Tag Archives: spoken word

Poets prefer marmalade

An anthology that states it publishes the ‘best’ poetry written today publishes the best poetry written today. There are a range of poetry awards corresponding to the range of poetry being written. It is necessary to categorise poets. All good young poets win Eric Gregory awards.

Black poets are usually performance poets. ‘Performance poetry’ has become a derogative term. ‘Innovative’ poets are usually male, white and sardonic. Poets who use the lower case i are pretentious. ‘Mainstream’ poets are snooty. All poets listen to Radio 4.

If you’re not a white poet you should send your work to a specialist publisher. If you’re not a white poet then you are writing for a niche market. Poetry festivals programme a diverse range of poets. Poets wear sharp suits.

There are as many critics of poetry in performance as there are of poetry on the page. Poets who mostly perform are as respected as poets who mostly publish. Poets who write for the page are bad readers of their work. Poets who learn their work for performance are more interested in performance than in writing. Poets who read are giving priority to the page above performance. Reading is not performance. Performance is not reading. Poets eat shredded wheat.

Rejection after rejection results in poets losing confidence in their own voice. Rejection after rejection breeds ambitious, bold poets who write just the way they wish to. Rejection after rejection results in poets adjusting the way they write in order to be accepted. Rejection after rejection stops poets writing poetry. If you want to get published make sure you write poems that look like poems. Poems look like dandelion clocks. You can learn a poem by blowing its fluff to the wind.

Mentorship is offered to all poets of promise. There’s money in poetry. If you want to be a poet you should do an MA in creative writing. Poets have dodgy knees.

Poets are thick-skinned and dislike freckles. Poets have good dress sense. Poets are middle class. Poets know when to use apostrophes. Working class poets write short, funny poems about their lives.

Publishers shape the poetry that is written in this country. Publishers shape the poetry that is published in this country. Censorship is an inevitable by-product of selection. Small, independent publishers sell as many books as Faber & Faber. Poets have regular haircuts.

There is no ‘mainstream’ poetry. The fact there are several ‘streams’ enriches the poetry scene. British poetry is more conservative than American poetry. Experimentation is actively discouraged. The labels we use to catagorise poets have more positive than negative associations. Poets can hold their breath underwater for ages.

Poems written for performance rhyme and are easily understood on first hearing. Poems written for performance are often political. Poems written for performance sprawl and have irregular line lengths. The spoken word scene is diverse because there are no gatekeepers at its entrance.

Poems written for the page are formally tight. Poems written for the page need to be read several times. The craft of writing poems for the page is superior to the craft of writing poems for performance. ‘Mainstream’ poetry often references Greek mythology.

You can tell that ‘Innovative’ poets don’t believe in the poetic ‘voice’ as they write by cutting up books and instruction manuals and inserting the word ‘Derrida’ now and then. Poets do press-ups.

A poem that works on the page will work in performance. A poem that works in performance will not always work on the page. A poem that works in performance but not on the page is not a good poem. To perform is to be fake. Performance poets are shouty. Poets are typewriters.

There is an equal split of male to female poets writing poetry in the UK. There is an equal split of male to female poets being published in the UK. There is an equal split of male to female poets publishing poetry in the UK. Poets (particularly the innovative ones) can never find the scissors.

Poets self-publish their work when it’s not good enough to be accepted by a publisher. Publishers publish poetry that is good. All good poetry is published. ‘Good’ is not subjective.

There are too many poets. There are not enough poets. Poets wear red shoes. Poets prefer mittens to gloves.



Commissioned by the Broadsheet, launching the Exeter Poetry Festival. I’m performing/talking on the 4th October at an event exploring tribalism in poetry, the supposed borders between different sorts of practice and the usefulness or otherwise of labels such as ‘mainstream’, ‘experimental’ and ‘performance’.



Filed under Poetry

What it says on the tin

On Reclaiming Labels

Frida Kahlo's diary

Frida Kahlo’s diary


Tracey Enim's hellter fucking skelter

Tracey Enim’s hellter fucking skelter

Maddy Costa invited Selma Dimitrijevic, Samantha Ellis and me to Dialogue about labels some time ago. While it’s a subject we all have to deal with, there was also something about the topic that made the conversation feel a little more like work than play. – Perhaps because we would prefer to talk about the work itself rather than its label. We are labelled, or required to label ourselves and our work for marketing purposes, funders, theatres, audiences, our peers… Is it possible to talk about work without assigning it a category? Are labels used to exclude and dismiss? Can a label be anything more than an attempt to describe what’s in the tin? Does a label come with a value judgement?

For now, I’m not thinking about whether the substance in the tin is good or bad or tasty or deserving of its label; I’m interested in how the label itself can affect us and the way our work is seen, treated and discussed.

‘It’s not really a poem is it?’ – A statement often heard in poetry workshops.

