Behind the Cover Art
Featured: Isabelle Molinari and Ella Crowsley
As we approach the year mark of the world-changing forever, it can be difficult to find artistic aspiration or ambition. In the midst of uncertainty, academic deadlines continue to loom. Despite this, we must look to the charming world around us and find ingenuity amidst our apprehension. The beautiful weather, beginning to show, gives us a sign of hope, signalling the bright future to come. Entering spring, we can see the beauty in the blossoming of nature, reflected in the art we see. In times of crisis, art allows us to examine what it means to be human, bringing us together and enabling us to express ourselves. This stunning photo signals the light ahead and the promise of things getting better.
The Art of Living: How Feng Shui Changed my Life
Erica Ostlander details the joys and benefits of organizing the physical properties of life
My mom was never the type of person to collect books while I was growing up. I now recognise her as a true library enthusiast; fully embracing the temporary state of a book’s place in our home. However, I will always remember one book which remained as a permanent fixture on our family’s bookshelf. Even before I could read, I would absent-mindedly flip through the pages, admiring the pictures and the bright red cover of the book. Eventually, when I was able to comprehend the book’s message of advocating for peace and harmony, I allowed myself to relish in its pleasant language and philosophy of mindfulness. This small red book was called Feng Shui: The Art of Living by Rosalind Simmons, which introduced the basics of the ancient Chinese art known as Feng Shui, teaching the proper ways of arranging objects and manipulating space to create a peaceful environment. This art form has roots in the school of thought known as Taoism and focuses on the belief that a life force known as Chi needs to be balanced between its yin and yang elements. This philosophy was first used for determining the layout of burial sites in China, later branching out to the realm of city planning. The layouts of buildings were stylistically designed to maximise the levels of Chi, with the intention of easing the minds of the city’s citizens. The book owned by my family, however, focused on Feng Shui in the home, which is how the art that has been popularised in the West and is used now in daily life. I am in no way an expert on Taoism or the cultural nuances behind Feng Shui, but I will always appreciate how this book from my childhood allowed me to recognise that our environment is connected to our mental state at an early age. This has led me to understand the magnitude of our ability to integrate mindfulness into every detail of our existence.
The first concept one learns, when exploring the fundamentals of Feng Shui, is known as Bagua. Bagua is an energy map where you as the individual stand in the centre, connecting each facet of life to one’s soul. This map contains eight areas or guas which correlate with an area of life that helps support the individual’s well-being including wealth, fame, love, health, creativity, knowledge, career and helping people. Furthermore, these areas can benefit from introducing specific design characteristics such as colours, numbers, and one of the five elements of nature into a room. For example, health is a gua associated with the element of earth and objects with flat square shapes. During a global pandemic, this may be the time to invest in more potted plants, a wooden framed mirror, or take some time to paint a scenic landscape (preferably on a square canvas) to decorate a wall. Practising Feng Shui, one has an excuse to have a constant rotation of fresh flowers in their room to maintain a balance of one’s earthly elements, something I have always appreciated. Unfortunately, student budgets make the decision of decorating your living space with tulips, sweet pea blossoms, and orchids one that is closely tied with self-indulgence; however, Feng Shui helps remind us how important it is for mental health to have something that brings you happiness in your room.
Working from home has caused everyone to lose a space that was exclusively made for unwinding, as many of us now sleep in the same room we attend lectures and zoom meetings in. This loss should not be underestimated, as it has confined the majority of our lives to one singular area. This undermines a basic principle of Feng Shui, as according to the Bagua map each area of our lives requires specific treatments to flourish to its full potential. However, one solution could be a regular routine of rearranging furniture, where on occasion one could choose to move their chair or bedside table to the other side of their room. By simply changing the position of your furniture, a room can be transformed into something slightly more unfamiliar and become more exciting to wake up to. While working at my desk, I find it beneficial to bring water elements into my space, as water is associated with the North Bagua area for a thriving career. A stream of water represents a flow of income and prosperity, similar to how in ancient China rivers connected communities for easy trade relations, indicating a prosperous economy. My choice water element is a diffuser, which I place on my desk with an infusion of peppermint oil, helping me create a perfect harmony between tranquillity and focus. This is a small action for me, but the goal is for every small action I take to snowball together and slowly transform my environment for the better. This allows me to be in control of the atmosphere in my room, and despite there being no science behind this, I believe it has helped in my struggle against the psychological burden of online learning.
Mirrors are said to be associated with the element of water, acting as a steady reflection of energy that travels across a room. They can direct the flow of Chi in a space and according to the rules of Feng Shui, each one must be placed with clear intention. I remember reading how important it was to never have a mirror facing your bed, as it will reflect your stress back to you through nightmares and an overwhelming feeling of dread. Reading this as a child, I understandably became intensely aware of the position of the mirror in my room, which happened to stand directly across from my twin-size bed. Moving it slightly to left granted me a serene moment of complete peace of mind and gave me confidence that I will only be met with sweet dreams the following night, marking the moment where I fell in love with Feng Shui. I most poignantly remember the comforting feeling of having a solution for something causing me distress and learning something I can use for the rest of my life. Sometimes I still find myself chasing this feeling, especially amidst a global pandemic, where everything is out of our control and solutions seem to be beyond our reach. However, this unique situation gives us time to focus on minor details in our living space, finding new ways to ground ourselves when everything seems to be uprooted around us. Feng Shui is the art of living, and we all have a chance to live out a masterpiece even if it has to be in the confines of a bedroom.
