Theatrical Skills for Bards
As an entertainer with a lot of experience I have developed some pretty strong ideas about the kinds of skills that SCA Bards could benefit from. I started this by applying my regular experiences to the SCA venues I was performing in and looking at the unique challenges offered up by the bardic circle or campfire singing.
In the SCA I am a founding member of the Golden Stag Players, a theatrical troupe which has been around for more than 20 years and put on more than 35 shows including fully improvised Commedia dell’Arte. I have also been recognized as a Laurel for my skills as an entertainer and a performance magician and have held the premier bardic office of Bard of The Mists.
In the non-SCA world I am a magician member of The Magic Castle in Hollywood CA, a member of The Inner Circle of Bizarre Magicians and have worked as a full time performer for many years.
These ideas are, like most, more guideline than guide. What works for me may not work right for you but I do hope that this information proves useful in sparking ideas to help other SCA bards find ways to refine their presentations and raise the bar on their skills.
The bardic arts are a wonderful way to add color and texture to our SCA experience. I hope that this helps inspire you to expand your skills and bring a new level of excitement to your bardic circle.
What is your bardic skill?
Standard: Musician, Singer, Poet, Storyteller
– Although I classify these as “standard” this is only to suggest that these are the more commonly thought of skills when we talk about bardic within the SCA.
Exotic: Magician, Juggler, Puppeteer
– The list of “exotic” skills is practically endless. If you can create an entertaining presentation for an audience out of whatever it is you do then you are creating a bardic art. I am personally fond of this category both inside the SCA and outside.
What is your ideal performance venue?
Day, Night, Fire circle, Stage, inside, outside
– It is important to think about what exactly is useful to you in your performing venue. My performances are almost always better served by a stage or by being inside, which makes my specific set of challenges for bardic particularly complicated.
What do you need at minimum?
Any number of things you need such as your music, your musical instrument, your bard book, your props, light to read by, light to be seen by. Just as important as figuring out your presentation is the need to figure out exactly what you need as a your basic toolset. There is nothing more frustrating than to come to an event unprepared for what you thought you were going to be doing. But being prepared to handle every contingency is hardly practical either. Knowing what we need as our minimum setup is crucial. It not only helps you be prepared for a wider variety of performing situations, it helps you trim down and tighten up your presentation in the first place. Limits force creativity!
Gathering an Audience
What do you do that can be seen or heard from a distance?
– For many performers the goal is to pick a spot and start performing. Whether this is “on the street” or not, if you do something that can catch the eye from a distance you are more likely to get attention. Juggling works great as a way to gather an audience. Even if you are not planning to do a juggling show, the simple act of throwing three things around in the air is enough to get people looking in your direction. Multitalented bards have greater options for being able to entertain. I’m not an extremely proficient juggler, but I can do the basics of a lot of different things and have found that sometimes it pays off to change up entirely what I’m doing based on the response I get just from how I attracted the attention of the audience in the first place!
Inviting people to you
– Once people come wandering over to see what is going on you should be ready to engage them. Talk to them while you are doing whatever it is you are doing. Don’t just be a spectacle, be an interactive spectacle! They won’t stay if you don’t invite them to stay. So make sure that you have something to offer them. Don’t be afraid to announce “I’ll be starting my show in a few minutes!” In fact, if you do it right you can often get the people who first wandered over to see what was going on to start spreading the word for you! The more people who are actively excited about what you are about to do the bigger an audience you can gather and the whole thing begins by inviting people to see what you are doing.
Can your audience see you?
– Doesn’t really do you much good if they can’t see you does it? There are a number of reasons why they might not be able to, usually having to do with the venue. If you can manage to take a look at things before you start to perform you might be able to select the best place to stand, or the best place to set your “stage” for what you want to do. If you have no control over that you can always just ask “Can everyone see?” Many bards seem to feel that this is somehow ‘egotistical’ but it really isn’t. You are showing how much you care about the enjoyment of your audience. Don’t hesitate to rearrange things for their benefit.
Can your audience see things you don’t want them to see?
