Saturday, 11 July 2015

Skint Dramaturgy: Matt Abbott @ Edfringe 2015

Ossett Observer Presents and Norwich Arts Centre present

"Full of great descriptive lyricism and astute storytelling" 
Steve Lamacq
"Wakefield's most articulate (and dare we say handsome?) street poet finds the romance beneath the realism. He'll have you feeling better in no time"
 NME Magazine
"For those who wish Alex Turner would speak not croak, or who long for a British Eminem, only without the psycopathic, homicidal tendencies" 
The Guardian

Matt Abbott is Skint & Demoralised provides a razor-sharp insight into 21st century Britain; a contemporary take on kitchen sink realism, fused with witty anecdotes, sordid confessionals and a sharp political edge. Sometimes bleak, sometimes poignant, he can make you cry and have you laughing again in no time. Peppered with tongue-in-cheek humour, this is a refreshingly honest look at the world through the eyes of one of Britain's brightest emerging poets.

Matt Abbott might be taking his début show up to EdFringe, but he's far from being wet behind the ears; at the age of 26, he has nearly a decade of stage craft under his belt and a wealth of experience to look back on. He began performing spoken word when he was ushered on stage in a secret club in Sheffield's red light district at the age of 17, and hasn't looked back since...

In summer 2013 he co-founded a spoken word organisation called A Firm Of Poets. The Firm are appearing at several festivals this summer, including Latitude and Kendal Calling, before embarking on a 20-date national theatre tour in the autumn, produced by Ossett Observer Presents.
Sweet Venues International 3 (venue #18)
Monday 17th-Sunday 23rd, 10:10pm (show starts)
£8.50/£6.50 concessions, 16+

The Fringe

What inspired this production: did you begin with an idea or a script or an object?With this being my debut show, in a way it's happened organically in that some of the poems stretch back a couple of years. However the main spine of the show comes from a book project that I started in August 2013 called Albion Falls. The concept involves a tower block of flats, with each poem or piece of writing being based in one of the flats and/or its inhabitants. Their lives intertwine on a daily basis, from a silent nod passing on the stairs to a gossip in the launderette, and all the while the reader slowly gets a picture of their private lives and histories which of course contrast to their public image and their neighbours' perception of them.

It's very much inspired by the kitchen sink realism that drove the British new wave in the late '50s and early '60s, with a fresh contemporary take on the genre and I hope quite a lot of poetic and literary flair. I've asked a few other poets to contribute to the collection, but it's the stories and characters that I've contributed so far that gave me the chance to pull the show together and create something that's hopefully good enough to take up to Edinburgh. 

The idea for the book, or the flash of inspiration that started the idea, came from a combination of Post War Glamour Girl by John Cooper Clarke and one of my oldest and most successful poems; Barbara from Scarborough. The resulting poem, The Ballad of Babs in 13B, signaled a shift in returning to poetry after being the front-man and lyricist in a band for the previous six years (long story!).
Why bring your work to Edinburgh?There's by no means any guarantee of success by performing at Edinburgh, and in fact I've heard so many horror stories that I'm half expecting my first year to be a disaster - regardless of the quality of my work - because it happens too often. 

But for me, taking a show up to Edinburgh signals a shift in gear. I hate to sound so Machiavellian about it but I've always been extremely passionate about being a full-time writer and performer, ever since I first appeared on stage a few weeks before my 18th birthday (December 2006). 

When we formed Skint & Demoralised I was 18 years old, and from day one I aimed for the top. After six months we were played on BBC Radio 1 and after nine months we'd signed to Universal - the biggest record label in the world. Obviously that didn't work out, but it taught me to me ambitious and to have faith in my work.

Well for me, Edinburgh is the top of the tree if you're a spoken word artist. And yes, I'm on the bottom rung with my debut show in a tiny theatre, but I wanted to test myself at the very best level and I know that regardless of what happens, it'll be a really valuable experience for me as a performer, as a writer and as a person. 

Also, as somebody who loves art, Edinburgh Fringe has always been somewhere that I've wanted to go, purely as a punter, because I've heard how incredible it is and it sounds like something you should do at least once!

