Venues and Values
In the Seven Deadly Bardic Sins series I used the phrase “Bardic Safe Zone” quite a bit. A BSZ is designed to be a low-stress performance venue where you’re not being judged, nothing is at stake, and the audience is very supportive and non-judgemental, appreciating that you have the guts to get up in front of people and perform at all.
The other end of the bardic-venue spectrum is probably the Bardic Competition (dum dum dummm….).
My relationship with competitions is, as Facebook might say, complicated. Back in my youth I entered pretty much every one that I could – and in central Ansteorra in the 1980s, that was a lot. There might well have been as many competitions as there were round-robin circles and free-wheeling post-revels. It seemed that every barony and shire had to have a bardic champion.
I won my share of them. In ASXX I was the champion of both Bryn Gwlad (Austin) and Stargate (Houston). I never did win the Kingdom championship, though. I served a term as the Principal of the Queen’s College of Bards, but I never won the coveted title of Premier Bard of Ansteorra.** (I did eventually win the title of Midrealm Queen’s Bard, with a story that I cooked up literally overnight three days before the competition. That’s another tale, though.)
Competition produces stress. Some of it can be good stress (inspiring you to do your best). Some of it can be bad stress (feeling that you’re not good enough, or that you have to be better than everyone else). And even good stress is still stress. People under stress act a little different than they do otherwise.
Me, when I enter a bardic competition, I’m in it to win it. I’ll pull out all the stops. I’ll pander shamelessly to the judges – they’re the only audience that matters, right? I’ll typically have several pieces polished and ready to go, depending on what the other performers are doing, because my goal is to be better than them.
Frankly, it’s not a real nice part of my personality that comes out in competitions, which is why I don’t enter them much anymore. I don’t much like the version of me that takes the stage in competition. I might turn in a top-shelf performance, but I don’t necessarily feel really good about it afterward.
But that’s me. There’s no question that competitions are an excellent venue for up-and-coming performers to get noticed, especially outside their local area.
They’re not the only venues, though. I’m a big fan of encouraging non-competitive performance venues. Let’s talk about some of those.
There are many different ways to structure a bardic circle. Themed or not. Pick-pass-play. Pass the token. Popcorn (whoever wants to go next, goes next). And others. Circles can be Bardic Safe Zones. Low-key, folks who know each other, with an express purpose of trying new stuff or encouraging new performers.
But circles aren’t always BSZs.
Even in an informal setting, it can be very intimidating to a new performer to follow a Really Good Performance. (Hint: don’t be Timid!) Heck, it can be intimidating to an old hand! Case in point: A couple of years ago at Pennsic I was sitting in a circle next to my old friend Owen Alun from Northshield. He did one of his signature pieces (Thorvaldsaga, aka Treefoot), and across the circle I saw Cariadoc – Cariadoc! – leaning forward on the edge of his seat. I had to follow that?!? No pressure…
Tips for performing a Circle. #1 Shut Up and Listen for a Bit. I totally violated this just a few months ago at Bardic Roundhouse. I moved from the mostly-instrumental Jam Session to the not-mostly-instrumental Bardic Circle and, stupidly assuming that it was a free-for-all, got my Pride all wound up and said, “Ok, I’m here! What do y’all want to hear?” (In my meagre defense, when I walked in the group was in one of those talk-among-yourselves phases and it was not at all clear who if anyone was Up Next.) Fortunately, I was among good friends who gently informed me that Someone Else was Up Next. Pass the humble pie, please.
Busking is simply picking a spot out in public, setting out a hat for tips, and performing. Street performance. I busked at the Texas RenFest for nearly a decade, and fed myself through grad school by leading beery singalongs of classic folk/rock favorites at the local watering hole.
When busking, especially in SCA contexts, be aware of your audible radius. Set limits. Share the stage: work out who-plays-where-when with other performers. If you’re playing near merchants, don’t EVER interfere with sales. Don’t outstay your welcome.
If you set out a hat to get tips, you really should be well-Prepared, not just noodling around. You’re not just asking for your audience’s attention, but their coin as well, and all the rules of non-BSZ venue and performance apply.
And play by the rules: don’t take tips for doing songs under current copyright (e.g., written in the last hundred years) that you don’t have permission from the artist to perform for money.
Frankly, feasts are a terrible performance venue. People are there to eat and chat with friends. Acoustically, the room is generally either very live (amplifies the slightest sound) or very dead (kills sound). Either way you generally can’t be heard from one end of the table to the next, much less across the hall. Ever notice how often people are nearly shouting at each other across the table just to be heard?
You absolutely do NOT want to be the person who says (in effect), “SHUT UP THIS IS ENTERTAINMENT.” (If the Crown or Coronet says it, then I hope you are Prepared and can deliver on their promise!)
Other than that, If asked to perform at a feast, you might consider these options:
- Politely decline.
- Play background instrumental music (harpists who can noodle / improvise, or instrumental consorts with a decent repertoire have this totally sussed)
- Work individual tables, doing your best to command attention and be heard eight feet away.
- Do the wandering minstrel bit, not really caring if anyone is really listening. You’re part of the hall decoration, but that doesn’t mean you can’t be subtle and clever. Do “Rise/Baker’s Edition” while people are setting up and filling up on the bread on the table, “Greensleeves” for the salad course, etc. (Do NOT do the Mousse Song for dessert unless all the children have left the hall!)
