Thursday, June 27, 2013

Competition in the World of the SCA

In the SCA, I call myself a Skomorokh. This, alone, tells you two things. One, that I have a Russian persona. And two, that I like to consider myself a certain ilk of performer.

Most all of my enjoyment in the SCA hinges on two very specific things. Between my love of my hobbies (from performance, metal working, fiber, wood working, stone carving, archery, etc) and my love of my Russian research, I feel very well settled in what I enjoy.

I have done competitions before. The competitions I have done before were for very specific reasons. The main reason was for feedback. I am someone who is constantly learning. I love learning. And there is still so much I want to learn. So if I am getting feed back of 'you are obviously enthusiastic, check out this book' or 'have you tried doing it more like this? You might come up with the result you are hoping for if you do' or, best of all 'hey, I would love getting together with you and working on this', I am incredibly happy.

Competitions certainly have their places. And there are areas they make full sense in, such as in archery and fighting and fencing. These things have clear winners, clear point systems. Everyone watching can say, yes... that person hit the bulls eye.

Competitions, in period, were a way for preparing for war. So those three categories? It makes perfect sense for them to be competitions. But the arts? I would rather create than destroy. The arts were meant to give people a reprieve from war, even if it was in the manner of telling or depicting stories of battle.

Perhaps I am wrong, but from what I have read, there were not competitions in the arts. How, then, did a Czar or Great Prince of Russia choose who they wanted on their staff? They would say “I saw some fantastic performers in Novgorod last time I visited and I prefer them to the ones here in Moscow. Round them all up and bring them here so I can enjoy them.”

When you think about it, that is exactly what bardic competitions are. They are a selection of all the Skomorokh in Russia and end with the Prince shrugging and saying 'I prefer you'. No criteria is needed or met. The royal gets what they want, which is exactly how it should be. But no one is better than anyone else. For example, the Novgorodian Skomorokhi may have been more adept at tumbling than the Moscow Skomorokhi, but were not as big of a fan of singing. Perhaps the Prince hated music but loved pratt falls. He is getting what he wants. It is how it worked.

But, what happened when the Guslari fell from the courts because the use of a gusli was seen as satanic with the church coming in and linking the instrument to the warlocks of the Skomorokhi? There was an unspoken cameraderie as they joined in with the groups of Skomorokhi and learned their trades, taught them their stories and songs. They joined the troupes so that the art of the guslari was not forever lost. And, needless to say, there were still Princes that prefered these bylini that the Guslari told to the acrobatics of the Skomorokhi as, so stated the church, it was connected to evil. But by telling the bylini, the heroic stories of past deeds, it felt more courtly and less pagan.

Keep in consideration that the Skomorokhi were a troupe of performers with a wide variety of offerings from trained animal acts to courtly poetry to ceremonial pagan songs for the rites of the seasons. Nothing was a taboo for them. They would be in the streets doing puppet shows as often as they would be seen with a gusli strapped to their chest doing a little dance routine as they played. They wore masks to act out stories other Skomorokhi would tell and there are even stories of how particular Princes would get drunk and join them, with a mask, in dancing. Performance art, in Russia, was very much a free for all jam session as I seem to read it. Certainly troupes would perform together, but as with Commedia, there were certain routines that would be know between all the groups so that, if they met, they could act out these short 2 minute scenarios.

It was no wonder the Prince would prefer one troupe to another or one area to another. With such a well versed collection of things they would do, it was easy to have a preference.

To me, the SCA is all about working to perfect my persona. The joy of the SCA is picking a persona and researching it to the point of being them. I enjoy performing as Katrusha would perform. Swapping stories in the hospitality tent with Cariadoc was one of the most amazing moments of Pennsic for me last year. We both sat there as we were, Cariadoc and Katrusha, smiling and enjoying a chance meeting as we stopped in the shade enjoying the hospitality of cool drink against the morning sun.

I have spent a lot of time reading and playing around with Katrusha and learning more about her life, her history, her experiences. All of these things are important to me to be able to go to an event and be able to perform as she would perform. Yes, there are still aspects of me in her. My joy and excitement to learn everything even if it isn't Russian. But the classes I teach are things that excite and interest her and I do make sure to give them a Russian flair.

