Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Stand up and Deliver, 1

Back in February, Children’s Books Ireland and the Ark invited new writers to attend Stand and Deliver, a workshop on how to survive meeting young readers. For those of you who wished they’d been there and haven’t read my account of that fantastic day in the last Inis, here's a shorter version:

First off was writer and theatre-practitioner Mia Gallagher’s workshop on vocal skills and performance technique. Through a series of physical games and vocal exercises, Mia showed the dozen volunteers how tension manifested itself in their bodies, from sweaty hands to weight shifting to the side to a crowd of butterflies in the stomach. Mia suggested that all performers (including writers going to meet their audience in the flesh) should take the time to do a gentle warm up of the voice before going ‘on stage’. This, she said, helps loosen up tension and all the ‘kinks’ in one’s body, so that the voice can flow more freely and connect with every part of the body.

The first session of the afternoon was led by Oisín McGann and Sarah Webb. ‘Devising your own events strategy’ was a very informative and practical presentation inspired by both writers’ experiences.

Kicking-off. How to kick off your session in a non-awkward manner? Oisín’s simple but effective answer was put into practice with the participants as guinea pigs: get your audience to talk first, ask them a question, and that’s enough to get the ball rolling.

Style. Sarah’s approach is more intimate, based on her own life and experience of becoming a writer. She describes her talks as a ‘Show and Tell’ that relies a lot on props (photos, toys, diaries, old school reports...). Oisín focuses more on his craft than his character, ‘using storytelling skills to talk about writing’, showing the children what a book looks like before it’s a book, producing notebooks full of writing ideas, etc.
The key is to use your own background to give your session its flavour and its theme. Are you an illustrator as well as a writer? Did you have an interesting job before you turned to children’s books? All this can be brought in to shape your presentation and make it your own.

Acting. Both speakers insisted on the importance of treating the performance as an hour of acting, Sarah highlighting the practicality of wearing something comfortable as well as the impact created by wearing something colourful and memorable, while Oisín suggested playing with your voice, learning breathing and drama techniques. Props also feature heavily in the two writers’ arsenal of tricks: they give you something to do with your hands and they are a great help in case of a blank. However, both Oisín and Sarah warned against using any amount of technology (Powerpoint in particular), as the venue might not be kitted out for it.

Practise. Both writers revealed that they practise their talks beforehand and that they time themselves. They divide their material in blocks, each covering a certain amount of time, so that they know what they can linger on or drop entirely if the situation requires it.

What to read. Oisín listed the characteristic for the ideal text to read: it must contain a fair dose of dialogue and be lively, it mustn’t involve too many characters or be weighed down by too much description. Sarah went further, by explaining that ‘you can actually rewrite a passage from the book to make it work better for a dramatic reading’. She also mentioned the need to note the different accents and body language of your character, to work them into the reading and, again, to practise them in advance.

Audience management. While both writers agreed that ‘the kids have to know you’re in charge and confident’, Sarah insisted on the role of the teacher who, she said, must be present in the room at all times. She also warned the future performers to be prepared for a very different age group from they may have asked for. Oisín described his own ‘crowd-control techniques’ which feature ‘using the bully’ and ‘going on the offensive with hecklers’.

Wrapping up. Sarah and Oisín insisted on the vital importance of leaving the audience with some sort of memorabilia. While Oisín donates a signed picture to the school (which can then be photocopied and distributed to the children), Sarah has put together a document listing her writing tips, favourite reads, info on competitions to win copies of her books, writing exercises to do in class, and so on. She also has a stack of bookmarks and stickers recapping the books’ details as well as her blog and website addresses.

Business. How to get more readings and what to charge? They advised talking to your publisher, checking out Poetry Ireland’s Writers in School scheme, volunteering at your local library or at Fighting Words.

Finally, CBI’s Mags Walsh and Tom Donegan introduced the group to their ideas on best practice for events. Festivals and one-off events are forever looking for names to put on their programs. CBI has developed a database of writers and illustrators living in Ireland, which event organisers can explore and use to contact the artists. The key is to be proactive.
This session also touched on very practical matters such as child protection and vetting, the Irish Writers’ Union recommendations for fees, invoicing (an invoice template can be found on CBInfo), and so on. Finally, Tom and Mags insisted on the importance of self-promotion (online in particular) and of leaving something behind (info sheets, press releases, teacher packs and other give-aways).

NB: as you can see from the pic above, you don't strictly speaking have to stand. Sitting is ok. Or kneeling or perching or whatever takes your fancy. (Check the desk before perching on it though...)

No comments:

Post a Comment