Can poetry save theatres? Henry Normal writes for Northern Soul
When a theatre shuts its doors, it’s called ‘going dark’. During the COVID-19 lockdown, that darkness has felt like an endless void. But theatres will start to reopen soon and, to begin with, the shows will need to be socially distanced.
The thought of less than half-filled theatres immediately brings most poetry events to mind. In my early days, I played events where I pretty much outnumbered the audience. I have performed to large crowds at pop concerts, factories, schools, prisons and even theatres. My BBC Radio 4 recordings always attracted a full house at the Radio Theatre in London. But let’s face it, the majority of poetry events aren’t able to compete with Andrew Lloyd Webber’s latest West End hit, even if it was Syphilis: The Musical.
I’m sure John Cooper Clarke and Kae Tempest will always attract an audience but, much like football, for every Man Utd and their European Super League chums, there are plenty of clubs more akin to Accrington Stanley raising money by selling Bovril at half-time.
You need few staff to run a poetry event, even if it’s just someone to unlock the door. It’s possible to give the key to the poet and stay home and watch Naked Attraction on catch-up instead. Unlike, say, heavy metal, you have little fear that a poetry crowd will rush the stage or wreak havoc if denied an encore. There’s seldom dry ice, laser shows and indoor fireworks. There’s no head-banging or waving lights in the air to a particularly wistful piece.
Poetry, like, say, a lecture or comedy, may require paying only one performer. It may not have the drawing power of The Bolshoi Ballet, but there’s less effort involved all round and a third capacity turnout for an expansive extravaganza could be less than cost effective. The insurance risk with a poet is considerably reduced as well. No poet that I know has sprained an ankle doing a hop, skip and a jump with a twirl in revealing tights. And when I say twirl, I mean spinning around and not the chocolate bar.
With a lecture you may have props or slides, and with a comedian you have all that suspect air being ejected when laughing. The requirements of a poet are minimal. They usually cost less and the common reaction to poetry is not usually guffawing, but nodding sagely while stroking one’s chin, which is altogether more coronavirus friendly. Any backdrop is suitable. From the minimalist black drape and the industrial bare brick wall, to the abandoned set of last year’s panto, Aladdin with David Dickinson.
I’ve read poetry next to fruit machines, toilet doors, in shop windows and standing on an upturned bucket in the middle of a dance floor. At a gig I performed in Hucknall, I was told to keep it quiet and not to walk on various parts of the stage or I’d fall through the floor and disturb those downstairs playing bingo.
With poets, all you need is to be able to hear them. In some theatres this won’t even require a mic, although a nicely honed sonnet trying to compete against the paying out of a slot machine, the banging of a toilet door or occasional voices shouting ‘house’ can have its challenges. While I think about it, I wouldn’t recommend declaiming love poetry through a megaphone as it can lessen the desired effect.
It helps if you can see the poet in question, particularly their facial expression and gestures, but it’s not essential and, in some cases, it’s not entirely preferable. Poets are not generally noted for their attractive physique and outstanding good looks. It’s more likely they display the attributes of emotional or intellectual prowess. I except myself from this rule, of course, and Pam Ayres.
Poets tend not to move around a lot when they perform, so the lighting can be simple. No follow spot is needed. You just need enough light so the poems can be read. You don’t even need that if they’re being recited.
As theatres are attempting to draw back their audiences, the most important thing to remember is that people need to feel safe. Maybe poetry can offer nursery slopes, or learning curves, or a gateway drug if you will, before mainlining with the Royal Shakespeare Company or Harry Potter on Ice.
Poetry doesn’t even need to be in the main auditorium. It can be in the foyer or the bar, or even the courtyard. I’ve done poetry events in all of these places. Mind you, I’ve performed on buses, boats and in an empty warehouse as I stood on an old mattress, so even the toilet of a theatre is a breath of fresh air (so to speak).
All in all, poetry is ideally suited to getting people back into theatres. When it all comes together, live poetry can be the most intimate and life-changing experience.
I was lucky enough to present Seamus Heaney at the Whitworth Gallery in Manchester on his way home from winning the Nobel Prize for Literature. The packed audience gave him a standing ovation and I knew we were witnessing a moment of history.
I’ve supported the legendary Adrian Mitchell performing to a full theatre in Preston and felt the love for this great yet kind and human soul. His poem to his daughter entitled Beattie is Three stays with me more than 30 years later.
I co-promoted Linton Kwesi Johnson at the Roadhouse in Manchester where a boisterous capacity crowd fell stone silent as he reached the mic. His first poem, Sonny’s Lettah, was as powerful and moving as any theatre or film I’ve ever seen.
And I’ve toured with Lemn Sissay and seen him charm and enchant an initially reluctant and hostile audience with poems like Invisible Kisses and Suitcases and Muddy Parks, leaving them cheering for more. These are moments I cherish as some of the most enlightening and effecting of my life.
At its best, live poetry can be a profound experience. I agree with Salman Rushdie when he said that “a poet’s work is to name the unnameable, to point at frauds, to take sides, start arguments, shape the world, and stop it from going to sleep”.
I do hope the theatres wake again soon, and I hope that poetry plays its part.
Henry Normal is touring his new show The Escape Plan from October 2021. The tour will visit several theatres in the North West, including Sale Waterside, Darwen Library, Wigan Old Courts, The Met in Bury, Liverpool Philharmonic and Chester Garret.
For Henry Normal’s poetry collection, click here.
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