– This applies really only to certain types of entertainers. As a magician for example, I don’t like to have people behind me if I can avoid it. Puppeteers have much the same issue. What we do looks best from the front. Other performers may simply want to avoid distractions or unexpected interference from behind them. Ask yourself if you can deal with distractions from behind or if you have things you just don’t want people to see and then plan accordingly. This might entail having your own little table or box to keep your things in, or a drape to cover over your props. Anything to keep prying eyes away from your things until you are ready for people to see them.
Try to walk around the audience space and look at where you are going to perform.
– It never hurts to view the space you are going to be performing in before the performance takes place. In the case of SCA venues chances are pretty good that you’re just looking at a firepit in someones sunshade or perhaps the space in front of the high table in a feast hall, but regardless of what the situation is, getting a chance to preview it will give you a better opportunity to determine what you can do and how you can do it successfully. Never pass up the opportunity to look at the conditions you’ll be working with in advance. You’ll be able to note all kinds of small details (placement of tables, chairs, the firepit, extra wood, the fire extinguisher, etc etc etc) that could become important at a moments notice.
Making Eye Contact
Presenting an open persona
– Many talented bards seem to fail to realize that there is a difference between simply being in front of everyone and being present in front of everyone. The audience is looking to you to entertain them. You should be entertaining before you even begin and you can achieve this by having a very open persona. By this I mean that your very presence should actively engage them. Smile, wave, talk casually and generally be open.
Or perhaps your presentation is more serious. That is okay, simply be dramatic. Appear, take a stance that shows you are in control, look out at everyone with intensity. These things are important in creating a frame around your presentation but also in creating a persona that the audience can immediately understand. This is an open persona, one that provides an immediate appearance and guide to the audience of what to expect from you.
Connecting to people in your audience
– You want to be remembered. You want people to ask for you when they are at a bardic circle. To do this you have to not just produce a good piece, whatever it is, but you must make them connect that piece to you. You do that by connecting to them. Make eye contact. Make them feel that you are performing just for them. Be appealing and present yourself in a manner that makes you distinct and sets you apart from every other bard out there. Not every bard can connect to every person, but the more you do the better off you are. Audiences will be ‘on your side’ if you connect to them. They will support you and your presentation by feeding back their attention and their enthusiasm.
Eye Contact Drill: Eyes around the room.
– One of the most difficult things many SCA bards seem to struggle with is the ability to make eye contact. It seems like it should be relatively easy but it is often not the case at all. It opens us up to a level of vulnerability that can seem very intimidating. To get over this feeling you need to rehearse with eyes looking at you. There is a drill, which seems kind of silly, but does help. Find a few magazines with full page ads that have portraits of people on them. You want them to be fairly large so that the eyes on the page are of decent size. Cut the eyes out and put them up around the room you are rehearsing in. Do at least three to five. Then, as you rehearse make sure to glance at every set of eyes. Don’t go in a circle, jump from one set to another in random order and look at each set for at least a three count. Again, it seems silly but it really does help.
Do you project or are you just loud?
– There is a difference. Anyone can be loud. Learning to project is a very different kind of skill. If you don’t know how to do it now, you need to learn. Learning to project means you will be able to fill a space without destroying your voice. How do you know? If the thought of speaking at top volume for more than twenty minutes concerns you and makes you think you might end up trashing your voice, then you are just loud, not projecting.
Controlling your voice
– If you can project then you can control your voice as well. Being able to convey a sense of sadness or even a whisper to the back of the room (a “stage whisper”) can add a great deal of impact to your presentation no matter what it is. The bard who can tell a story and provide different voices for every character, and still be heard to the back of the room, or over the party on the tourney field is the bard that people will appreciate and want to hear more from.
Voice warm ups
– If you are a singer or actor than you probably already have a variety of vocal warm up exercises. If you aren’t then find someone who is. Or better yet, find a herald and learn to do voice heraldry. Daily shouts, helping on a tourney field, even court if you are ready, are great ways to develop your vocal skills. And many heralds also have vocal warm ups that they can teach you.
Failing that, visit YouTube and do a search for “vocal exercises”. You will find many exercises that will help you warm up and stretch your voice.
