Thankfully none of my slam visits (so far) have been marred by excessive screaming. As I’ve preached in the past to many slammers, young and old, volume is an element of performance that should be used judiciously and with restraint.
Screaming is not the equivalent of passion. Many audiences stop hearing and believing the words when the poet is screaming at levels inappropriate to the text. Why judges don’t chastise the screamers with minus tens and twenties is beyond me. Maybe they’re afraid that the screaming poets might follow them home and scream outside their windows all night.
Staged teardrops are another performance question mark. I’m not referring to those transcendent theatrical moments when actors or performers become so deeply committed to their roles or poems that they unwilling transport themselves back to a vulnerable space and time and present to their audiences an authentic dramatic experience and shared catharsis.
No the tears I’m questioning are the conjured up crocodile tears calculated to gain sympathy from judges and audiences with a maudlin mediocre text. How many convulses sobs are needed to score a perfect 10? Is the breakdown timed precisely to fall within the three minute limit? Are coaches and captains managing these emotional strategies to gain ultimate victory? Be sure to cry a little, you’ll gain an extra point or two.
When I teach performance I challenge students to become vulnerable by exploring and exposing remembrances and emotions they may have kept buried for years, decades, even a lifetime. Sometimes they are moved to tears when they do so. Tears they fight back trying to regain composure. Such emotional and psychological exploration has its basis in the Stanislavski and Mesmer methods, technique that leads to more authentic portrayals of a character or text.
I’ve been told that at some slam competitions large numbers of participants are sobbing out their words. That seems odd to me. In twenty-five years of hosting the show at the Green Mill I can think of no more than a couple dozen occasions (hardly ever more than one in a night) when poets have broke down into tears.
One night a woman well past her forties made all of us cry with a tale of her recently deceased son. Her mascara ran dark down her puffed cheeks. Her chest heaved. The next week her mascara ran again as she read a poem about her dying husband. On week three her uncle died, and after that I dubbed her the Grand Dame of Doom.
Turns out none of these personal tragedies were true. It wasn’t her son who died; it was a friend of a friend’s son. Her husband wasn’t on his deathbed, a neighbor’s was. And the uncle was a distant one she hadn’t seen since childhood.
Fakers in all categories of tragically confessional verbiage (often passed off as poetry) insult and diminish the tragedies of those who have truly suffered great misery and sorrow. I think that when we sense a con job we should muster up the courage to question it. And if there’s a bandwagon of sobbing slammers on stage dominating a night, I think maybe … maybe it might be a bandwagon filled with bullshit.