Lights, camera, fiction. Ali Bacon thinks about taking to the stage

Something I touched on in a very ancient blog post and am now thinking about a lot more, is that all writing is a performance, because like all artistic endeavours it assumes an audience, an audience whose expectations may be satisfied, disappointed, exceeded, subverted, but always taken into account. (Even if writing is therapeutic or introspective, i.e. the audience is the writer her/himself, that audience still needs satisfaction.)
But this isn’t about philosophy or therapy. It’s about the writer as a performer, as in on stage. I could include Youtube and audio tapes but I’m thinking of  those times when as authors we’re asked to stand up in public and read our own words. 

I admit I used to hate it, not because it involved ‘public speaking’ - I was always fine with giving talks and presentations in work situations –but reading my own work felt like presenting myself , my creations, my inner world – which sent me in to an unusually shrinking violet state of mind.  Not surprisingly my first efforts at reading to an audience were not great. I was, I suspect, a bit wooden, and I know for a fact that even if I started slowly I always cantered to the end in the hope of sitting down again as quickly as possible.

Getting a taste for stardom
But last November, this suddenly changed. Perhaps it was the Stroud Short Stories venue (warm welcome, big crowd) or the fact that this was performance for its own sake i.e. not linked to any book-buying or selling event, that made the difference, or maybe it was just because the readers ahead of me gave such brilliant entertainment of different kinds, I stood up and, as I read, I realised I was actually enjoying my moment in the limelight. It was a shock but a good shock, a shock I might even like to have again.

Since then I’ve taken been taking in other short story events, although so far only in the audience. Story Friday which takes place every two months in Bath is similar in some ways to Stroud Short Stories. Work is submitted and the ‘prize’ is selection for the next reading event, although in both cases it’s made clear that the criteria for selection are not just quality of writing but how well your contribution fits with the specified theme and the other selections, i.e. it’s about the audience experience as much as the writing.  I first went along in December last year and the story that has left the biggest impression was a comedy in two voices with a reader for each voice. Was it a story? Was it a play? Does it matter? It was a great performance.

Cleveland Pools -  stories are waiting
 My next Story Friday experience was on a Sunday (!) afternoon at Cleveland Pools, a semi-derelict Georgian lido (yes, you read that right) which was intriguing enough in itself. As an audience we were divided into small groups (making a virtue of health & safety necessity) and led in turn to each of the original changing cubicles where a reader met us with a story. The writing remit was to reflect the location and as we listened we were treated to a history of the venue through characters from a pick-pocket at the original lido to a girl seeking shelter from the WW2 blitz. Most writers had chosen first person narratives and read ‘in character’ so this was an orchestrated performance rather than a set of readings. For any writer who doesn’t want to ‘perform,’ Story Fridays also gives the option of having work read by a professional actor.
Dance performance by the pool

But how are we as writers going to grasp the performance nettle? Excerpts of novels do not make for great performance IMO because they will never tell the whole story, but if we do need to tackle book launch reading we can at least hone our presentation and delivery and I’m grateful that on my late lamented MA course Lucy English, novelist and performance poet, gave us some great tips on reading aloud. (No 1 rule: Speak as slowly as you possibly can!) 

Orna Ross at the new Hawkesbury Upton Litfest
But at other recent events it has struck me that fiction for performance has its own demands in terms of form and content as well as in the strength of the presentation. In April at Hawkesbury Upton, Orna Ross, Shirley Wright and John Holland demonstrated the strengths for an audience (in the right hands) of poetry and flash fiction, and I remember how well Pauline Masurel’s short stories came across last year in Winterbourne Library. 

Does the spoken word need to pack a different kind of punch to the written word? I was fascinated to see A Word in Your Ear offering a workshop  – sadly I couldn’t make it - in writing short stories for performance. But around here there are a growing number of ‘live fiction’ events (Word of Mouth at Bristol Thunderbolt, the Bristol group Heads and Tales, Philip Douch in and around Cheltenham and a new Sunday night initiative in Stroud) and since I seem to be ‘between novels’ I’m planning to be in the audience of more of them. I actually prefer to hear rather than read short fiction and so it will be a pleasure to sit back and let these people entertain me -  and then to work out how to make my next bid for stardom.


There's such an interesting discussion to be had around this - and thanks for raising it. I used to organise readings for the Arts in Fife way back when, and quickly became aware that some of the finest writers were the worst readers of their own work. Head down, mumble mumble, page after page. It taught me a lot about how not to do it. The best reader of his own work I have ever heard is Bernard MacLaverty. Magic. You could just sit and listen to him all day - he reads his stories as though he's telling them in a soft, Irish voice, with just enough intimacy. You feel like he's inside your head. Wonderful. I'm quite happy to read extracts from novels, but think they have to be chosen with care. You're aiming to make people want to read the whole book. Having been a radio writer for years helps - that and having to sit in for actors at rehearsals and read-throughs when you just have to bite the bullet and do it. But I think you're right - it's a skill that many of us have to learn, alongside public speaking, because at a book launch, the audience generally expects to hear some extracts from the book.
AliB said…
Interesting to hear about your experience, Catherine. In fact at both Thunderbolt and Story Friday there are actors available to do the reading, although one writer friend regretted going that way when the actor decided to edit the story - not to her liking! A.
Aaaargh - that's a very definite no-no. And they wouldn't get away with it in theatre. Well - not in my experience anyway. Something to be nipped in the bud right away!
AliB said…
Yes, did seem a bit cheeky! - although warnings may have been given.
Mari Biella said…
Well done, Ali. I'm impressed by your bravery, as I'm pretty sure that I will never, ever be able to read my work in public!
AliB said…
Never say never, Mari!
Lydia Bennet said…
As a poet I"m used to performing my work in public and enjoy it very much, be it Royal Festival hall, or a pub full of heckling drunks. As a playwright I'm also used to hearing my words spoken by actors which is more stressful, and as for editing on the spot by actors!!!! I have the greatest respect for actors, but that would never do. The first time I ever heard my own words performed by someone else was Charlie Hardwick at a local event when I was just starting out, she was fantastic. You tend to hear work well or at least passably performed now that it's expected of writers - in the past poets did often mumble, and occasionally sway drunkenly, and even fall over.
Susan Price said…
Ah, but Valerie, you have the quick wit needed to deal with heckling drunks. I'm sure I couldn't.
I've gone from being a terrified teenager to someone who enjoys reading their work, providing the audience is not too unruly.
I recently read a couple of short stories aloud at the RLF Brum meeting. One was 'Overheard In A Graveyard' from the book of the same title. It's a quite intense and emotional piece, and I was far from sure my acting ability was up to it - but it went okay. One audience member said they'd wanted to ask a question, but had been too choked up to speak. Of course, I'm choosing to believe that they meant choked with tears, and not with laughter.
Lydia Bennet said…
you obviously did a great job Sue, make em cry, make em laugh, that's the thing! I do get a big buzz from that.

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