Is it time spoken word was recognised as an independent art form?

Tristan Bernays in The Bread and the Beer. Photo: Antonio Luca
Tristan Bernays in The Bread and the Beer. Photo: Antonio Luca
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If you read the Edinburgh Fringe Guide, you’ll discover that comedy listings take up 133 pages, theatre 87 pages, and spoken word a mere eight pages.

From these cold figures, it would seem spoken word is the runt of the litter – but even a few years ago there wasn’t any spoken word section at all. The spoken word scene is growing and it deserves a new level of attention.

I came to the spoken word scene quite late. What put me off for a long time was this awful image – this cliché – of self-indulgent poetry pitched somewhere between a rap battle and the psychiatrist’s couch. Spoken word really just isn’t like that anymore. Think about Kate Tempest, Inua Ellams and Polarbear. They’re performing at BAC and the National Theatre, getting reviewed in national papers by theatre critics. Which raises the question: if spoken word is no longer an outsider art form, does it deserve its own space? Are we doing it a disservice by lumping it in with others, like theatre?

Both art forms share a desire to tell a good story. Since humans became clever enough to string two words together, we’ve been telling stories, performing them out loud. At first those performances differed very little, until one day someone thought “What about some costume? And a bit of set? Hell, we could get other people to play the different parts!” And thus theatre was born.

Spoken word, on the other hand, stuck with the words. It was the poetry, rather than the performance, that was revered, handed on generation to generation as an oral tradition, a literal spoken word – until finally these great epic stories written down – formalised and made definitive – and the tradition of spoken word shifted to the written word. It’s only relatively recently that spoken word and performance have reared their heads again.

[pullquote]Just as we have theatre specialists who only review theatre, spoken word specialists could review spoken word and give it the prominence it’s due[/pullquote]

So theatre and spoken word start out in the same place, but take very different paths to make it to the 21st century. So, can they be enjoyed, appraised and critiqued in the same way?

Just as we have theatre specialists who only review theatre, maybe more spoken word specialists could review spoken word and give it the prominence it’s due. Perhaps those who have a background in poetry, and spoken literary traditions; who look at the spoken word artists as poets as well as performers. Every other section of the Fringe brochure – comedy, music, dance, art – has its own critics. Why not spoken word?

There are, of course, those wonderful blurred lines where the truly magical stuff happens. Theatre that incorporates movement and dance. Poetry that embraces music. Comedy that doesn’t shy away from theatricality and drama. My own work plays with the lines between spoken word and theatre – re-examining those ancient traditions and the fork in the road where the two art forms split. I would love to see a collective of critics whose passion, whose knowledge, whose expertise were focussed on the burgeoning world of spoken word. Whose insights and writing would give spoken word the space it deserves.

Tristan Bernays’ The Bread and The Beer is at Underbelly, Cowgate from August 1 to 25 at the Edinburgh Fringe

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