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Oral Performance: For Those Who Want To Be Heard

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Euella explores how you can use oral performance to change the world.


The steward opened the doors to the dark studio in the Arnolfini and ushered us in. The studio was warm and completely dark – except for a few droplets of light that dimly lit the audience and the designated performance area. Sarah Phillimore, a family law barrister and the performer in question, stood in a neutral position looking comfortable and ready to begin. There were no seats in the studio, except for the six that were positioned diagonally in the performance area, so we stood. We stood expectantly, cornering Sarah but she was unfazed. A wave of excitement bubbled amongst us as the last few made their way into studio and found a place to stand. Then it began.

Part-performance, part-lecture, ‘Happy Families – The Conversations We’re Not Having About Adoption’, is an exploration into the ethical debates around adoption in the UK. In it, Phillimore considers the changing landscape surrounding forced adoption and the implications this has on children and the families involved. Weaving in academic arguments and physical theatre, the installation was fresh, engaging and provocative – think TEDxTalk mixed with one woman show. This particular art form, also known as ‘oral communicated performance’ was invented by Pamela Neil. Neil works with everyday people, professionals and organisations to translate their messages into oral performances to be shared with live audiences. She has had 15 years’ experience facilitating and curating performance through ‘storying’ – the act of orally presenting a set of ideas in a particular way to construct an intended meaning. This form felt familiar and inviting although it wasn’t like anything I’d experience before in an arts space. There was only one performer but the space was collaborative – where the meaning was shaped by both us and Sarah. I stood captivated by the argument, the use of props and Sarah’s consideration of space. There is something truly powerful about oral storytelling that transcends both the scene and the performer, leaving nothing but an image in the audience’s mind.

Being in that space that night got me thinking about the ways that young people can utilise oral communication and their own passion projects more generally to get their voices heard. At a time when young people are feeling politically disenfranchised, the value of oral performance has never been more clear. For Sarah, it was about the state of the current culture around adoption that inspired her to share her concerns with a live audience, but for you it could be anything from the depictions of young people in the media or a means of challenging public-sector cuts. In this era of the internet and social media, there is a novelty in the lived experience and creating art for the oral medium. You don’t have to be a performer to do this for you’re already an expert in communication – you do it every day with your friends, family and people you meet in your day to day life.  If that doesn’t sway you, I’ve compiled a quick list of reasons why you might want to consider giving OCP a go:

  1. 1. It Gets Your Voice Heard

One of the great things about OCP is that it encourages the everyday person to take initiative and be resourceful. Everybody has a story or something they want to say, but often do not have the platforms (other than Rife) to share this with others. Not only does it hone in on and give you confidence in your public speaking skills, curating an oral performance enables you share your thoughts and views on a particular topic with an audience who are ready and willing to listen.

2. It Puts You In Control

OCP is a unique art form and I really appreciated the way that it gave Sarah the freedom to shape her performance through her story and message. It is not uncommon for artists and activists to be constrained by their chosen genre. Traditional genres within theatre and art – can and inadvertently do dictate the art and the conventions of the spaces they’re held in. In curating oral performances around stories that matter to you, you get control over the creative direction of the art – enabling you to take from different parts of performance such as spoken word, academic lectures and traditional theatre to create something that is meaningful to both you and your audience.

3. It’s Cheap

Resourcefulness is a huge enabler of creativity and as young people, it is important to utilise whatever resources you have. OCP can be performed anywhere by anyone – whether that be a school, a sports centre or even a park – creating new possibilities for your art. Neil also reminds us that our bodies are one of the best instruments and props we own – although it sometimes doesn’t feel that way. In these spaces, the body becomes the focus and the art. It draws attention to the body – primarily the voice- and urges us to find beauty in the ways we use them to question, explore and pick apart issues that haven’t really been explored in traditional theatre.

4. It Facilitates Collaboration

The lack of a material stage changes the dynamic within a performance space. When watching ‘Happy Families’, I felt there was a mutual respect between the performer and the audience and the negotiation of the space was constant throughout the piece. This gave it a more collaborative feel and makes the audience feel included as they as complicit in shaping the meaning and tone of the piece – perfect for exploring more challenging and nuanced topics.

5. Its A Conversation Starter

One of the things that I also really liked about the performance was the creation of dialogue afterwards. The in-depth conversation around some of the ideas presented in the performance showed that the audience were really engaging with the material. It felt more inclusive than a traditional Q&A as people were comfortable enough to interrupt, contribute and ask questions.

If you have something that you want to say, it may be worth considering OCP as an accessible means of creating dialogue and sharing your stories. It’s cheap as all you really need is yourself. Try something new, put yourself out there and be the change that you want to see.

Want to get involved with oral performance and theatre? Check out the @rifeguide to find opportunities and events near you. 

Are there things that you think need to be said? Why not pitch an idea to Rife.