Agnes Török is a Swedish spoken-word performer, poetry events organizer and part of Loud Poets. She won the Best International Spoken Word Show at the Edinburgh Fringe (PBH) last year. Her new show, If You’re Happy and You Know It – Take This Survey, is based on her TED talk about studying happiness. Carly Brown sat down with her at The Storytelling Center Café to discuss science and creativity, going viral on YouTube and what makes her happy.
You have to decide for yourself what success looks like
Tell us about your Fringe show.
It’s a show about the science of happiness, how I’ve studied happiness and started researching happiness, but it’s also a show about the personal stories that we tell about happiness. It’s a funny show and it’s a serious show. It’s a personal show and it’s a political show. It’s addressing the question of: ‘What would happen if we take happiness seriously?’
None of it is a guide to being happy, but a lot of it is a discussion of some stuff I’ve learned. We all have very personal journeys and particular challenges that are unique to our lives and sets of circumstances that other people aren’t facing. But we can learn from each other. My point of doing it isn’t to tell the audience what to do. It’s also for them to share their stories, so that we can learn from each other.
What inspired you to study happiness?
I study anthropology and within that there’s a subfield called The Anthropology of Happiness. Usually when you study anthropology and if, like me, you’re an active and politically conscious person, you tend to be extremely aware of suffering. You tend to be extremely aware of collective misery and oppression, in various forms, and you tend to focus on that, on alleviating the effects of something negative, whether that it political repression or a specific social justice cause. It tends to be: ‘How can we make things a little less bad?’
Sometimes I find it extremely liberating to go: ‘Actually, there are good things as well. How can we make more of the good things?’ How can we address serious issues in the world and in our societies by talking about what’s the best possible scenario, not what’s the worst. My motivation was, rather than focusing on what isn’t working, let’s focus on the things that are working now and how we could spread them.
One aspect of the show that I thought was interesting was the blend of science and poetry. It’s not something I’ve seen a lot before. Did you model this approach after another performer you’ve seen or is this style of discussing research and performing poems your own?
I’d never really thought of that. I think there’s some amazing science inspired spoken word shows at the Fringe but most of them tend to be focused on natural sciences. There are quite a few mathematicians who also make great spoken word and I think there’s something to that meeting point. But I honestly haven’t heard a lot of social scientists talk about the science that they come across. I guess part of what inspired me to write this show was writing a TED talk. I realized early on that what’s interesting to me about TED talks is that, aside from being a personal and creative story, they are based in some kind of evidence, research and scientific finding. It is that meeting point between creativity and empirical facts. So I found that was an interesting way of moving forward.
I love the science of happiness. It’s been a passion and hobby of mine and I think that lots of other people would find it interesting if they heard the things I did. And there’s so many different fields of research that look at this. Neuroscientists look at this purely out of hormone levels and measurable bits of the brain, whereas people like me tend to talk to people and to take what they say to be contextually true within their situations. So there are different forms of truth. I’m sure that there would be happiness researchers who would come to my show and would want to disagree with me on points. I would love to have that discussion with them. I think it’s exciting that it’s a new, growing field and so much of the groundwork is still being laid down.
What did you learn from doing last year’s Fringe and do you have any advice?
I think the first truth that I learnt was that you have to decide for yourself what success looks like, because doing a one-person Fringe show there is no way that according to every definition of success you’re going to do great. But if you decide that what success looks like to you is packing out the room, you can focus on that and you can do your best to get people in the door.
Also talk to other people who have done it before and ask them for tips. Ask them for guest spots. Ask them to flyer at their shows. Cross promote. But also define for yourself why it is that you’re doing this. Realize that it’s very unlikely that in one Fringe run, with a one person team doing everything, that you will simultaneously get a huge crowd, lots of great reviews, all the theatre producers in, win an award and make lots of money, but you might do one of those things. Decide which one is important and put all of your efforts into that.
You also had a recent viral video on YouTube, ‘Worthless’, a poetic response to austerity. Why do you think that the poem received so much enthusiasm and generated so many responses?
I think we were unlucky and lucky to have a re-elected Conservative government. Unlucky for everyone who is a citizen or inhabitant in the UK and lucky in the sense that this is a poem that I actually wrote a while back. I only felt the need to film it, put it on YouTube and try to spread it as a response to the fact that it became ever more urgent and ever more politically relevant. I’m glad that this is a piece that I’ve been able to perform for a year and a half now, but I’m also sad that it’s a piece that is still relevant, a year and a half later. Maybe more relevant today than when I wrote it. So I think that there was a right moment to release that piece.
We were very lucky that lots of people picked it up. Reddit picked it up on the first day and it was also picked up by Upworthy. So many people offered to translate it, to make it more relevant to other countries' situations because obviously austerity isn’t purely a British thing. Certainly the more interest there was from other countries, the more I also realized that this is a broad feeling. This is something that we’re scared of. How do we deal with it? How do we oppose austerity? It’s a discussion that’s ongoing.
It does come down to having a team of people who support you. There’s an amazing poetry community. In the first ten hours, lots of my friends shared it, their friends shared it. The fact that there is this intertwined community of people who support each other and want to see each other do well, that makes all the difference in the world. I could never have done that on my own. And the fact that I had an amazing partner in crime in Perry Jonsson, the filmmaker, made all the difference in the world too. So it was a combination of things. The political moment was definitely part of it and the people who helped out were definitely part of it.
Finally, what makes you happy?
What makes me happy is being able to do all these amazing exchanges with people throughout my show and at Loud Poets. The response at Loud Poets has been incredible. Every night people shake my hand and give me a hug and say wonderful things. It makes me happy to be able to do that while making sure that I’m taking care of myself, my physical health, my mental health, my social relationships, all the things I go into in my show.
What makes me happy is being able to share art with people and to be able to do that on terms where we are supportive of each other, we are encouraging of each other, and we are making sure that everyone is taken care of.
Twitter: @AgnesTorokPoet, @LoudPoets
View ‘Worthless’ on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kiaxHUFAWew