Fill the “Room”
Create a presence which captures attention
– It may seem almost redundant that in an organization which is built around the concept of creating a persona that may have existed in a particular historical context that we should then create an additional persona specifically geared for performing. Nevertheless that is precisely what we need to do.
I am going to go out on a limb here and suggest that all performers create a performing persona of some kind. It may be based on themselves or it may be completely different but whatever it is what it most certainly is not is just ourselves. This is not to say that we are boring but rather that there are far too many facets of ourselves that we simply wouldn’t bring out in front of an audience. So we need to create a performing persona which is not necessarily the same as our SCA persona.
If you have to create this performing persona anyway, why not take advantage of the opportunity to create a really engaging one? Something that captures the attention and holds it? Again, it doesn’t need to be particularly dramatic, it can simply be the most fun aspects of yourself, but it should be something you have consciously created and decided upon so that you and your audience will always know when you go into “performing mode.”
Encompass the audience
– This is an odd concept to explain in person, odder to explain in writing. It is based mostly in the nature of body language.
There are gestures and facial expressions which we do that can communicate to an audience being closed off or being open. Surprisingly there are gestures which we think make us open that in fact close us off from the audience without us even realizing it.
Imagine a performer standing in one corner of a room, all the audience filling the room and looking at him. The performer stands with his arms outstretched and his eyes looking out over the audience.
Now imagine that same performer relaxing his shoulders just slightly, turning his open hands inward just slightly and letting his eyes look into the audience.
Yes, as open as the first gesture seems to be it really isn’t. Although physically “exposed” by the wide open arms, the gesture is cold and sterile because of its stiffness and the fact that the eyes look over the audience. It communicates a level of indifference or even anticipation of the audience doing something to hurt the performer.
The second gesture is almost like the performer is about to hug the audience. The relaxed shoulders, the curling arms and the eye contact communicate an entirely different far more welcoming presence.
This is just an example, but the point is to examine ourselves in performance and look for those gestures which we are doing unconsciously that don’t welcome the audience to us as much as we might think.
Take a bow
– Stand up. Imagine that you have just finished the most amazing performance you have ever given. The audience whoever they are, are going wild, applauding you. You’ve moved them in ways they never thought they’d be moved.
Now take a bow. Bow in a way that communicates your completely heartfelt appreciation for their reaction and how moved you are by it. Bow in a way that shows you respect them all. Bow in a way that encapsulates the kind of character you are.
Now remember to bow like that after every performance. Your bow is the final note on your presentation. Too frequently we see SCA bards who are timid when they perform and even more timid when they bow. Don’t be timid. You are an entertainer and you’ve just given them your time and your skill. If you are timid when you bow than you are communicating that you don’t think that much of your skills. If you don’t think much of your skills there is no reason why they should either.
Involving Your Audience
Can you involve them?
– Being able to involve your audience is something that can make your presentation more memorable than almost anything else. This can take many forms.
As a singer you might try to have songs that are sung in rounds or as sing-a-longs. As a musician you might have material where either other musicians can join in or the audience at large can help maintain the beat.
In the theater there is a term called “Breaking the Fourth Wall.” The Fourth Wall is the edge of the stage where the audience is looking through and watching the action. When an actor “breaks the fourth wall” they are piercing the illusion of separation and interacting with the audience. In a comedy for example, an actor might do an “aside” comment meant for the audience rather than any of the other characters on the stage. Very often bards erect a “fourth wall” of their own and separate themselves from their audiences.
If you can take some aspect of what you do and find a way to break that “fourth wall” you will be amazed at the response you will get.
Take suggestions from them?
– Many musicians and singers have enough of a repertoire that is recognizable that they can take suggestions from the audience for material they can perform.
But what if you do not have that well known a repertoire? Easy, make suggestions to them. “Would you like a sad song, a happy song, a sing-a-long or something else?”
Again, you are involving them, interacting with them and making them a part of your show. If they are a part of your show they will be on your side and have more fun and remember you.
To Move or Not To Move
– When we are nervous or scared our instinct is to run. This is basic fight or flight. A situation that makes us uncomfortable or uneasy still triggers this nervous reaction, but not as severely.