Mimi Khalvati has structured a workshop around this question. She hands out several short paragraphs telling us that some are poems, and some are prose. She allows us to debate which is which. She puts columns up on a big piece of paper – prose versus poetry….and asks us to explain what makes a particular piece one or the other. At the end of the session she demonstrates that the titles at the top of the two columns could just as well be swapped over. The only thing differentiating poetry from prose is line breaks. Or the fact that the writer has said it’s a poem. If we look at a poem that doesn’t look like a poem through the lens of poetry, poetry might change, ways of writing it might change, ways of talking about it, thinking about it, teaching it, analysing it, performing it…

If the response of the tutor to the statement ‘it’s not really a poem’ were to be ‘yes that’s true.’ The next step would be to move on and look at a poem that is really a poem. This is a poetry workshop, we’re looking at poems, if it’s not a poem then we don’t have to look at it, we don’t have to engage with it, we don’t have to challenge our preconceptions, we don’t have to expand our ideas of what poetry is, we can keep everything as it has been and as we think it should be. We own poetry and we decide what is or isn’t a poem.

Frida Kahlo and Tracey Enim were/are visual artists. One painted her own portrait (using a brush), the other painted her own portrait (using a bed) – however the similarities between them are greater than their differences. The fact that Enim is described with the same label used to describe Kahlo expands the form. If Enim (as just one example) had been somehow prevented from showing her work within the context of visual art then the term ‘artist’ and its related field would not have been challenged as it has, she wouldn’t have been shortlisted for the Turner Prize and everything would have been much more comfortable for the visual arts establishment (Brief daydream to imagine what the world would be like if Enim called herself a writer.)

If we decide that something isn’t what it says it is then we put it in someone else’s box, it won’t be disruptive and it won’t force us to re-examine anything, it becomes someone else’s problem.

If we invent a new category every time a piece of work doesn’t look like work that has been made under the same banner in the past, then we lose a dialogue with history, we lose the opportunity for expansion, boundary pushing, reinvention….and we avoid having to engage with it on the terms it invites us to…it becomes someone else’s problem.

There are processes at work in the arts. For instance the process of getting a play from page to stage (as it is often put) – if the work in question doesn’t fit that process, it’s easier to suggest the work finds other friends to play with, other contexts to exist within (devised theatre, perhaps) than to examine and change the process itself. Changing the process could mean a job either needs to change or it becomes redundant –it’s no wonder the establishment resists.

An audience member going to theatre who hasn’t been to the theatre before, arrives without a label and without past experiences of what that label refers to. Rather than bringing their experience of watching theatre into the theatre, a non-theatre going audience comes to the theatre (or other place where performance is going to happen) with their lives as the experience they watch the work in relation to. David Lane suggests we need more of how we walk into an art gallery with how we walk into a theatre. I agree, and would extend this to needing more of how we walk through our lives with how we walk into a theatre. The odd thing is, the more I perform work, the more I find that an uninitiated audience, a non-theatre going/spoken word/poetry audience is far more responsive, far less self censored in their response to the work than the initiated. They bring their life experience to it rather than their theatre/poetry making and watching experience.

I was chatting with Jo Bell about this after Wordsmiths & Co the other night. She was talking about the problem that labelling something ‘poetry’ puts off an audience who might love the work. Likewise, the label ‘spoken word’ can do the same. She’s enthusiastic about trying to bring an audience that doesn’t consider themselves a poetry audience to poetry events… people who go to music events, and art galleries… How do we stop the word ‘poetry’ from putting off audiences? I think it’s about changing the associations/preconceptions around the word itself, rather than finding a different one.

We also agreed that the ideal situation is not to need a label but to have a name, as Lyn Gardner wrote:

Punchdrunk’s co-production of The Duchess of Malfi with ENO may have been called an “opera”, but I bet that most of the audience didn’t much care. As far as they were concerned it was Punchdrunk….It is the artists that increasingly engender loyalty, not the institution that produces them.

But it does take some time to get to the stage when people will come to your work because it’s your work…that involves drawing a new label, your own name…

I remember a conversation with Holly Pester about labels. ‘What do you call yourself?’ Someone asked her. ‘A poet’ she replied. And the poetry establishment must accept this; it’s the only way for the form’s boundaries to be pushed (or in the case of poetry in this country, to be kept open…they were pushed years ago but forced to constrict again). ‘A poet’, she replied, and it was a small challenge, a small ‘why, do you think I’m not a poet?’

An hour earlier, when Holly and I were on stage, I’d been introduced with a slightly cautious string of labels, one of them ‘performance artist’. I’d so much have preferred just to be called a poet. For me it’s very simple, I write and perform poetry, and I also write plays. I wish to do the first within the field/establishment of poetry (which encompasses spoken word etc. etc.) and I wish to do the second within the context of playwriting.

The funny thing is, those of us who sit outside of traditional labels fight to reclaim them. While at the same time those more firmly placed under a label reject them – see ‘I don’t call myself a poet’.