When it comes to classes, I prefer that my teaching style be more of a round table discussion. Yes, I have learned things and would talk your ear off about my findings if given the chance, but there is nothing more exciting for me than being able to have an actual back and forth with someone and learning where they went with their angles of research. I'm not an expert by any means and I truly and honestly believe that everyone has something they can teach. In a class setting, I enjoy going to hear other people, but I find sometimes I want to jump up and start gushing about how it all makes sense considering the findings I have read about. Even in a classroom setting, I still seem to be on the idea of jam sessions where everyone is able and willing to contribute. It is something I have really taken to heart.

I have found, when it comes to research, there are various fields of how people play it. There are those that love to share the information they find because it helps them to feel like they have grown and know a lot on their subject. There are those who hoard their information because they want to know a lot but they don't want to share it until they have finished whatever it is they are studying. There are those who adore picking people's brains, but because they are always asking, no one realizes how much they actually do know. There are those that, like me, enjoy jam sessions of teaching each other through a localized list or book group or various other manners. There is nothing wrong with any style in particular. They are all about learning, and learning is fantastic. Some are certainly more social, and some feel more competition related. People all learn and teach in different manners.

So, the three parts of the SCA that I am discussing today (because, lets face it, there is a lot that I haven't even begun to touch on with my journal entries), are classes, research, and competitions. All three of these things can bring someone up and encourage and inspire them, or it can level them to the floor. You can choose, through classes, to be rude and only talk about your research and discredit everyone else's (as either a teacher or a student), or you can encourage with other source ideas, admit that you are not an expert in the field. In research, you can claim only one book to be right, tell people how they are doing it all wrong per what you have read, or you can ask people where they learned what they did, perhaps looking up the book or maybe even share your research with them and do a sources exchange. You can create or you can destroy.

Competitions, though, are different. They are different because of the fact that, in a whole, a competition is preparation for war which in its own way means it is a cause for destruction. But you can inspire and create life through competitions if you know how.

When it comes to competitions (the ones where the main goal isn't for someone to pick a successor, because those make some sense to me), I feel there is no way to fairly judge something of this nature. People have been talking about 'high quality' recently, but the idea of high quality bothers me. Whose quality? Who is chosing what quality is? I have done a lot of research on my persona and on Skomorokhi and feel I could possibly judge what a *good* Skomorokhi performance would be (but being no expert in the field, I couldn't say if they are high quality or not), but I wouldn't. But typically, no one that is choosing the high quality performances, for example, knows what Skomorokhi are like or what they did. So, if they are not really well researched on different formats and styles (like someone judging dancing in modern days is very well researched on the form of specifics styles), how are they choosing what is high quality in any area of the arts? They are choosing what they like. They are taking on the role of a royal and deciding what will be best for the entire audience because what they like will be best.

That is not a very fair or equal way to chose any art in the least. So, as I have spoken a lot about Skomorokhi, now look at this on a level of bardic competitions. You have people who do not make it to a final round or do not win and take this as it meaning that they need to work harder, that they didn't reach that goal of being good enough. But, in reality, they simply were not what the judges liked.

How do you keep from doing that? Research. A lot of reading. And rubrics. Knowing that your opinion of a piece (“Oooh, harp is pretty!” “Oh damn, another skald? Bleh!” “I can't take another filk!” “Oh, this person can sing AND play guitar!”) has no weight at all in the competition. You watch the audience and view their reaction, not yours. And you watch the performer for technical things such as how they use their space, if they try and keep out of modern terminology, if they have a distracting mannerism like constantly saying 'um', how is their documentation, or even if they are dressed appropriately for the performance.. And even then, it still isn't a fully fair judging.