Nevertheless that uneasy makes us move unconsciously. It tends to make us rock back and forth or to step forward and backward in a rhythmic fashion that is distracting from the presentation.
But it is also a clue and if we catch it in ourselves or someone else tells us about it then we can do something about it. The clue is that we aren’t comfortable enough with the piece. It is partially or completely unrehearsed. Sometimes that is necessary for an SCA bard, especially when writing a piece “for the victor to be read in court,” a situation that happens pretty frequently.
When it’s a piece you’ve been working on, rehearse it. A lot. I will discuss practice versus rehearsal shortly.
When it’s an improvised piece nail your feet to the floor until you are so confident in your skills that you can trust your instincts to move when you need to move and stay still when you need to stay still.
Choosing to move with deliberation
– Sometimes you need to move. I don’t mean because you are antsy, but because the piece demands it. An epic story of a hero defeating the villain just works better if you can illustrate the action.
This is not to say that every action needs to be shown, or that every action needs to be pantomimed with precision. The confines of your stage, whatever it may be, will likely not allow that. Strong gestures and moving about on your stage will, however, lend a sense of urgency or drama or even comedy if used right.
The key is that it should be done deliberately so. The audience can tell when you are flailing around and when you meant to do that. Your movements can direct their attention but a random movement will direct attention to the wrong place.
Imagine for example if you were reciting some epic poem and it calls out to a beautiful woman as inspiration for some great deed. If you randomly moved and gestured you might find yourself gesturing to some big hairy guy swigging a beer. If you planned your movement you would instead gesture to a fair lady in the audience and by doing so involve her in the poem. Things like this can make a huge difference and as always, the more you can involve your audience in what you are doing the better it is for your overall performance.
When to Memorize
Can the piece be done more powerfully from memory?
– Here is where you are crossing into the actors’ art. Any presentation presented from memory is going to give you more options simply because you don’t have to hold the book in front of you. Setting down your ‘script’ is very liberating.
Setting down your script is also very scary at first. We cling to the written page like a security blanket sometimes, especially with material which is new, unfamiliar or simply unpracticed.
But there can be a very compelling power in a memorized piece. If you do not have to hold the book in front of you it frees your hands to gesture, your eyes to lock with someone else’s eyes and even your feet to move as discussed above.
You do not have to memorize everything. In fact I don’t encourage that at all. The book is very much a symbol of the bard and as such brings its own power to the presentation.
Pick something though. Pick a strong piece and memorize it. Give it life in your presentation by freeing yourself from the script and adding all the gestures and movements and drama that memorization will allow.
Then make it a big deal when you present it. Make it a signature piece and people will ask for it again.
What do you say that frames your performance or presentation?
– The individual piece, whatever it may be, is still an individual piece. But the piece with a frame around it is a script.
What do I mean by a frame around the piece? What do you say when you are introducing the piece? What do you say when you are done? Your intro and your exit are theatrical components which are often forgotten by most SCA bards. We have a tendency to stand up and perform with little to no introduction. We have a tendency to finish by simply saying “thanks” and sitting down.
If you take the time to create an introduction for yourself and an introduction for each piece, you are miles ahead of the game. The audience learns who you are from your self introduction. The audience learns a little something about the piece from its introduction.
After a piece is done you can simply say “thanks” and sit down, but why? It’s perfunctory and perhaps a bit disrespectful to the audience. If you take a moment to stand and accept your deserved applause you are doing yourself a favor by learning how good it really feels to be appreciated as a performer and you are doing your audience a favor by showing them that you appreciate them as an audience.
If you develop some closing words about every piece, for example why you like it so much, you will be giving yourself a nice closing frame to end with that wraps up your presentation.
If you have a script you can wander away from it and still know where you need to get back to.
– This is perhaps the single best piece of advice I have ever gotten as a magician and as a performer in general. Knowing your script means you have the freedom to do anything you want.
Magicians, and by extension pretty much all other ‘exotic’ entertainer types (as I listed above), almost always have to work with their audiences in a very direct fashion, asking for volunteers and so on. As such we are introducing an element of chance into every performance. We don’t know how that volunteer is going to act or respond. We have ways of controlling the situation, finding the best people to call on, managing audiences and so on, but in the end it’s still a random element we may not know much about.