Shakespeare’s legacy and impact in the 20th and 21st centuries
‘That one might read the book of fate and see the revolution of the times’: Isy Platt discusses the relevance and impact of Shakespeare on modern art and society
Image(s): Isy Platt via Pinterest
Although Shakespeare is over 450 years old, his plays seem to have the gift of eternal youth. Eighty percent of Britons have seen or read his plays, and it is estimated that there are 410 annual productions of Shakespeare plays around the globe, meaning there is almost always a production on at any given time. These statistics in themselves demonstrate the Bard’s global reach, continuing popularity and enthusiastic consumption. His works have shaped our perception of history, contributed to the English language and influenced the writing style of his contemporaries and those who followed. But what lies behind our cultural obsession with Shakespeare that covers much of the globe? And why are they still read and performed so widely, despite the huge gender and racial disparity of the roles in his plays? To explore the reasons behind the impact and legacy his works have, we can use a handful of productions from across the globe during the last century or so to begin to look for answers.
An increasing number of productions in recent history have sought to recreate the original staging of Shakespeare’s plays, whether through setting (for example, The Globe in London and the RSC’s Swan Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon), costuming, music, casting or audience engagement with the ensemble. One production that did all of the above was Twelfth Night, starring Mark Rylance as Olivia, which first premiered at Middle Temple Hall in London in 2002 and was revived at The Globe in 2012. These kinds of productions have been termed ‘original pieces’, and seek to reproduce the performance style and practises of the first company that performed Shakespeare’s texts. Although skirting controversy with all-male casting, the results of painstaking research into different elements of Elizabethan and Jacobean theatre are productions that create thought-provoking connections between the politics of past and present.
Shakespeare’s plays have always had a complicated relationship with race, and recent shifts in scholarship on his works has opened up debate about how depictions of ethnography, politics, religion and identity can resonate more powerfully when viewed through a present-day lens. The history of Othello on stage — as argued by actor Hugh Quarshie, who played the titular role recently at the RSC — unearths as much about the societies in which it is staged as it does about the text itself. More recent productions such as Quarshie’s and the most recent at the National Theatre drew the emphasis away from race relations, emphasising how the play’s tragedy is that of the effects of jealousy. The staging of Macbeth in Harlem in 1939 has been described as a diversity landmark in its innovative transposition and success in promoting African-American theatre. Organised by the female-led Federal Theatre Project with the 750-strong cast made up entirely of black actors, the production played in front of fully integrated audiences across the country at a time when Jim Crow laws institutionalised the disenfranchisement of the black community throughout the USA. Taking place nearly thirty years before the American Civil Rights Movement, unemployed and struggling black actors being given the opportunity to play established roles significantly advanced the national dialogue on racial equality.
On average in Shakespeare’s plays, women have less than 17% of the dialogue. To lessen this huge gulf, many productions today have either blind cast the roles or gender-swapped them, creating new gender dynamics from the original text and pulling them onto the stage. Glenda Jackson’s King Lear on Broadway transformed the play into a study of maternal relationships rather than paternal ones; Lear’s rejection of Cordelia in the play’s first scene became a rejection of the daughter’s straying from her mother’s ideal of womanhood. Furthermore, when the same is done with Hamlet – a role as definitive for a younger male actor as Lear is for an older one – when gender roles are reversed. The text’s original critiques on the male hierarchies of the Danish kingdom and the father-son relationship are overturned. However, this doesn’t warp the central traits of the Prince of Denmark or move the conversation restrictively to gender dynamics. Unlike Michelle Terry’s staging which also flipped Ophelia’s gender, Maxine Peake’s at the Royal Exchange in Manchester didn’t; the production as a result also explored internalised and implicit homophobia through Hamlet’s rejection of Ophelia and Laertes’ protection of his sister respectively.
The all-female trilogy of plays staged at the Donmar Warehouse also demonstrated what can be gained from gender-swapped productions, using the setting of a women’s prison as a framing device. Director Phyllida Lloyd cast a diverse group of actors to play female prison inmates putting on a Shakespeare production. The result was multi-faceted; each actor played a character playing a character. One of the most resonant moments came in Henry IV, in which Hal’s redemptive storyline is reflected in that of the prisoner who plays her; Rosie, a recovering heroin addict soon to be put on parole. Hal’s final rejection of Falstaff, who also serves as Hal’s drug dealer, is equally Rosie’s of her former existence. Framing devices with Shakespeare can provide opportunities for new meaning within the text that facilitates present-day resonance, seen in the layering of the world of the play and the world of the production.