On the subject of Holly Pester, I recently read an interview with her in 3am magazine in which she embraced labels and their changing, transforming, linking, accumulative meanings. When Steven Fowler asked how she would define her poetry she responded:

People can get either defensive or carried away around labels. I dig ‘em. I like thinking up new ones that mix-match media; Speech Poetry, Voice-driven Poetics, Intermedial Sound and Performance Poetry. But I’m not scared of just ‘poetry’. That’s mine too. ‘Avant-garde’ seems to be used quite territorially, in antagonism to the ‘mainstream’, like laying down the battle ground. And I’m guilty of using it in that way. But it is originally a military term so I suppose that’s fine. I’m wondering if you mean that there’s a discrepancy between the doing of avant-garde/experimental cross-genre practices and the reception or categorisation of them? I think the blurrings, the cross-overs, the intermedias and the hyphenated labels are important to both, as long as they don’t get stuck. They’re something that need to stay transient – and naturally seem to – for the sake of the work and its connectivity.

Perhaps it’s easy to get defensive or carried-away around labels because they are not easy, not easy going. Labels are political. We use labels to shape our world and our engagement with it. A label is used to evict, to dismiss, to ignore. When work doesn’t sit easily within the field it situates itself within, it is simpler to suggest it finds someone else to play with than to allow that work to change the rules of the game.

When we choose how we are described we have the opportunity to set the agenda, to ask the world we’re working in to look at our work through a particular lens and in relation to other work within the field. When we name ourselves we claim an identity that we can run with, when others name us we are often condemned to a box that prevents movement. The reclaiming of labels is empowering….queer, cunt, marriage, artist, playwright….

Labels often appear to refer to product rather than process. I am comfortable describing elements of my process as compositional and choreographic….but uncomfortable with being described as a musician or choreographer. Because I studied music for many years I know what being a musician or composer entails, I know that is not what I do and it’s not the context I wish my work to be viewed within, even though I use techniques and processes coming from that background. I’m more interested in simply describing the process as ‘writing’. I do a lot of writing on my own, but another part of my writing process happens collaboratively, in rehearsal, or through building a soundscape, or through games and ‘devising’. I’m interested in carrying over what we mean by ‘writing’ from the individual to the collaborative, from page to feet.

Maddy was surprised that both Samantha and I embrace the label ‘playwright’ – and choose it over ‘theatre maker’:

I’m really intrigued that Hannah and Samantha have both moved away from “theatre-maker” as a label for themselves, because in my head that has the openness one might want while “playwright” with its buried connotations of alone-in-the-garret feels more closed. No, actually, different from that: theatre-maker, to my mind, blurs, and has a possibility of all in this together.

For Maddy ‘theatre maker’ is wonderful because it is so open. I have nothing against being called a ‘theatre maker’ – I do use the term to describe myself quite often. I have nothing against it…partly because it is innocuous, I find it a little meaningless. It is unspecific. These are both its negative and positive properties. (I tried it out on a taxi driver and he thought it meant I build theatres.) I would choose to be called a playwright and director rather than theatre maker because I write and direct plays. I want to be commissioned to write plays and I want to be invited to direct them. I am also happy to be commissioned simply to make theatre….but that’s never happened….

If I call myself a ‘theatre maker’ the writing is invisible. Ruth Mitchell (on twitter) suggests that this is what she likes about the term, and that  it appeals to many artists because it ‘covers and ticks many boxes’:

I certainly don’t call myself one, [a writer] wouldn’t dream of it. Theatre maker covers up for the disciplines I am not so hot at.

Samantha talked about the ‘wright’ part of the word playwright, the craft within the word:

We’ve got this suffix “wright”, and we’re the only profession that’s kept that suffix apart from wheelwrights, and “wright” isn’t just writing; it contains the idea of making….So then I started thinking “playwright” is great because it also fights the idea that all we do is write in our garrets and then emerge for opening nights. The word “playwright” contains the idea that even when we’re dreaming up a story, from the very seed of an idea, we’re thinking about how many actors might do it, their entrances and exits, costume changes, set changes, where the interval might go. And all this stagecraft and collaborative thinking comes into its own when a director starts to take the play from page to stage.

I’d add that the stagecraft and collaborative thinking also might occur during the rehearsal process itself, the playwright might be involved in this, or the playwright might write a score for performance that is crafted in such a way it invites a director to wright with or in response to the text… Each playwright finds their own ways to wright.

I’ve only had to think about labels because so many different ones have been stuck on me, and occasionally I’ve experienced being labeled as a way of being rejected from the context with which I wish to engage.  (The literary manager calls me a performance artist, the poet calls me a theatre maker etc.)

I doubt that we’ll ever get to a place where the funding, reviewing, making and marketing of work is boundary crossing and label free. – We also have labels for career stage. My friend was quite surprised to see her Arts Council report littered with labels such as ‘mature artist’ – she’s in her thirties and thought she was ‘emerging’.