If you have a script for what you do, you have a place to wander away from and still be able to wander back to. As an example, if I am doing a magic effect which involves some story telling I might be in the midst of the story when someone in the audience makes a comment. The comment might be intended to be disruptive (though that doesn’t happen nearly as often as most of us fear it will), or it might just be a soft something they said to the person next to them that you overheard.
In either case it might actually be useful to you. In the case of a disruptive comment shutting it down is an unfortunate by necessary step to take, but departing from your script to address it won’t cause a problem because you’ll know where in your script you left and therefore where in your script you need to come back to.
In the case of an amusing or useful side comment you have even greater opportunity. You might be able to make a comment back that generates a laugh or adds a layer to your story. You might be able to involve them by asking them to elaborate on what they said and then incorporate it into your own routine.
Regardless, by having a script you have given yourself the freedom to roam always knowing that you’ll be able to find your way back into your presentation.
Rehearsal vs. Practice
Practice is when you are learning a new piece.
– Just like it says, “practice” is what you do while you are learning something new. You are putting the effort into figuring out the necessary guitar fingering, or how to hit those high notes. You are learning how you want to say a particular phrase in a poem or you are just trying to memorize the piece.
Whatever it is you are working on, it’s practice when you are just getting it down. It’s practice when you are starting over and over again from the beginning. It’s practice when you trying out different ideas to make the presentation more theatrical.
Rehearsal is when you are doing your whole framed presentation or show.
– Rehearsal doesn’t start to happen until you have settled on how the whole thing is going to run. Whether it be a framed piece as discussed earlier or an entire act consisting of multiple framed pieces, your rehearsals can’t happen until this point.
The key to the difference between practicing and rehearsal is that with a rehearsal you don’t get to start over. Like any theatrical troupe or live action show, your rehearsal must be about getting through from start to finish despite anything that might get in the way or disrupt your performance.
Obviously if you are rehearsing in your living room the chances of having any real disruption is significantly minimized. Nevertheless you will find that you can and will trip up on yourself. When you do, you must force yourself to recover, not reset.
You will also want to consider rehearsal in front of a small test audience. This is a good thing to do and I will discuss it in more detail shortly.
As a final thought, this bit of advice from a magician mentor of my own when asked how long to rehearse any new material; you rehearse it 30 days longer than you think you need to.
Reshaping Your Presentation
Looking at your venue
– Now comes the part where we discuss what it takes to apply the all of the above points. Remember the thoughts about what is your ideal venue? Take a look. You’re on site looking at where you are going to be performing. Is it ideal?
Probably not. Let’s face it, most of the time where you will be performing is anything but ideal. But what are the things you might be able to do in order to reshape the existing venue so that it comes closer to your ideal? People are surprisingly flexible if you just ask. Moving chairs around, shifting a pile of fire wood to the other side of the fire pit, anything is up for grabs. What is the worst that anyone can say? “No.” All it really means is that the venue isn’t ideal. You just need to be adaptable.
Identifying your audience
– Not all audiences are created equal. Sometimes they are going to be sober, sometimes not so much. Sometimes they are going to be interested in serious, historically accurate, researched and recreated master pieces. Usually they just want something light.
What the heck! It’s your opportunity to perform. You can do whatever you want with it. By now you should be in the position to know that you have material for most any occasion and that includes most any flavor or audience.
Selecting the right material
– But let’s talk about your material for a moment.
It is not an uncommon situation to find that we put things into our lineup that really aren’t right for us. It doesn’t fit our voice or our performing style. It doesn’t fit our performing persona.
Usually we put it in the lineup because we liked it. It moved us. Made us laugh or cry or in some way impressed us. I am particularly aware of this part of the problem because I am personally very susceptible to it. I often see a new magic routine or effect that I want to immediately pick up and play with but probably shouldn’t because it just isn’t me.
So think about this very carefully. You want to make sure that you select the right material for you. Don’t sing outside your range even though you think that song is one of the most amazing arrangements ever. Don’t do different voices for the characters in that epic poem if you can’t do the full range of emotions in each voice and make it work. Don’t try and act like the villain unless you really can act!
