New 'Spoken Word' category houses some of the finest acts of Fringe 2012
Performers in the new strand include Luke Wright, Mark Grist, Alex Keelan and Claire Mooney
This article is from 2012.
‘People still think it’s going to be “Charge of the Light Brigade” by a bloke in a suit,’ Luke Wright crackles down the phone to me. He’s sitting in the pub where he’s working on a new show with Mark Grist, a teacher turned rap battler and fellow performance poet. ‘And I find that hard to imagine sometimes.’
This year, the Fringe programme plays host for the very first time to a maroon sliver of a section called Spoken Word. Wedged between Musicals and Theatre, it could easily be lost physically, while theoretically its content has a lot more in common with stand-up comedy. But one thing’s certain: it’s not going to contain much uptight Victoriana.
Spoken word performers have existed in some form, dotted through the Fringe listings, for years. It usually involves the performance of a story, poem or soapbox opinion told by a single performer with powerfully driven rhythm, but it takes many guises. It’s only now that these performers have been grouped together under one banner, making this a watershed moment for a type of act that has, for a long time, been described in terms of what it’s not. Not quite poetry, not quite comedy, not quite theatre.
You’d be forgiven for wondering if the creation of a whole new categorical playground – which includes established Fringe performers who don’t seem to have been held back by its previous nonexistence – is a response to the trend in recent years for Fringe comedians to ‘do’ poetry. Phil Nichol, Kevin Eldon, Tim Key and Bo Burnham have all brought verse to their acts. Have the Fringe organisers just decided to siphon off the real poets?
‘When Kevin Eldon and Phil Nichol did their poetry thing, they were doing jokes about poetry; it wasn’t poetry,’ says Wright, who very definitely thinks of his work as poetry, feeling uncomfortable even with the ‘spoken word’ tag. But one hallmark of spoken word in its broadest sense, and especially of shows by Wright and Grist, is that it treats poetry seriously, even when it’s funny.
You may know Mark Grist from YouTube. He shot to internet fame in a video of an unlikely rap battle in which he – a smartly dressed secondary school English teacher from Peterborough – faced off against a scrappy teenager called Blizzard. Grist’s torrent of deftly metred put-downs and punchlines won the day, as you can see if you watch the clip below.
It was a surprise that such an establishment figure (Grist’s hard-man rapper stage name was, simply, ‘Mr Grist’) could dominate a counterculture stronghold. The bigger surprise was that he did it with poetry, and that it was funny, aggressive and cool. Despite the comic edge, Grist sees more of a link between what he does and the oral tradition of storytelling than stand-up. ‘I’m quite interested in the bardic tradition. People enjoy stories and people also enjoy hearing the truth. Comedy benefits from the fact that you know what you’re going to expect from a comedy event. You know you want to go and laugh and be entertained. With spoken word, it’s more justifiable to have a whole segment that makes an audience feel uncomfortable, or questions things, or challenges things, without having to even consider comedy as a facet. Spoken word is great because it elicits a wider range of emotional responses from an audience.’
Luke Wright sees a stark difference between the stand-up circuit and the emerging pool of performance poets. ‘It’s still not big enough that everyone’s doing the same sort of stuff. In comedy, you get really successful comedians, and then you get loads of copycats. Spoken word is a little bit like that, but because it’s not huge, a lot of people are still developing their own styles. In poetry, it’s really important to have your own voice, perhaps more so than in comedy.’
Grist feels strongly that this could be because there’s a tell-tale sense among performance poets of trying to say something important and true. ‘In the show, I talk about how much good I was doing as a teacher and whether I could do more good, ultimately, by trying to develop as a poet.’ He laughs at himself. ‘Probably not!’
Alex Keelan, the poetry half of spoken word and musical duo Life or Something Like It, has a definite political and satirical side to her show. It’s social commentary with comedy and rhyme, touching on feminism, the coalition and the daily grind of working in a recession. Spoken word fits with this because it’s a direct and arresting way of communicating. It suits the times.
‘It’s accessible, and it’s an easy way to engage with sometimes complex political theories … particularly if there’s an element of humour in there. And political climates do inspire a bit more creativity when they’re depressing. Everybody seems to want to say something about it, and this a really interesting and engaging way to do that.’
Keelan has only been performing for a year, and sometimes worries her work ‘isn’t highbrow enough’ because it rhymes, or that it doesn’t fit with comedy because of its more serious moments. The new category allows a whole new performance route for acts like her. ‘It means that I’m able to be involved in the festival, an so this is the first year I’ve been able to come. I wouldn’t have felt confident being in the comedy category, and obviously not in music, so it’s given me more confidence.’
The new category is exactly what potential spoken worders need in order to feel that Edinburgh in August is for them as much as it’s for any other performer. Richard Tyrone Jones, the organiser of poetry night ‘Utter!’ and director of spoken word for the PBH Free Fringe, is optimistic about the genre during the Fringe. ‘Poetry has always been a soapbox, from 18th-century pamphleteers to the ranters of the 80s to the present. The Fringe is all about finding your audience and it’s better not to have drunks expecting knob-gags walking into poetry in which someone describes their partner’s death. If you’re “spoken word”, then you can incorporate comedy, poetry, theatre, but not restrict yourself to one of those genres just because you’re in that section in a brochure.’
Spoken word is a clamouring ruckus of different personalities working to establish an identity. The programme section is small, but it represents a huge variety of talent (also appearing in Spoken Word as comedy acts are Jack Heal, Superbard and Harry Baker) and the sweeping-up of different voices into one place hasn’t done anything to numb that diversity. And Richard Tyrone Jones has big plans for the future: ‘Next year it will be more than four pages in the brochure. It’ll be, ooh, at least six.’
Luke Wright: Your New Favourite Poet, Underbelly, Cowgate, 0844 545 8252, 22–26 Aug, 6.30pm, £10–£11 (£9–£10).
Mark Grist: Rogue Teacher, Underbelly, Cowgate, 0844 545 8252, 4–26 Aug (not 14), 5.10pm, £9.50–£10.50 (£8.50–£9.50). Previews 2 & 3 Aug, £6.
Life or Something Like It, Captain Taylor’s Coffee House, 556 9756, 2 & 3 Aug, 1.15pm, free.
Richard Tyrone Jones’ Big Heart, Banshee Labyrinth, 226 0000, 4–25 Aug (not 13, 19), 6pm, free; Princes Mall, 226 0000, 12, 18, 25 Aug, 3.30pm, free.