Globally, the staging of Shakespeare plays has grown throughout the 20th century and continued into the 21st. One of the world’s longest-running productions of Hamlet was in Lithuania and was used to disseminate political ideas that resonated with a population only recently removed from Soviet governance. In China, Shakespeare is frequently translated into Mandarin due to the commonality between the complexities of his work and China’s dramatic culture and heritage.
You can read translations of his plays in over 100 different languages. The reasons behind this are varied and hard to define. During the Renaissance, it has been argued that his works were part of cultural exchange between Britain and the European continent; during the height of British colonialism in India, Shakespeare was made compulsory on the curriculum; George Washington even repurposed a quote by Prospero, famously Caliban and Ariel’s captor, in a polemic against British colonialism. In each of these places and beyond, the texts have been assimilated and given new formats, settings and concepts; the Bard’s origins abroad as the poet of the British Empire have evolved with time to take on new national meanings.
There have also been times when staging Shakespeare has ‘gone wrong’, striking the wrong notes for audiences and critics alike. The most recent production of Macbeth at the National Theatre was criticised for its fundamental inconsistencies — transposing the play from medieval Scotland to a post-apocalyptic with a disintegrating world order was incompatible with the play’s central theme of feudal hierarchies. Macbeth’s transgression of this hierarchy through the murder of King Duncan fell flat as a result. By examining this we can see that although there is flexibility to Shakespeare, there are limits to what one can do; the production was inconsistent, changing some things and not others, to poor effect.
We also must mention the many films and television series that are adapted from Shakespeare synopses. The first that would spring to mind for many would be West Side Story, the musical that sets a love affair against gang rivalry in 1950s New York City, and is based on Romeo and Juliet (as is the Nicholas Hoult zombie flick Warm Bodies). There are others you may not have realised draw their plot directly from the Bard, apart from the numerous 1990s and early 2000s romcoms such as 10 Things I Hate About You and She’s The Man. The Lion King’s story of Simba seeking vengeance against his uncle Scar for his father Mufasa’s death over the kingship of the Pride Lands was written with Hamlet in mind; the Keanu Reeves and River Phoenix indie film My Own Private Idaho is taken from Henry IV Part One; the influential Japanese samurai film Throne of Blood transposes Macbeth to feudal Japan. You can even see elements of King Lear in the HBO drama Succession, where the children of a billionaire businessman vie for control of his business empire (his name is Logan Roy: Logan from the Gaelic for hollow and roi meaning king in French). Shakespeare works as effectively in translation into film and television as it does onstage.
So - we’ve looked at Shakespeare onstage and off; at his best in production and at times when it hasn’t worked so well. Can we learn anything from the above about why we return to his work over and over?
As mentioned earlier, Shakespeare is known far and wide, and this renown draws people to the theatre; you know, on the whole, what to expect when the lights go down and the prologue of Romeo and Juliet begins to fill a theatre. It is for the directors, the actors, the producers, the designers, to surprise the audience, to bring something new to every different production. As time has passed, creative teams have shown much more willingness to take risks and dig deeper into the texts, whether to create critiques or simply unearth something previously unacknowledged. Shakespeare’s texts serve as empty vessels, into which new ideas that might not have been considered can find a home; the plays are thus given a contemporary resonance. As Leaphia Darko writes in a blog for Shakespeare’s Globe:
‘I think you are only really qualified to talk about Shakespeare at the moment in time in which you are engaging with him actively, that moment in time when you can hold his iambic mirror up to nature and gain a whole new perspective about the times in which you live. It is a very white, male, Elizabethan perspective but one with its finger on the pulse of humanity nonetheless’.
Home-coming and Home-staying, Poetry in a Pandemic: how poetry brings us home and keeps us there
Ruby Dunn explores how poetry can connect us to our roots
Image(s): Scott Web on unsplash
“I’ll be glad to be home, at least,” I was told about fifty times by various friends as the long and lonely Martinmass semester of 2020 was drawing to a close. As we dragged ourselves through deadlines, revision, exams and long journeys, we were looking forward to our rest away from St Andrews. There seems to be an instinct in each of us, when rattled, stressed or alone, to reach out for the place that made us, formed us, sent us out, a magnetic draw to the place we call “home”. But on arrival, then what?
Ben Norris, in a recitation at Theatre Clwyd, spoke of the “shameful pride” that comes of a return home, in a poem that journeys from “the high of the familiar” to “the guilt at having left”. His work explores the difficult relationship that people of our generation have with leaving, returning, leaving again, yet still calling home “home”. In 1984, Bruce Springsteen lyricised a far clearer attitude to home - that it was somewhere to be left: “Man, I ain’t getting nowhere/just living in a dump like this.”
Stuck at “home” for the foreseeable future, and with a brain turned nearly wholly to mush by coursework and a lack of social contact, I’ve found myself retreating to poetry as a diversion. Navigating the painful transition between “thank goodness I’m finally home!” and “I have to stay here how long?”, I’ve looked to some of my favourite poets to see how they have searched for, discovered, discarded and recreated “home” through their work.
