Finding a new audience for literature and stories

Normally, you’d get yourself in trouble if you broke an egg on a stranger’s trousers. But such behaviour is fine when one is performing live street literature. Then it’s just part of the act.

I learned this interesting lesson on Saturday. I was on the promenade of Herne Bay, an English seaside town, “performing” – and I use the term loosely – my short story Egg-box Eyeballs as part of the rather excellent Herne Bay Festival. The action concluded with me smashing an egg on the floor in dramatic fashion.

In my one rehearsal I used a tennis ball rather than an egg, so as not to make a mess in the church hall where the piece was conceived.

Doing it for real on Saturday, I was surprised at how far an egg will splatter if you chuck it on hard ground. You can see just how surprised in the short film of the event below. Fortunately, my audience/victims took it all in good spirit.

Getting ready to go

How did I get myself in this situation? A lovely group of creative people called the Reauthoring Project told me they were looking for five writers to present work at the festival. Would I like to be one of them? they asked. Yes, please, I said.

Their challenge was a simple one: each of the five writers had to take an existing piece of their work and find a way of presenting it to the public in a way that didn’t involve the traditional author reading. Our stage would be a beachfront shelter; our audience would be whoever happened to be passing.

The five writers produced a fascinating mix of work. Apart from me barking away and chucking eggs about, there was interactive poetry, two sound installations and a “found” story experience on the beach. The people of Herne Bay were open minded about it all and showed a remarkable willingness to watch, listen and take part. I hope they enjoyed it. I know I did.

But why agree to a challenge so rich in possibilities for creative disaster and public humiliation? Fellow writer-participant Peggy Riley gives a good answer on her blog. The aim, she explains, is “To bring text and writing and writers out into the open, to let words breathe in air.” Peggy continues:

“With paper-based writing the writer is not a part of the reading – unless we hover or stalk, we do not know when a reader rejects the writing, when the page is folded down or the cover is closed. Live literature asks readers to engage with writing in a way that is live. It is unexpected and unrehearsed. It is authentic. It is raw. It is an offer made in a public space. It will not be everyone’s cup of tea, and it is all the more exciting for that, as a writer.”

Exciting? Yes. Raw? Totally, especially the eggs. I learned a great deal about how to engage an audience and I realised the folly of thinking that I can control how people experience a story. I also challenged a lot of my stereotypical assumptions about the kind of people who might enjoy my writing.

We went to the pub afterwards to consider how we might do this kind of thing again. All very exciting.

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