A few years back in a dingy bar in Edinburgh I watched this poet take to the stage with a soundtrack. She’d worked with a producer…it wasn’t background music, it was a necessary part of the piece. It didn’t overpower what she was doing, instead she created this thing much larger than the sum of its parts..she didn’t give us a feature set. She gave us a show. We had been Varjacked, and the Scottish poetry seen didn’t shut up about Paula for months after.
Then Paula started creating shows: sometimes it’s theatre, sometimes you’re in an art gallery, she did a live performance in a shopping centre…Paula Varjack is taking spoken word out of its element, reshaping it, re-locating it, expanding it. Every time I feel like I’ve finally gotten a grip on what Paula does, she comes out with something completely new (in recent months, a wildly successful comedic podcast). As well as her solo work, through her production partnership Varjack & Simpson she creates panelist shows using poetry (hard to explain, I’m not sure there’s a US equivalent. Think a cross between say Car Talk and Saturday Night Live, but with rhyming, games and a Garrison Keillor vibe) that absolutely will be bought by Radio 4 (our NPR) at some point. She’s the brainchild behind Anti Slam where the worst poet wins, possibly one of the most successful poetry events internationally given it has sold out repeatedly in multiple countries. She is a writer, performance maker, filmmaker, producer and many other things besides. And she brings the range of her skillset into all of her work. I’ve never seen her perform, even at a bog standard poetry night, in a way that wasn’t incredibly visual. She plays with sound, with space, movement, light…and that even in the most basic basement bar setup. I mean, we’re talking about a poet who’s performed at the V&A and The Tate. Talk about pushing boundaries.
But what I love most about Paula Varjack’s work is the way she uses spoken word. I feel in some ways she’s reintroduced me to my own genre. Spoken word can take the form of a voice-over in an otherwise silent show. It can be the entire show itself. You can work to break the rhythm in performance and hide the fact that it is spoken word, taking us deeply into theatre. You can use the tools of spoken word, the elements of rhythm and cadence that we all use so regularly in our writing, and build them into a wordless piece.
Paula Varjack is the kind of artist that repeatedly but gently shows you how close-minded you are about your own genre. If the strength of the UK scene really is our diversity, then Paula is the perfect example. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen her do the same thing twice. Maybe that’s a standard we should all attempt to reach for. I really urge you to have a nose around her website and check out as much of her work as possible. The Anti Social Network, a show she did a few years back, had me in tears for 40 minutes straight. It was an incredibly moving, poignant and well-timed piece. Currently, she’s been doing How I Became Myself (By Becoming Someone Else) a performed documentary, and Show Me The Money, which explores the economics of being an artist. Clips and info for all of that are on her website if you’re intrigued. It’s Paula, so she’s doing about 9 other projects besides, but those are the two I’ve been geeking out over. At the bottom of this post, you’ll find a video of Conversations With My Homes, a live art performance fusing stop motion animation and soundtracks of interviews to explore the concept of home. I find it a perfect example of just how far we can push spoken word, in ways that had never occurred to me before. Forget prompts, if you need inspiration, follow Paula.
By the way, you might notice from her accent she’s American, but that’s the beauty of spoken word. We are increasingly a global community. The UK scene wouldn’t be half as interesting as it is without the styles, perspectives and cultures international poets bring with them when they tour here.
1.You work across so many different genres. How would you describe yourself as an artist?
Because I work across disciplines, it has taken me a while to find an answer that fits. About a year ago I settled on the simplest: I am an artist. I like this because it covers everything, and opens up the question instead to what kind of art I make. I primarily make performances and videos. The performances often have a video element, and the videos are often performance based. I am driven by studies of character and studies of cities, and the content is generally either autobiographical or documentary driven.
2.Where does spoken word come into what you do? What came first?
I suppose before anything I was a writer. In my earliest childhood memories I was always writing stories, poems and short plays. By the time I was a teenager I decided I wanted to become a theatre director, directing plays I had written. So my first public entry to art making was through theatre. I trained at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts as a stage manager, which mostly led to me falling out with theatre entirely, and getting into filmmaking. I then had a career in video and animation production.
I came to spoken word quite late, when I was about thirty. I liked the form, as it seemed like this immediate platform for telling stories and making social commentary. I had always been a fan of monologue based performance, and it was a great platform to test the waters as a performer. In Berlin, (where I was living at the time) there was an expansive scene and big audiences for poetry slam. It was a way to figure out how to perform entertaining pieces that engaged with audiences.