Those new overused labels are meaningless and only required for tick box funding purposes, but labels like ‘playwright’ and ‘dramaturg’ have power because they have history. To bring a label with a past into the present is to continue a journey. To abandon labels or use all embracing ones, is to avoid having to confront and question a lineage of work that in its time, was also fighting to be seen…fighting for validation, for its right to be viewed in the context it chose….It’s not really art, it’s not really a play, it’s not really poetry, it’s not really theatre….The fact that the work in question stood its ground and said ‘yes it is’ enabled artistic fields to develop, to widen, extend, challenge, question, morph.


Filed under Playwriting, Poetry, Theatre

From Plymouth to the Bush Theatre

Which way?

A meandering diary-entry-like account that includes a long bus journey, the tribulations of being an artist in Plymouth, ‘Encounters’ at the Bush Theatre and the post show discussion with Madani Younis and Omar Elerian, developing new writing, solo writers/performers, being a female solo writer/performer…There will be many tangents. I was on a bus all night and wrote this on that bus and haven’t had time to write less. And I also want to post this before something about the Jerwood Charitable Foundation and my new projects. I will probably write something more concise with similar ideas in it soon for the Capital Theatre Festival debate ‘New Writing Vs New Work’. So this is only for the committed procrastinator. I’ll put some headings and pictures in it. See, even the disclaimer was too long.

Encounters at The Bush

Opening emails from Sabrina Mafouz and from the Bush Theatre a few days ago: Look at this double bill at the Bush!  Sabrina Mahfouz and Caroline Horton are associate artists. This is quite something. And Friday was ‘writers’ night’ with a discussion about making innovative theatre and the challenges that female solo writers/performers face in the industry. I want to go.

Public Transport

I want to go. I won’t let this living-in-Plymouth thing get in my way. But I can’t afford the train – over £100 if you don’t book it ages in advance… but how about the bus? There and back in 24 hours for £35. £50 in total with the Encounters ticket. And that’s OK, that’s the price I pay for living here. My rent is cheaper.  And I’m going so that I don’t feel trapped by this geography, to be part of a conversation.

New Writing – for me or not for me

The last time I went to The Bush I saw The Kitchen Sink – which I enjoyed in the way I enjoy good TV drama. I sat in the new bar/library area for an hour afterwards, waiting to catch my night train back to Plymouth. And I felt so apart from that world. And seeing that play – I thought, it’s silly for me to feel bad about this theatre rejecting my plays – that is the work they put on and my work is in a completely different world. There’s no point sending my stuff to them. It’s like sending….I don’t know I’m too tired for analogies…like sending somebody something they haven’t asked for and have no idea what to do with….It’s like sending me one of those German ‘Herman’ bread things. I had the same realisation after seeing Bartlett’s Love love love (about my plays not Herman).

no thanks

But now, new directors, new directions…

So I booked tickets. I know Sabrina Mafouz through the spoken word world and I should have seen Dry Ice at the Edinburgh Fringe last year. But I didn’t because it was on late and the bones in my knees felt like they were rotting from the inside and it was all I could do to get through my flyering-performing-flyering schedule for two weeks. But I should have gone anyway and I’ve regretted it ever since. So this was my last chance.

On the bus

Mine twas not ‘rapide’ but this, my friends, is Plymouth

I was feeling quite chirpy. I suspected it wouldn’t last. But I was fine. Feeling quite inspired by my impressive reading material, left Marie Claire at home and took Caryl Churchill, Václav Havel and Jan Kott – never come across his writing before and it was a revelation, ideas that’ll keep me writing for life. It reminded me of what I want to write about, of what I really know about. (Love, by the way, the body, the erotic) That’ll keep the googlers busy.

But then an accident on the road, a diversion….and we were an hour delayed by the time we were at Heathrow, and then another 40 mins delayed in traffic from there to Victoria. And you know, we practically went past Shephard’s Bush and I asked the driver if he could let me out and he said no that wasn’t possible…I should have pretended to need to puke. By that point I was avoiding watching the clock in the bus. Wasn’t willing to accept that I was going to miss it.

I’d left a bit over an hour contingency. Optimistic. But earlier buses were more expensive. Last time I got the bus to see something at the National we were delayed and I missed the first half. This time it took seven and a half hours – Plymouth to London. I think it felt worse because I was half expecting it. I knew I’d be lucky to get there in time. But then, being let down when you are half expecting to be let down….it was worse. My optimism suddenly gone…because it had been proved to me again – I can’t live in Plymouth.

So I arrived at the Bush 15mins too late for Dry Ice. I had a pint at the bar.

Enter: Madani Younis and Omar Elerian

Madani Younis

Omar Elerian

Wrapped in their own integrity and Madani with a rucksack. I’ve always liked people with rucksacks –  carrying their homes on their backs. My first image of my husband was seeing this huge green rucksack, retreating down the stairs at the Conservatorium van Amsterdam. Short, stocky, dark – Mexican – a little pack horse, a snail. When we met he was a director. He would have walked up to those two men and introduced himself and impressed them. They probably would have wanted to produce his next production there and then. He had/has that knack. He went to Eugenio Barba in Denmark, went into his office, talked – and on the spot was invited to spend time with the Odin Teatret whenever he wanted. I don’t have that knack. Maybe I’m just socially awkward.

