Tuesday, 28 May 2013

Liars' League

by Catriona Troth

Hello and welcome to Liars’ League – where writers write, actors read, the audience listens, and everyone of a nervous disposition should leave the room now, because tonight’s theme is TWIST AND TURN.

Thus compère Liam Hogan heralds the opening of Liars’ League sixth birthday event.

There are undoubtedly writers out there who are brilliant at reading their own work and love to do it. But let’s face it, the majority of us get nervous, stumble over our words, hate the sound of our own voices and would generally do anything to get out of the whole ghastly ordeal.

Step forward, Liars’ League, brainchild of novelist, playwright and creative writing teacher, Katy Darby.

“About six or seven years ago, I was attending Tales of the DeCongested, an event at Foyles where writers were invited to read their own work. It so happened that night, three authors in a succession managed to get in the way of their own text.  One was very nervous and started to speak much too fast, one had a thick accent, and one was much, much too quiet.

“I remember turning to my friend and saying, ‘wouldn’t it be brilliant if we could get actors to read the work for them.’ Actors don’t get nervous in the same way.  They are separate from the text and can play about with it.  They have clear speaking voices and they are trained to project. Writers could still have the pleasure of seeing an audience respond to their stories – laughing, or being thoughtful or sobbing into their pints – but without that pressure of performance.”

Nothing like that was around at the time, but Darby was determined to change that.  “I knew a lot of actors, I’d done some drama work at college, and I bullied all my friends from the UEA Creative Writing MA into submitting stories. We began in a little room above the Lamb in Lamb’s Conduit Street, which was perfect at the time.  Twenty people filled the room – thirty and it was packed.”

It didn’t take long to outgrow that space. These days, Liars’ League regularly attracts an audience of 40 to 50 people, often more.  Their new home – where they meet on the first Tuesday of every month – is in the basement of the Phoenix pub on Cavendish Square, just by Oxford Circus.

Liars’ League has since spawned three off-shoot groups – one in Leeds (currently dormant), one in New York and one in Hong Kong. Darby maintains an interest in them all, and reads and votes on submissions to all three.

So how can writers get involved with the Liars’ League?

Each month, a theme is selected – one with a fairly broad interpretation.  Writers submit stories of between 800 and 2000 words, which must be unpublished (in print or online), unbroadcast, and not a prizewinner in any previous competition. The Liars – a mixed group of writers and actors, of whom Darby is the heart, if not the head – judge the stories on quality of writing, fit with the theme and how well they translate into the spoken word. (Submission guidelines here.)

“Sometimes stories that work brilliantly on the page don’t work when spoken aloud,” says Darby.  “Perhaps they have too much dialogue, or too many different voices. I’ve learnt to read the stories aloud.”

All stories are judged anonymously and at least five or six of the Liars read every submission.  Actor-Liar, Cliff Chapman, joined the pool of acting talent two years ago after starring in a play written by Darby for Player-Playwrights.  “I’d sight-read for the part and Katy took that as my audition.  I read one of the stories for the Liars’ League Christmas event that year, and I’ve been doing it ever since.  Then last summer, one or two of the Liars were moving on, and Katy asked if I’d like to join the judging panel.  I guess what I bring to the group is that, as an actor, I can get a feel for how well a story will work in performance.”

Altogether, they receive 50 or 60 submissions each month, from which they select, typically, half a dozen for performance.

“Any that reach the top ten, we give feedback on,” says Darby. “As I writer myself, I know how frustrating it is to get a flat ‘no’ and have no idea if you missed by one place or a thousand. If something just wasn’t quite right, we encourage people to try again.  That way you build quality submissions.”

Once the stories are selected, they are matched with an actor from the Liars’ extensive pool of talent – someone with the right character profile or who can do the right accent, or just someone who has the acting ‘chops’ to do a particular story justice.

“We meet the weekend before each month’s event – usually with the writers as well, if they can come – and rehearse every story.”

Arriving early for the Twist and Turn event, I witness a final rehearsal of one story: ‘Meatheads’ by Dean Kisling.  Together, Darby and actor Steve Wedd work on the fine nuances of pause and emphasis, changes in pace. The story makes repeated reference to “the hawk-faced man who said little and stared intently,” and Darby admonishes Wedd to “hold that stare until the audience just starts to squirm.”

Unlike some Open Mic events that seem to be geared firmly to the under 35s, there is a big age spread here, among the actors, the writers and the audience.  Everyone is made to feel at home.

“We have some regulars.  And the writers and actors will generally bring along a few friends,” Hogan tells me. “But apart from that it’s very mixed.  You never really know in advance how a story is going to play.”
Carolyn Eden has experienced the Liars’ League both as an actor and a writer. 

“What I love about the Liars’ League is that there is no element of competition.  You send off your story and it’s accepted or it’s not.  But when it comes to the evening itself – it’s joyous, a celebration of good writing and wonderful acting.  There’s no bitchiness.  No side to anyone.”

So what is it like handing your words over to someone else, rather than standing up and facing the audience yourself?

“There comes a point where you have to trust the actor and trust the director, or you’ve no business submitting your stories,” says Eden.  “It’s never exactly as you heard it in your own head. But then often they bring out something that you never knew was there. And of course,” she smiles mischievously, “if they don’t like the story, it’s the actor’s fault – and if they like it, well, it’s all your own work!”

And with that we are ready for the first performance.  If you enjoy listening to audio books, you will know what a good actor can bring to the text.  But here you have the added dimension of the visual performance as well.  The comparison that springs to mind is one of Alan Bennett’s Talking Heads pieces – though not all the stories are monologues, far from it. But there is that direct, intimate, one-to-one with the actor that sucks you into the stories and – in this case – allows the ‘twist’ hidden at the end to give you a pleasurable slap. 

I leave with a new ambition in my writers’ To Do list:  write and story good enough to be accepted by the Liars and hear it read by one of their brilliant actors.

All their performances are videoed – so if you can’t get to an event, the Liars’ website provides you with the choice of reading the stories, hearing them, or watching the performances. You can sample all the stories from the Twist and Turn event, including 'Meatheads' and Eden’s story, ‘Upside Down Pudding,’ here. http://liarsleague.typepad.com/liars_league/twist-turn/

The next London meeting of the Liars' League is on Tuesday 11th June from 19:30, downstairs at the Phoenix pub, Cavendish Square (doors open 19:00).  The theme will be Kings and Queens.

Catriona Troth grew up in two countries, uses two names, and has had two different careers. She tries always to remember who she is at any one time, but usually finds she has at least two opinions about everything. She is the latest member of the Triskele Books writers’ collective and the author of the novella, Gift of the Raven 

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