The last few months have been a rollercoaster ride of realising (some) people think I’m hot shit. In my specialised little world of spoken word poetry stuff I’ve worked a lot, improved a lot, and I’ve started getting booked (paid!) gigs, and things seem to be starting to snowball. I’ve seen my name (projected) in lights, and even been sent fanmail.
I don’t say this just to brag. Well, maybe a bit, but here’s the thing: I am a total Hufflepuff. And a klutz. And a bag of neuroses. I cannot begin to describe how weird it is seeing people nervously coming up to me to enthuse at me after a gig, because I know I’m a complete asshat: I know I consider BBQ sauce on toast an acceptable meal if no one’s looking. I know I write lengthy to-do lists every day and often only manage 2 things on them. I know I haven’t practiced guitar in over 6 months and have forgotten most of the Spanish I ever knew. I know I forgot to buy bread or cat litter today and blah blah blah blah.
Here’s the thing: the stage is a king-maker. Even a small, creaky, room-above-a-pub stage does something to how you perceive the people on it. Quite a lot of my friends are people I first saw in improv comedy. Even though I could tell from their sets that we had a lot in common and (I hoped) could be friends, even though we were all in the same cramped bar room, it took working out we had a mutual friend to for me to get the guts to have the initial ‘hello, I thought you were good’ conversation.
I don’t know why I was that shy: I wouldn’t be too neurotic to say ‘nice hat’ to a stranger on the street. But again: the stage alters dynamics – even after the actual performance has ended.
In quite a few cases I’m lucky I’ve known some of my most talented friends socially first, or I’d be a right awkward fangirl at my flatemate’s band The Mechanisms, or sketch comedy superheroes The Beta Males.
This weird fan/performer/fuckit-we’re-all-people dynamic was really shown up for me this week when I did BBC Question Time Tweetalong with madcap comedian and all-round awesome bloke Andrew O’Neill headlining. I have actually shared a bill with Andrew before, but having seen him on stage a couple of times before that, I’d been too starstruck to say hi. This time I tweeted ahead of time something subtle like “might even work up the nerve to say hello to @destructo9000 this time”. I’m not usually that bad these days (and I’m better with other poets ’cause I am one too) but I think ’cause I love Andrew O’Neill’s standup and his band I kind of fangirled double.
Come the gig: the lovely Mr. O’Neill quickly saw I wasn’t kidding and despite his waving from across the room a couple of times I waved back but didn’t budge from my seat to go say hi. On his way to the stage to do his set he approached me with a hug (Gorbless’im) and later in the night we tweeted back and forth (the night uses a lot of Twitter, so that’s less weird than it sounds) and eventually, on my third pint, I went over and we got talking in real life.
While we were talking, a couple of punters came up to gibber excitedly at me because of my set. There was a strange chain of people assuming other people were intimidatingly awesome, and so conversations – though very pleasant – were also that little bit stilted and weird. I think because of the power dynamic in that situation, it’s kind of the job of the person being gibbered at to put the other person at ease: but I’m a complete newb to this & still trying to work out how. I find it strange that anyone would ever want to fangirl/fanboy at me, meanwhile it’s only though Andrew’s generosity & (repeated) effort that I actually got the nerve to go have a chat with him at all ’cause I think he’s intimidatingly awesome.
I think a lot of performers suffer from a kind of imposter syndrome. I am sure as hell starting to find mine. Even as the ‘proof’ that I’m not fluking this (very niche) success grows – each next step seems to require some level of arrogance for me to do it and I have to steel myself to take each step.
Chutzpah by name, Chutzpah by nature? Um… I’m trying. The stage name is partly aspirational.
Here’s the thing: I’m starting to reach a point where people do come up to me after gigs and ask where else they can see me – so it made sense to set up a Facebook page for Hannah Chutzpah – Performance Poet. I’ve also been starting to put stuff up on Youtube. People have asked where they can buy my book (I don’t have one yet, but I’m starting to plan for a slim volume) – but every step of the way I hear a little voice in my head say ‘what the fuck do you think you’re doing? Who’s going to want that? Do you know how arrogant you’re going to look?’
The thing about being a solo artist – of any description – is that often you’re going to have to do your PR/media stuff for yourself. No one is going to do the pushing for me – and I know I want to do this, and it makes sense to do this, but it’s only because someone’s asked for it that I feel I have permission to actually go for it. Otherwise I would probably think ‘that might be useful, but… nah. Not for the likes of me.’
I’ve become quite jealous of friends of mine in comedy troupes, bands, etc that they have other people in on the same project, so their enthusiasm for what they’re doing can bounce off of someone else. A certain amount of ego is needed to keep most artistic ventures on the road, but being a lone artist can often look a lot like straight-up arrogance.
The only reason I’ve started feeling like I’m ‘allowed’ to aim higher, bigger, better, is because the reactions of punters and other poets have let me know I’m onto something. Pretty recently I was emailed a poem by someone who’d liked my set at Jawdance enough to write me a ‘blessing in rhyme’. It was pretty intense and I spent about a week with the poem printed out, carrying it around with me in my rucksack. Every now and again I’d pull it out and stare at it feeling both thrilled and really touched, and also feeling the burden of ‘fuck, this needs a response. How do I respond?!’ It took me about a week before I worked up the nerve to send an email back saying something along the lines of ‘thank you, that was amazing. I’m really touched.’
So: having said the power’s with the performer who you’re fanboying/fangirling at: actually… in some ways: it’s pretty even-handed. The performer wants to hear you liked it. I don’t know about people who’ve been doing this for years and years and are at the tops of their games or just bored to death with everything (as I said: I’m a relative newb) but in any gig where you can casually bump into the musician/comedian/poet/rapper/any other artiste at the bar: if you liked something – go tell them.
You should do this for many reasons:
1) It’s nice.
2) They probably don’t get told it as often as they should.
3) Expressing gratitude makes you happier.
4) The semi-pros and the pros often turn up to gigs alone and might be grateful to have someone to talk to. (I mean, read body language carefully n’all, but…)
5) This person is just a person and so are you. You might become friends or whatever. (Again: with caution. Even more caution than number 4.)
6) If they’re new, or just neurotic, whatever – your saying ‘that rocked’ will give them more faith in their own abilities. A lot of performers look confident but (trade secret) they’re performing. Often they’re not as confident as they look, or in any case performers crave validation. It’s one of the main reasons we do what we do. Art, ego and seeking validation.
So, um… thank you to all people who’ve ever said they like my stuff: in real life or in various online ways. It’s given me permission to do more. Really.
Believe it or not: I am generally pretty loud and pretty ambitious. I always had high hopes for my writing – but performance is a horse of a different colour. For me, it’s taken the input of other people’s encouragement to pick up a flyswatter against the crappy little voice buzzing around saying that I’m not good enough and that it’s arrogant and boastful to pursue this particular thing.
I haven’t managed to squash the fucker yet: but I am now armed.