We invited performance poet and writer Kat Francois to tackle the subject of how to communicate topics that might prove challenging. Kat previously ran an AMA online workshop on this topic and has lots of helpful insight to share.
In her second blog for AMAculturehive, Kat explores a range of approaches on tackling challenging situations. These are taken from her view as an artist but can be applied wherever you work in the sector.
There is an ancient slumbering dragon
who snakes around my intestines.
when angered he will open his big,
bulging vermilion eyes stretch his humongous
terrifying scaly wings reveal his sharp, snarling
snapping, machete teeth and breathe pure rampaging fire,
thick streams of amber torment will incinerate
and char from the inside.
eyesight, hearing and limbs will fail
paralysed in the midst of his
vengeful blistering rage.
© Kat Francois
The above poem is how I have felt many times before I perform, when the nerves kick in and I question what the hell I am doing. Over the years I have learnt to push forward regardless of the nerves. This blog will give tips and suggestions on how to authentically use art to tackle challenging topics from my own personal experience.
Brace yourself for the critics
Early-on in my performance poetry career I created and performed a piece that dealt with police violence. I was approached after one of my very first performances of this piece and said, “It is not a good idea to wash our dirty linen in public!” The person who said this is a public figure. I won’t say who it was but what I will say is that I was extremely upset afterwards.
It had taken a lot of courage to deal with a topic that had impacted me personally. To receive a response like that after one of my first performances was upsetting. A good lesson was learned that day, that not everyone will like art which shines a light on challenging subjects. People will get in your face and let you know how they feel, so be ready.
It is important to accept that if you are going to deal with subject matters that impact on you personally, you must brace yourselves for responses that may impact on you emotionally. Performing is cathartic, but not all responses will be.
The great thing about art is that we can weave our stories into our work, we do not always have to be front and centre. If there are topics you wish to deal with but do not want your audience to know you are talking about a personal experience, then hide your story.
It is important as artists that we feel safe, and if that means your stepping aside so that the art can take centre stage rather than you, please do so. Emotional health is paramount when dealing with challenging topics. Yoga, meditation, regular exercise and eating well are all activities that will help.
The first full-length solo piece Seven Times Me was autobiographical. It was performed at the Edinburgh festival in 2007, 24 times in a row. It was a very personal piece of work, which took a toil whenever performed. That experience, though wonderful and educational, was also draining and quickly taught me the importance of self-care.
The dragon in the poem above, would regularly rear its ugly head before my performances and started to become problematic. Now I practice Yoga before my solo plays and it has made a massive difference to my sense of calm and peace before I step on the stage. No matter how pushed for time I am before a performance I always carve out at least 15 minutes for a Yoga session. No more tears or extreme stage fright.
Art always brings questions
If you do put your story front and centre, be ready for the questions, the probing and all the attention that creating art brings. Ask yourself, are you ready? Can you cope? Are you emotionally far enough on your own healing journey to deal with a bright light shining on your work? You do not owe anyone your pain, your experiences are not fodder for others.
Are you using art to elicit change? Are you using art to challenge your audience to think differently? Are you using your art to expose the marginalised and the voiceless? Why are you creating art? What do you think your art brings to the table? Why are you an artist?
The more we understand why we are artists, the easier we can sit with our decisions. For a lot of artists when we first start creating, we do it for the passion and love of it, after a while this love and passion must evolve into something more tangible.
As your friends drift off and create families and obtain sensible jobs, you are still there creating art... why? What does your art mean to you now? Why are you important? Why are you relevant? Why have you sacrificed a full time job, stability and sometimes even sanity to be an artist?
One of the things that has helped me is to journal. Sometimes we can be dealing with things in our life that are difficult to talk about, difficult to share with others as we sit in uncomfortable moments. Write your thoughts down or even record yourself talking. Both these techniques have served me well. When we move further away from issues that have impacted on our lives it is easy to sugar coat them and dumb down the pain or impact.
If we keep an accurate record of how we really feel, this can help us to tap into those emotions at a later date and create art that is an authentic reflection of our experiences rather than a diminished and muted memory.
I’m not encouraging you to become hoarders but I am encouraging you to keep items that can help the creative process. Newspaper clippings, articles, documents, links to websites or television programmes.Personal things like pictures, letters, certificates, even things that do not seem worthwhile can help to jog memories and create material. Collect stories, from friends and relatives especially if you write about your life or family. Gather the stories of your elders, their voices will not be around forever.
Learn to play
Art should include lots of play and exploration, even challenging topics can be dealt with in such a way that we do not need to emotionally rip ourselves apart and stick ourselves back together again.
Work with others, share your work, receive feedback, develop fun things to do when you are creating work, take regular breaks, play soothing music, watch a comedy, phone a funny friend, pamper yourself.
The aim should be to create but to also keep sane, we owe that to our ourselves.
I hope you find these tips useful.
Kat Francois, Performance artist and writer
Photo: © @Sloetry