I need to say this first. If you’re near Birmingham next Monday evening, February 18, 2019, then do come to Bad Choices at the Birmingham Rep. It’s an evening of new plays and poetry by Cucumber Writers and as well as having written one of the pieces, I’m also directing. It’s my first evening directing stage so a friendly face would be really good.
It’s 20:00 on Monday 18 February, 2019, at The Door in the Birmingham Rep. There’s no need to book and there’s no ticket price, just a big bucket on your way out. Details here on the Rep’s Open Door page.
Now, it’s funny that this evening should feature poetry because I would’ve told you that this is the one form of writing I can’t do. Not true: I also cannot do sports reporting, though that’s for want of trying.
I haven’t written the poems in this evening and as I speak to you I’ve little clue how to direct them, but I’ll figure it out.
And I’m particularly looking forward to that because this show comes after the Verve Poetry Festival and that’s where I was yesterday. Verve is an especially fine poetry festival held in Birmingham and it turns out to be rather joyously welcoming world. As much as I like reading poetry, I don’t write it and there is this entire eco-system of poems and poets that I know nothing about.
Quick story? I was talking with this fella the other month and he was asking which side I was on in a truly huge fight that was going in poetry. He didn’t use those words, I can’t remember what phrase he did use but he’s a poet, it would’ve been good. If he had called it a truly huge fight, though, I would’ve looked as blank as I actually did and said: a truly huge fight – in the poetry world?
It was big. Sorry, I’ve forgotten what it was now. This is a rubbish story. But there are these worlds and there are these universes and they’re moving around us, just waiting to be spotted and joined.
We all have feet in many different worlds and amongst mine there’s always been a technology one. I remain deaf and blind to recitations of technical specifications, but wide open to how technology can help me in my writing and all of my work.
Two things surprised me about peeking into poetry through the Verve Festival and one was this. I’m not alone with the technology side of it all. The faces of poets glow these days because so many of them are using iPads or iPhones. There is something oddly extra intimate about seeing someone read a piece off their phone: it’s like they’re sharing something even more personal than off some paper.
And the other thing that surprised me is that poet Helen Calcutt ran a workshop during which she ended up getting me to write a poem that deeply upsets me. She hasn’t seen it, you’re not going to see it, I make no claim to great poetic talent, but it’s a day later and just thinking about it is enough to punch me.
When you use words all the time, you can forget that they’re powerful.
It would be really good, I would feel really great, if you just read the next sentence and then looked away.
I’ve now performed at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.
Not really. I was in the audience for maybe 15 comedy acts or so and twice I was repeatedly called on by the comedian, once I was both called on and called up. I have now stood on a Fringe stage being laughed at. Now that I think about it, I’m not sure why I felt this was good.
But while I was climbing through an unstrung tennis racket – you had to be there – and later when Tim Vine was asking if my face always looked like this, I was thinking about the workshops I do.
I run day-long things, half days, two hours, one hours, all sorts and in every case the job is showing people something so you’re getting them to do it. It is entirely audience participation, but it doesn’t feel as heightened or as clenching as it does in a comedy because it’s continuous through the day.
Also because I’m the one calling on people, not the one fearing being called. That does make it easier, you’re right.
I was thinking how it’s actually quite hard to contribute to a show if you’re used to running them. I’m really not comparing my workshops to comedy sets, neither in good or bad ways, but it is all performance. So when a comedian asks you to describe something, you want to do it, you want to provide what she needs for her act, you’re more than willing to be laughed at, but you don’t want to actually perform. You don’t want to get in the way.
It’s their show, not yours.
I’m not saying that this is a huge issue or that it’s somehow unique to me as a special little flower but it was one of the two things that kept crossing my mind every time it happened. The other was to wonder why I’d chosen the front row again.
But then I saw Ivo Graham.
He’s a standup comic who does plenty of audience interaction which this time did not include me – and did include hecklers.
I loathe hecklers. If you know someone who heckles at comedy acts, give me their work address: I’ll pop over tomorrow and drunkenly interrupt them at their job.
The best comedians can get a very big laugh out of reacting to a heckle but when they do it that well, as Graham did that night, the stupid hecklers think they’re responsible. That their half-pissed spontaneous call out is what’s funny, not the maybe hundreds of hours of work that the comedian has put in to be able to deal with them.
Ivo Graham was the only one of all the acts I saw that got heckled and it is of course unrelated to the standard of his material. He is very good and he is very funny and he was on Friday evening. There you go. The hecklers were fuelled by alcohol and I imagine Graham had to have a few after the show himself.
You get that I abhor hecklers, you get that I admired Graham’s handling of them. What I liked, though, the only thing I actually liked, was the rest of the audience. Even Graham himself commented in the middle of asking the audience questions that it was great and funny how there’d be a heckle but immediately someone else would call out a serious answer to move it all along.
That was good and that worked. The whole act worked very well, it wasn’t even soured too much by those hecklers. But I did tweet Ivo Graham afterwards to say how deftly I thought he’d handled them. He replied saying it had definitely been an eventful night, hadn’t it?
This is a week ago now and I’m still thinking about it but not for the hecklers and not for how this or any comedian reacts to them. I’m thinking about it because I watched some YouTube videos of Ivo Graham.
Like all the best comics, his act on the night feels fresh and new and like he’s just chatting with you. Of course you know that it’s written and rehearsed but there’s a lightness and a bounce and it’s engagingly new. Watch the same comic on YouTube and, whoever they are, you’ll often see the same act.
Fine, but what fascinates me is when you see something that is an earlier version. The internet and how much gets recorded, how much gets kept forever and made immediately available, it means we can now often see the development of an act. See which lines stay the same, which get tweaked or added or dropped or tuned.
Comedians are like poets, I feel, with every syllable considered, every pause planned and none of that effort meant to be seen. It’s the same swan analogy that you can apply to all writers, all shows, but with much of the development being done in front of audiences.
There is one workshop I do in schools that, just between us, I’ve now done so often that it truly feels like a scripted show. Of course it’s always different, of course each school needs different things. Yet still, there are many times when I feel I’ve slipped into the script and I know when I’m going to get a laugh out of these kids.
I’m a writer so I’m obviously focused on the words but in these cases I am a performer and there is a physicality to it. A pause, a just-remembered, an oops-forgot-to-say kind of stance and gait that I will do that will always get a laugh.
And it does have audience participation. I forgot this. I have a thing, close to a rule, that if you walk into a workshop of mine then you are part of it. And one day in a school I was in mid-flow when a teacher came in to borrow a pen. All he did was come in quietly, get the pen and leave again, not once breaking stride but during that time I had got the kids to cast him as a Doctor Who monster and he had acted the part. Left growling. Did it perfectly.
So naturally the next day when I was in the same school with another class and their head teacher came in to borrow something else, I did the same thing.
And he didn’t.
Just looked at me like I was dirt.
He walked out of the room reeking with disdain.
It was a silent heckle.
And when the door shut behind him, I just jerked my head toward the ceiling – and got a huge laugh from the kids. I was funny and we bonded and it started with that heckle but, you know, it was me, not the heckler.
Perhaps you already know or even practice this Japanese art form, but it was new to me: I thought Benshi was that lovable dog. A friend said no, it’s those tiny trees, isn’t it?
Benshi sees a spoken word performer standing by a cinema screen: he or she performs a piece while it shows a film. It began as a verbal equivalent of the caption cards you would get in silent movies but it expanded. Benshi performers apparently began describing the action in between the captions then over years began to basically talk about anything they liked.
I have really severe twitching problems with taking someone’s film and using it as stock footage behind my words. I know and I feel the work that went into making any film so just taking it feels like when you’re in school and they get you to make a loathsome time-wasting, busy-work collage and you pretend you’ve created something.
Then I’ve been a critic plus I’ve been on the receiving end of professional critics, I am sometimes hyper conscious of the line between creation and criticism, art and journalism. I get mithered over criticising a film because how dare I take a feature film, reduce it to 400 words and diss it?
But then if I can save you from ever seeing Johnny Mnemonic, then I’ve genuinely given something back to the community. I’ve taken one for the team so you don’t have to.
All of which swirls around my head like I don’t have enough to think about – and I’d like to say that all of which evaporated when Chris Swann asked if I’d like to do a Benshi as part of the Flatpack Film Festival here in Birmingham.
It sort of evaporated. It also sort of coalesced more: I thought maybe this was a way to actually explore what I fret about in all this. Plus, let’s be open here, it was the Flatpack Film Festival and I was very chuffed to be asked to contribute to that. Normally you have to, you know, make a film first.