Stepping out of Nottingham train station, a few days before Christmas, breathing in the Midlands air for the first time since September, the words of Ben Norris - a native of my hometown - sprang to mind. “I could close my eyes/you could transport me here from anywhere/on earth. I could breathe in/ and identify it. Notts/I call it by it’s name:/home.” (Forgive me if Norris appears disproportionately in this article - the East Midlands doesn’t have many poets, and when I find one, I grow rather attached). Norris here introduces the tension-point in our relationship with home: that it is no longer a place that we stay, but one that we return to. Norris’ performance verse describes a very complex “home”, one viewed through his relationship with his dying nan, and one that seems extinguished when she passes away.
Laurie Lee, in signature lyricism, brings a more positive tone to bear on the return to a home-country long left behind. In “Home From Abroad”, Lee’s return to his England is described in romantic terms, as the rediscovery of an old love that was once discarded in the throes of youth for an exotic beauty (his debut novel “As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning” details the attraction of his real-life adventures in the Spanish Civil War). Expecting something rather dull as he returns to England, he “set [his] face in filial smile/to greet the pale, domestic kiss of Kent”, foreseeing a dutiful return to his family home, the alliteration adding to the kitsch this imagined scene brings to mind. Lee is quickly surprised, however, as is his reader, as the poem turns rapidly to a more amorous tone. Kent, thought of “so primly” when he was abroad, suddenly holds an almost sensual charm: her ‘wanted form dilates as it delights//Her rolling tidal landscape floods the eye/And drowns Chianti”.
Whilst Lee’s verse sighs with delight at the bliss ‘home’ holds unexpectedly for him, Norris’ initial joy at having escaped ‘the Big Smoke’ for his home-town quickly sours. The “miniature upheavals” he describes at the start of his poem - new shops, a knocked-down pub, a changed bus route - are dwarfed by the huge changes discovered through the rest of the poem: divorced parents, a dying relative, a home-town with no home left for him to stay in. It is a common symptom of returning home after any absence at all, to find those ‘miniscule upheavals’ he describes. Admittedly, I’ve barely left my house since I got back, but on the few occasions I’ve had to wander around my home-town, I’ve discovered that the tram-fares have gone up, that the taxi-rank near the station has moved, and that my favourite bakery has been closed down (in the Midlands, change rarely happens in a positive direction). What of those bigger upheavals? Trying to find people to go on socially-distanced walks with so that I’m not totally out of practice at conversation by the time society begins to regather, I discovered that I have now but one childhood friend still in the same position as me (stuck at home, for now, that is). My house, which has always been the heart of ‘home’ for me, usually full of life, with doors perpetually open and friends, strangers and family forever crowded around the kitchen, is unusually empty. The streets of Nottingham remain unchanged - taxi-ranks aside - but something home-like has been lost. If home is not just bricks, mortar, one-way systems (looking at you, again, Nottingham), then what is it?
Perhaps, as Springsteen sang, it is somewhere to leave. William Barnes, in “The Gate A’vallon to” - a poem infused with the landscape and dialect of his native Somerset - describes what it is to see the adventurer leave “vor long, perhaps vor ay”. The gate which “a’vallon to” upon harvests, the arrival of guests and return of labourers throughout the poem, now must swing ‘behind his last farewell’. There is the fear that this departure may not result in a happy reunion. Norris would agree - his own inclusion of the Nottingham dialectic “ayup” in his poem self-describes as “a bit token”, leaving home changes one. And yet it is necessary - Norris has to “unchild himself”. The issue, of course, is that one departure precipitates another. Returning to his home, Norris is stifled by the city in which he is “forever fifteen, forever brother,/ forever son,/forever ‘him that mucked about in school’,/ forever chav, forever fool”. And so he leaves again, stifled by his shadow because he says “I need people who know my life”, a life that is lived elsewhere. Over the last few years, our homes have become less and less full of us, and more and more museums of what-once-was. Is it really my distance from Fife that troubles me at the moment? Is it not, rather, my separation from the people who know me as I am now and the suffocating feeling of being stuck in a town that’s known me since I was a babe in arms, but not since I became an adult, that’s driving my somewhat desperate checking of the travel restrictions to see when I might be allowed back to ‘my’ flat?
This raises another question - another identity crisis of sorts. If our home-towns are places to be left, is it possible for us to find true “home” elsewhere? Wendy Cope (I couldn’t get through an article on poetry without mentioning her), draws an attractive portrait of a home created, in her latest collection, “Anecdotal Evidence”. In “The Tree”, she describes forging a new home from the memories locked in her Christmas ornaments: “Every trinket tells a story/A memoir of the life we had before./We got through the disruption and the pain,/the tree is telling us we’re home again”. The Christmas tree is the symbol of all those things that ‘home’ means - celebration, tradition, the years gone by and the tree moved from place to place in its pot - rooting the celebrants not just to itself, but to a semblance of home-soil. Is it possible, then, to create or take our home wherever we go? Perhaps. It seems an essential part of the student nomad life to have a box of photographs, postcards, trinkets gathered along your way that are spread out and added to in each new year, each new flat.
