Bristol Festival of Literature

This week, CWC Treasurer Suzanne McConaghy talks about taking part in the closing event of Bristol Festival of Literature, and the lessons she learned from the experience.

Suzanne McConaghy

Performing on Zoom

“Having been asked to submit a thousand words for Story Sunday at the Bristol Festival of Literature, I started writing and found I’d produced something fairly bleak – but I only realised this was the case when I heard some of the other pieces. The theme was The Great Escape and the list had been well-curated to provide plenty of variety, beginning with a terrifying but amusing dystopian piece we could all almost believe in, and ending with a gentle romantic story. There was something for all tastes.

Here is the line-up, for those who may know some of the performers:

Are We Nearly There Yet – Kerry Postle
Love Hearts – Jonathan Evans
Escape – Suzanne McConaghy
The Most Beautiful Thing She Has Ever Seen – John Holland
An Escape in Time – Gail Swann
Flaming Dragon – Joy Charlton
A Sign – Mark Rutterford

If you’re intending to perform at an event like this, whether to read your work or participate in a panel, you need to feel comfortable and, inevitably, the secret is good preparation. I hope my experience may give you some idea of what is involved.

Getting Ready for Zoom

Once the stories were accepted, we had a practice session a week before the performance date, testing audio and video. During this, we discussed how people would be introduced and what questions the presenter might ask afterwards. Then, we did a brief run-through, each speaker reading only the first few lines of their story. I felt it was a good decision to keep it short, because it meant that the readers – who would be visible to the audience throughout the event – were engaged, showing genuine interest in each story, since they hadn’t heard it before.

Performers had to register and buy a ticket in the same way as the audience. The Festival organiser then sent us a link to get in on the day of the performance, and we met half an hour before the start time. This was good, helping everyone to relax and, of course, to voice any worries.

Preparing to Read

Apologies for this next part to those who are practised readers. However, there are many people who write fantastic stories but don’t necessarily find performance easy. Here are some simple tips:

1) Read your story out aloud, slowly, several times in the days before your performance.
2) Don’t be afraid of leaving space. It’s quite good for the listener to have time to process.
3) If you stumble on a word while practising, replace it with a different one or re-phrase the idea before the event.
4) Try to look up at the ‘audience’ from time to time. On Zoom, it’s your fellow performers you’ll be looking at.
5) Divide things up. To help when you’re reading, arrange your text in such a way that when you want a substantial pause, you leave a gap and start the line further down the page. This works even in the middle of a sentence. I always think Stephen Fry manages the pace perfectly but I can’t get near to his level.

What could possibly go wrong?

I had decided to read my story from my tablet. I sent it to myself by email, downloaded it and read it from the tablet a couple of times during the day. No problems. One consideration was lighting, since I remembered from the practice session that overhead lighting caught my glasses and turned them a shiny green – at least, so it appeared to me. This time, I put on subdued, low-level lighting and angled the laptop away from it. It seemed to work.

But nothing is perfect.

We started. I’m a fairly confident reader but there’s always that adrenaline rush and Sunday was no exception. I was Number three and suddenly, half-way through Number two’s story, I realised I could not call up the text. So, Jonathan, if you thought I wasn’t paying attention in the middle part, I am very sorry. Why had I not left it up on the screen? Why had I not provided myself with a hard copy? I can’t adequately answer those questions.
Fortunately, I was able to begin on time. My first words probably sounded a bit flat as I, like my main character, tried to calm my thudding heart after the shock I’d received. Once in my stride, however, I enjoyed the reading. And it was lovely to be working alongside the others and to listen to their stories.

Getting Feedback

You have to be ready for audience reaction. Only their names appear on the screen but, although you can’t see or hear your listeners, they are definitely paying attention to you. There is a chat button at the bottom of the Zoom screen. When you click on it, a list appears, similar to the chat function operated by utility companies and the like, and people can leave their comments and questions. This feedback is useful. I had been asking myself if there was sufficient build-up of tension in my story and it was reassuring to learn that I seemed to have achieved my aim. Experience of tuning in to various Zoom festival sessions has shown that people are rarely negative.

How can I do better? What did I learn?

  • Preparation is everything.
  • Always, always, always have a paper back-up.
  • We were lucky that our two presenters were relaxed and very professional. I think this aspect has huge impact on the audience and almost as much care needs to go into choosing them as into selecting the performers.
  • It gives an amazing boost to the reader to have such a large audience – which would probably have been too big for the venue in which the event has previously been held.
  • Listen to a couple of well-narrated audio books and analyse the delivery. What are they doing that means you are gripped by the story? Copy the techniques you enjoy.

Conclusion

If you get the opportunity to do something like this, it is definitely worth the time and effort. You are amply repaid by the connection with other performers and the warm glow of contributing.”

Suzanne McConaghy

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Filed under Literary Festival, Member events, Member News, Performance, Training, Viewpoint, Writers' resources

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