Posted to the Bardic Circle mailing list, in answer to a question. One day I’ll do this up as a Cockatrice article, maybe.
Who I Am
Off the top of my head, here’s my advice on running a successful bardic circle.
First, my credentials. I was the first (and so far only) Bard of Politarchopolis for a couple of years, from the creation of the Barony until I resigned. I’ve run and/or participated in bardic circles at nearly every Rowany Festival, Spring War and Valhalla I’ve attended, with results ranging from half-hour singalongs to ten-hour uninterrupted miracles. I’ve been a minstrel (my preferred synonym for “bard”) since I joined ten years ago. I’ve produced a couple of songbooks, called The Known Words 1 and 2, which I’m working on a reprinted version of for Coronation. I have the Principality A&S award for performance, and I tend to win bardic competitions often enough that I’ve stopped entering cos it’s a bit embarrassing (gods, that sounds conceited!). And I’m not and never want to be a Laurel, which demonstrates that I’m not a loony.
So I feel I Know What I’m Talking About.
The key to making a bardic circle work is to reach what I call “ignition”, the point when the circle just keeps on going and producing good entertainment without any further guidance. At Rowany, this can take anything from ten minutes to two hours, depending on the mood, the people and the phase of the moon. You know you’ve reached ignition when there’s a bunch of performers all wanting to be next, and it’s not just the usual inveterate showoffs (like me!). Once you’ve got it going, it pretty much stays going for as long as anyone can fight off tiredness; I’ve started circles at Rowany, wandered off, and come back eight hours later to find them still going, with hardly any of the same people there and many of the voices reduced to enthusiastic croaks!
This is my recipe for a bardic circle like that. Your mileage may vary; it can especially depend on how many performers you can find who really want the circle to work, and how many spectators you can get. Take this as a starting point.
Camping events are best for this, of course. You need somewhere that’s not too close to the tavern, the drummers, the dancers, or the other sources of noise. In particular, it’s quite impossible to mix bardic circles and ball-style dancers; the dance music drowns out the singers, the singing throws off the rhythm of the dance. AVOID!
You also need to avoid campsites, especially ones with small children. Some of the performers can be quite loud, even without the bellydancers and their ullulating Xena-style cries, and at night even quiet talking can disturb some people.
A camp fire is good for a medium length (2-4 hour) bardic circle, but after that the smoke can do nasty things to throats and voices. The best idea is a pavillion with a solid clean floor, or tables and lots of chairs, with lanterns and candles for light. You need somewhere to put songbooks and some way to read them. Given sufficient chairs and lighting, and enough room for passersby, there’s no practical limit to how long this sort of circle can continue.
It’s best if the venue is on a public thoroughfare, but not too close to taverns and other meccas of drunken debauchery. The best-ever circles I ever ran or attended were in the Greasyespoone pavillion at Festival years ago — several trestle tables, many many chairs, shelter from the wind on two sides, a couple of lanterns provided, and it was maybe two dozen paces along a road that nearly everyone used to get to and from the tavern. This made it easily visible to everyone who might happen by, without being so close that there was any serious spillover from the tavern itself.
I find a bardic circle works best if a performer is actively running it. A non-performer has one handicap: he or she is less willing to encourage new performers and discourage overly enthusiastic ones. The overly enthusiastic performers aren’t often a problem, but sometimes you’ll find a tone-deaf singer with a thousand obviously-19th-century folk songs to sing, or an inebriated storyteller with a lisp and a monotone who wants to explain the entire Ring Of The Nibelung in precise detail. If you’re a performer yourself, you’ll work out a way to encourage someone else to jump in instead, and hopefully the pain will be minimised. Meanwhile, some of the best performances I’ve heard have been surprises from people who never sang in the SCA before that night; it’s a good idea to encourage this!
There’s no need for people to really be in a circle, I should explain. If you use the structure I describe below, it helps to have some idea of who’s next in order, but if all else fails you can just pass a candle lantern around, like the Conch in Lord Of The Flies (tho less nasty). As long as there’s someone to keep watch and make sure no one is missed, this works fine.
The structure I usually use is one I borrowed (ie stole) from gods-know-where, ages ago; it’s called “Pick, Pass or Play”. Starting on your left, and going around in order, each person there has a choice. They can Play, which means perform: sing, dance, tell a story, play a tune. They can Pass, which means pike out: admit to having no voice, or to shyness, and beg forgiveness. Or they can Pick: choose a song or a singer they’d like to hear, ask for a story on such-and-such a topic, or suggest a style of performance they’d like. Wherever possible, you should try to encourage people to Play, or failing that to Pick. The only reason someone should Pass is if they know absolutely nothing about what’s going on, or they’re crushingly shy, in which case you should minimise embarrassment and leave them be.
It’s important to keep watch on the spectators, to make sure they’re not hovering too far outside the light for fear of intruding. It’s a bardic circle! They’re welcome! Drum this into them if you have to. And make sure as you go round the circle that you don’t miss anyone if you can help it, and that you explain the Pick, Pass or Play concept a couple of times so they know their options.
After that, sit back and enjoy. If you’re running the thing, it’s usually a good idea not to take advantage of the spotlight too much. Don’t tell long stories or sing long songs, and don’t be the first to jump in when someone chooses to Pick a certain style or song that you know well. Your primary role is to keep the circle going, not to build up your own ego.
Whether or not you’re the one running it, you should also keep watch on the mood; if it’s your turn to perform and the last few songs were mournful ballads, sing something bright and silly. If the last few were mostly period, sing filk. If the last few were solo performances, start up a song with a chorus everyone can join in on. Variety is important; every time a bardic circle drifts into a particular “theme” — silly, period, filking, serious — it bores those spectators and intimidates those performers who prefer the opposite.
For a medium-sized bardic circle of about thirty people at Rowany Festival, it usually seems to take two goes round the circle for ignition to occur. Once it does, it no longer matters whose turn it is — performances start happening spontaneously. Of course, you need to keep a tight rein on some egos here, to ensure no one is overlooked and no one wears themselves out in a quest for glory! But usually, this isn’t an issue; there are enough performers around that once the mood takes them, they all get into it. This is the point that you can leave your circle in the capable hands of all assembled and pop off to the privies to deal with the bladder that’s been bothering you since the third rendition of “Hammer Of Thor” an hour and a half ago…
I think that’s about it. If I think of more, I’ll do this up as a Cockatrice article. For now, feel free to Share And Enjoy, and I hope to see you at a circle some time!