It’s tempting but don’t do it.
At least not until you are ready to. Just because you can’t do it now doesn’t mean that you can’t learn to do it in the future. Don’t cut yourself off from doing it. Just know when you are ready to do it.
Get a ‘Director’
– We often trap ourselves in the idea that we should be able to do it all. No matter how talented we are though, there is something that we simply cannot do; look at ourselves from the outside. Even a video camera, while an extremely useful and valuable tool would go a long way to helping that in the end all it does is provide a record of what you did, not an opinion.
Keeping a video record of what you are doing will certainly be of great use to you, but what you need isn’t the record as much as the opinion. We are too busy being wrapped up in our own thoughts and opinions to be able to look as objectively as we would like at our own performances.
I can certainly tell you from direct experience that I would be nowhere without the handful of people I trust to watch me while I rehearse (remember the difference between practice and rehearsal?) and to give me honest feedback. My performances only improve for that.
Find that group of people you need to watch your rehearsal, to give you the honest feedback you need instead of just stroking your ego, and most importantly whose advice you will listen to without being hurt or insulted. Remember this is your ego you are dealing with here. You’ve invested a lot of effort into that new song or story or poem. You need people who you can work with who will give you your feedback in a way that you will actually listen too.
Just because someone gives you feedback and advice doesn’t mean you have to take it. You might find that you have a very specific artistic or mechanical reason for why you are doing what you are doing. Take the advice with a grain of salt and think that if something was called out in your performance then there is a reason why and then consider what you might need to do about it.
Be prepared to change things you love. Sometimes, no matter how much something just seems absolutely perfect to you, you just need to give it up. It’s not working for your trusted test audience. It’s not working for your actual audiences. Something about it is simply wrong, whether it be wrong for you, wrong for your audience or just structurally wrong.
Sometimes the hardest thing we can do is let go of something we really love, but if it’s what is holding back your performance from reaching its potential then that is what you have to do.
Sometimes you don’t go on
– This is perhaps the hardest part of the whole process which is why I’ve saved it for the end.
As performers we want to perform. We want to be in front of an audience showing off our stuff, making people happy and generally basking in the limelight.
Sometimes we can’t. Sometimes we don’t have the right stuff for the venue. Sometimes we don’t have the right stuff for the audience. There could be any number of reasons why we can’t perform. We’ve come prepared for one thing and it turns out it’s entirely something else.
At this point we are faced with what might be the biggest philosophical dilemma presented to us as performers. We have material. We have props. It’s not ideal, but we could go on and there is that grand old tradition – “The Show Must Go On.”
Well, that’s not entirely true. Shows shut their doors when the circumstances reach a completely untenable situation. They have a point where they just know that there is no way to recover enough to be able to put on a good show.
That is the line that we have to come up with for ourselves as well and unfortunately there is no hard and fast rule for determining that. Every situation is unique as it every performer and every audience. What all of this has been about from the beginning is creating a set of skills and standards for yourself. This is the last one. Where is the line between giving an ideal performance and compromising your standards just to be able to go on.
Hopefully, with all the skills you might have picked up from reading this you will have established a much more clear idea of where you are, what you can do with what you have and how to take even the most difficult situations and turn them around.
This guide really only scratches the surface of the kinds of theatrical skills which might be available and useful to the SCA Bard. Nevertheless I hope that you have found it useful. That it has provided you with food for thought on ways to make your presentations that much more dramatic and engaging in a venue where we look to the storyteller as a model and icon of what life was like in the Middle Ages.
If you have found this useful please let me know. If you have suggestions or thoughts to add, please definitely let me know. I hope to expand and share this in the future.
If you would like to take this as a starting point and teach this material somewhere beyond where I am personally available please do. All I ask is that you let me know and keep my name involved.
- Bard of The West, The Mists, Cynagua (Or whatever official bardic offices are available in your Kingdom)
- Order of The Golden Branch (Or whatever official past holders of bardic offices are available in your Kingdom)
- The Golden Stag Players (West Kingdom Acting troupe)
- Facebook group: SCA Bardic Arts
- West Kingdom History Project Bardic Page