What can the audience expect to see and feel - or even think - of your production?
My number one rule with writing has always been honesty and authenticity. As in, don't write about what you don't know. I'm based purely on realism and as I mentioned earlier, I'm heavily inspired by the kitchen sink era of the late '50s and early '60s; writers like Alan Sillitoe, Stan Barstow and Shelagh Delaney. Although even before I read the books and saw the films, I was still very much heading in that direction.

So I guess the point I'm trying to make is that overall I want people to be able to relate to what I'm saying; I want it to be as visceral as it is engaging, and at times as poignant as it is entertaining. It's about illuminating the minutiae of everyday life, "finding the universal in the particular" as Mr Cooper Clarke once said.

It's partly about bringing the poems to life in their heads, which of course is one of the primary tasks of poetry, but more than that I want them to be completely in tune with what I'm saying at least once during the show. That's what I always look to take from poetry and I think it takes real skill as a writer to pull something in common with a room full of strangers using poetry which, hopefully, I'm able to do in Edinburgh.

Also, because I'm not from a traditional poetry background and my style is very conversational and accessible, a lot of people who see my shows don't normally go and watch live poetry. So one of my favourite comments afterwards is, "do you know, I never usually like poetry - but I liked that."

The Dramaturgy Questions

How would you explain the relevance - or otherwise - of dramaturgy within your work?
I never consciously use a set technique when I'm writing or performing a poem. If I'm writing a poem that I know I'll use for performance, then obviously I take into great consideration what it'll sound like on stage as I'm writing it. 

As a performance poet that's crucial; be it the rhythm, melody, rhyme, structure - a lot of the time I completely mix it up. You have to have a performance poet's ear, and either read it aloud or in your head as you write it.

And then in terms of actual performance, I do act naturally to a large extent but I also have a lot of energy on stage - I put everything into my performance - so if there's a particularly fast and emphasised part of the poem I often find myself pacing around like a lunatic, gesticulating, bending forwards for breath - it's about bringing the poem to life. It's a performance, not a recital. 

I very rarely have the microphone on the stand; I like to hold it in my hand and move around to engage the audience. So whilst it was never planned or devised in advance, I guess that is dramaturgy, in a sense. I'm very aware of the audience and involve them in my performance as much as possible. I could never rehearse in private; it just wouldn't work.

And in terms of any research and development, I generally only write about things if I have enough experience of them already. Otherwise I don't see the point in writing it; for me it'd be contrived otherwise. There are obviously exceptions to the rule, and all poets are different - you can only write on your own terms - but for me you have to have lived it to an extent to bring it to life, if that makes sense.

Is any of that dramaturgy? Subconsciously I dare say it is to an extent, but I don't have a theatrical background and I won't pretend to know much about it to be completely honest!

What particular traditions and influences would you acknowledge on your work - have any particular artists, or genres inspired you and do you see yourself within their tradition?
Well, it may seem blatantly obvious but John Cooper Clarke was and still is a huge influence on me. It was first hearing JCC's live recordings back in 2006 that played a huge part in me becoming a spoken word artist. I'd never heard anything like it before. When I was eleven, I bought Eminem's The Marshall Mathers LP and was absolutely obsessed with it for years. 

Subsequently I bought all of his other albums, and went for long periods where I listened to little else. His use of words and melodies absolutely fascinated me. The way that he fitted so many words and syllables into such tight spaces, along with the rhymes, and the fact that he conveyed such raw emotion and anger - it completely hooked me. I know he has his silly stuff like My Name Is and Without Me but tracks like The Way I Am and Stan blew my mind. And as much as it might sound like an odd comparison, I think JCC is the only person that does it as well. He's like a lyrical machine gun. Except for the fact that JCC does it without music; it's just one man and a microphone. 

That's what really captured my imagination. Because at the time, I was 17 years old and had no musical instruments or any kind of software that'd enable me to create some form of backing track. I didn't have the musical know-how, I didn't have the gear and to be frank I didn't have the patience. So for me to be able to write a poem, practice it a few times, record it on my phone and then stick it on MySpace a few hours later was really exciting. Similarly I could write a poem in an afternoon and perform it on stage that evening. 

So for the most part it was JCC's talent and style but also the fact that he taught me how accessible a stage could be. At the time, it was the height of the indie craze - the likes of Arctic Monkeys passed through Wakefield's legendary Escobar venue and every weekend there were gigs. My mates were all in bands, and I was desperate to be involved, but until the spoken word came along I had no reason to be on stage. It completely changed my life.