First impressions

I was at a networking meeting a while ago with an important person I know from a theatre. I introduced a female playwright to him. He also briefly met a young male director. After the meeting he joked that the female playwright probably wasn’t any good, and also mentioned the young male director in a positive light. It is often assumed that women don’t know what they are doing and that men do. Women have to overturn assumptions and men just have to not disprove them.

Anyway, that’s something I struggle with – a lack of confidence in talking to people on first meetings. A lack of confidence in presenting who I am when someone knows nothing about me. Too much of an awareness of all the other people in the same situation who in fact don’t know what they are doing. So I finished my pint.

You’re not like other girls Chrissy by Caroline Horton. Directed by Omar Elerian

Caroline Horton in ‘You’re not like other girls Chrissy’

Although I was gutted that I missed Sabrina’s I could still watch Caroline’s in the second half. This isn’t any kind of a review because that would involve structuring my ideas and perhaps mentioning what it is about. But just want to say a few things including – what a beautiful piece of work.

You know those annoying audiences who laugh at stuff that isn’t funny? Sometimes they do it because the work is so tedious they are so desperate for respite they laugh out of a need to laugh. Sometimes they do it because they suddenly have a collective shite sense of humour. I don’t know. Well normally I don’t laugh when the audience around me laughs. The last thing I saw was Ontroerend Goed’s A History of Everything. It really was the most soul-numbing bit of work I’ve seen for ages. The actors were just going through the motions, the theatre had buggered off leaving a bare idea of a performance struggling to survive in a dead space.

So this, Chrissy character – so full of life, so embodied, it was like soul food or something, to be laughing, naturally, spontaneously. And of course to be reminded of how simple it is, really, to engage an audience completely. How beautiful it is to be engaged, entertained, drawn in, by just one character and some suitcases. This was craft I was seeing – the acting and the writing coming together so that there was no distance between ‘actor’ and character. She was Chrissy. And whenever she was looking at the audience on the other side I was a bit jealous.

I loved the use of language – the use of English from a French woman’s perspective, ‘hot cat on a roof’. I love that, when the context is given for word play, I loved the way she was tasting these English words, revelling in the newness of them. That distance from the language, not taking it for granted…

Submission policies & You’re not like other girls Chrissy cont.

And one other thing. Well, Vicky Featherstone is at the Royal Court now, so maybe this will change. But the other day I came across the Royal Court submissions policy, or maybe it was via a High Tide Symposium tweet – saying they were looking for work that is about our times…contemporary, relevant…(London presumably)…? I think, what a silly thing fixate on. There’s the risk of just making work about things that are in the UK news. As if that is a good reflection of today anyway. And there’s the fact that if you are trying to make current work then by the time it’s on it’s not current anymore. You don’t want to be looking for work that is current and relevant Now – you want work that is current and relevant Always…surely? (And now and then putting on work that is ahead of its time wouldn’t hurt either)

Well on that note, a funny thing about this play (set in France in the forties so unlikely to have made it through the Royal Court’s submissions policy) – it opened with a little scene about queuing. ‘The English wouldn’t stand for this’ – in a queue at a train station for over an hour. It was hilarious of course because of the Heathrow debacle. But that couldn’t be planned. Serendipity aside, it was a timeless piece that will always be relevant. Don’t take history away from writers, we have a hard enough job as it is.

When I was a kid I used to love to replay films in my head, I could do it with strange accuracy and I used to write, in my head, different endings for novels. When the work is so real, it takes you over, involves you, lives within you. That happened with You’re not like other girls Chrissy. In my delirious state of tiredness on the delightful seven hour bus journey back to Plymouth I sometimes had Chrissy with me, I could hear her. I have that character now, to entertain me in my imagination. What a beautiful thing this theatre can be.

Theatre can do many things. My experience of Caroline’s piece is one of those things but I wouldn’t write an artistic policy based on that work. Caroline’s, for me was all about character and a voice.…another show might be about ideas, might be about what my imagination does while I’m watching……to search for work that does a particular thing…is homogenising…deadening…

Solo writers/performers

Sabrina Mafouz

When you perform your work as well as write it, there is no division between writer and performer. The process of writing takes place in a studio, the writer in you is involved in a strange kind of internal collaboration with the performer in you. It is still writing – and Sabrina and Caroline are fantastic writers. And (‘and’ not ‘but’) it is a different way of writing. It often doesn’t happen on the paper, alone, it happens in the studio, often with others. With recent plays I’ve seen – Shivered by Philip Ridley for instance, and I’m a huge fan of his writing….the actors were very good, but I could see them as actors….acting the characters….doing a job…. With a writer/performer, the really good ones that is, it’s not like that. Partly of course because the writer/performer is so invested in making their own work, they rehearse it for longer, develop it for longer, the responsibility of making it a success is entirely down to them. No pressure (shit loads of pressure).

Post show discussion

Madani Younis said he wants to engage with a new generation of writers…he might have said theatre makers….he might have said artists….I think he did say writers…different processes of writing…the point is…a new generation of ways of writing and making work.

