Last week I gave the worst performance of my life. I also learned a great deal from the experience, so I thought I’d share it with the internet. A bit of background for anyone stumbling upon this blog for the first time: I write and perform poems. Many of these poems are confessional, depicting my view of the world as a young person with Asperger’s Syndrome and my struggles with mental illness. Just as many of these poems are fun, quirky nonsense (for example: the one about the woman who turns into a balloon or the woman who falls through her sofa cushions to find the spinsters version of Narnia) . I have two poetry pamphlets out and try to perform whenever I can. So, naturally, when I found out about an open mic performance happening in Bradford, I decided to head along.
I was excited about this particular event for two reasons. Firstly; the facebook page had specifically requested poets (when I do open mic I tend to be the only poet in a room full of musicians, and I’ve been given some strange looks just for coming up on stage without a guitar or a ukulele). Secondly; the event was part of a Steampunk fair, and I love Steampunk.
I arrived at the fair at 12:00, poetry in hand, wearing a zombie unicorn dress I’d purchased in Whitby, lots of eyeliner and a huge gold pocket watch. (Many of the attendees had opted for corsets, waistcoats, goggles, top hats and full length Victorian ball gowns, so I was actually one of the most normal looking people there). I’d been told the open mic was starting at 12:00, but could see no signs of any poetry happening, and had to ask around before I found the woman who was organizing the event. She didn’t seem to know what was happening either, and told me to just hang around for a bit until the open mic started and I was called to the stage.
This should have been my first red flag. However, events that incorporate poetry (or any other form of creativity) tend not to be that well organized, and the stalls looked fantastic, so I certainly didn’t mind hanging around. I spent about an hour and a half purchasing more pocket watches (because you can never have too many) and various other trinkets. Soon I’d spent all my money. I was having a fantastic time, but becoming slightly inpatient for the open mic to start.
I approached the woman in charge again, and was informed that nobody else wanted to go on stage, but I could perform soon. She seemed genuinely surprised that no one had come up to her asking to perform. (Like me, other potential performers probably had no idea who to approach, since there was nothing to distinguish her from the rest of the people at the event). Things were starting to feel a bit off now, but I remained optimistic. After all, no performers other meant that I could do a longer set list if I wanted.
I was ushered on stage by one of the tech guys, picked up a microphone and introduced my first poem. And nothing happened. My so called “audience” continued chatting and looking around stalls, clearly completely oblivious to what I was doing. When I finished my first poem I was given a smattering of applause, after that, nothing. Well, almost nothing. A small child stood on the periphery of the stalls and appeared to be listening intently to what I had to say, but I got no reaction from the rest of the crowd at all. I did my best to perform, but I felt so bloody humiliated. The complete lack of reaction or attention from my audience was something I had never experienced before… I could almost hear crickets chirping and see tumble weed blowing across the stage, just like in a cartoon. In the end I stumbled through my set list and finished early, red faced, and wanting nothing more than to get out of there as quickly as possible. I knew I had just given the worst performance of my life.
To my surprise, a couple of people came up to me as I was leaving the stage. One was filled with sympathy, greeting me with the phrase ‘that was not an easy thing to do’ and we talked for a little while about why it was clearly inappropriate to have a Steampunk stall as a performance venue. Another (one of the stall owners) congratulated me on my performance, explaining that he had Asperger’s too and really enjoyed my work, although he admitted it felt like he was the only one listening. I couldn’t persuade him to buy a book, but I still felt a little better, knowing that I’d got through to at least one person in the crowd.
I went outside for a few minutes of fresh air, and ended up chatting with two smokers who’d witnessed my performance. One of them seemed really interested in my first poem “The Glass Box”, and asked me if I thought that people with Asperger’s Syndrome were all anti-social. I explained that Aspie’s don’t necessarily lack an interest socialising, but we can lack some of the basic social skills that so many people take for granted, and some people with Asperger’s end up self-isolating because they were bullied growing up and find it difficult to trust others, or their sensory issues make leaving the house difficult. Another smoker explained that she works with autistic children, and we talked shop for a while, her telling me about her work as a teaching assistant and me explaining my role at Autism First.
Suddenly a little voice piped up ‘excuse me… are you the woman that was reading poetry earlier?’ It was the little boy I’d spotted in the audience who seemed to be the only one listening to my poems. He smiled tentatively, and said ‘I’m autistic too… I’ve got Asperger’s!’ I was speechless. I didn’t find the courage to talk openly about my disorder until I was nineteen, so for someone who was so young to walk up to a complete stranger and come out as an Aspie like that… well… he was so brave. And if I hadn’t given the worst poetry performance of my life, I never would have met him.
So, what did I learn from the whole ordeal? Well, first of all I learned that you never know who you’re going to make an impression on. I’d thought the whole room was indifferent, bored even, but my performance was clearly important to the stall owner who came up to me on stage and the little boy with Asperger’s who greeted me afterwards. Secondly, I learnt that things are never quite as bad as they seem. Sure, my day hadn’t gone as planned. But I’d still read some poems, spread some autism awareness and spent way more than I could afford on Steampunk memorabilia.
The third thing I learned was how not to host open mic even. In hindsight, it’s clear that open mic poetry had been added to the Steampunk fair as an afterthought. It wasn’t what people were there for, and the event’s organizers weren’t committed enough to advertise properly and make sure they had enough performers. The stalls were fantastic, I had a great time looking at them and thoroughly enjoyed the whole experience. The open mic, however, was a flop.
Here’s what I think should have happened: firstly, the events organizers should have made sure they had plenty of performers before going ahead with the open mic. Secondly, the open mic shouldn’t have taken place right next to the stalls, where customers were likely to be milling about, chatting amongst themselves, negotiating prices and just creating a really bad environment for performing in. It should have taken place in a separate room, at a set time and with plenty of advertising beforehand so that people who wanted to watch could attend, and people that weren’t interested wouldn’t be there to distract the performers.
If you’re going to host open mic, put some thought into it, plan carefully, ensure you have the appropriate venue and that your performers and audience know exactly what they’re signing up for. And if, like me, you’re an amateur poet looking for opportunities to perform, make sure you do your research. Don’t just turn up at every event you hear about and then act surprised when a room full of strangers isn’t all that interested in your poems. Make sure the venue you choose is right for you, and that the people attending have a genuine interest in spoken word. Don’t set yourself up for the worst performance of your life, like I did.
Purchase my pamphlet, The Poetry of Autism: Eyes of Perspective on Etsy: