Go Long: Longform Spoken Word at the Fringe

Gem Rolls
In the beginning, there was the word. It was spoken, it was poetic and, for the most part, it was brief—tending to be served up in three- to ten-minute vignettes that are punctuated with applause.
 
At least, this is how the majority of us have been defining and delivering spoken word since its inception.
 
“A musician plays a set of a bunch of different songs that may or may not be thematically related,” says Evalyn Parry. “Nobody questions that as a format. But there’s something about music that works in that way. With spoken word, I find it’s rare to be able to sustain it without a connective tissue of theme or story or intention.”
That pull toward connective tissue is, perhaps, what’s calling so many spoken word artists to create longer-form work in recent years.
 
While some artists like Cat Kidd, d’bi young and Jem Rolls have been doing long-form spoken word and storytelling for a decade or more, the limitations of “one-off” performance poetics are starting to call more long-form experimenters to the fore.
 
In the last five years, Canadian artists like Sarah Murphy (when bill danced the war, 2007), Andrea Thompson (The Mating Habits of the Urban Cougar, 2008), Chris Masson (Pathos, Punchlines and Painkillers, 2009), Missie Peters (Public Confessions of a Public Servant, 2010 and Where’s My Flying Car?, 2012), RC Weslowski (The Wet Dream Catcher, 2011), Moe Clark and Emilie Monnet (Bird Messengers, 2011), Brendan McLeod (The Fruit Machine, 2011), Evalyn Parry (Spin, 2011and Tanya Davis (Hello, Change, 2011, and NonMonog and the gray scale dwellers, 2012) have been creating poetic shows in the range of 45–90 minutes that are organized around a central issue or theme. Several others, like Kevin Matthews and Alessandra Naccaratto, are in the process of creating their first long-form pieces.
 
Why the surge in this longer format of spoken word? There are myriad motivations: to flex different writing and performance muscles, to embrace a new challenge, to weave together multiple art practices or break into a different genre.
 
“I felt like it was new for me, and there was a big learning curve,” says Tanya Davis. “It was challenging and it was out of my comfort zone. I didn’t go crazy, but I did do more than I have before. So it kind of made me intrigued. That was the first step in me maybe wanting to explore this art form a bit more. To write monologues…. I loved it. It was fun. It made me feel really exposed, and I’m kind of into that.”
 
The one thing that every artist said they wanted from the experience? To go deeper. To sustain a longer research process and work on something that offered them more thematic cohesion and synthesis.
 
“Especially for people coming out of slam, you sort of run up against a wall because you can compete for 20 years, but you’re just perfecting the way to do a three-minute poem, and that’s a very finite kind of artistic expression,” says Brendan McLeod. “You max out on that pretty quickly. Or you don’t, and you’re really interested in that, but I find that a lot of people grow a little bit restless and they want to explore longer forms. Also, you can’t really make a living doing slam poetry. You can feature, but you have to always broaden your horizons with spoken word.”
 
Andrea Thompson, whose work is always evolving to incorporate new writing and performance genres, certainly bases her practice on the notion of ever-broadening horizons.
 
“I started off as a page poet—doing short pieces, then I started doing slam—longer pieces, then I wanted to leave slam because I wanted to do even longer pieces. Three minutes wasn’t enough. Then, as you start doing features as a spoken word person, you started getting really interested in taking the audience on a journey,” says Thompson. “If you’re an artist, and you’re doing your work, you’re going to look for places to show it. And that was one of the things for me. To me, spoken word is a completely hybrid art form. It doesn’t really have a home, so it has to go different places.  ”
 
For Evalyn Parry, creating longer-form spoken word was an opportunity for creative alchemy.
 
“I guess it was being at the stage of my career that I was at and feeling like I sort of have these three strands to my artistic practice: one being theatre, one being spoken word or literary performance and the other being music,” says Parry. “I was at this moment where I was like, ‘I really want them to come together into something. I’m sick of being stratified into these three different things.’ I was always the weirdo in whatever field I was in. In music, I was the one performing spoken word. In the spoken word context, I was the one singing and in theatre, I was doing something with storytelling. To me, they don’t feel like they’re so different. I wanted to see if I could make something; do some alchemy and put them into one.”
 
For Jem Rolls, the longer format is more fun—and, with marketable hour-long shows to tour, he can earn enough to live on.
 
“I like the hour show. It’s the best way to perform, and it’s the only real way to make money, I think. I actually make a living at it. I spend the winter writing the show, and the summer intensively performing it. I do like 55 or 60 shows across the summer—in like 100 or 110 days. I don’t do anything but the Fringe tour. It keeps me going for the rest of the year. It’s brilliant.”
 
But some people might wonder if this work can still be considered spoken word. Does it officially cross the threshold into theatre? How do we define and embody those different performance practices? Does longer-form work dilute or expand our understanding of what spoken word is? Does it have the potential to do both? And, in the end, does it make sense to police the borders between these overlapping performance genres—especially when spoken word is still such a new and developing practice, relative to other forms?
 
“I just do what I want to do—I don’t care what you call it,” says RC Weslowski. “To me, [The Wet Dream Catcher] was a monologue; it was a story. I was there as a storyteller, telling this tale with poems in it. To me, it’s spoken word.  I mean, a person doing a monologue…they’re literally speaking it; speaking their words. To me, a stand-up comedian does spoken word. It’s not just poetry. It’s not just storytelling. It’s all these vast things that fall under the umbrella. A two-hander might be a little bit different. Like, if people are talking to each other. That, to me, is then more like a play because there’s dialogue back and forth. But if it’s a one-person thing, I would still consider that spoken word.”
 
Spoken word already being such a hybrid form, it’s a bit like splitting hairs to try to define where spoken word ends and other performance practices begin. It’s anything from comedy to hip hop. Monologue to the long poem. Though there is something to be said for having the words to define the kind of work you’re doing.
 
As of yet, no single term has emerged as a shorthand for these longer works of spoken word. Artists are calling these pieces spoken word plays, showcases, monologues, monodramas, solo shows, long-form poetry, interlinked poems and versified storytelling.
 
“I grew up listening to concept albums like The Wall and Quadrophenia,” says Cat Kidd. “The idea that each track tells one part of an overarching narrative was how I learned about versified storytelling, if I can put it that way. Like the difference between a short story and a novel—there can be more thematic layering, the characters can be developed more, you can add more dimensions to it. I tend to think of the poems in a series like Sea Peach or Hyena Subpoena as modular, like Lego – I can mix and match them depending on how long a set I have. Since they’re interconnected, any set of two or three can create an internal dialogue with itself.”
It became clear after having tete-a-tetes with a number of spoken word artists who have completed long-form projects that all of our work falls under one of three main show structures:  
  •   A singular narrative arc or poem, which continues unbroken throughout the show—think Sarah Murphy’s when bill danced the war.
  •   A grouping of thematically-linked stories or poems that are woven together with an overarching theme using segues and transitions—think Brendan McLeod’s The Fruit Machine.
  • ·         A set of several distinct poems of varying length that are consciously placed in a particular order and grouped together to create a particular experience—think the Fringe shows of Jem Rolls.

Like any experiment in form, it’s been a trial and error process for many.

“The very first draft of [Pathos, Punchlines and Painkillers]—before we put it on stage—was over two hours,” says Masson, laughing. “I put everything down. I included all the poems that had any bearing to the story, and then I worked with a friend of mine [Nichole George] who is a theatre director and she served as a dramaturge on it. Whenever I’m talking with people about that process, that’s the thing I always recommend. Work with someone who has a theatre background who understands those conventions….it really behooves you to find someone who’s an expert.”
 
Thompson remembers the steep learning curve about production values when she took her show on a five-city Fringe Festival tour in 2008.
 
“We’d go into these [theatres], and I’d be working with a tech person who’d be like, ‘What do you want?’ And I don’t know the language; I don’t know how to say what I want. I don’t even know what the options are in terms of lighting and staging and stuff like that. I was like, ‘Okay, instead of pretending that I know what I’m doing, I’m going to say I don’t and let’s work together.’ I think the techies appreciated that. It sort of made up for my lack of chops in terms of knowing how to speak to them properly, and it gave them an opportunity to be creative and do whatever they thought would work. I loved that, and it changed some of the things I did. Every time I went to a different theatre, there were different possibilities depending on the space and what they could do. It morphed along the way.”
 
Many spoken word artists, like Thompson, have been finding the DIY production aesthetic of the Fringe circuit a natural fit for longer-form spoken word. UK-born poet Jem Rolls is widely acknowledged to be the pioneer of spoken word inclusion in the Canadian Fringes.
 
“Jem Rolls has made a fantastic career for himself as a spoken word artist doing [the Fringe]. He’s really paved the way for the rest of us,” says Thompson. “I’m sure a lot of people who went to see the shows had no idea what spoken word was. He’s been able to introduce a big number of audience members to the form. So when people like me and RC come along, they’re like, ‘Oh, yeah, spoken word. Okay. We have a clue what that is.’”
 
“For years, I was the only poet [on the Fringe circuit]. It was just me,” says Rolls. “That always struck me as strange because it’s tough, but it’s doable. And, as a way to do the art form of performance poetry, it’s the best I’ve ever come across.”
 
After a decade of doing annual, summer-long tours of the Canadian Fringe circuit that take him from Montreal to Vancouver, Rolls knows what he’s talking about.
 
“The chief variables across the Fringe are the press, what your venue is and what your timeslots are,” says Rolls. “If you’re unlucky in any of them, you’re quite possibly fucked. If you’re unlucky with two or three of them, you’re definitely fucked. The Fringe is not for the weak of spirit. It really can be tough. The thing about the Fringe is that you have to sell it, as well. And that’s an awful lot of the effort and the struggle, once you have a show you’re happy with.”
 
“I’ve only done the Atlantic Fringe. That was once, last year,” says Davis, who presented her 45-minute show called Hello, Change in Halifax in 2011. “Fringe scares me a little bit. How everyone has to hit the ground running and market the shit out of themselves so they can compete with all the other Fringe shows, and you pay all the money upfront. It seems like a big machine that I don’t know if I want to join up with, but it also seems like a great opportunity if you can get on the circuit. It’s already accepted that spoken word style shows happen in the Fringe. People have gone to them, people have written them, people have performed them. There’s already space made, which is enticing.”
 
If performers are looking for a lower-risk gig—more of a sure thing—Rolls says that nothing beats working the Winnipeg and Edmonton Fringes.
 
“You’ve not really done a Canadian Fringe until you’ve done one of those two. They’re much better than all the others because there’s actually shitloads of audience. It’s easy to get a decent-sized audience. You don’t know how good Fringes can be until you’ve done Winnipeg or Edmonton.”
 
That said, there are some on the Fringe circuit who balk at the inclusion of spoken word in festivals that were created with the intention of showcasing DIY theatre.
“I felt some resistance. A couple of the Fringe performers that I came across didn’t seem to really think that spoken word should be there,” says Thompson, who toured The Mating Habits of the Urban Cougar to the Montreal, Toronto, Winnipeg, Calgary and Vancouver Fringes in 2008. “I sorta just picked up that feeling and then one guy told me straight-out, ‘You know, where we come from, spoken word belongs over here and the Fringe is about theatre.’ That was his perspective, and I don’t know how many people he was speaking for, but he felt like we didn’t belong there.”
 
Spoken word conventions are different enough from theatre conventions that the audience sometimes do have difficulty understanding how to approach the work. It behooves a performer who is interested in performing on the Fringe circuit to ask themselves: what does the audience expect to receive when a person stands up on a stage and begins to speak an hour or more of text?
 
“Theatre audiences speak in a different language,” says Weslowski, who brought The Wet Dream Catcher to the Ottawa, Winnipeg, Saskatoon, Edmonton and Vancouver Fringes in 2011. “You have to figure out how the audience and the performer talk to each other and then you can kind of get in there and talk with them. But, if you’re coming from a different world, and you’re still speaking your old audience language, you might have trouble communicating with them.”
 
Theatre conventions also play a role in the kinds of reviews that a spoken word show might receive—even for something as non-mainstream as the Fringe circuit.
“It was really interesting for me to be getting reviews because, as a spoken word artist, you don’t usually get public, in-the-big-papers review of your work. That was thrilling and frightening and scary and not-so-good sometimes,” says Thompson. “I had a mixed bag. I got some really, really fantastic reviews and a couple that weren’t so good. But the ones that ended up being the most useful to me were the ones on the Fringe website. The people who had seen the show would put comments up…. I could see what they were saying, and they were right, so I ended up changing the show based on feedback that I got. It was fun that I had the opportunity to do that. It sort of became a work-in-progress as I traveled across the country.”
 
Parry says the process of getting reviewed is another way that the Fringe format is a good fit for spoken word and helps to evolve the form—while also making spoken word accessible to a broader audience.
 
“Obviously, the Fringe festival is about presenting non-mainstream work and a lot of spoken word or literary performance is not the kind of work that shows up at mainstream venues,” says Parry. “It’s a good match in that way because of the kind of audience that’s drawn to the Fringe. People looking for the unusual, outsider, off-the-beaten-track, underground work. It’s the right audience for work that prides itself on being an alternative art form. It has all these trappings of DIY and coming up from the cracks and the edges. It’s what beautiful and alive about the form.”
 
Rolls can’t say enough about the opportunities waiting for spoken word artists on the Fringe circuit.
 
“In lots of ways, the Fringe is the last outpost of the cultural mavericks. It’s the most bullshit-free way of doing art that I’ve come across. The thing about the Fringe is that there’s no establishment. You don’t have to lick any asses. There’s no careerism. There’s no filling in forms or applying for funding and all that crap.”
“It’s a really natural dovetail,” says Masson, who brought Pathos, Punchlines and Painkillers to the Minneapolis Fringe in 2009. “I hope that people who have cut their teeth on slam will look at that as a possibility.”
 

Luna Alison is a writer and performer who co-created and starred in the 2011 play Falling Open.