So then, if home-places bear us such discomfort, if we yearn to leave them, and upon a later return find their homeliness has dissipated - if “home” is, after all, malleable, transportable, creatable, why do we still return (speaking outside of lockdown situations, of course) to our original “homes”?
Poets have offered their answers to this, old and recent alike. Rachel Boast, born who was a student in Fife and now splits her living between Suffolk and Scotland, has written extensively about her connection to her Scottish “home”. In “Tentsmuir XI” she describes how her adult presence feels disjointed in the forest refuge of her younger self .“This would be a slow world/of slow measures,” she writes, “but I move too rapidly.” Nonetheless, she knows the woods and knows her memories, which coil about her like “rich green scarves of memory”. Though the woods may not grasp her, she recognises them. Norris may leave Nottingham, aware that there is little for him there anymore, but he does not discard it; he is “happy to be Nottingham’s expert - elsewhere”. Spot me around St Andrews with my East Midlands tote bag and my “Ay’up mi duck” poster and you’ll see the same applies to me.
Perhaps then, it is the knowledge we have of our home-towns, knowledge stored in memorabilia; whether that be tote bags or Christmas tree ornaments, dialects or “rich green ropes of memory” - that draws us back. Perhaps it is the unequal burden that we see oh-so-clearly the changes in our homes whilst they refuse to acknowledge any differences in us. Perhaps it is because of this that we return to the places that formed us, however desperate we may be to escape each time we realise how unbalanced that weight of nostalgia is.
Perhaps Mary Oliver puts it best when she sees in “home” “a world that cannot cherish us,/but which we cherish”.
You + Jokes + This Article = Great Show: The Science of Stand-Up Comedy
Sarah Johnston breaks down the intricacies of how stand-up comedians consistently make us laugh
In my opinion, the atmosphere at a comedy show is one of the best feelings ever. There is nothing quite like being in the audience with your best friends, with a light alcoholic buzz going on, listening to someone tell you the worst and most embarrassing parts of their life, and encouraging you to laugh at them. There is such a buzz in watching comedy – an electric, almost giddy joy – in knowing that in a matter of minutes or seconds, you are going to be laughing. When you watch a comedian at work it often feels quite casual, with the back and forth of hecklers and audience participation, but comedians have perfected the precise science of altering your body chemistry to their benefit. So if you’re a wannabe comedian, or if you just like an occasional giggle at a Netflix special, read on and find out why comedy works, and how to scientifically guarantee to be the funniest person in a room.
The first and most important thing to setting up a great comedy show is, well… the setting! Now the setting here is not referring to the location or the venue or anything physical, the setting refers to the atmosphere you create. What kind of mood do you want the audience to have when you start off? It takes us only one-tenth of a second to judge someone upon meeting them for the first time, and the human brain can actually make judgements on someone before meeting them or even hearing of them.
One of our base instincts as humans, and something I discussed in my article about the science of music, is the fight or flight response. It’s an ingrained, subconscious reaction to a new person or situation leftover from our early evolution from cavemen, designed to help us in dangerous situations. In new and scary situations, the brain floods with adrenaline and increased blood flow to the muscles and oxygen to the brain to allow us to think and move more quickly than usual. This means when we encounter danger, we are prepared to take it on (fight mode) or get out of there as fast as possible (flight mode).
Now a comedy show may seem as far from a dangerous situation as possible – except from the horrifying price of the drinks – but comedy works by building up tension and then releasing it. The whole premise of a joke is that someone makes a statement which stresses the listener out and then gives the punchline which reassures them everything is okay and causes the body to relax and the brain to flood with chemicals that make you feel happy. The issue comes if you leave the build-up for too long, at which point the stress-release reaction won’t occur and the body will instead store stress and start to build up adrenaline. The environment in which you watch a comedy show can have a huge impact on your reaction to the jokes told. This is why so many straight-to-screen specials have incredibly short title sequences at the start, to avoid you building up any amount of tension that can stress you out. They know if they start quickly and don’t give you much time to judge them, you are more likely to have a positive reaction. This is also why lots of comedians start shows with one-liners; they are a quick and easy tension-and-release exercise that makes the audience feel more comfortable and trusting of them, and hence more likely to enjoy the show. So if you’re giving your own stand-up performance, think about the tone you set: an audience that can sing along to Disney hits while they wait for a show to start will be a lot more comfortable than 100 people sitting in silence in an auditorium for half an hour.
