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Beyond “Bad Bards”: Improving Performance Climate in the SCA

THL Kasha Alekseeva

THL Kasha Alekseeva

This is a guest post from THL Kasha Alekseeva, Baroness of Cynnabar, and renowned performer in the Middle Kingdom. The post is a response to the article “You don’t hate the Bardic Arts, you hate Bad Bards

As RUM’s new Dean of Performing Arts, I used this article as an opportunity to think about the perception of performing arts in the SCA, and the unique challenges it has when compared to other SCA arts and sciences.

This article addresses the issue of people disliking the “bardic arts” and proposes that this is due to unsuccessful performances and to bards who (intentionally or unintentionally) are rude enough to entrap people in their performances. The article also discusses several kinds of less successful bards and encourages the readers to be patient with their shortcomings while they grow in their craft. I think all of these ideas are wonderful.

I love performing arts and want them to succeed in the SCA. And I know that bad reputations and schisms hinder our success. So the article made me start to think about the larger issues involved. If the problem of “hating bardic” can be solved by consideration for others and tolerance, what would specific considerate and tolerant acts look like? How can we turn some of our haters into fans? How can we coexist with those who will always be haters?

I agree with the author of the article that most of the time people who “hate bardic” are frustrated because they have been unwillingly forced into being audience members. But there are other reasons people may have to dislike performances that were not sufficiently discussed in the article (being outside its scope). The two most important, I feel, are 1) boredom or distaste caused by unsuccessful performances and 2) dislike or disapproval of performers’ choices of material, generally because it is “out of period”.

It would be easy to discount these voices as snobs, just as it would be easy to discount the performers they dislike as incompetent. But attitudes like these are unfair to everyone. For me, an inexperienced performer who is struggling to improve is very different from a lazy performer who doesn’t care whether people are enjoying themselves. An audience member who doesn’t feel like commedia dell’arte right now is different from a person who thinks the very existence of theater is an infringement of his or her leisure time.
The “out-of-period” debate is a little stickier, so I’ll talk about it in more detail.

A major question that comes into play here is what “out of period” means and whether there should be value placed on “period” performance material. Most SCA performers–at least those who are not reacting in anger to expectations they feel have been unrealistically imposed upon them–agree that to a certain extent, “period” material is valuable. Most disagree on what the definition of “period material” is and how much it ought to be valued in comparison with other important aspects of performance (e.g., accessibility, ease of transmission, feasibility with modern equipment, financial considerations, the performer’s taste, etc.).

I personally believe that there is room within the definition of “period-correct” for a great deal of leeway. It would be harmful for us to restrict SCA performance to literal, extant pre-seventeenth-century material. Think of it this way: We’d never tell someone that she can only wear an actual extant fifteenth-century garment! Yet I see us do this with musicians (did you know music composition is no longer a category at A&S fairs?) and with dancers (how many of us have danced a newly composed SCA dance?). For performing arts to be meaningful to both performers and audiences, we need to be able to create new art. We need songs and stories that commemorate things that happen to us, not just to King Richard or Charlemagne. We need to encourage creators, because a very important part of what we do in the SCA is re-create!

Of course, I think most SCA artists would agree that the goal is to re-create things in a period style and that “period style” is something we should value. But what does “period style” mean? I can think of various definitions for the term that would be more or less acceptable to me personally. Perhaps it should mean “I replicated materials working-class people had access to in 16th-century London” or “I used a process laid out in such-and-such 14th-century text” or “if a typical tenth-century Spanish monk saw my performance, he wouldn’t have found it strange”. For some of my performances, I prefer that last one. But for others, my definition is something more like “my audience had a reaction that was analagous to the reaction thirteenth-century French courtiers might have had”. All of these definitions (and, I’m sure, many other potential definitions) are valid!

One special challenge of performance is the fact that (as SCA cooks know very well), modern tastes are not necessarily the same as medieval ones. That is NOT to say that medieval performances are unacceptable to a modern audience. What it does mean is that modern audiences, lacking a medieval cultural background, may need to be given some extra information in order to appreciate the piece. That might mean translating the piece into our vernacular (American English, in this case), or handing out program notes to explain the structure of the piece, or teaching the audience the original hymn this song is based on, or even changing the jokes and allusions in the piece to equivalent modern jokes and allusions.

When it comes to unskillful performances, I think it’s important to remember two things. First, everyone starts out unskilled and then gains skill; therefore, in order for skilled performances to happen, unskilled ones must also happen. Second, it is very rude to subject audiences to painful experiences. Balancing these two principles is one of the biggest challenges of the performing arts community. What can we do to navigate this challenge? Below, I’ll talk about some specific actions we can take to foster growing performers while pleasing audiences.