Why is that? What if I researched into a certain style of performance art and nailed it. It is, hypothetically, a style where someone is supposed to be physcially distracting with their movements and alternate between singing in various languages? What if I researched and that is exactly how a certain piece was performed, a very particular piece? There are people that are not going to like it. And on the rubric, the distracting movements would be seen as a flaw. Even with documentation saying I did everything right, there is still bound to be someone who said they did not like it and it was not appropriate for competition (I have had this comment about putting “mistakes” into A&S competitions as more of a 'look what I learned' instead of a 'I can make something pretty' and it does not go over well as some people are not interested in the learning process and more in the polished final product).

That is the problem with judging based on your likes. I can not think of a way to make certain that performances can be all judged fairly. You will also always have that desire in the back of your mind to judge based on previous pieces you have seen. Did you like it better or worse than the last piece of embroidery that you saw? Could you see this from across the room and decided it must get a good score because the table of scrolls took up three tables, so it must be more important than this one scroll that you are supposed to be looking at right now?

It is nigh on impossible to be judged fairly in this style of competition. It isn't like in heavy weapons where someone was hit. They felt it. They fall. Or archery where you shoot and it sticks in the target. What you like is not the same as what I like and what I consider quality is not the same as what you consider quality. It is as simple as that.

Would we be competing in medieval times for some kind of precious 'you the cook!' shiny? No. We would not. We are all there to entertain the audience. We share what we do with each other and teach people what we do so they can act out the story as we tell it or sing along in harmony. We are the fun that helps people forget about the wars and the plagues. When tournaments are going on, we entertain the populace that are not fighting during the day and the fighters at night. We do not need to compete with each other for who is the best. They *do* need to be able to fight and find the best of their ilk because they are our protectors. I want someone I know is going to hit a man coming towards me with his spear to protect me. And although, yes, I want a seamstress who is able to make me a dress that lasts longer than a month, arts and sciences are not a life or death situation.

Do these competitions promote excitement in the field and make people want to try it as well? For some, but not for all. New people who have just started are not always going to go to a competition where they are going to be judged, not given feedback, and then told 'well, these people who won should be inspiring you to be better.' The 'not giving feedback' is what I think hurts the most. And it can't be casual 'this is what I liked and didn't' feedback. It has to be inspiring feedback so people don't feel like quitting their craft from the get go. Not everyone is perfect their first time doing something. Tell them that you noticed they weren't keeping eye contact with the audience which makes it hard to draw them in. Let them know where they could go for more research into those styles of metal working. Introduce them to someone who would be excited to help them work on their spinning technique. Tell them you appreciated their enthusiasm in their craft. If there is some completely blatant anachronism, ask them where they researched into that particular styling because you thought it didn't come around until after period. You never know. You may learn something!

When I was new in the performance field, I was asked at my very first weekend long event to be in a bardic competition. And I did, because I loved to sing and I just wanted to sing for people with no care for the competition. And you know what? It was a positive experience. I didn't win, but I was given the grading sheet with my score and why I got the scores I did in each field by each of the judges. It inspired me to want to work more on the fields I was lacking in. I was also able to approach the judges and ask them to elaborate on issues.

When I was new in the metal field, I also put things into a competition. The reasoning for that was my desire to put out the entire craft, from start to finish, to maybe interest other people in trying the craft or, more hopefully, having people be able to give me feedback and other ideas of things to try. Because of that experience, I got some amazing feedback and a teacher that is as enthusiastic about teaching me as I am to learn.

So I am not saying, in the least, that competitions are a bad thing. I think that they can bring about some positivity. I think they can help to be inspiring. But by putting all of our gatherings into the one basket, so to speak, and not allowing for a more relaxed style of classes or research solariums or inspiring people to keep at their craft when you notice that perhaps they aren't as well polished as you would like them to be (perhaps all they need is practice), it can really hurt the community. People on the outside can see certain fields as being a very spiteful and vindictive pecking order instead of a rousing group of creativity minded individuals that they want to join, even if they have nothing to offer themselves. Because the mindset of the community leans towards competitions, we need to keep in mind that we should be creating instead of destroying. High quality is not a terminology we need to use to describe ourselves. Let your art speak for itself. Research. Inspire. Create. That is why we are here. To create a dream. Be kind to one another.