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Plan your Shows

It really doesn’t matter whether you’re going to perform at Carnegie Hall or at home in front of your kids, if you’re going to share your poetry or songwriting, you should plan your show. Here are a few ideas on that subject:

  • You have your audience for a limited time, so plan accordingly.
  • If you’ve performed before, you might pepper your performance with some old favorites, but also try some new stuff. In putting the new writings before an audience, you can see if they work, where the eyes glaze over, etc.
  • Most beginning performers have a very short time on stage. (Even if the audience is just your kids, you have to keep their attention unless you have them tied down or drugged, but these strategies don’t work with other types of audiences.) You might be allowed three poems or songs in an open mike or as an opening act. So, you should plan for those three songs or poems to be a type of sandwich. Open with something fast and fun and rousing. Don’t have something too serious as your first work presented. For the second work, you can have your best tearjerker or serious work. For the third and last, leave them laughing. Again, something fast, as well as funny is best for your parting song or poem. You want to leave them with energy, not drag them down into depression and deep thoughts about the human condition. This is especially true if you are to be followed by another act. Be kind to them and give them a warm and energetic audience.

    Your humble author recently witnessed a wonderful demonstration of this at the 2006 Ann Arbor Folk Festival. The act right before the main act was the Holmes Brothers. They had three songs. Imagine three elderly, or at least late middle-aged and gray-haired or graying, Black gentlemen on stage and rocking the house. The first song was a rocked out version of an old country standard. The second was an artful rendition of “Amazing Grace.” The third was hot and fast and humorous. The main act was almost a letdown after them, because he was doing some slow, laid-back, jazzy numbers. Yes, his performance was virtuosic, but it lacked the energy and the ups and downs necessary to help people pay attention and be excited through several songs.

    Even beauty becomes monotonous if it is too consistent. Break it up with a wide variety of mood, emotion, and style. For poets, one might use some driving, heavily-cadenced poetry interspersed with some slower free verse.

  • If you ever become a big enough name to have shows of your own, use the same principles. Go upbeat/serious/funny/serious/upbeat/etc. And always leave them laughing unless there is a very good reason not to. Plan the last song or poem in your set to be energetic and/or funny. Plan your encore the same way, usually something lighter to get them out of the theater still bubbling over. There may be exceptions when you leave them with a thoughtful and serious encore. Part of that will depend on your personality as a writer and performer. Part may depend on events. I remember attending concerts right after 9/11, and many of the encores were of the serious variety. Even if you end on a serious note, make sure it isn’t a depressing one. The audience is usually there to get away from trouble, not have their noses rubbed in it.
  • Time yourself reciting your poems or singing your songs and doing the interstitial patter. Sometimes, as a performer/opener, you’ll be told you have so many minutes. You need to know which pieces you can do in that time.
  • Speaking of interstitial patter, that should also be planned at a minimum, and preferably practiced. In a performance, it’s best to give the audience a song or poem right off. Then you can give the back-story and introduce the next one, or ask how the audience is doing or introduce your band or sock puppets or whatever. Then do your next bit of meat, then a little more patter.
  • Unless you’re a very entertaining storyteller, the audience is probably not at your performance to hear every detail of how you got the idea for a poem and song and what you were doing and what you were wearing that day and ... Well, you get the point. Your introductions and exits from your creations shouldn’t go too far afield. If there’s an entertaining story that goes with the poem or song, okay. But don’t bore or embarass your audience.

Well, I have many more thoughts on performing better, but I’ll leave some for the many days ahead. Now get out and share your poetry!


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