This new-writing-London-centric-theatre-world has been closing its doors to the writers who write differently…and now there’s a possibility the doors will open. And these directors are coming from different trainings, theatrical backgrounds, approaches to making work, with different taste, different perspectives. I think it’s really exciting that Omar Elerian is there as associate director. His background in theatre outside of this country, training in Lecoq, and interest in visual story telling could prove…well just imagine it – Complicite with a decent script.

Neither Sabrina or Caroline were ‘found’ through script submissions…Sabrina said her script had been rejected many times as the readers/directors didn’t know what to do with it…so I asked whether a script submission policy still works? Will they have a different way of finding artists?

Watch this space was the answer I think. Or,  this one. And they will try to see lots of stuff.

I wonder about a different way of submitting…I wonder about submitting ideas, working methods, past work as evidence…more like putting together an application for a new project…I wonder if that’s a possibility. I really think the writer in their cave…the script meetings….the rehearsed readings….the three week rehearsal period….needs a re-think. Alex Chisholm on a similar topic.

Central female characters

Sarah Lund

Very interesting – Madani and Omar said they read many script submissions prior to programming their first season….they said there was a 50/50 male female split in the submissions. But none of the work they read had a female character at its centre.

I recently blogged about the brilliance of strong female characters in Scandinavian drama. I think we are really un-used to…un-programmed to seeing female central characters in British contemporary theatre and TV. Are writers emulating what they are watching?

Female writer/performer again

Hannah Silva in Opposition (photo Eileen Long)

On the topic of difficulties that face female solo performers/writers Sabrina and Caroline both seem to have found that they have not experienced challenges because of being women, and that being the writer and performer gives you control over the work. Sabrina said she has found it much harder in the other areas she has worked in – spoken word and scriptwriting….

Have I found it hard as a female solo writer/performer? First answer is yes. Don’t know how much it has to do with being female, how much it has to do with living in Plymouth, how much it has to do with writing non-naturalistic plays and making work that gets described as ‘avant-garde’ and how much it’s just that – no one ever said it was gonna be easy. Yes. It is bloody hard. I’m feeling quite good right now as I have two amazing opportunities and I’m going to survive from my writing for the next few months. But those are not South West things, I don’t even get shortlisted for the rare opportunities that come up here. It’s my location not my gender that’s the challenge. It’s the bloody transport system.

It was lovely to have a chat with Sabrina afterwards, and also to meet Caroline, both of them are very generous to other artists, male and female, which is part of it. I think some women feel that there are only a few slots available for us in the theatre world, and that we must compete for them. In fact a victory for one opens doors for others.

Taking Risks

Madani and Omar said they had a tricky time convincing whoever it was they had to convince, to programme this double bill. They weren’t expecting it to do so well. It was only programmed for a week but actually could have run for longer. That’s fascinating too. The unremitting timidity of programming. The relentless underestimating of audiences….A theatre like The Bush has a  developed core audience and a high profile; if the work is good, it is going to sell. If a theatre like that can’t take a chance with their programming, who can? The point is, there is an audience in London for this work. It’s good work. As the youngster with the cool t-shirt in the audience said – our mates would like it.

On the bus again

So my slumbering bus journey back to Plymouth was a pretty happy one. Things are changing. A few weeks ago I decided not to try anymore, decided that I need to build a home for my plays myself. Now, I have hope again, I think it’s worth trying. New writing might become ‘new’ again. There was a half moon. A man got trapped by his seatbelt. I had strange dreams of theatre. Got back at 5:40am. Had a little sleep.

Then wrote a crazy long blog. Has anyone actually read it? All of it? 


Filed under Playwriting, Poetry, Review, Theatre

Opposition, A political play on words


“Radical, Political, Courageous” ***** What’s on Stage
“A one-woman embodiment of a political system in meltdown” **** The Skinny

Ever watched a politician answer a question that left you none the wiser? Have you seen them give the same non-answer over and over to a completely different set of questions? Do you read newspapers and quietly wonder what on earth they are on about?

You’re not alone. Award-winning writer and performer Hannah Silva delivers her own manifesto that satirises the meaningless twaddle and jargon of modern political language.

Blair’s bluster gets busted. Churchill butts in on Obama and Cameron’s Big Society gets sliced and diced with live twitter feeds, weather reports, rant and rhetoric. Expect questions, politics, satire. Don’t expect answers, just a creeping sense we are all being had.

Opposition is a solo theatre show I’ve been working on for the last year. It had a run at the recent Edinburgh Fringe where it received great reviews and was described by What’s on Stage as ‘radical, political, courageous’. I’m performing it on the 3rd May at Lincoln Drill Hall (while votes are being counted in the main space) and at Pulse festival on the 8th June.

The need to make Opposition was triggered by a lack of political knowledge and a lack of interest in politics. And anger about the fact that I had nothing to get angry about. Filling in my postal vote this week, I’m still angry that I can’t get excited about putting an X next to any of those names.

