Reading Live III: Performing

Class

On the day of your live reading you will be nervous. Don’t worry, this happens to everyone. Whether it is your first reading, or you have been doing this a long time, those nerves will still be there. Some people turn to liquid courage and have a few drinks first. If you need to, then go ahead, but don’t drink so much that you cannot read words from a page. I like to go about these things with a relatively clear head, so I’m usually stone sober when I read, but that’s just personal preference. A lot of people find a drink or two will loosen them up and lower their inhibitions enough that they can climb onto a stage and speak to a room full of people. Either way, you need to remember that you are the person performing, so you need to be yourself.

When you are content to be simply yourself and don’t compare or compete, everyone will respect you.

Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching

Your strongest asset is yourself. You are reading your words, your way. This lesson will focus on the run-up and the actual performance, but throughout you need to remember that you should always be yourself.

Get Warmed Up

Before you go to attend your reading, draw up a checklist of everything you need to bring with you. One item that should absolutely be on that list is a paper copy of your reading. Even if you have committed your words to memory and feel confident in your ability to deliver it, you should still have a back-up paper copy in your pocket just in case. It’s not preparing to fail; it’s giving yourself a safety net.

Next, get your outfit together and make sure you have it all ready. Brush your teeth and so on, so that anything that may interfere with your voice is out of the way.

A musician tunes their instrument before they perform. Your voice is your instrument, and you need to treat it similarly. Vocal exercises and looking after your throat will help your reading go smoothly and put you at ease, as they take your mind away from what you are about to do.

Before you undertake any vocal warm-ups, gargle a mouthful of Coca-Cola, Pepsi, or equivalent cola drink, or some mouthwash, or an acidic drink like a fruit juice. This will clear away all the old mucus that lines the top of your windpipe. Unlike the others, fizzy drinks will foam in your throat, but that is simply a side effect. Alcoholic drinks do not work particularly well with this, and neither do non-cola fizzy pops, or other types of heavily-artificially-sugared drinks, or energy drinks. Stick with cola, mouthwash, or fruit juice.

You now need to replace the cleared mucus with fresh mucus to prevent your throat getting dry when speaking. There is a great trick here, and it is as odd as it is effective. Chew on some cheese, or mushrooms, and make sure you chew them up until they are practically dissolved before you swallow them. If you don’t like either, then chew some mint-flavoured gum, or even chew on the blunt end of a wooden pencil. Cheese is most effective for this, as something in the lactose causes a reaction in the throat that lines it with mucus, ensuring you can talk comfortably, whilst projecting your voice, and not dry out. The other options don’t quite work as well, but all create a similar effect.

Now gently clear your throat a couple of times to spread out the natural mucus, and your throat is ready to go. At this point, you need to tune your vocal chords, so talk, make sounds, or sing a few notes. Once you have done that, read through this whole list out loud:

The next nest will not necessarily be next to nothing.

Little lucky Luke likes lakes, lucky little Luke likes licking lakes.

Only royal oily royal oil boils.

Around the rugged rocks the ragged rascal ran.

Jingle jungle jangle joker jangle jungle joker jingle.

Peter Prangle, the prickly pear picker, picked three perfectly prickly pears.

Don’t doubt the doorbell, but differ with the doorknob.

I wish to wash my Irish wristwatch.

Xylophones exist or so existentialists insist.

Can I cook a proper cup of coffee in a copper coffee pot?

Six stick shifts stuck shut, stuck shift stick shut six.

Big black bug bit a big black bear and the big black bear bled black blood.

Zoologists illogically love to read astrology.

Grab the groundhog from the glazed grass.

Moronic monkeys make monopoly monotonous.

The thirty-three thieves thought that they thrilled the throne throughout Thursday.

The free thugs set three thugs free. How can a clam cram in a clean cream can?

Take a deep breath through your nose, and then take another through your mouth. You should now be ready to speak.

It is worth going through a few last minute checks before you leave. Have you got everything you need? The piece is printed and in your pocket? Any props you require are with you? You’re dressed up and look amazing?

