Presence, Dear: Part 1 - The Open College of the Arts
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Presence, Dear: Part 1

How to stand. How to make eye contact. How to read aloud from a book. These may be things we all do well in everyday life – but put an author in front of an audience and suddenly, they can feel like genuinely difficult tasks to do well without turning into a blushing, mumbling idiot.
We’ve all sat through a reading where we can barely hear the writer’s words, or where their obvious self-consciousness has made us cringe rather than enjoy the event. Writers tend to be…well, writers, rather than performers. But any author who has had to read out at a festival or – worse! – in front of several hundred school children will tell you that they need to channel their inner actor.
It’s not a new thing and it’s not, as some would suggest, related to some very contemporary cult of celebrity, where we expect everyone to have a ‘public’ personality. Dickens was a famously good performer of his own works and there is no doubt that this contributed to his popularity and his book sales, which – ahem – is something we all have to consider.
In Sue Horner’s report for the Arts Council, entitled Magic Dust that Lasts (2010), a key finding was that ‘writers visiting schools can make a significant difference to children and young people’s attitudes to and enjoyment of writing, offering new perspectives on writing and what it can do’.¹ In recognition of the impact of an exciting author visit in encouraging children (and also, people in prisons and other institutions) to pick up a book and/or a pen, the Arts Council has funded a scheme called 21st Century Authors.
This scheme, run in conjunction with the National Literacy Trust and an agency called Author Profile, offers writers training in the very skills we often lack but which can make the difference between whether audiences pay attention or not. I’ve been lucky enough to be selected for this tranche of training in London.
So yes – how to stand and how to breathe, how to read without hiding behind your book and how to keep meeting the audience’s eyes. All these things are important. But the training focused first of all on content. We may think we know what our own book is about, but for young audiences in particular, picking out the most exciting theme and working up a presentation (and perhaps a workshop) around that has proved invaluable.
I’ve written a historical time fantasy for children but given the chance, I can ramble for hours about its various themes and inspiration. In the training, I singled out one thing – time travel – that was likely to excite a group of school pupils and I’ve now created a whole presentation around that. It’s so much better and more focused than what I used to do – which means I am more confident in delivering it.
If children – especially from Year Nine up – are good at smelling fear, then I think I have learned some simple actor-ly techniques for putting them off the scent.  And if the end result of them paying more attention means they may read any book or know that they too can be writers, then all that performance will have been worth it.
How do you find reading in public? Had any disasters? Any tips for a good ‘performance’?
¹ http://www.artscouncil.org.uk/media/uploads/Writers_in_schools.pdf Pg. 4. [Accessed 25.02.15]


Posted by author: Barbara Henderson
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