I began working on it around the time of the last election. I wanted to be able to vote for someone and something I believed in, but I struggled to decipher the implications of what the party leaders were saying. I wasn’t engaged in politics and listening to politicians wasn’t helping. I didn’t make Opposition out of a need to communicate my political views, I made it out of a need to acquire some political views.

I’d listen to Cameron talk about the ‘Big Society’ but be perplexed by what it really meant – of course I understood the words, the sentences, but I wasn’t sure what the implications of this ‘Big Idea’ would be. The piece started with a re-working of Cameron’s first speech in Liverpool following the election – 19th July 2010. Pulling around the speech, cutting it up and putting it back together slightly differently resulted in funny, absurd things, and it also exposed lines which are there in the original but hidden beneath the rhetoric. Other moments of the speech become just sound:

And yes
Cutting the
And yes
Cutting the nat
And yes
Cutting the
And yes

Cutting the cutting the cutting cutting the cutting cutting cutting cutting cutting cutting cutting cutting cutting cutting cutting cutting cutting cuttingcuttingcuttingcuttingcuttingcuttingcuttingcuttingcuttingcctctctctctct ctctcctctctctctctctctctctctctctctctctctctctctctctctctctctctctctctctctctctctcYES!

Cutting the national deficit falls into that camp.
We’re happy about that.

In my version the line ‘Help themselves’ goes next to ‘We’re all in this together’. The climax…. ‘together we will build…’ (The Big Society)… to the dismay of ‘Cameron’,  comes out as ‘Er Ih Oh-ay-ih-ee’. ‘Responsibility’ and all words ending with ‘ity’ have a little ‘titty’ twitch on the end of them.

I started looking at how rhetoric has changed over the years; I compared Churchill’s use of language to current politicians, U.S politicians to U.K politicians.  Churchill’s speeches are full of metaphor and a rich vocabulary. In those speeches, vocabulary and rhetoric was constructed in order to convey meaning. Today’s politicians sometimes simplify their language and message to the point that it loses meaning completely:

Beggars Belief / No Holds Barred/ Full and Frank Discussions/ Feel good Factor/ Eye on the Ball / I’m not ruling anything in and I’m not ruling anything out / Knee Jerk Reaction / Elephant in the Room / Hearts and Minds / Lessons must be Learned / I can’t comment on Individual Cases / Doing Nothing is not An Option / Worst Case Scenario / Nightmare Scenario / Doomsday Scenario / No Comment

Before the audience enters the auditorium, they are given a name badges to wear with politicians’ names on them, and an accompanying quote. For instance you might get a name badge for Margaret Thatcher and a quote: ‘six inches of steel beneath the shoulder blades’.

Like a politician at a conference, I shake hands with the audience at the beginning and thank them for coming. At another point in the piece I come into the audience and work with the quotes. There’s a moment when we all chant slogans coming from Blair and Obama: Big/Boldest/Big/Boldest etc.

‘Big’ is a recurring motif in the work.

Blair: At our Best when at our Boldest.
Obama: We Do Big Things.

Cameron: My Big Idea, The Biggest Past Decade, My Big Passion, The Biggest Budget Deficit, A Big Bang Approach, The Big Reality, The Big Society.

In reviews of Opposition the use of repetition was picked up on and Damon Green’s interview with Ed Miliband on the public sector strikes was referenced. One of the physical images I’m working with is that the politician is a puppet, or a clown – a laughing clown. I play with Miliband’s broken record interview in the work:

‘The strikes are wrong at a time when negotiations are still going on. The government has acted in a reckless and provocative manner but it is time for both sides to get around the negotiating table, put aside the rhetoric and stop this from happening again.’

This comes out as vowel and consonant sounds – a bit like beat-boxing. I repeat it at different pitches, layering it up using a loop pedal with the actual words only revealed at the end.

I have a twitter account for the show: @Oppositionsilva. The people I follow from that account are all in Opposition. At the end live Twitter feeds are projected and I improvise with them. Twitter asks ‘What’s Happening?’ – it’s a good question.

Today’s politicians talk in soundbites, they are careful to avoid saying anything, they rarely think on their feet (apart from when insulting each other in the House of Commons). They are incredibly, sometimes disturbingly repetitive. That’s part of what I’m playing with, alongside exploring the language and ripping apart the rhetoric for laughs.

Opposition plays with the language of politics and society, it asks – is there any substance behind the words or is it all a load of claptrap? I investigate that question through slicing and dicing political speeches, inflating gestures, and embodying a strange kind of politician/clown/puppet with a bit of a manic grin.

photo: Eileen Long

“Go to listen, marvel, participate. Go to be amazed. Just go”
***** What’s on Stage

“Yes there will be objections. But you know what? We’re happy about that” David Cameron.

