pursuing a PhD at University of Glasgow and working on her first novel. https://carlyjbrown.com