Wednesday, 3 March 2010

‘A public display of ineptitude’, first open mic slot, being sick in a bucket and Edith Bouvier Beale

I have read a piece of work at an open mic slot. It was my first try and I will just tell you why it was not my finest hour.

In November I attended the excellent Ann (The Poet) Wilson’s Performance Workshop hosted by Lancaster Spotlight. I thought I would have a try at reading some of my own writing at a lit evening.

Ann is a great poet, performer and compere and, it turns out, brilliant teacher.

We were a small group and we good-naturedly watched each other reading and perform and gave constructive feedback. Ann provided particularly bespoke advice and showed us how our posture and body language influenced how we sound and how we are perceived. She took us through a whole series of warm-up exercises, breathing and relaxation methods and showed us how to use a microphone (which is a lot more complicated than it sounds).

We were all conspicuously better at performing by the time we had our second bash at delivering our work.

I am never going to be a ‘Ta-Dah!’ kind of a performer but Ann assured us that the conspiratorial ‘Come and listen to this,’ type of delivery is equally as valid.

Between November and now I nearly had a try at an open mic slot several times - but lost my nerve on every occasion.

Finally, I decided I had to do it. I have no idea where the compulsion to read my own writing out loud in front of strangers came from. An obligatory karaoke evening is way beyond what my vision of what hell might be like - and karaoke-ers are at least performing words written by professionals.

I opted to read an extract from my dissertation long-short story. The extract is a first person flashback to the mid-1970s in which my female narrator unsuccessfully resolves to stop the planned adoption of her baby. I wrote it with a detached and calculating heart.

The evening before the lit night I practiced the piece in front of my benevolent writing group friends. The extract was overly-long – almost five minutes and, ridiculously, my voice cracked as if I was about to cry, when I got to the section where the baby is being taken.

The writing friends were kind. I don’t know, maybe I should have been more explicit about my intentions,
‘I plan to read this extract in a big room. In front of people. Strangers, who do not know me...’
and then my writing friends might have been more candid.

Deluded as ever I pressed on; I cut the extract down by removing the first paragraph and a slew of adjectives.

The extract was still over three minutes long but, I hoped, not long enough to trigger the klaxon.

I tinkered with the ending to make it a more self contained narrative.

I practiced reading the narrative out loud to myself one thousand three hundred and ninety seven times; until there was no scrap of emotion left about my person.

At the lit evening I hummed along the corridors until my lips vibrated. I swung my arms vigorously in the toilets. I squatted gingerly when I imagined no one was looking to get the tension out of my legs (this latter exercise was an error as I have a very painful limp at the moment). I inhaled huge lungsful of air with each breath until there were shimmering black shapes in front of my eyes. All to little avail.

When I stood, eschewing the microphone because I couldn’t remember what Ann had said about how to use a microphone, my heart was booming against my ribs, I was anoxic and shrill. Mentally I was being sick in a bucket in the corner of the room. In reality, I was standing in front of my first audience.

As I read I couldn’t believe how long and silly the piece sounded. At the same time I felt sure I was accidentally missing out whole critical paragraphs.

There was one perceptible response from the audience, a man laughed – appropriately - when I mentioned the Uncle Bulgaria slippers; I wish now that I had paused, glanced up and thanked him – but I was in a hurry.

Even before I came to the section where the Fictional Baby is being taken my voice started to wobble dangerously. By the time I got to where the poor sod is being carted off in his Moses basket I was gulping audibly. The tinkered-with ending was lost in mangled emotion.

It is hard to say who was more embarrassed, me or the audience. I was so affected by the reading that even I came away suspecting that the events in the story were autobiographical. It would have felt like disloyalty to my Fictional Character to say,
‘I’m okay, I never had a baby adopted, you know…’
As if I am suggesting that my Fictional Character has done something shameful.

'Anyway...' (this is me addressing my Fictional Character).

'Anyway, my Fictional Character, it is me who should be ashamed, not you. You did what you considered to be the best thing in the circumstances. I, on the other hand, inflicted an overly-long, sentimental, ridiculously read, possibly inaudible extract on a blameless audience.'

After the reading I felt as if I was in a slow-motion/fast-motion trick photography film. In this film I can be seen sitting quite still and anonymous whilst a speeded-up world continues dizzily around me.

As I said at the beginning, my first open mic was not my finest hour. More accurately; it was not my finest more-than-three-minutes-but-less-than-five-minutes (if you don’t include my starring role in the subsequent trick photography slow-mo/fast-mo motion picture). Actually, not finest hour was probably a fair description.

Did any one else see the non-trick photography film, Grey Gardens? Apparently the subject of the film, Edith Bouvier Beale (a first cousin of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis) attempted to launch a cabaret career when she was 60. The New York Times called her act:

‘A public display of ineptitude.’

Oh poor Edie. Oh poor me. There. I’ve said it. We will not speak of my first open mic slot again. Least said soonest mended…