Opposition tour:

3rd May: Lincoln Drill Hall, 8pm
8th June: New Wolsey Theatre Ipswich, Pulse, 7pm

Further dates tba: https://hannahsilva.wordpress.com

Opposition was originally co-produced with The Barbican Theatre, Plymouth in association with Apples and Snakes. Re-developed in Residence at the Dartington Space with support from the Dartington Hall Trust. Funded by the Arts Council England and the Arts Unit, Plymouth City Council. 

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Filed under political theatre, Rehearsing Opposition, Theatre

Join Hannah Silva in Opposition

Invitation to join Hannah Silva in


A Political Play on Words

About the show:  

‘My Big Idea’, ‘The Biggest Past Decade’ ‘The Biggest Budget Deficit’ ‘The Big Society’ ‘The Broken Society’ ‘Riot Wombles’ Blair blare blah blah. Meaningless twaddle and jargon of modern political rhetoric get ripped apart in this one- woman manifesto. No one is safe.

Expect questions, politics, satire. Don’t expect answers, just a creeping sense we are all being had.

About you:

You like provocative theatre.  You might read the Guardian or the Times, but secretly love flicking through the Daily Mail, to get cross. You have opinions and are comfortable voicing them. You know what the politicians are talking about. At least you think you do….

About me:

….I decided to make Opposition because I wasn’t convinced I did know what the politicians were talking about. I’m based in Plymouth. I’m a playwright, poet and performer and am currently co-writing a play for Radio 3 with Colin Teevan. I work as a librettist with composer Joanna Lee (through the Aldeburgh/Jerwood Opera Writing Scheme). I have poetry in forthcoming anthologies published by Avalanche Books, Penned in the Margins, and Bloodaxe, and right now, I’m booking a tour for Opposition.

So how about it?

At the recent Edinburgh Fringe, Opposition received rave reviews and was described by What’s on Stage as: “radical, political, courageous….”

Go on, take up this offer to witness ‘a one-woman embodiment of a political system in meltdown’ (The Skinny) – your name badge awaits!

“This is a virtuoso avant-garde performance of a virtuoso avant-garde text by a virtuoso avant-garde artist. Go to listen, marvel, participate. Go to be amazed. Just go.” *****What’s on Stage

Join me – in Opposition,

Hannah Silva

photo: Eileen Long (performing at the Exeter Fringe, Bike Shed Theatre)

Opposition on Tour:

16 February, 7:30pm
ARC Stockton on Tees
Tickets: 01642 525 119

21 February, 8pm
Queen’s Theatre, Barnstaple
Tickets: 01271 324 242

24 February, 7:30pm
The Albany, London
[invited audience showing, if you’d like to be invited, please get in touch with me (not the Albany)]

3 May
Lincoln Drill Hall

30th June
Ashley Wood Festival

Further dates tba: http://www.hannahsilva.wordpress.com

‘Yes there will be objections. But you know what? We’re happy about that’ David Cameron. 

Opposition is co-produced with The Barbican Theatre, Plymouth in association with Apples and Snakes. It is re-developed in Residence at Dartington Arts with support from the Dartington Hall Trust. Funded by The Arts Council England & The Arts Unit, Plymouth City Council.

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Filed under Opposition, Playwriting, Poetry, political theate, political theatre


Here’s a recording of Prosthetics, the piece I performed at Bristol Ferment Festival the other day:

& here’s another part of what I performed…be patient as it starts quiet…or just fast forward the first bit….: Citadel

Hopefully I’ll find a video maker to collaborate with on developing the work over the next months…let me know if you know anyone…

And here’s a pic of Chloe Langford and I performing ‘Different Kind’ in Germany many years ago…photo by Michael Hayden

Chloe Langford & Hannah Silva


Filed under Poetry

Norwich Poetry Club

Hannah with chin up

Off to Norwich next week to see my Grandma and perform some poems…

Tuesday January 24th, Norwich Poetry Club at the Bicycle Shop. Featuring headline act Hannah Silva, plus Martin Figura and John Osborne. £5 on the door, 7.30 pm.

From Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/events/306112706099284/

Hello, hello, it is us you’re looking for?

Probably. We’re Norwich’s premier boutique poetry event and we’ve had a month off so you’re probably gagging for a big top-notch word action curtesy of some of the UK’s best poets.

This month we have Hannah Silva who in 2008 was named as one The Times’ top 10 literary stars. She’s experimental, edgy and absolutely captivating. There is NO ONE like her on the poetry scene and you will not want to miss it. She lives in Plymouth (or somewhere down there) so we’ve done a bloody good job even getting her to the wilds of Norfolk, don’t miss it folks.

Supporting we have the sublime Andy Mac, he of Dark Aunt fame. We’ve been told he is bringing one Dark Aunt with him, so our little club can experience he trademark blend of dark, sweet words and strange, dark melodies.

Martin Figura, our resident ex-military man has some new stuff. The chances are it’ll be great, it usually is. John Osborne is going to compere and be all forceful and organisy (not a word) which will be exciting. He’s also got new stuff to read to you.

It all starts at 7.30pm sharp. It costs a fiver. It’s in Norwich. Don’t be a wally, come.

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Filed under Poetry