Yesterday I found myself repeatedly walking out in front of a small group of people and swearing at them in the accent of an American wiseguy who’s lived through a zombie plague. And by the tenth or so time, I got past the nerves and embarrassment and – somehow – I actually felt like that character. He was coming out of me in a way that has only ever happened before at a keyboard; it was a revelation!
I was taking part in an excellent workshop on Performance And Presentation, organised (and subsidised) by the nice folk at Scottish Book Trust and led by the frankly awesome vocal coach Alex Gillon. They hold these occasionally and I really recommend it for anyone who has to perform or read in public, because I found it extremely useful. In fact, it gave me a lot to think about and I suspect that parts of her advice will continue to sink in gradually.
Alex really gave it her all – I find it tiring to be ‘on’ for just a short while, but she was ‘on’ all day, encouraging us, giving very detailed feedback and seeming to very quickly grasp how to display each person’s story, poem or play to its best advantage. It was really noticeable that certain parts which passed fairly anonymously on first hearing stood out after she had given their authors some suggestions: the jokes were revealed as genuinely funny, the descriptions were more evocative, the dialogue more believable. On the page these might have worked right away, but listening to everyone else I could immediately hear how what they’d written seemed better just by being performed better (and I’m sure it applied to my piece too).
I feel reasonably confident about reading in public now, thanks in part to the weekly further education classes I run at Glasgow University where – though I do try to get people to volunteer! – I usually end up having to read out the passages we’re discussing to the class and try to perform them a little. However, I haven’t had any acting experience, unless you count my triumphs in the St Lucy’s Primary productions of Finnegan’s Wake (the ballad, not the James Joyce version) and The Broons (my Daphne was acclaimed).
But I’ve only read things in my own voice so far. When I recorded The Goode Daughter for Tramway’s Algebra journal, I couldn’t manage the right accent for a young 17th Century child on trial in Salem, so had to read it as Scottish – not ideal. So for this workshop, I took along an unpublished story which is a monologue of a middle-aged American man. In my mind, he’s got a New Jersey accent and sounds like Tony Soprano; the phrasing of the story is written that way.
When I first read it for Alex and the other workshop participants, I chickened out though and tried it in my own voice. It didn’t work, obviously. She gave me the confidence to try it as American, but of course for that to work, for people to suspend disbelief to that extent (because the accent is never going to be perfect), I’d have to really commit to it and completely believe in it myself. Any trace of embarrassment would just make the whole thing silly. I couldn’t quite match Alex’s remarkable switch from her own very posh RP voice to convincing streetwise American, but I think that with practice I can make the thing work as a funny, slightly weird performance piece.
As well as specific advice for that reading, I came away with lots of great notes about performing in general, from breath control to punctuation beats. It was also really nice to meet the other people taking part: two published novelists, a short story writer, a playwright, two poets, all of us with very diverse work. Now I just need to line up another reading so I can try it all out!