When contact teaching became impossible, Harri Hertell decided to move his performance poetry workshops online. How did building connection, trust and support through a screen work?
When Finnish poet, spoken word artist and cultural producer Harri Hertell organises his performance poetry workshops, usually the first exercise goes like this: write a poem about a topic that you know very well.
The poem is then shared with other participants, which is both thrilling and rewarding.
“Often people reveal something painful or very personal about themselves and get immediate support from others. Someone might get emotional while reading their poem, and another person comes and gives them a hug,” Hertell says.
In short, this is a quick bonding mechanism for strangers thrown together in shared space.
Spring 2020, however, things have been different. Hertell had only completed five performance poetry workshops before the coronavirus put a stop to all cultural events and gatherings. Trying to figure out ways to keep working under the new restrictions, Hertell decided to apply for funding for online workshops.
I felt that myself and the participants had a real strong connection, which was interesting to witness.
With the financial support he received from the City of Helsinki, Hertell was able to organise two online workshops that were also free of charge for the participants.
Teaching performance poetry is very much based on strong presence and connection, and the poet admits that he was nervous about whether this could be translated to online environment. Would it be possible to build the trust and support needed through a screen?
In the end, Hertell’s first ever online workshop organised via the Zoom video chat application proved to be a positive experience.
“During the pandemic, I have also performed online and sometimes that has left me feeling somewhat empty, as the presence of my audience has mostly been emojis and comments on the screen. But in the workshop, I felt that myself and the participants had a real strong connection, which was interesting to witness.”
Online workshops can attract shy participants
Normally, Hertell organises his performance poetry workshops in co-operation with Citizens’ Forum, a nationwide liberal adult education institution. The workshops typically have 8-12 participants and a strong focus on peer learning.
Throughout the course, the workshop leader introduces different techniques and tools that people are then encouraged to try out on their own.
“In performance poetry, it is not essential for the pieces to be polished, but it is important to experiment and explore on stage.”
People tell each other how their nervousness demonstrates itself and the share tips on how to manage the anxiety.
Stage fright and nervousness are topics that participants always want to discuss. People tell each other how their nervousness demonstrates itself and the share tips on how to manage the anxiety.
In the first online workshops, Hertell detected less nervousness than usual. He reckons that online workshops could attract participants who might feel too shy to try the traditional performance poetry workshops.
“With cameras, participants can see and hear each other, which is important in creating team spirit. At the same time, interacting via the screen gives people a bit more safety and distance.”
Creating a positive spiral
Practising giving and receiving feedback is a big part of all Hertell’s workshops, and this did not change in the online environment. His principle is that everyone tries to offer as much feedback as possible to each other, but only in an encouraging tone.
“Obviously, no one is forced to comment on anything. But usually people get excited about complimenting each other, and that creates a positive spiral. We are usually such harsh critics of ourselves that I do not really see any danger in focusing on positivity.”
An online workshop is obviously a more ecological way to teach.
In normal conditions, Hertell’s work takes him all around Finland and the world where the participants in workshops tend to represent the local community. In the first online workshops, there were people attending from different parts of the country, which created different mixes and atmospheres, Hertell says.
“And in all honesty, as much as I enjoy seeing the world, it was also nice not to spend 24 hours just travelling somewhere for the workshop. An online workshop is obviously a more ecological way to teach.”
Performing leaves many hungry for more
Usually Hertell’s workshops last either a day or two and culminate in a casual open mic session for all participants. The open mic easily goes on for hours, as people build up the courage to take the stage and perform work written during the workshop.
This is how participants get a feel for what performing at an actual poetry event in a bar or a library could be like.
“Many say that their open mic performance ends just when they are starting to get into the swing of things.”
In the online workshops, Hertell ended up condensing the contact teaching down to 7 hours with several breaks in between. Before the actual workshop, he also sent participants preliminary exercises to familiarise themselves with the world of performance poetry.
Although performing to a screen cannot really be compared to performing for a live audience, the open mic session also came about quite organically in the online workshops.
“And that is the most important thing. If participants get hungry to experiment more with performance poetry, then I consider the workshop a success.”