‘Shame’ is a new work of spoken word hip hop theatre by John Berkavitch who is joined by some of the country’s most innovative break-dancers as he explores the feeling of shame through a combination of narrative spoken-word, hip-hop and contemporary dance, illustration, animation and music. ‘Shame’ opens at the Roundhouse from 8th May, we catch up with John Berkavitch to find out more!
Q. How did you start as a spoken word artist?
I started rapping when I was about 12 years old after discovering hiphop through stealing tapes out of my older brother’s stereo. By the time I was 19 I was going to a lot of open mic nights and jumping into cyphers where ever I could, but always felt like it wasn’t quite right for the kind of lyrics I was writing.
A friend of mine got hold of a VHS copy of a film called “SLAM” by Saul Williams and after seeing it I realised that I should be doing Slam Poetry.
The first time I performed at a poetry night I just spat some rap bars accapella and a woman came up to me after asking if I had a book of my poetry for sale. At the time I didn’t even really read books so it blew me away that someone thought I might have written one.
Another guy came up and immediately booked me for a gig at another poetry night and it all started from there.
Q. Storytelling through spoken word was a way to give a voice to the voiceless through art. Was there a particular issue that made you want to be that voice?
It wasn’t really a particular issue that started it but I’ve always loved and enjoyed telling stories so it felt like the right thing for me to be doing.
Q. Poetry is a huge part of the Hip Hop culture, and over the years this has been lost in mainstream Hip Hop. How important do you feel it is for Hip Hop artists to engage their listeners with thought provoking content and lyrics?
I think content is the most important thing in lyrics. The hiphop that I relate to has always been primarily focused on lyrical content. For me the idea of “keeping it real”, as in telling your story/opinion, is what makes hiphop important. Finding things that I can identify within the lyrics of rappers whose lives and upbringings are vastly different to my own has always made me appreciate how similar we humans all are.
Q. As well as spoken word, you also breakdance. Which came first? And how have you used dance as a means of expression?
I started out as a Graffiti artist. Then I started rapping and beatboxing, and then moved into breaking a few years later. For me all the elements are linked. I heard a story that said the first bboys were graffiti writers who were trying to make their letter shapes with their bodies on the dance floor and it made complete sense. Your footwork is your tag and you’ve got to get it up as much as you can.
Coming from the graffiti ethos I’ve always been quick to jump into a cypher or throw down in a circle and essentially it’s all bombing.
Q. You have worked in education; tell us a bit about your work with young people? How important is it for us to understand the mind and views of young people in today’s society?
Again one of the early ideas of how I understood hiphop was the “each one teach one” philosophy. Working as a poet in education means you have the chance to help future generations find their voice and express opinions and tell their stories in a way that’s relevant and relatable to them. A lot of young people have a preconceived idea of what a poem is and how that differs from what rapping is without seeing how the two things are essentially the same.
I think the main difference is that a certain part of society (especially some of the older generation), are much more willing to listen to something described as a poem than they are to listen to someone rap.
I think spoken word gives these kids a chance to be heard by people that wouldn’t be reached through rap.
Q. You have performed at a number of prestigious venues which we can imagine also means different audiences. Has this lead to different reactions to your performances?
I think I’ve probably had pretty much every reaction to my performance. Generally my favourite reaction is when I have someone who I’d probably never have had a conversation with tell me that it made them think about something they’ve never considered.
Q. Tell us a bit about your production ‘Shame’? How did the idea develop and evolve into what it is today?
So, the idea was born out of me trying to come up with a list of all the worst things I’d ever done. It was quite a long list.
There were a few things on the list that I’d told a lot of people about and quite a lot of things that I was either proud of or definitely didn’t regret. And then there were a few things that I thought I could never tell anyone about. Some of them weren’t necessarily things that other people would see as that “bad” but I’d still never told anyone about them and I felt like I wouldn’t be able to turn them into poems as I wouldn’t feel comfortable confronting the shame attached.
However the more I thought about my list the more it became obvious that these were the important things to talk about. Not just the things themselves but the feeling attached. The shame.
I figured that everyone must have these secrets. Things that still haunt them years after the event. Things that they can remember in explicit detail that have been buried deep down with no hope for redemption. I realised that by creating a piece based on this I could potentially take all these moments of shame and transfer them into something I could be proud of.
The idea to represent the story through hiphop theatre was the natural next step and through discussion and collaboration with some incredibly talented people I’ve managed to reach the point of realising this idea.
Q. Hip Hop theatre is a powerful way to convey a message, what do you want the audience to take away from the production?
I want the audience to feel like they were part of something rather than they were watching something. I want them to consider their own lives in the same way that hiphop made me consider my life. The audio/visual language of hiphop is a truly universal one that has seeped into every aspect of modern life and I feel that it is the perfect tool for making serious works of theatre. I’d like to hope that this show helps bring hiphop heads into the idea that theatre is a place they could express themselves whilst making regular theatregoers see hiphop and its elements as serious and powerful tools for making works of art.
Q. What other projects have you got coming up?
A comic, a few collaborative animation projects and an eventual plan to take over the world. Check Berkavitch.com for more info or to get involved.
Catch ‘Shame’ at the Roundhouse from 8th May — 10th May! For further information and tickets visit: http://www.roundhouse.org.uk/whats-on/spoken-word-theatre-and-storytelling/shame/