Plan to arrive at least on time, if not a little early. It’s not cool, but it prevents you feeling rushed and in a panic. You want to remain as calm and unflustered as possible, especially if this is your first performance.

Don’t drink coffee too close to reading. It dehydrates your throat. To be honest, don’t drink too much of anything beforehand. Right before you go on stage your bladder will decide it is full, even if you just emptied it. Don’t give it more ammunition than it already has.

Now, onto the event itself.

When you arrive, remain calm. Talk to people a little, but not too much. Don’t give anything away. Greet the host and introduce yourself so they know you are there and they will know who you are when they call you. Use the toilet before anything starts. Take a seat not too far from the front. Make sure you have a full glass or bottle of water to take on stage with you. Take a sip beforehand; you’ll need it.

Create a Presence

When it is your time to get on stage, you need to commit to it fully. Remember to breathe. Put your shoulders back, hold your head high, walk with a straight back, and smile. Smiling changes the muscles in your face and can be heard in your voice, and also releases stress-lowering hormones into your bloodstream which changes the way you carry yourself, therefore enhancing your vocal projection. Make sure you move with purpose—project confidence and it will come to you.

Everyone will be nervous, but some more than others. If, as you get on stage, you feel your nerves are really affecting you, then tell the audience, but only tell them once. They’ll forgive your nerves, but they won’t forgive you constantly trying to excuse them.

Talk clearly and with emotion. Remember to breathe when you pause. The tone of your voice is just as important as what you are saying, if not more so. Be passionate and enthusiastic when you speak. There is nothing more boring than listening to someone drone on in the same monotonous voice. Feel what you say.

Stand tall. Slouching or leaning forward constricts your diaphragm, leaving you with less lung capacity. Good posture improves both the projection and resonance of your voice. Make sure you remember to breathe. Slow down your delivery, you will always talk faster than you think you are. Use dramatic pauses to take deep breaths and refill your lungs, ready for the next sentence.

As you speak, share your eye contact with the audience. It may well be that there are bright lights pointing at you so you can’t see anyone. Even if there isn’t, what you are going to see is an ocean of people; you won’t really be able to focus on any individuals, at least not immediately. Don’t worry. Glance around in the direction of the audience, pausing for a microsecond every time you move your eyes. From the audience point of view you will be looking them all straight in the eye, talking to them.

Eye contact is the most overlooked aspect of live readings. If you don’t make eye contact with your audience, there is a risk they won’t connect with you, or with what you are saying. As you read your piece, look up from the paper. Remember the audience are there. Look at them. They’re not scary.

Whether you are a new performer or an experienced one, you need to own the stage. Everything up until this point can be learned, and over time will become reflex. The one thing you cannot learn from anyone is your own passion. Your words are your art that you have created, and you are passionate about that art. That love, that emotion, that feeling you invested into those words needs to come across, but not as a pseudo-emotive charade. Don’t fake being over-emotional if you are not. Don’t falsely portray yourself as a different personality. Be genuine, be honest, be true, and use the passion you have that is in those words. Then you will own the stage.

Know Your Place

The word humility, when used in Jewish scripture, means knowing one’s place within the world, and not thinking of oneself as superior or as inferior than one is. As the ethics and morality of Western society are rooted in either Judeo-Christian or Islamic values, this definition is key to understanding the importance of being yourself. You are you. You should not act of higher status than you are, but similarly should not put yourself down. Own your humility, in the Hebrew sense, and know your place as you walk on stage.

There may well be a microphone on stage, and if so it will likely be in a mic stand. These are not complicated machines that require extensive training, but are simple structures to hold the microphone in front of your mouth. If the microphone is too high or too low, then you will need to adjust it. With one hand, take a firm grip on the mic, and with the other grasp the upright part of the stand at the handhold that is around waist height. Keep the mic horizontal and pull it down or push it up, moving the whole upper section of the stand, while gripping the lower section so it does not move. You will not need to undo any knobs or turn any levers. You do not need to tilt the microphone up or down. Make sure it is level and pointed at your mouth. Then, stand so that your lips are about a finger-length away from the microphone—any nearer and the audience will hear puffs and clicks from your breath; further away and you will be too quiet. Don’t refuse the microphone, even if you think you don’t need it and can project your voice. It is not there for you, it is for the audience, which may include people who are hard-of-hearing. Many microphones also loop into hearing aid frequencies. If it is there and being used, it is supposed to be, so use it.

