I have never got involved in running a spoken word night. I don’t think this is just me being lazy and selfish (although it’s possibly that, as well); I’m not sure I have any of the requisite skills and, in any case, Bristol/Bath is pretty much at saturation point with spoken word nights at the moment and, unless I feel a burning mission to reach a potential audience that noone else is reaching or meet a need none of the other nights in the area is meeting, there isn’t really any point in adding to what’s already there.
Others have suggested that getting involved with running a spoken word night might help my career and, yes, I have known people start up nights because they think that it will get their name better known in the spoken word community, give them more opportunities to meet and network with the A-listers they book, and that poets who run other spoken word nights might start offering them gigs, in the hope of being booked in return. However, it seems to me that the reverse is actually often the case – most of the really, really good promoters and hosts I know have seen their own careers take a hit, because running a night well takes a colossal amount of time and energy – time and energy that they then don’t have to promote themselves. Generally, when a poet starts a night for all the wrong reasons – as a vehicle for promoting themselves – the night rarely enjoys sustained success, because either its shallow roots soon see it wither or the poet quickly loses interest and moves onto something else. The nights that have become runaway successes tend to be those where the promoting/hosting/managing team is motivated by sheer love of poetry and a desire to serve their potential audience.
Hosting, in particular, requires a very specific set of skills and is often a delicate balancing act. When you say the word “host”, many people immediately think of an uber-confident, charismatic, loud, bubbly person, but many of the best hosts I know are quiet, self-effacing people. Yes, the host has to be charismatic and interesting enough to engage the audience and on occasions has to be able to tell jokes and/or perform their own work, to warm the audience up, put them at ease, and fill any awkward gaps, but they’ve also got to remember that the night isn’t all about them and that they are there to facilitate the other performers (both the featured acts and any slammers/open micers), not to upstage them. I sometimes think that a sign of a perfect host is that you didn’t really notice them, in either a good or a bad way, but came away buoyed by the experience you had and by the performers’ work.
The most obvious thing that the host has to do is introduce the acts and this can make a huge difference, both to how the performer feels about themselves and how the audience receives them. Hosts will often whip the audience up into a frenzy of applause before the performer takes the stage which makes the performer feel like a rock star and makes the audience view them as one. At three different events this week I was lucky enough to be given really touching, personal intros that made me feel that the hosts knew and genuinely loved my work, that they weren’t just reading out my biog verbatim. It made me perform better, both because I knew they had disposed the audience to expect me to be good, but also because I felt more valued and worthwhile as a performer and as a human being. But even more important than how the host makes the performers feel is how they make the audience feel about themselves.
Hosting can take different forms. I’ve been to nights where there has been a lot of audience participation and there has been more going on in the auditorium than on the stage (for example, audience are encouraged to shake maracas or join in with refrains or actions or shout things out or write their own poems which will be read out onstage and there is a lot of banter between host and audience. I have been to delightful shows where play dough and bendy pipe cleaners and magic painting sets were left on the seats or tables, so audience members with low concentration spans had something to fiddle with during the show). This model can work especially well for nights trying to build an audience from people who might previously have thought poetry wasn’t for them and can be crucial in providing an inclusive and fun experience for the audience that will make them want to go back. But not everyone wants a night like that: when I first started going to spoken word nights, as a very shy person who was on her own, I just wanted to slip in at the back unnoticed, enjoy the poetry, and then go home and would have been mortified if a spotlight had been shone on me or I’d been forced to speak to people around me. Poetry nights catering to an established poetry audience, in particular, may legitimately prefer to take a more sedate, less high-energy, “fourth wall” approach, to curate, rather than cheerlead. Even there, though, the host has a duty to ensure that the audience has a good time, that everyone feels they are welcome and are part of a community and to demonstrate what the night’s brand is about. It’s a case of finding a style that suits your personality and your audience’s needs.
One way that some hosts try to create a fun, high-energy atmosphere and make the audience feel they are joining a family or a club, not just randomly dropping into a venue for a couple of hours, is by making a lot of in-jokes. These can take the form of one of the hosts gently taking the piss out of the other and their supposed well-known foibles, a host sharing personal anecdotes, or hosts making comic references to things which took place at previous performances. This can work well – Harry and Chris’s stage show is a very good example of this approach and audiences are amused and charmed by their self-mockery and by the window we are given into their lives. When done badly, though, it can seem self-indulgent, can hog time and attention that would have been better given to the featured performers and can actually make audience members feel more isolated and unwelcome, if they feel that the inner circle gets the in-references and they don’t.
Sometimes I wish hosts didn’t feel compelled to be amusing all the time. In particular, I get tired of hearing the same old joke borrowed from another venue and trotted out as if it were the host’s own gag. Just because the host at the night where you first discovered spoken word always used to introduce the slam rules or greet the audience back from the interval with the same joke, it doesn’t mean you have to, too. Either think up your own original gags or just give us the information without trying to be funny. In general, I don’t respond well to hosts who I feel aren’t being themselves – they’re trying to copy a template of what they think a host should be. That doesn’t mean that your onstage self should be identical to your offstage self – it’s fine to create a stage persona that’s bolder than you and says things you would never say, but it should be your own alter ego, not someone else’s.
Another way that the attempt to provide wall-to-wall laughs can backfire is if you try to make banter with or about an audience member, open micer or slammer and it comes out wrong or they take it the wrong way. I have seen hosts reduce audience members to tears by making a flippant, off-the-cuff joke about their dress sense, accent or grammar, thinking they had picked someone who would take it in good part and horribly misjudging it.
Another difficult balance that hosts have to strike is keeping discipline without being so inflexible that they come across as as a joyless, jobsworth control freak. Nobody wants to be that guy who sits there with an alarm clock and stops anyone who goes even one second over their allotted time, but then again a host who repeatedly allows performers to overrun by a massive amount (or, even worse, allows the performers on first to overrun hugely, but then takes time off performers later in the evening who have done nothing wrong to ensure the evening ends on time) will create an undisciplined, shapeless, self-indulgent evening where people feel bored, unsafe and/or unappreciated and, in extreme cases, people miss the last bus/train home or the venue pulls the plug on future events because the bar staff were still there two hours after their shift was supposed to have ended.
But it’s very easy for me to carp about this, when I’ve never been a host myself, when the reason I’ve never been a host is because I know I’d be shit at it. Anyone who month in, month out, bravely strides out into the minefield of hosting, usually without any pay or recognition, is doing something I don’t have the guts to do and has my admiration. I know that even the worst host on the circuit is a much, much better host than I would ever be and by sheer virtue of being there deserves applause and credit. And hosts have to deal with the oddest things, at the spur of the moment, with no preparation or planning. I know someone who had to deal with a drunk who had secreted themselves backstage before the show started suddenly leaping out and taking his clothes off in the middle of a spoken word event. How would anyone cope with that?
A good host makes the evening. They are entertaining and confident, but humble enough to arrange everything so that attention is drawn to everyone except themselves. They are talented enough to be able to hold an audience, but self-effacing enough to not hog the stage. They are assertive enough to stop performers and audience from acting up, but calm and relaxed enough to defuse trouble, not escalate it. They are organised enough to keep the evening ticking along at an energetic pace, but not so uptight they suck the joy out of it. They can read a room and always know the right thing to say or do. They make audiences feel valued and involved, without making them feel uncomfortable or put on the spot. They make everyone who takes to the stage, from the newbie open micer to the world-famous headliner, feel like a world-famous headliner. They are wonderful and worth their weight in gold and don’t get the love they deserve.