It’s now time to actually make it to the stage! As I said above, humans judge one another incredibly quickly so your first impression really does count. There is a scientific formula for making a good first impression and it’s based on three things: body language, social filtering, and communication. Your body language is the most obvious one – if you come out on stage hunched over and dragging your feet, the audience knows you don’t want to be there – but there are more subtle tricks to consider too. Having open body language is incredibly important in making people trust you. If you watch comedians, a lot of the time they walk on to stage with their arms splayed wide and waving. This lets your brain subconsciously know that they have nothing to hide and that they are being vulnerable so you’re not in any danger. Another important trick is eye contact and more specifically avoiding it. Even if you are a comedian who wants to interact with the audience, you should never make eye contact. Direct eye-contact is something which humans again have a subconscious reaction to – breaking eye-contact defines you as the weaker individual, and so if you want to avoid an awkward staring match, instead of looking directly into your audience’s eyes, look at the spot between their eyebrows to give the illusion of eye-contact without the pressure. This dominance leads to the second of the features, social filtering.
Social filtering is all about your brain subconsciously finding its ‘role’ in any situation. If you want to engage an audience then you need to make sure you appear as the dominant character in a given situation. This may seem quite counter-intuitive – if you’re the one on the stage surely you’re in charge? However, once again our brains subconsciously pick up on how others behave towards us and translate that into how dangerous a situation is. You want to make the impression that you are in charge, but that you are not a ‘threat’. This means you don’t want to start your show with an insult to your audience. I know that sounds obvious, but lots of common one-liners that are used to start shows are designed to be rude and cheeky to get the audience's attention. You need to be very careful that any quips like this can be both understood by your audience, without them relating to it in a way that offends them. A common way to do this is to be specific in the way you market your show. You can choose a title or theme that appeals to a certain demographic or use the way you present yourself as a brand to dictate your content.
However, you also don’t want to ‘roll over and show your belly’ immediately. You’ve probably heard of the (false) idea of the roles in a wolf-pack with an alpha, betas, and omegas. There is some aspect of this ingrained subconsciously in humans; there are people we know not to mess with and those we know are on a certain level with us. If the opening of your show makes your audience feel sorry for you or like they are more authoritative than you are, you will lose the ability to build the tension which is so key to telling a joke. Many comedians play up self-deprecation or oversell their social awkwardness, but you’ll notice they never use those themes in the opening of their show because they need to establish the right level of dominance first.
The final aspect is communication. You want to make sure your audience understands you not only verbally but non-verbally. You should make sure every sentence is clear so that people don’t waste time trying to read between the lines. This is because the brain can only really focus on one input at a time, so if you tell a joke and someone is sitting trying to figure it out their brain will effectively shut down listening to anything else you’ve said until they’ve worked it out.
So well done you, you’ve made it on stage, you’ve told your first joke and the audience trusts you – how do you keep them engaged? Comedy often uses a technique called ‘subverting the third’ which involves telling a joke where on the third beat you do something unexpected which catches the audience off guard and causes them to laugh. Using threes is very important as socially we have become accustomed to the number 3 and things coming in trios. The specific origins are somewhat lost to time, but we know culturally as far back as the Roman times, people expressed a preference for information given in threes. When as a comedian, you change the predictable third to something unusual.
Another important technique is in delaying the punchline. This stems from the idea that we enjoy things more when we know what is coming – it’s why we love rewatching movies and get more joy from knowing where a plot is going because we don’t have the same sensation of tension without release. In delaying the punchline, a comedian will set up a joke in such a way that the audience knows or is able to predict the punchline, but it is never said. The comedian then moves on to a different subject, leaving the tension of the unfinished joke to build in the viewer's mind and cause anticipation. Later on, the comedian will circle back around, usually very quickly, to the joke, drop the punchline, and accept the roaring applause. This is because our brain gets satisfaction from completing patterns and finishing ‘tasks’. Processing the build-up is subconsciously using up a lot of your brain, and when the punchline is finally dropped the brain releases lots of hormones which makes you feel satisfied. A particularly good example of delaying a punchline can be found in Hannah Gadsby’s ‘Douglas’, where she explains the whole show and all the jokes at the start and then circles back around to each punchline throughout the performance. If you haven’t seen it, I would recommend it for a masterclass in using comedy scientifically.
The final part of the formula to a great comedy performance is, of course, the ending. Usually, comedians save a big joke until last, take time to build up an elaborate story, and then pull out a fantastic punchline, and everyone laughs and leaves thinking that the show was great. The scientific secret behind this is in fact that you can do an hour of mediocre comedy, but as long as the last joke is fantastic, people will walk away happy. This technique is also commonly used in romantic comedy movies and is characterized by finishing the climax of the movie with an upbeat, inspiring, catchy song. The idea is you finish the show in a way that causes a final surge of hormones so that people go home on a high. Usually, this involves dopamine, which is a hormone your brain uses to motivate and reward itself. When you finish your last big punch line, the last lot of dopamine hits the audience's brain and before they can even think about building any more tension, you want to finish the act. This is why a lot of comedians drop and final punchline and, without waiting for an audience reaction, say goodnight. It causes the brain to release both the hormone build-up from the joke and any other held tension because your brain recognizes the tension has ended all at once and gives the body an extra boost.
