Note: This review is from the 2015 Fringe

SHIFT/ – A Best of Spoken Word is a unique Spoken Word showcase taking place at Summerhall from the 5 – 28 August at 21:30.  Seven different performers present their own hour long spoken word show for each individual day of the week.  SHIFT/ Collective members Rachel Amey and Ali Maloney explain all.

SHIFT/ takes on a different format from pretty much every other show at this year’s Fringe. How did the seven of you get together and decide on the format?

Ali Maloney: The format is one of those things that, in retrospect, seems so obvious. There are loads of variety shows with a different line-up each night but yes, this seven day rotation does seem to be the non-norm. It comes from what we spoke about wanting SHIFT/ to be, i.e. being able to provide an opportunity to do an hour long show but sharing the risks, costs and energy that doing a full run would entail.

Rachel Amey: I wouldn’t have done it without this format, to be honest – it was one of the big selling points to me – that, and the calibre of everyone’s work. It’s a way of making the fringe work for people who live here, and that was a revelation really. I’m hopeful we have created a platform that feels possible to manage. (Ha! Famous last words, we should do another interview at the end of August!)

All seven of the SHIFT/ performances are described as being very different and tackling a wide variety of topics. Were you aware of what subject matter the other performers were covering while you were developing your own shows?

RA: In a general sense, yes, but in terms of detail, certainly in the early stages, no. We obviously know the general information about the shows – like the outlines on our website – and we all know each others’ work so we have a good idea of where people are coming from and their particular themes and styles, plus we talk about it informally of course. Ali put up his script online so I have read that – cracking stuff. And also the seven of us recently booked some rehearsal space together, where we can share a run through of the pieces, get feedback etc., one of the pluses about being a collective…

AM: Yeah, it’s not so much to do with what these seven specific shows are about – we are seven different people with different interests, different approaches to spoken word and different performative palettes. I think it is a strong line-up that encapsulates many different aspects of what spoken word can be. I think it is inevitable that the shows are all very different but at the same time, they are all made by engaged and intelligent people living in Scotland at this particular time, so of course there are some through lines of interests and things that aggravate us. I am trying hard not to say politics here…

RA: After the last rehearsal some of us were talking about what connected us all, what similarities there were in our work, and I think what we were coming to was that we are able to take our personal experience of the world and place that in a wider context – that the work has something to say. I think it would be fascinating to see all seven pieces.

All of the SHIFT/ performances are described as taking music, theatre and other elements of performance to present unique spoken word pieces. How important is it to you to look to other elements of performance and art when developing spoken word theatre?

AM: For me, personally, I don’t think it is a matter of spoken word looking to these other elements – spoken word is performance art, it is musical, it is experimental, it is evocative of so much; it can be anything, it naturally incorporates any performance disciplines. My show (Hydronomicon) draws heavily upon mime and bouffon (a particularly mischievous black strain of clowning), and sound design. I don’t think that’s an odd combination, just one of the many ways in which spoken word can manifest. Actually, who am I kidding? Combining spoken word and mime is pretty odd, it’s positively oxymoronic.

RA: Ha! I love that – “the spoken word mime show”! It makes sense to me though, actually (oxymoron or not). It’s about having something to say and choosing how you say it and I agree with you Ali – “it can be anything”. That’s my favourite bit about spoken word, you can do what you want. I would say definitely movement and physicality are a natural part of spoken word, because we are using our bodies to communicate. I’m going to be using recorded sound for the first time, and projected images as well – which I do see as an “added” element in some way – though the choices and creation of them are integral to the piece.

For me, I think having the space (Cairns Lecture Theatre) and also the time, means that I can expand into doing more than I would usually feel there was space to do, so then there is room to widen the means of expression…

I’m also having one show interpreted into BSL – which again raises the question of what spoken word is. Can you have sign language ‘spoken word’? Yes, I think you can – it is just that you are using your hands (and body) to speak instead of your voice.

As spoken word relies heavily on text, I expect a large part of devising your performances was dedicated to the writing process. Were you thinking of how the show was going to look visually on the stage whilst you were writing the spoken word elements?

RA: Oh, interesting question…. When I write, then no, I think of the words and that’s it. But I do create work through movement – improvising it in speech as if I were performing it – so in that case it is linked to how it might look visually on the stage, yes. I have some mythic or epic elements in Peacock Blue, where I’m using movement in ways I don’t normally do – and in fact, in rehearsal, it is the movement that is driving the script, so how my body wants to move is creating the story that will eventually end up on stage.

AM: I have a strong interest in physical and visual theatre and spoken word for me is just a route into that, so of course I have a strong sense of the visuals and movement as I write the text. The text is fine on the page but as soon as I start rehearsing it and moving around to it, it always changes the text. There’s a strong relationship between the performance and the words – it’s not a matter of just agonising over a perfect poem and reading it off a piece of paper. If the words are for performance, then what the performance will be has to influence the words from the beginning.

The idea behind SHIFT/ seems to promote and cultivate interesting performers with exciting ideas. How important is to you to promote spoken word as a means of expression?

AM: Spoken word is such an all encompassing genre. If someone tells me that they don’t like spoken word, I don’t believe them – they just haven’t seen the spoken word performer who will blow them away. Some people are bored to tears by quietly lyrical coming-of-age sonnets but love some high-octane techno-punk data blasts, and vice versa; some people are exasperated by endless sequences of punchlines and puns but adore some political evangelicalism, and vice versa. It truly is a genre that covers all bases and, therefore, is a genre for everyone – it’s just that not everyone realises that yet.

RA: Yes, there’s a huge range – I love that. And it is also open to all, I love that too. You don’t need equipment or training or a big team of people, just you and your words – and then you can head off to the nearest open mic.

AM: Yeah, there’s a total DIY ethos to it. Maybe that’s why people keep describing it as a descendent of punk.

Spoken word is very much on the rise in Scotland with more events throughout the year and a big increase in performances during the Fringe. Why do you think spoken word has recently increased in popularity?

RA: I think the Free Fringe has made a massive difference to spoken word in August, basically because it has made it possible. It has made it cheap enough to be able to do, and that is vital for a vibrant scene that can then encourage risk taking. And for the rest of the year, it is really down to the people who run the different nights (that’s a big shout out to the other six of SHIFT/!) – creating platforms for people to be able to perform.

AM: It’s kind of self-perpetuating: the more nights and events there are, the more people who see it and go, “I’d like to try that”, and the more of them that step to the stage, the more nights spring up etc… But, yes, as Rachel says, it’s cheap and easy to do and you can conjure up and achieve so much.

Are there any other performances you are looking to see during the Fringe?

AM: BARK at Woodland Creatures on Leith Walk always has a great line-up of weird and wonderful stuff, I’m looking forward to seeing as much as I can there. I have a two-year-old son who is obsessed with performance and shows, so I’m hoping to take him to see as much as is possible.

RA: I want to see Jesus, Queen of Heaven by Jo Clifford (cos I’ve not seen it yet), Grandad and Me with Jude Williams and then after that a good lot of other spoken word – Sophia Walker, David Morgan, Agnes Torok and Colin Maguire to name a few…

SHIFT/ – A Best of Spoken Word is @ Summerhall, Edinburgh from Wed 5 August until Fri 28 August @ 21:30 (not 6)