At the recent Known World Cooks and Bards event, there were quite a few conversations about what I call the philosophy of the performing arts: Why do we do this bardic thing?
I can’t speak for anyone but me, so I’ll put it this way: Why do I do this bardic thing?
I mean, really. Think about it: I dress up in clothes that have been out of fashion for centuries, and tell stories, sing songs, and recite poetry for other people who are also wearing clothes that are centuries out of date. What a strange thing to do! And I’ve been doing it for quite literally decades. Why? It’s a reasonable question.
The answer, as with most things in my life, is a) somewhat complicated, and b) at the heart, really about serving others.
Let’s start with the funny clothes. In case it’s not glaringly obvious, I’m a member of the Society for Creative Anachronism. Funny clothes are part and parcel of that experience. The role I’ve carved out for myself is that of an early-period Irishman. There’s been a fair amount of scholarship about what the early Irish wore – and it turns out that some things I thought were the case back when I got started are no longer valid. Bottom line, I need to / get to learn some new things about my choice of historical clothing, and I need to / get to make some new kit, which will probably involve hand-sewing linen. Because why not go the extra mile and enjoy knowing that my leine is as authentic and accurate as I could make it?
Then there’s the performing piece. It’s said that most people are less afraid of dying than they are of public speaking. Personally, I’ve never had a problem with stage fright unless I was unprepared. (Years ago I got asked to be the opening act for a pretty well-known musician, and I was worried that I’d freeze up in front of a crowd of several hundred. Didn’t happen.)
Anyway, aren’t performers all egocentric narcissists whose sense of self-worth is really microscopic, requiring them to constantly seek the limelight and the approval of others?
Sorry. It’s not about the applause. (Although applause is very nice, don’t get me wrong.) Most of what I do is for the sheer pleasure of making something lovely. I enjoy making music, just because I can. Most of my playing is for an audience of zero. I get happy when I learn a new piece, or add an embellishment to an old standard. Sometimes I’ll sing a song simply because I want to hear it.
Stories and poetry are a little different. I don’t tell stories or recite poetry to myself unless I’m rehearsing. Why do I tell them to others? A big motivation is that I get to make their world a bit better. I entertain, sometimes educate, but again, it’s because I can. Two cases in point:
Siverthorn’s Blue Fighting-tunic was an exercise in silliness. From a one-line email (“I left my blue fighting tunic at practice. Did anyone pick it up?”) I concocted a wild fantasy out of whole cloth (pardon the pun), and wrapped it in an entertaining package – just because I could.
In contrast, The Legacy of the Northshield Coronet was meant to inspire. It was designed to remind not just the new Prince and Princess, but the populace as a whole, that this place we called home was special. Northshield became a real place in large part thanks to Owen, Wyndreth, Chandler, and others whose stories, songs and poems made people realize that they live in a very special place – and that what makes it special is the people who live there. The poem was based on an idea that my old friend Owen had been saying for years: Fine words well spoken do not of themselves make an event important. They simply force you to slow down so that you can realize that the event *is* important. This event – the first Coronetting ceremony of a new Principality – was important. It wanted some words to remind folks of that, and to remind them that they were part of it. And so I wrote and performed them, because I could.
For the same reason, I’m writing a long poem about the history of Oathbinder, the Midrealm sword of state – and doing it in the style of the Chanson d’Roland. It’s certainly not easy – that’s a challenging form in English – but it’s something that I can do, even if it stretches me. And in being stretched, I learn and grow, and that’s A Very Good Thing. And it’s not about me – when people understand that Oathbinder is no mere stage prop, but that it has a story, well, doesn’t that add a certain “something extra” to the oath taken upon it? “Now I am part of This Great Thing.” I can tell that story.
It’s the same reason I wash dishes at feasts. It needs to be done, and I can do it. Ok, so maybe washing dishes is a little more necessary than telling stories, singing songs, or writing poetry in archaic formats? Maybe. But washing dishes correctly just means that folks won’t get sick the next time a meal is cooked and served with them.
Stories, songs and poetry create reality and invite people into it.
This past weekend I was surrounded by people who do that. And I can do it, too. Wow.