- Leeeetle tiiiiny tuuuube nooodles! Emcee the feast, and make it memorable.
Many years ago, there was an Italian feast at a big event (Midrealm Crown?) in Nordskogen, Northshield (Minneapolis, Minnesota).
You must understand that this part of the country was settled by the descendants of Vikings, and the local SCA has, shall we say, a distinct and authentic Scandinavian flavor. Lutefisk (think fish Jello) was actually served at a revel. “Racial integration” means Norwegians, Swedes, Danes, and Finns living in harmony. You’ve seen the movie “Fargo”? That’s NOT made-up dialog. Yah, shore, youbetcha, dey really do talk dat vey up dere, don’t’cha know, dere hey. They understand what Sesame Street’s Swedish Chef is saying. When I moved to Minnesota I was given a copy of the book, “How to Talk Minnesotan.” It proved VERY useful.
And an Italian feast was served.
Somehow, Baron Lewys Blackmore and I were roped into announcing the feast. And somehow, we hit on the following idea: Lewys, being a worldly, um. ah, “gentleman adventurer of the high seas” (who never sails without letters of marque, even if he has to pay a scribe to produce them), would announce each dish in proper (that is, floridly over-the-top) Italian…ish. I, being a low-born fellow of Irish-Norse background, would “translate” into the local Scandihoovian dialect.
So, “Siiiiigniores e Signorinas! Aaa prrriiimo! La ensalaaaada grrraaande e vvverrrrte con aoiio rrrobuuustooo!” became, “Vell, now, to start vit, vee got cha a green salad. But hit’s not de lime Yello salad you’re yoosed to in yoor Lut’ran church basement, don’t’cha’know. Hit’s all plant leaves and stoff like dat, but choo can actually eat dem. Ant on de side dere’s dis dressink stoff, vich might be a leetle bit spicy fer yer taste, so don’t joost slater it on, dere hey.”
And so it went. Totally improv, for all that’s worth. We just played off each other. At some point I announced a pasta dish as “Leeeetle tiiiiny tuuuube nooodles!” People were in stitches. It was great fun.
Flash forward FIFTEEN YEARS.
I’m cleaning up the kitchen after an event with a local knight in my new baronial home hundreds of miles away at the far end of the old Midrealm. I recount the story of that feast, just to make chat while we’re swabbing and sweeping. He exclaims, “THAT WAS YOU!?!?! We were laughing all the way to Cleveland! I complained that my arms were sore, and so-and-so said, ‘Yoost poot some leeeetle tiiiiny tuuuube nooodles on eet!’”
Just do it. A few examples:
Feast-kitchen sing-alongs, washing dishes. If you can convince some hunky young squires to join you (and especially if they take off their shirts) you just might get a service award. It’s been known to happen.
Wandering an event site with a basket of goods for sale, singing short “hawking” ditties set to period tunes. E.g., To Greensleves: “Come buy my confits, very nice / Your fetid breath they will freshen. / I’ve anise, ginger and cinnamon / Your loneliness they will lessen.” (Good advertising gets your attention!)
Sing on the way to a battle. Some kingdoms are really good at this (Calontir, Northshield) but households can do it, too. Or just gather your courage and start solo. You never know who might join in.
Sing during a melee! Kari was belting out a song in the midst of a Pennsic field battle when a spearman nailed him. The spearman’s shieldman hollered, “You idiot! Why’d you kill him? I was enjoying that song!”
Be atmosphere. Sing or play in your pavilion or under a tree, with no expectation of audience. Let the music float out and help make the magic happen for others. Even if you’re just noodling around, it adds to the event.
* Yes, I know that the line is really, “Competition (singular) IN other places.” “Sultans of Swing” by Dire Straits is not only one of the best songs in the usually-whiney “Life as a rock star is SO HARD” genre (e.g. Rush’s “Limelight” and Bob Seeger’s “Turn the Page”), but also features some of the tastiest guitar work ever recorded.
**Years ago or so I made it to Pennsic and visited the Ansteorran camp. An old friend spotted me and grabbed me by the arm. “Brendan!” he said. “There’s someone you have to meet!” He dragged me through the camp to a tent and called inside. “Lady so-and-so? (I’m sorry, I really don’t recall her name.) You have a visitor!” I was, to say the least, puzzled as a young woman emerged and looked around uncertainly. She looked at me and her face took on that, “You look vaguely familiar…” expression.
An aside-within-an aside: Around/about ASXX I had recorded a cassette tape on my kitchen table with a cheap four-track recorder. The cover “art” was a digitized version of a photo of me at TYC that had been published in an issue of TI after the event. I sold perhaps a dozen copies of that tape.
Back to Pennsic: My friend flourished, “Lady So-and-so, may I present Lord Brendan O Corraidhe. Lord Brendan, Lady So-and-so.” I offered my hand and said something polite. Her eyebrows shot up. “THE Lord Brendan? The one who recorded ‘Favorite Songs of Ansteorra?’”
I stammered, “Um, yeah… that was me.” The lady gushed, “That tape is the REASON I got into the bardic arts! Thank you SO much!” I stammered my thanks.
Then my friend dropped the mic: “Lord Brendan, may I present the Premier Bard of Ansteorra!”
I truly don’t remember anything after that. “Gobsmacked” is the appropriate term.
(My pride was later tempered somewhat when I recalled that Jimi Hendrix had said that he decided that he could get away with singing when he heard a Bob Dylan record.)