We’re in a coffee shop in Glasgow, and poet and performer Rachel McCrum is telling me about the time that she berated a journalist for calling her “feisty”.
“A bit of copy had gone out describing us as a ‘feisty duo’, and I just wanted to eat my own face,” she says. “We’ve had ‘literary lovelies’ as well, which I was also quite offended by. It was interesting though, because it then sparked a conversation on what words did describe us. Scrappy, gobby, political … spiky.”
McCrum is the “broad” of Rally & Broad, a promoter who – along with friend and onetime flatmate Jenny Lindsay, curates a monthly “cabaret of lyrical delights” in Edinburgh and Glasgow. From its unfunded, seat-of-the-pants early days in the capital’s Counting House in 2012, via special events at the Book Festival and Glasgow’s Festival 2014, Rally & Broad begins 2015 with residencies at the Bongo Club, Edinburgh; and at TYCI’s new home of Stereo in Glasgow.
And yet, it still isn’t enough for a night that, the more I hear about it, sounds a lot like TYCI’s slightly bookish, wine-swilling older cousin.
“This is our problem: ‘it’s brilliant, but how would we pay for it?’ ‘doesn’t matter, doesn’t matter, we’ll work on that later’,” says McCrum, laughing, of their plan to run spoken word workshops the day after each show, hosted by the previous night’s headline poet. “If it works – if we get enough people interested – then over the next six months these workshops will explore different aspects of spoken work practice. So, if you went to all six of them, you’d come out with – not necessarily answers, but possibilities for where to go with spoken word poetry performance skills.”
It’s an innovative idea, and one that ties in perfectly with part of Rally & Broad’s founding ethos: to create a gender balanced platform for new writers and established acts; authors, poets, musicians and dancers sharing a stage together, and to have a lot of fun. To create a spoken word night that “is your Friday or Saturday night out”, as McCrum puts it, while at the same time encouraging like-minded souls that there was a place for them on the stage.
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves here.
It was the summer of 2011. McCrum had recently moved to Edinburgh where she quickly became involved in the local arts scene while Lindsay, a local promoter and poet, had taken some time out to re-train as a teacher. The pair became good friends during the festival season and over a few glasses of wine, hatched the idea for their as-yet-unnamed night.
“It was actually a really interesting time to be in Edinburgh, with quite a female-led scene: a lot of the people organising the grassroots nights were female and there were a lot of female poets and strong female voices about at the time,” she says. “But as we spent a year talking about what we wanted to do, we became aware that as two female promoters working together it was quite rare.”
“We knew we wanted gender balanced billing, that was our main thing from the start – because the more women we can get on stage doing stuff, and the more women who see that, the more women get up on the stage. Jenny and I are very aware that there are more male performers out there than female performers, more men entering poetry slams than women. I don’t want to say there are less opportunities for female performers because I don’t think that’s fair; but poetry slams, for example, can be quite aggressive environments depending on how they are promoted. But once women see other women on the stage: well, I remember doing an event in Glasgow last year where I was the only female, and at the end the sister of the guy who was running it came up to me and said ‘that was amazing, I really want to do that.”
And so to Rally & Broad, a name which McCrum and Lindsay almost literally pulled out of a hat – in reality, it was two jam jars into which over the course of dinner with a friend they had placed words that they associated with the idea of their new venture. “Broad” was the first poem McCrum ever won a slam with, on International Women’s Day; while “Rally” comes from a poem of Lindsay’s that has never been performed live. The title “just seemed to capture the flavour we were going for instantly”, says McCrum. Supported for a second year with funding from Creative Scotland, which together with ticket sales enables McCrum and Lindsay to pay acts, photographers and door staff proper, professional fees, Rally & Broad now runs roughly on the third Friday of the month in Edinburgh and the the last Sunday of the month in Glasgow. Each month has its own theme, which acts can incorporate into their set as they see fit, although different performers feature in each of the different cities for practical reasons. It’s a five-act cabaret not counting McCrum and Lindsay’s opening monologues – which verge on the theatrical themselves – featuring a headline spoken word act and band; a ‘live literature’-style act and a singer-songwriter or acoustic act; and a five or ten minute “new voices” slot to open the night.
“There are a number of people who, in the first year, we booked in the ‘new voices’ slot who went on to take the midway slot in our second year and who have now become headliners, which is really exciting,” McCrum says. “We get to give people opportunities and see them grow in confidence. Our audiences tend to be attentive audiences, their ears tuned to hear words, so even the musicians and the bands that we book are usually towards the wordy end of the scale – but basically, as long as it’s going to be entertaining for an audience, we’re willing to consider it.”
Going in to 2015, Rally & Broad are keen to push their monthly themes a little more: little phrases or song lyrics, sometimes quite abstract, that the acts that they book will engage with in different ways. Some people, McCrum says, have their set already but will find a way to tie in the theme, while others have been known to write new material. January is The Apology Shop, headlined by Francesca Beard (Edinburgh, 23 January) and Liz Lochhead (Glasgow, 25 January) – while February is, rather magnificently, Oh Bondage! Up Yours!
“I initially wanted to call it Little Girls Should Be Seen and Not Heard, but it turns out Jenny doesn’t actually know the song,” McCrum explains. “So we’re having an education in female punk. She was like, is that ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’? I’m very excited about it. We’re been quite careful with the billings for that one and we deliberately chose Harry Giles to headline – so it’s a guy headlining, who engages with feminism in a really interesting and incredibly supportive/activist way. I can’t wait to see what he does with the theme.”
It’s been three years, each bigger and more exciting than the last, but Rally & Broad have never lost sight of their core purpose – or their friendship. Being quite determinedly the “faces” of their night perhaps gives them more visibility than other spoken word nights or promotion teams, but while it does open them up to the odd journalistic clanger it’s a choice that McCrum is more or less happy with.
“We thought quite hard after the first season about what we were doing,” she says. “But Jenny and I bounce off each other. We’ve lived together for three years. We’ve had our massive fights, we’ve covered each other’s backs, we know each other ridiculously well – and that relationship, or a heightened version of it, is now part of the show.”
For better or worse. And spiky with it.