And that’s it! That’s the scientific method to have a great comedy performance! The rest of a show: content, theme, medium etc. are entirely down to you as a performer but if you can understand the science of how your audience reacts to different parts of your act you can use that to help you give a great set.
The only final advice I can offer is that like science, comedy involves experimenting. You probably won’t nail all your jokes the first time you do them, but you can use the results to tweak your set until it's running smoothly. I’m not saying you need to start a lab book with the results of each show you do – although it probably wouldn’t hurt – but changing one variable at a time can help you put together the ideal act. And if things aren’t going so well for you on stage, just remember that everyone’s experiment blows up once in a while…
The Modern Rediscovery of Witchcraft
Marilena Papalamprou delves into the current resurgence of witchcraft, and what the revival means for society.
Growing up in Greece, a big part of my childhood was something that may appear peculiar to people from other cultures, and that is the twelve Olympians. Greek mythology has of course shaped western culture as a whole, and the myths and plays of ancient times are largely being taught at schools and universities all around the world. But I am not talking about the proper analysis of the themes, symbolism, and allegories when I am referring to my learning. My experience is similar to that of many Greek children. Myths continue to play a central role in our upbringing, being taught at homes for educational purposes. Together with popular fairytales, our parents narrate the story of Zeus and Europa before tucking us into bed. We are encouraged to do our homework in the name of Athena. We even half-jokingly exclaim “Zeus is angry!” when it is raining, or “Poseidon is coming after us!”, when we witness a storm at sea.
Despite the dominion of Orthodox Christianity, ancient Paganism has survived as part of our tradition, and many of us still experience the original teaching of the myths: mouth to mouth, in form of stories, carrying from one generation on to the next. Needless to say, the ancient polytheistic religion is not, to the greatest extent, revived. For the majority of the Greek population, the myths remain the sphere of innocent storytelling. But this early contact with ancient Paganism is sure to generate a certain sensitivity in some children. It may lead to a later curiosity, both for Hellenism in particular and for alternative routes of spirituality in general. And even though, not so many years ago, this interest would be cruelly criticized as too “weird” in the best-case scenario, or “perverted” and even “dangerous” in the worst, today a widespread cultural drift towards the study of the spiritual and the occult has made such passions acceptable. The modern rediscovery of witchcraft has opened many doors for all those who wonder.
To speak from personal experience, I do believe the seed of my fascination with the spiritual was laid when hearing those ancient tales, but I do not pretend to be an expert on the subject. On the contrary, I am quite new at educating myself on witchcraft, its history and modern interpretations. But the feeling was always there, ever since I was first captivated by the beauty and power of the goddess Aphrodite. That is how I think most people interested in witchcraft begin their journey, through a “feeling”. They read or experience something that triggers a previously unfelt curiosity in them. There is something irresistibly tempting in the subject of the witch, and, in the last 5 years or so, there has been a reintroduction of the spiritual in the mainstream. Instagram accounts of modern witches are in abundance, with many of them offering tips for beginners, dreams’ analyses, tarot readings, or even selling their own potion jars and homemade candles. There is a great number of Youtubers sharing their experiences and offering knowledge regarding the craft with thousands of subscribers, and books on witchcraft have seen a substantial increase in both numbers of publication and sales. Where does this 21st-century attraction towards the “old ways” stem from?
First, some basic information. Witches, in the context of a spiritual belief system, are not the female version of the wizard. They are not individuals with magical powers, like making objects move at will, or transform people into animals. This notion was popularized, believe it or not, by the Harry Potter series, but has no foundation outside the realm of literature. Witches can be of any gender and are, on the bottom line, people who believe in and practice the craft. This does not require innate powers, although some practitioners argue for their inborn spiritual abilities. Practice is the key element of modern witchcraft, which can be translated into meditation, writing in a Book of Shadows (a journal for tracing your own personal journey), setting up altar(s), celebrating seasonal festivals like Yule (Winter Solstice), Samhain, or Litha (Summer Solstice/Midsummer), and much more. Witchcraft can be religiously based or not. Some witches self-identify as atheists or agnostics, others believe in polytheistic systems, while there are even some Christian witches. Witchcraft (which is not the same as Wicca, this being but a theist branch of neo-Paganism, becoming popular in the mid-20th century) is largely diverse, which may appear chaotic to those interested in finding out more. But this variety also offers extreme freedom. There is no correct way to engage with or practice witchcraft, which is one of the aspects which makes it appealing. Official religions in modern western societies are highly restrictive, having specific dogma believers ought to follow. They are also centered on the figure of a divine Father, an all-knowing entity, a divine leader in a sense, who sets out those rules. God, as is largely accepted, is the ultimate patriarch. He is the supreme male leader, the source of all moral authority, and has the power to direct, guide, congratulate, and punish. The ideological structure behind this type of religion is obviously coincident with the established western politics. It reinforces the ruling patriarchal societal system, as well as the idea that people’s individuality is inconsequential, and that their purpose as citizens is to comply with the various forms of authority, ranging from state to parental. But in the last few years, the political climate has shifted. People are less willing to conform to a disregarding system. Human rights are once again at the forefront, and people have started questioning traditional values. This is why witchcraft is being introduced as a political notion.