After five years of being immersed in the european poetry slam scene, my roots in theatre and filmmaking started to make spoken word as a format feel restrictive. What I now feel is that my journey as an artist, has been a long return to theatre.
3.How have your experiences in live art and your shows changed/shaped your approach to spoken word?
I came to spoken word with an understanding of theatre and film, and this affected how I approached it from the outset. I began performing with a persona, attitude and particular set of stories. I thought a lot about what I wore, and I often used backing tracks and even visuals, long before they became more commonplace in the form.
But the biggest impact to my practice as a performer by far was getting a masters in performance making at Goldsmiths, University of London http://www.gold.ac.uk/pg/ma-performance-making/. I did this after I had established myself as a spoken word artist, when I was regularly getting high profile gigs and touring internationally.
The masters was practical, intercultural, and interdisciplinary throughout. Each term you would form a group, and collaboratively make a performance responding to themes and/or restrictions. The people in your group would have varied backgrounds. There were classically trained singers, actresses, directors, filmmakers, dancers, and live artists.
There were culture clashes, aesthetic clashes and different ideas about whether narrative mattered. But the biggest challenge for me was that those in it were largely against the idea of text, and especially spoken text. I came to the course as a spoken word artist, with my first response to making anything being “what do I want to write and say about this?” . But writing and speaking words in this way were not the way most wanted to make work.
Because it was an international cohort, very few had heard of spoken word, so I didn’t even come from a platform that was recognized or respected. At the start it felt like my hands were tied. By the end I felt like I could do backflips. Now when I have an idea for a project, I don’t automatically think “what do I want to write?” or even “what kind of performance do I want to make?” I instead think “What form would suit this project?” Which is hugely liberating (and far more fun)
4.Have you found spoken word a term that helps or hinders bookings when you’re trying to sell your shows to theatres? Some of your work is much more towards theatre or performance art, and some of your work (such as Anti Slam, your podcast, Varjack & Simpson) is much more firmly spoken word.
When I started calling myself a spoken word artist in 2008 it was a label that was confusing to some , intriguing to others, and offputting to the rest. I remember taking a show to the Edinburgh Fringe festival for the first time with the words spoken word on the flyer in 2009. Saying “spoken word show” on the Royal Mile seemed the easiest way to make people go away.
Since then I have seen a marked changed in the U.K. regarding spoken word. Now I very much feel it’s a buzzword that various media outlets and theatres want to jump on. I think in the U.K. at least it has become a useful word to use now to market your show. There is now a recognized hub of spoken word at the Fringe and this I think is part of it. More theatres are interested in booking spoken word theatre and more spoken word artists are thinking about making theatre shows.
I don’t use it as label any more for the work I am making, as it doesn’t fit the work I am making now. It’s been a long time since I wrote a poem. However saying that, I did a scratch of a new work at a scratch night at the Battersea Arts Centre recently, and I noticed there is a particular quality to theatre artists who are making theatre, but have cut their teeth on spoken word. Even when no poems are featured, and particular cadences and rhymes are gone, there is a dexterity with language and warmth in the direct address to audience, that is very much informed by experience in spoken word.
5.What have you learned about how to create a successful, marketable spoken word product? Does that differ from what makes your other work successful (to clarify, do they come from similar places or are there completely different and separate sides to what you do)?
I think spoken word can have a similar audience to live art and theatre, but mostly they seem to be quite separate, mainly because of how venues go about programming. I think the key thing is finding a venue that suits whatever kind of show you want to make. What else are they booking? How would what you want to do fit there? What is the ticket price? Price of drinks at the bar? Location? Will they market to their audience as well? Do they have their own following? Ideally you want a venue that your target audience are already going to.
In terms of a mixed bill, or a slam night, how you go about programming features, and charging slammers also makes a big difference. I think It really pays to make an effort to book people everyone else isn’t booking.
The exception to this for me however, is the most successful spoken word event i am involved with: the anti-slam (a slam where the worst poet wins, more about it in another interview here: https://poetryandwordsblog.wordpress.com/2015/06/07/meet-your-glastonbury-2015-poetry-slam-hosts-varjack-simpson/ ) The event is successful wherever it happens (and it has happened nationally and internationally) This is partly to do with the format being revised through every subsequent event, partly to do with it being an idea audiences and performers find interesting, and mostly to do with the line up we book being incredibly talented. Did I also mention that it’s super fun? I think if you make an event that is fun for performers, it creates an infectious energy that audiences can only respond to.
