Finding the Actor Inside of You

By Penn Kemp

Reading your poem is a performance. It is not a lecture, a talking-to; it is a deep sharing of your creativity. Performance is simply communicating, telling your story to those who want to hear it. Believe me, the audience wants to be entertained. The audience wants you to succeed, to convince them, to move them. The audience participates in listening to you. Your failure, your humilitation is theirs. The audience shares in your creation, the gift you offer of your voice and your poem.

“Telling is listening”, writes Ursula K. Le Guin in her book about writing, The wave in the mind : talks and essays on the writer, the reader, and the imagination. Telling is a gift you wrap and present to the audience. It is a kind of magical transformation in which you share the poem you have translated from the ether. You transmit your piece into the minds of your listeners through your evocative presentation.
How do we lift the poem off the page? When the words themselves are allowed to speak through you: they are loud, or soft or squealing: as you choose. Performance is rhythm. Once you find the rhythm of your poem, the words speak you. Let the current of words carry you in your delivery. Once you find the rhythm, you can’t just mutter the words, or speed them along to get the ordeal over with.
Sometimes, we find it easy to write and edit a piece of work but difficult to read it out loud to the group. When we have spent so much time perfecting the work, it deserves an audience. If you are self-conscious about reading, perhaps you would like to meet the Actor inside you who likes nothing more than performing new work, especially yours!

This is the technique I teach, using the imagination to separate self-consciousness from the performance of your poem:

  • Imagine the dressing room of your favorite actor. You know you are expected and welcome. Knock on the door. The actor is waiting for you. You hear your name being called by a familiar and beloved voice: the actor is ready to see you. Put your hand on the handle of the door, push it open and allow yourself to be surprised, to be amazed.
  • There in the dressing room is the actor, seated in front of a large mirror. The actor has a piece of paper in hand and is reading from it with the most exquisite emphasis. This actor knows how to give each word, each phrase of the piece justice. You recognize the words spoken as the poem you have written and edited. The actor is preparing, memorizing the piece to deliver it to the audience. This actor knows the craft of acting, and delights in performing with perfect confidence, ease and joy.
  • Approach the actor, standing behind the chair to read the piece at the same time. As you read the piece, you find yourself zooming in on the page, so close that you sink down into and become the actor. Suddenly, you hear the actor’s voice as your voice, with all the new inflections and tricks of the trade you have learned. You rehearse and memorize the piece, a feat that the actor finds very easy, and so do you. You know that a memorized piece has power, as you can deliver it directly to your audience.
  • A bell rings. Your name is called. Stand up as the actor, excited. The time has come. Your audience eagerly awaits you. Go out and walk down the hall to the stage door. Open it and enter onto the stage, completely self-possessed and sure of yourself and the beauty of your poem. A sea of faces greets you with smiles.
  • You reach center stage, stand still a moment to project yourself throughout the hall and begin to perform the piece. You deliver the poem so that your voice reaches everyone in the huge hall, even people behind the last row. Your timing is impeccable. It is as if the intention of the piece is speaking through you.
  • You offer your poem to the audience, taking your time to give the words the emphasis they deserve. Then you wait as the audience receives your work. When you come to the end, there is a silence while the audience savours what you have said. And then the clapping begins.
  • It is essential in performing your piece to separate your ego from your poem, to step outside yourself. In letting the Actor perform your work, you eliminate self-consciousness. You allow the poem to speak through you without interference, embarrassment or fear. The poem is free to be spoken through you.

Inteded grade level(s) of the lesson: From Junior through High School.

For Further Reading:

Julia Cameron, The Artist’s Way Every Day: A Year of Creative Living (Tarcher)
Natalie Goldberg, Thunder and Lightning: Cracking Open the Writer’s Craft (Bantam)
Penn Kemp, What Springs to Mind (Pendas Productions)
Penn Kemp, For Me It Was Foxes (Pendas Productions)
Ursula K. Le Guin, The wave in the mind : talks and essays on the writer, the reader, and the imagination

Activist poet, performer and playwright, Penn Kemp, M.Ed., is a League of Canadian Poets Life Member and winner of their 2015 Sheri-D Wilson Golden Beret Spoken Word Artist of the Year award. She is the inaugural Poet Laureate for London Ontario, with twenty-six books of poetry and drama published; six plays and ten CDs produced, along with award-winning videopoems. As Writer-in-Residence for Western University, her project was the DVD, Luminous Entrance: a Sound Opera for Climate Change Action, Pendas Productions. Penn has performed and published her work world-wide, often as writer-in residence in Canada, Brazil, U.S., and India. Her “poem for peace in many voices” has been translated into 136 languages and performed around the world: see She recently edited two anthologies, Performing Women and Women and Multimedia, for the Feminist Caucus Archive Series of the League of Canadian Poets. Quattro Books is publishing a new book of poetry, Barbaric Cultural Practice. Her play, The Triumph of Teresa Harris, will be produced in 2017 at the Palace Theatre, London ON. Updates can be found on and

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