Even though witches, as already mentioned, can be of all sexes, it is not surprising that the vast majority of people engaging with modern-day witchcraft are women. I believe there are two main reasons for this. Firstly, historically witchcraft has been largely associated with women. Men have been prosecuted too, but those most often condemned were women. From the Salem witch trials of 1692-93 to the depiction of the witch as an old, evil hag, or young, sexual, and manipulative in folklore, women have strongly been connected to witchcraft in western history and culture for centuries. These associations place the female in positions of power. Looking back at both history and literature, women are rarely seen or depicted as resourceful agents. The excessively misogynistic attitude of the past explains why witchcraft has for years been associated with evil. Societies did not like what gave women control over their selves and others. Thus, it is most natural for modern women, in their search for strong female representation, to end up in witchcraft. Subsequently, modern witchcraft, due to its freedom and focus on the self, offers an alternative to the conventional didacticism of other belief systems. Witchcraft advocates for building your own beliefs, finding the wisdom that already exists within you. It is all-encompassing, sympathetic, and gives agency to the human. That is why, apart from women, people from other under-represented and often ostracized communities, such as LGBTQ+, black, ethnic, and disabled groups, are largely attracted to it. After all, modern witchcraft is a form of neo-Paganism, with all its branches holding a core belief that Nature is sacred, and that everything natural surrounding us has power and meaning of its own. Humans are part of nature, and thus are sacred together with all plant and animal life. The consideration of the human as divine allows for all people to believe in their innate strength and worth.
What exactly modern witchcraft is, is hard to identify. In my opinion, its beauty lies in its range and its all-embracing character. Its modern revival has allowed for a plethora of books and essays to be published on the subject, and for a variety of fresh voices to be heard. There is, of course, the downside of its commercialization. It is often being taken advantage of for economic gain, or devalued to a passing mode, being played with thoughtlessly for a few Instagram likes, thus offending the honest practitioners, as well as the culture itself. Yet, the positives of its growing acceptance are multiple, and I want to believe in the inherent kindness of people, for, after all, people are all we have got. This revival has allowed for those who have always felt a spiritual calling, an opportunity to explore it without fear, and even though many will abandon the witch’s way of life, others will stay, and, in both cases, knowledge will be acquired during the process. Knowledge is what leads to compassion and acceptance, the two essential principles for societal harmony.
Muse of the Month
Ella Crowsley highlights a pioneer of American dance
My muse is… Gregory Hines, an American tap dancer, actor and choreographer.
He is… a captivating performer and was a major figure in the revitalisation of tap dancing in the late 1900s. When Hines was just six years old, he performed with his older brother at the Apollo Theatre in New York. Just two years later, he made his debut on Broadway in The Girl in Pink Tights in 1954. Throughout his career, Hines starred in more than forty films and received multiple accolades, including a Daytime Emmy and a Tony, as well as nominations for four Primetime Emmy Awards. Hines also performed as the lead singer and musician in a rock band called Severance, based in L.A.
I first learned about him when… I read an article revelling about his advocating for tap in America. Since then I’ve been unable to stop watching his performances and learning more about the incredible work he’s done! He successfully petitioned the creation of ‘National Tap Dance Day’ in May 1989, which is now celebrated in over 40 states in the US, as well as other nations across the world.
I am obsessed because… Hines pioneered a new style of tap dancing. He was an avid improviser of steps and rhythms, using his feet as tools to experiment with interesting rhythms and work with the music backing him up. Critics described his tap as like that of a drummer, coming up with rhythms as he went. Although he inherited the traditions of the typical black rhythmic tap that he’d been taught as a child, he promoted a new rhythmic tap, purposely pushing through the tempos and experimenting with forms in jazz and postmodern music. Hines also pursued a career in acting, featuring in The Cotton Club and the 1986 buddy cop film Running Scared with Billy Crystal. Interestingly, in an interview in 1987, Hines said that he often looked for roles written for white actors, ‘preferring their greater scope and dynamics’. This once again shows his pioneering personality and the steps he took to push not only his own career forwards, but also inspire those following in his footsteps.
My favorite work by him is… Tap (1989). Tap is a dance drama film written and directed by Nick Castle. Hines stars opposite Sammy Davis Jr., playing Max Washington, a talented tap dancer who has just been released from prison after serving time for burglary. The story depicts the decline of tap dancing in the 1950s, being replaced by rock. The role challenges Hines both as a tap dancer, who had experienced this dwindling genre in his own life, as well as his ability as an actor. For this reason, the film is a must-watch!
The work by him you have to check out is…. Preacher’s Wife (1996). In this incredible American comedy, Hines stars opposite Whitney Houston, Denzel Washington and Courtney B.Vance. It was a remake of the 1947 film The Bishop's Wife and was nominated for Oscars for Best Music and Original Musical. Once again, Hines’ multiple talents are showcased brilliantly!