Share the joy! A Write Out Loud guide to running an Open Mic

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A few weeks ago Write Out Loud asked for Open Mic organisers up and down the country to respond to some questions about their own particular event and what it entailed.  With the current wave of popularity in grass-roots poetry, we wanted to give a few ideas and reassurances to anyone thinking of setting up a new Open Mic night in their area.  The responses came from all over the UK, some of whom had been running these evenings for decades, some for less than 18 months. 

Question: Why do you do it?

Responses here pointed overwhelmingly towards two key factors: firstly because of a love of poetry and secondly to be able to encourage and develop others, whether that be providing a platform for existing poets or creating a safe environment for newcomers to take their first steps.  What a lot of love there is out there for poetry!  The number one reason was simply to be part of the world of poetry, to share and experience the work of other people.  Nobody said they wanted to make money, nobody said they wanted Event Management experience.  It would seem that our Open Mic creators have genuinely altruistic reasons for doing what they do.  Several respondents’ original motivation came from the absence of anything similar in their local area.  “I wanted to encourage a sense of community and to give people something to come to after 6 pm when the town shuts down, apart from the pubs”.  Further responses in this section talked about the personal satisfaction derived from seeing performers grow over time, and also the need to fulfil a personal creative need. It is clear the personal rewards are many and diverse, but all stem from a love of poetry and a desire to be part of the poetry community.

Question:  How would you describe your current demographic?

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the UK’s poetry Open Mic demographic tends not to be a true representation of the population as a whole.  Although this is measured quite unscientifically in this case, it would seem an average audience is more-or-less balanced between the genders but skewed in other areas, with a small majority being white, educated, working class and over 40 years old.  Encouragingly though, there are multiple deviations from this with variations on all fronts including some with a particularly young demographic and many with a majority audience from a fascinatingly diverse range of ethnic backgrounds.  Class, however, that very British denomination, emerges as a consistently telling element of our Open Mic audiences who seem to comprise largely (although not exclusively) educated working-class and lower middle-class poets and listeners.

Question: What are the main things needed to organise an Open Mic event?

  1. Venue. “Venue is the biggest part as it has such an important role in creating an atmosphere”, “A welcoming and supportive venue”, “A good venue that wants to support the event”.
  2. Host/Compere.  “A compere who ensures the night is about the open mic poets, not the compere”, “A good host, who can run the night and keep it lively and engaging”, “The MC. Having a feel for the 'timbre' of the evening is important”.

Other superbly incisive responses included the need to encourage a listening audience as well as a participatory one, and covered things such as “having patience and perseverance” and the need for having a good PR set up, which brings us nicely to:

Question: How do you publicise your event?

Top answers: Social media and Write Out Loud Gig Guide.  Our Gig Guide has been a long-standing and invaluable tool to the poetry community and is currently being developed by our Gig Guide Editor Laura Potts to become an even more comprehensive listing of Open Mics, readings, tours and other poetry events across the UK and internationally too.  Facebook and Twitter are also used by almost every respondent in one form or another.  Many people use posters and flyers, “I flyer at most events I go to”, many have their own website, and several talk about using the venue itself to publicise your activities and really get involved: “Of the 3 venues I use, none charge me for the room we use and 2 of them pay for my headline poet.”

Question:  How do you measure what has been a successful event?

There were two main responses to this question and they represent quite different areas of the event management.  Primarily the success of an evening can be gleaned from the smiles on the faces of the audience and participants.  That’s all we want, to spread happiness and be part of the warmth!  “if people are having fun and enjoying the event - getting people together is the aim, so if people are chatting and meeting new people then that's a success in my eyes”,  “Any event that captivates a sizeable audience of non-performers would be deemed a success for me”.  The second success factor is rooted more in the realities of finance:  “There are loads of successful nights that I find hard to say are personally successful because I lose money when the audience numbers aren't enough”, “It is essential to ensure regular decent audience and performer numbers in order that the night remain a viable booking for the venue”.  So, covering the finances is almost (but not quite) as important as having fun.  We may be creatives, but we all live in the real world!

Question:  What single piece of advice would you offer to potential new Open Mic organisers?

The main threads of advice echo the importance of the earlier question about making the night a success.  First and foremost is finding a good venue, preferably for free and having a good relationship with it.  Another consistent answer is to look after your audience and make them feel welcomed, in particular the listening audience.  “If you want to attract an audience of non-performers be kind to them. Don't cram too much into the programme. Less is more”.  And there were many thoughts about patience and flexibility, “be yourself and don’t force it; allow the event room to develop into something slightly different to your original vision”.  Interestingly in this section there were barely any references to personal enjoyment, no “have fun and enjoy yourself!” answers, which suggests quite hearteningly that the majority of our Open Mic organisers are extremely hard-working selfless individuals whose personal motivations may be important but are not the top priority when it comes to their own Open Mic organising experience.

 

Reading the heart-warming anecdotes supplied by the respondents is truly inspiring.  Each of them has countless tales of newcomers discovering poetry for the first time, or even by accident, and coming back for more.  Every one of our Open Mic organisers has seen people grow both within and without the poetry world “One performer holds himself with more confidence, on and off stage, after first performing at my night and becoming a regular”.  “A Polish woman who had sat in the audience for almost a year one day got up and performed. She said that we had given her back her voice”.  Doesn’t that bring a tear to your eye?   It is these personal moments of humanity that bring the real rewards.  The advice and logistics are all pragmatic measures aimed at success, but the real joy comes from the tiny unquantifiable things. “What is really lovely is when people tell me how much they appreciate the night, even if it is a one-off, it makes the struggle worth doing it and reminds me that it is needed and spurs me on to continue.”

Write Out Loud would like to thank all the organisers who took the trouble to contribute their responses to this article.  Special thanks to Issa Farrah, Maggie Sawkins, Carmina Masoliver, Rick Sanders and Gary Carr, all of whose words and wisdom is variously quoted above.

Perhaps you can see yourself in this profile.  Fancy setting up an Open Mic in your town…?

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