Things Performers Can Do to Boost Performance Quality, Encourage the use of Period Material, and Challenge the Haters

  1. Share access to repertoire and research. When you perform, tell people where your piece comes from. (“This story is from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. There are tons of other great stories in there!”) Post links to monologues or routines, both challenging and beginner-friendly. Blog about the book you LOVE that has all the great reference material in it. Host a challenge and give a book full of potential repertoire as a prize.
  2. Consider that other peoples’ definitions of “period-correct” may have some value. Carefully choose which aspects of your performance are important for you to be accurate about, and respect the performances of others who value accuracy in different aspects. Encourage others to improve the aspects of their performance that are most important to them.
  3. Incorporate “period” material or a “period” process (whatever that means to you) into your performance, and make it interesting and entertaining. Prove both to your audience and to other performers that performances do not have to be obtrusively modern to be relevant and meaningful. Prove both to your audience and to other performers that performances do not have to be indistinguishable from period practice (as though that were even possible) to be virtuosic, beautiful, and important.
  4. Encourage others to genuinely love and want to improve their crafts. Compliment the hard work that goes into perfecting a difficult routine. Ask questions about the research behind a project. Discuss how the performance made you feel and ask what the performer was thinking about while performing. Show that you care and want to know more. When a performer does quality work–accurate, interesting, entertaining, or virtuosic–make sure everyone knows about it.
  5. Realize the limitations of research. There are some societies that we just don’t have that much information about, perhaps because they lacked a way to record performance information, because their records were deliberately destroyed by a subsequent society, or for some other reason. Does that mean that we shouldn’t even attempt to re-create that society’s arts? Not at all! It does mean that we will have to make some guesses, and that not all of those guesses will be able to be backed up by period examples. And that’s okay. (As long as we are not using it as an excuse not to do our best.)
  6. Don’t be the “rude bard”. Performances are by their nature disruptive, and being blindsided by a performer is annoying. Respect your audience, and perform in a location and at a time where they can choose to partake in your performance or not. Advertise your performance, so people know when to come (or when to avoid). If you’re performing and you can see that your audience is bored but cannot leave, cut the performance short.
  7. Remember that there is a difference between a performance and background entertainment. This doesn’t apply equally to all kinds of performance, but it is particularly important for musicians. If your role is to give the scene a medieval feel but not to be a superstar, don’t draw unnecessary attention to yourself. For example, virtuosic monodic arias are inappropriate for background music at feast.
  8. Support each other! If the SCA climate becomes more friendly for one type of performer, it becomes more friendly for all types of performers. We all share some important challenges–for example, the needs for physical space, time, an optimal soundscape, and an interested audience. Supporting each other doesn’t mean you have to like everything your fellow performers do–after all, tastes differ. But it does mean being respectful of performers and performances, reminding event staff to account for performance space and sound requirements, facilitating performance opportunities, and being generous with your knowledge and other resources.

Things Event Staff Can Do to Allow Entertaining Performances to Occur

  1. First and most importantly, provide opportunities to perform! Unlike the practicioners of most other arts and sciences, performers really can’t hone their craft at home. They also can’t practice in their neighbors’ day-camps while holding quiet conversations with others. Performance is loud, messy, distracting, and takes up a lot of space. It requires the tolerance, if not the enthusiasm, of other people. This means that SCA performers do not get enough opportunities to perform. Please think about ways to increase the amount of possible performance time. You can schedule concerts, bardic circles, and exhibitions. You can provide space on-site for spur-of-the-moment entertainment. You can provide music and theater for court and other ceremonies. You can ask whether anyone has a recorder with them before you get out your iPod for dance classes. SCA performance will not improve without an increase in the number of opportunities for SCA performers to perform.
  2. If possible, avoid scheduling performances at the same time as other events that have a huge draw. While we want performances to be optional for audiences, we don’t want to discourage audiences from coming, either. This means don’t schedule the bardic circle at the same time as the ball. It takes attention away from both events, which isn’t fair and causes hurt feelings.
  3. Don’t schedule performances at times and places where the audience is likely to be uninterested in the performance. One venue that I consistently hear complaints about is feast. People typically come to feast to talk with the people around them, not to be continually interrupted by entertainers. When you do schedule performances during feast (or a similar activity), have a handful of performances in a row rather than a performer… a two-minute break… a performer… a two-minute break… a performer… You can see how quickly that gets annoying for people who are trying to have a conversation. Also, use only your very best performers, whom you know are very entertaining and whom you know will be able to be heard and seen throughout the hall. Any time and place where the audience is held captive is not an appropriate venue for beginners to get their feet wet. A hostile audience does not lead to a positive experience for the performer.
  4. Advertise performances! As I mentioned above, this helps people who are interested know when to come. It also helps people who are uninterested know when to avoid the venue. It’s not fair to trap people in long performances they didn’t agree to experience.
  5. Be aware that performances often have unique needs, such as roped-off stages, quietness, controlled climates, changing rooms, soundproof warm-up space, prop storage, etc. Performers may ask for access to electrical outlets, drinking water, or garbage cans. Recording equipment may take up space in the aisle. As much as possible, please be patient and tolerant and accommodate these needs.
  6. If inspired to do so, host an event that focuses on improving the craft of performance. Events like St. Cecilia and Bardic Madness do something amazing for the individual performer as well as for the community of performers. They provide feedback, encouragement, and networking. If your group hosts an event like this, enthusiastically support it!

Because we have to some extent already begun to do some of the things I have mentioned, SCA performances (like everything else in the SCA) are constantly improving and developing. I’ve witnessed some very cool and entertaining performances recently. I’ve also witnessed some that didn’t quite succeed but were done with genuine respect for the material and love of the craft–and I enjoyed those, too.

I want to see others try and fail and try again. I want others to perform, and I want others to enjoy performances, not just for my own sake, but for the sake of my art. Because I will never be able to perform everything myself–but oh how I want everything to be performed!

To see some of Kasha’s work check out her band, Psallite

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