Everyone needs to know about Jandals – A review of Raise the Bar: Spotlight

– by Hannah Teasdale

Raise the Bar: Spotlight | Komedia, Bath | 28th November, 2017, 7.30pm | Feature Act – Ben Fagan

An eye from within the scene…

With reference to the Editor, Claire Trevien’s recent article  The Challenges of Reviewing Spoken Word, I have returned home; belly full of flat beer and a notepad crammed with opinion, wondering what I can write that isn’t potentially viewed as either sycophantically advertorial or unnecessarily critical. When performers take on the role of reviewing their peers, is it going to be possible to be unbiased and objective whilst still maintaining bookings from promoters? Hmmm. I guess I shall soon find out.

I have known the promoter/life-blood of Raise the Bar, Danny Pandolfi, since I met him on the Spoken Word scene a few years ago. Having successfully taken his brand with him from Bristol Student Union when he graduated last year, Raise the Bar has become a formidable event, securing some of the finest Spoken Word artists from around the world. Danny is well connected, respected both as a promoter and artist, and he has worked extremely hard to craft events that always offer crowd-drawing headline acts and a high standard of open mic’ers.

A spotlight on emerging artists…

His most recent venture, Spotlight was initiated last year as a response to what he felt was a demand for the increasing talent pool of open mic’ers to perform in a safe and nurturing space. Spotlight wears the premise of accessibility for emerging artists, from the Feature Acts (whom he supports in launching their debut collections) to the open mic slots, where voices are given a larger proportion of the evening*

He brought the event to Bath for the first time in October, where it is scheduled every last Monday of each month at Komedia, a well-established community led venue in the heart of Bath.

The hosts, plus the logistical stuff…

Spotlight has secured the café area of the building and I cannot think of a better place in Bath to hold such an event. There is rowed seating for around 70, a well-positioned bar, an intimate stage and good standing space for the audience to mingle.

When doors open at 7.30pm, and there is already a steady queue of twenty-something’s gathering outside. With a flat entry fee of £3 and the 12 open mic slots handed on a ‘first come, first served basis’ (with exception for poets travelling from a distance who have been in contact prior), I don’t think anyone can complain about value for money or accessibility. Danny has handed the running of the nights over to a close-knit team of poets, Connor Macleod, Tim Ledwitch and Kate O’Driscoll. They have also been on the South West scene for a number of years and share the various hosting duties, whilst Danny provides the essential scaffolding from a less visible distance.

The night is kicked off by one of the hosts, Connor, a recent Bath Spa graduate who is clearly known to the majority of the audience. Connor is engaging and lively, with a natural stage presence that makes the evening easy to settle into. He explains the format:

  • Section 1 – first batch of open mic slots. Poets have a max of 5 minutes or one long poem
  • The break
  • Section 2 – second batch of open mics
  • Section 3 – the featured act.

Connor gives the audience the opportunity to hear one of his own pieces from the choice of either: a still ink-wet piece that he’d ‘like to try out for the first time’, or an older piece he, ‘knows is good’. He performs both.

The atmosphere…

With the audience audibly warmed up, he introduces each open mic’er to the stage. There is a sense that most people know each other and the atmosphere is warm and encouraging. On the flip side of this, if I was coming here alone to perform as an ‘outsider’ to the Bath Student scene, I may have pretended I was trying to find my son or daughter and disappeared back out of the door at the second or third ‘in-joke’. I hope this can be addressed, particularly as this event has much to offer a whole scene and could easily accommodate and benefit from a more diverse crowd.

There appears to be a somewhat generic spoken word voice emerging from the student scene where much of the content overlaps, as does the rhythm, intonation, lyricism and expectation of word play. This is inevitable with such a niche audience and why I hope Danny can extend this evening out to a wider voice – everyone benefits from sharing words within a broader demographic. December’s Feature Act is Melanie Branton, whom I sincerely hope will stretch the audience both in numbers and with her creative rigour.

And at the centre of the Spotlight

Once the open mic’ers have been thanked, the stage is complemented by a second host, Tim Ledwitch, whose work commitments delayed his arrival. After a palpable but entertaining power struggle between the two hosts, Tim performs his own slick spoken word piece and shares another few ‘in-jokes’ before the Feature Act, Ben Fagan, is introduced, primarily by way of an anecdotal list of Nice Things about Ben Fagan. He was to be performing work from his third collection, Some Traveller.

Once he has the stage to himself, Ben owns every inch of it with a sharp yet unassuming wit and confidence that takes me by surprise. The artist’s performance is consistently engaging, self-effacing without being apologetic, effortless and refreshing. Mainly reading, yet with the poise of having learned his words (a rare and difficult skill in performance poetry), Ben takes the audience through his journey of being away from home (New Zealand) and family. He beautifully holds his own and his replies to a couple of good humoured heckles are understated genius. He is so much more accomplished than ‘nice’ (not that nice isn’t a valuable quality, particularly if you are a poet wanting to shift your debut collection) but Ben has an edge to him that makes his performance both gently crafted and sharply executed.

A number of stand-out pieces that cut through are  …Things I wish I knew when I moved to London– a sharp and witty glance at the cultural differences Ben has experienced (at this stage I urge you to go find where he is next performing or buy his book so that you can find out what a Jandle is); Texts – a stunning found poem assembled from texts received from his father, Mike Fagan; And Flight 433 which I imagine must be Ben’s ‘signature’ piece. During a lively discussion at the end of the evening, I overhear cries of ‘Damn! Why didn’t I think of that?’ and many, ‘I know, right!’ from audience members in response to his set. You don’t get much more of an accolade from this discerning crowd.

Does Spotlight deliver?

If Danny’s aim is to provide, as he states, a safe and nurturing space for emerging artists to perform, then Spotlight has undoubtedly achieved this. The whole evening was a pleasure and has enormous potential to develop into Bath’s most buzzing Spoken Word event. Thank goodness for all those creative bods like Danny, Tim, Connor and Kate who put their time and energy into making this space available and accessible; they just need to work even harder to get the buzz out there to the whole community.

The whole evening was a pleasure and has enormous potential to develop into Bath’s most buzzing Spoken Word event Share on X

Still all good for next year, Danny?

*A larger proportion of the evening compared to my experience of Spoken Word events where there are paid Featured Acts, an open mic section and an admission price.