You want to introduce yourself to the audience straight away. Think of a short introduction that says who you are, including your preferred stage name, but don’t go on too long.

Don’t apologise for the quality of your writing. The audience will enter a state of paradox, as they will see that you are fishing for applause and validation, whilst simultaneously expecting your work to be poor as that is what you have inferred. Be proud of it, but don’t tell them that either.

Whatever you do, don’t explain everything you are about to read. Introduce it, but don’t explain it, or there is no need for the audience to listen to you read.

Obviously during this introduction before you start actually reading, and if you decide to speak afterwards, feel free to improvise as much as you want, but whilst you are reading your piece—that thing you have spent a long time writing and working on—stick to the script. An audience cannot tell the difference between you reading and you just saying things. They will believe anything you say in the midst of your piece is scripted, and therefore is part of it. If you feel tempted to drop in a humorous or sarcastic comment, or a wry or factual aside, remember this: don’t.

If it’s not in the piece, it shouldn’t be said during the piece.

How long did you spend ensuring that sentence was perfectly crafted? How much effort and life did you put into assembling those words in that order? Don’t ruin it by adding in extra things. It won’t be funny, it won’t be clever, and it won’t work. If anything, it will be detrimental to what you are reading. If you really have to mention that this paragraph in your short story is true, or that line of your poem was something your ex-boyfriend used to say, then say it at the start, or better, at the end.

Use your finger to scroll down the outside of the page to keep your place. At least once, you will glance up for a moment too long and lose it. Having that marker can be invaluable.

Keep reading, even if you make a mistake. Pausing, stopping, apologising, reading something again, just doesn’t work. Only you will notice your mistakes, so keep reading and move on. Get through it, and try to enjoy it.

When you reach the end of the piece, you need to signify to the audience that you have finished. There are a few ways of doing this. One is to pause a moment, then say “Thank you.” This works well, but to my mind is a little presumptuous that you are entitled to applause, so I prefer to pause, then step back from the frontline of the stage, or the microphone, or the place where I was standing, and look down. It signifies that I have finished, ready for the audience to applaud. At that point I can look up, nod, perhaps say “Thank you,” and if I am reading more than one piece, I can step forward when I am ready to speak again.

Let me let you into a little secret: the audience will always applaud. It doesn’t matter how badly you do, or how much you mess up; no audience will let a person die on stage unless it appears to be part of the act. Audiences are kind, forgiving, and compassionate. That being said, you need to be gracious in your acceptance of praise. Don’t be overly modest, but also don’t be arrogant. Smile and thank the audience, then go home and bask in the glory of your brilliance, for you did it.

Assignment

Your first live reading is likely to be at a small venue with only a few people there, so this is a chance to get things wrong and improve. You can always use the get-out clause of it being your first reading, too.

Your final assignment for this class is to go to an event and give a live reading. You have prepared and practised, so now you need to perform. Use everything you have learnt on this course, and you will find that your performance is so much better than you could have imagined. As soon as you get on stage, all that anxiety will melt away. Afterwards, you will feel elated, and you’ll want to do it again, so go and perform.


Congratulations, you have completed my Reading Live class. I hope these lessons prove useful to you and your performances become legendary.

The only real way of succeeding in a live reading is to do it. Print off a few things and test them out. Read them to your family. Read them to your friends. Go to reading nights. There are plenty of poetry and prose open-mic sessions around, and at many you can just turn up and share. The more you do, the more comfortable you will become with reading live. You might still get nervous, but at least you will know what you are doing, and the more you will enjoy it, and that is the real thrill.

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