FESTIVAL COMEDY SPOKEN WORD WORD
‘P eople 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 w where he’s working on a new show d with Mark Grist, a teacher turned e rap battler and fellow performance ne poet. ‘And I i nd that hard to imagine sometimes.’
ys This year, the Fringe programme plays on host for the very i rst time to a maroon ord. sliver of a section called Spoken Word. tre, Wedged between Musicals and Theatre, hile it could easily be lost physically, while re in theoretically its content has a lot more in one common with stand-up comedy. But one ntain thing’s certain: it’s not going to contain much uptight Victoriana.
xisted Spoken word performers have existed Fringe in some form, dotted through the Fringe es the listings, for years. It usually involves the oapbox performance of a story, poem or soapbox r with opinion told by a single performer with s many powerfully driven rhythm, but it takes many formers guises. It’s only now that these performers banner, have been grouped together under one banner, r a type making this a watershed moment for a type described of act that has, for a long time, been described oetry, not in terms of what it’s not. Not quite poetry, not quite comedy, not quite theatre.
g if the You’d be forgiven for wondering if the ayground creation of a whole new categorical playground erformers – which includes established Fringe performers ack by its who don’t seem to have been held back by its nse to the previous nonexistence – is a response to the medians to trend in recent years for Fringe comedians to , Tim Key ‘do’ poetry. Phil Nichol, Kevin Eldon, Tim Key se to their 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 dei nitely 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.
It was a surprise that such an establishment i gure (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 benei ts 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 justii able to have a whole segment that makes an audience feel uncomfortable, or questions
30 THE LIST 2–9 Aug 2012
‘SPOKEN WORD ELICITS A WIDER RANGE OF
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 dei nite 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 and the daily grind of working in a recession. Spoken word working in a recession. Spoken word i ts with this because it’s a direct and arresting i ts with this because it’s a direct and arresting way of communicating. It suits the times. 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 i t with comedy because of its more