As a performer there aren't too many people that've influenced me. I've tried to develop my own style and build it around my work as that's developed. 

As a writer, the only other poet who's come close to JCC would probably be Charles Bukowski, although most probably wouldn't recognise that from my work. A lot of my heavily Bukowski influenced poems are part of the Albion Falls project and haven't been published or performed yet. Luke Wright is a big influence on me at the moment, and I take a lot of inspiration from Elvis McGonagall and Attila the Stockbroker. I'd like to think that one day, I'll be considered in the same breath.

At this stage I have to mention the lyricists that've had a huge influence on me as well: Morrissey, Alex Turner, Billy Bragg, Glenn Tilbrook and Chris Difford, Robert Smith, Shane MacGowan and most of all Jim Morrison and Bob Dylan. Again, it might not be immediately apparent in my work but they've dominated my creative mind far more and for far longer than any poets.

Do you have a particular process of making that you could describe - where it begins, how you develop it, and whether there is any collaboration in the process?
The most difficult part of writing a new poem is the initial idea. Generally, once that comes, you throw a few lines around and it'll start to take shape. That's why it's terrifying when I've gone a month or two to write anything. You become convinced that you'll never have a good idea again, and the more you try and think of one, the harder it is. You have to know when not to write as well as when to write, but to remain disciplined and never become to far removed from it. Once that initial idea comes, the lines generally start to flow, and apart from a few structural tweaks, it's quite often written in a stream of consciousness. I'd say on average it takes around 3 or 4 hours nowadays. Some have taken 20 minutes. In fact probably my most popular one at the moment took around 15. But that's how it happens sometimes! I never follow any set rule or path, it has to happen organically, and I like to think that as my style develops and I improve as a writer, the method of writing a new poem is always different. That said I still stick to the same themes and principles as I did when I was a young writer, which I'm proud of.

What do you feel the role of the audience is, in terms of making the meaning of your work?
You never truly know if a poem is going to work or not until you perform it on stage. And even then it often takes at least three or four performances until you know for sure either way. Upon completing a poem, you're convinced that you've written things that other people will be able to relate you, or likes that'll make them laugh or move them. 

There has to be something about the poem that you feel you're going to get a reaction from the audience with; there has to be something that drives it. But until you get that reaction and the audience noticeably respond, you can't know. And a lot of times the audience will surprise you, and a poem actually takes on a new meaning for you as a writer and ends up becoming something different from what you originally perceived it to be. It's hard to explain, but for me that's the single greatest thing as a writer. 

When I started it was all very fast, funny, punchy and political; it was specifically designed to be performed in short unexpected bursts at music gigs. But since August 2013 I've tried to become a "proper poet" and it's incredibly rewarding. I know it sounds naff but my poems are extremely personal to me, and to be able to perform them to a room full of strangers and forge a connection is a wonderful feeling. 

I'd say that writing the poem is 75% of the work. And you rely on the audience for the other 25% to truly complete it and to help it find meaning. You have to throw it out there and see how people respond. If they don't respond, it isn't as strong as you thought it was. Maybe it's even a 60/40 thing, I don't know: there's a balance between sticking with what you believe in and having faith in your audience.

Catch Matt's live interview with Shaun Keaveny on the BBC 6Music Breakfast show at 8:10am on Thursday 20th August, followed by a special performance on air in front of a live BBC audience the following morning

His poetry career took a slight detour when his stage alias of 'Skint & Demoralised' developed into a two-piece musical act, which was signed to Universal Records in March 2008 and destined for stardom. A trip to New York City to record with The Dap-Kings was followed by a headline UK tour, a string of major festival performances, the Radio 1 playlist and even an interview on 'Loose Women', but the single charted at #100 and Universal washed their hands of the duo when Abbott was 20.

Three albums, several UK tours and a sold-out headline show in Berlin later, he's back to doing what he knows best: poetry. No bells or whistles attached, just one man and a microphone.

Matt has recently shared a stage with the likes of John Cooper Clarke, Kate Tempest, The Fall, John Hegley, Luke Wright, Elvis McGonagall, Louise Fazackerley and Helen Mort. He is a member of The Hepworth Gallery's team of Creative Practitioners and regularly delivers poetry workshops in schools, art galleries and for homeless charities.

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