6.You’ve had many successful events in Germany and Spain as well was the UK. How do the arts scenes differ? Is what it takes to make it (in terms of working in the arts in a financially survivable manner) work in each country different, or is diversification key everywhere?
I could make some broad generalizations about the art scenes in Germany, Spain, the U.K. and the U.S. to some extent (having lived in all four) but they would only be broad, so I would rather say:
An art scene is always going to be a reflection of the culture it is placed in, so just as it is different to be in London or Manchester, Chicago or New York, Madrid or Berlin, the art scene will also differ. Then there will be differences related to being high end venues, or mid-career established, or underground . Then there are differences to do with economy, which have a lot to do with whether the country values the arts, and has an infrastructure for arts funding, and how artists are (and aren’t) making a living.
You have to respond to your given market, or move and try elsewhere (and maybe what many artists don’t realize, or risk, is that moving and trying elsewhere is always an option; even going to another city in your own country can open up all kinds of new possibilities)
I don’t think diversification is the key. I think a lot of people throw around the word “interdisciplinary” without figuring out if it is right for them, or even what it means. There is no one size fits all model for anyone, in any country. I don’t even think that being a full time artist should be the goal for everybody. There is nothing wrong with finding your money from other means. The great thing about being an artist is whatever you do, will always feed the work in some way. The secret to surviving is simply that, surviving, (and by that I mean, keeping at it, and doing what you need to do to live and be happy)
7.What instigates a show or project for you? What are the things you do before you begin writing?
It always starts with realising that I have been obsessing over something. There is a topic I seem to be reading articles online about more than others. I keep bringing it up with friends. I scribble notes on my phone, ipad and notebook . It doesn’t usually strike me until I notice I am buying books that relate to the topic. “Since when was I interested in neoliberalism?” I might wonder. Noticing the word features in the chapter headings and titles of two books recently purchased. Then I say aloud to friends, “I think maybe I want to make a show about…” I might then start a development blog where I track everything I am reading about and thinking (like this one http://showmethemon3y.tumblr.com/)
What I do less and less of in these days, is actual writing. I might film myself in a room, or record myself on my phone devising , and/or talking. And when the writing starts it’s more of a brainstorm, I try to leave the writing as late as possible. When I am really fired up about all this, I will keep a diary about it all, and make a transcript of some of those recordings. But on the last project and the newest show I am developing, I am trying to avoid writing a “script” and instead go more towards the way stand up comics and storytellers work, where everything is outlined rather than written word for word. For me it makes the performance feel more alive and fresh, and stops me from falling into repetitive delivery.
8.You work across so many different genres, and have established a reputation in the live art world, the theatre world and the poetry world. Your recently launched comedic podcast is also a runaway success. Where are you headed? Where do you see your career, and your work, going in future?
At the moment I see my future in three strands. There is the work I make with my artistic practice, which encompasses performances, videos and participatory pieces. There is the workshop facilitating I do around writing and performance, (which is a great inspiration for the first strand). Then finally there are the events I co-host and co-produce with Dan Simpson for Varjack & Simpson.
So I am doing everything I want to be doing now, but in future I want to build my profile for the work I do nationally and internationally so that I am commissioned, rather than applying for or approaching spaces to do it.
9.Do you work across so many genres because you’re driven to, or is it necessary to diversify in the UK arts world in order to make a living? If you could make a decent living off just one genre, would you want to?
I became an artist through different disciplines, so it is natural for me to make work across and combine disciplines. I used to think I could combine everything I wanted to do under the banner “performance” but now even that doesn’t suit me, as I am starting to once again enjoy making work that is just for video. The problem with being truly interdisciplinary (although it is more common these days) is people find it harder to place you. (But as I am also Biracial, Bi-national and Bisexual I am pretty used to this 🙂 )
I don’t think being interdisciplinary makes it any easier to make a living. Most people can only see you as creating in one form. So if someone knows I can edit video, they may approach me for that. Or if someone knows I can use an camera they may ask me to film something. But mainly they will focus on me as a spoken word artist, even if I never write another poem again, because that is what I have become known for.
That works for me though, as I continue to get booked for spoken word gigs and workshops, while still showing work in galleries and performing in contemporary theatre spaces. When you apply for opportunities and the organisation or contact doesn’t know you, you can frame your work as you like.
I used to think I would only be happy if I lived entirely from my practice. But I have begun focusing more on workshop facilitating in the last year and I really love doing it. I wouldn’t want to be a teacher full time, but I also wouldn’t want to give it up to only make art.
Find out more about Paula Below