I had, I think, seven weeks in which to come up with a short five-minute spot and you should’ve seen the work I went through. Nobody saw me, most especially not the audience at the event, because it all went wrong. At one point in the plotting I had assembled a rough cut of ten film clips, each movie with subtitles because I’d decided to do something about the intertextuality of media and because I don’t know what that means, I reckoned having some text on screen would cover it. I actually re-did some of the subtitles so that the films would be commenting back to me as I spoke.
I went off down the deepest rabbit hole to do with writing and text and what we read versus what we see. One tiny point was based around Star Wars: how many billions of people have seen that and believe it’s set in the future? Even though the very first frame is text saying “A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away…”. But then Star Wars came out in 1977 and it was beaten to the Best Oscar for that year by Annie Hall – and rightly so, Annie Hall is much better. Only, Annie Hall has that famous subtitled scene.
Diane Keaton and Woody Allen are talking while the subtitles reveal what they’re really thinking as they try to impress each other. It’s simple, funny, clever and I don’t feel you can watch it now without the third layer of Woody Allen’s real-life relationships imposing. Not to dodge the issue but, well, yes, to dodge the issue with a quick summary, he lives with his adopted daughter.
Seven weeks of actual anguish over this and then with two days to go, I abandoned it all.
I realised that ten films, all with subtitles, some with altered subtitles where I’d have to precisely time my words to get the responses cued correctly, all with jokes in, some with serious stories, some with this thing where I want to prove that you read text but don’t register it, it was just a mess. It was a barrage of audio and video and if any one part of it worked, you’d never know because another three would drown it out.
I kept just one thought. This business of Woody Allen’s life: how, I feel, what we know and what we learn colours what we see and what we think. If you’re going to examine this business of how our reactions to a movie alter over time then Annie Hall is great because, for instance, I believe Diane Keaton spoke out defending Allen during the messiest times of his breakup from Mia Farrow.
Manhattan famously begins with a voiceover narration from one of its characters as we see utterly beautiful black and white photography of New York City and we hear George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue. Sweeping, soaring, inexpressibly wonderful music.
I can’t talk over that music. I can’t talk over someone’s film.
I can’t half talk about New York City, though.
So that’s what I did. I clipped the opening minutes of Manhattan and the Flatpack people muted it while I spoke about how this city has meant so much to me and always has, even before I’d visited. Then on my cue I shut up and they snap-faded the music up on a crescendo.
If I could do it again, I’d take longer: I read my piece too quickly. But after the anguish of trying to talk about movies, getting instead to pour it all out about New York City and do so in front of 40 people at the Flatpack Film Festival – to do so with a brevity I’ve not needed since writing Ceefax – I had a time.
Here’s my very short script and it’s followed by a YouTube clip of the real opening to Manhattan.
OVER OPENING OF “MANHATTAN”
“New York was his town. And it always would be.”
Wait. That’s actually what the film is saying right now. It’s a voiceover in Woody Allen’s Manhattan. That is a stark and beautiful film that in 1979 was… interesting for how it had Allen as a 40-year-old man in a relationship with a schoolgirl.
There you go. Now in 2015, knowing about Allen’s real-life relationship with his adopted daughter, every one of you just went eww.
The film hasn’t changed. We have. What we know changes what we think.
But films are also of their day and they tie us to that time. They tie us to how we felt when we first saw them.
I feel this. With Manhattan and every other film, every other TV show about New York, they formed me. New York is my favourite place in the world and it was so before I even went there. Because of film.
The monochrome beauty of Manhattan, the verve of West Side Story. The charm of Breakfast at Tiffany’s. The colourful autumnal beauty of Hannah and Her Sisters – at one time my favourite movie of all. The meh of Die Hard with a Vengeance. The happy, peppy, perky New York of the TV show Fame. The cruel, cold, miserable New York of the film Fame.
I can’t justify what they did to me, I can’t explain it or understand it.
But when I step out onto those streets, I am taller. I’m also more English somehow. New York women hear my accent and say honey, you must be real smart.
New York men see New York women and sometimes think I’m a threat. Imagine that.
New York men and women. New York life. The smashing together of cultures. It’s what I like, it’s what I am.