A filk circle is an organism. It is born, it lives, and it dies, usually in the space of a single evening. No two filk circles are ever going to be quite the same, being made up of the individuals who are participating along with the particular set of expectations that they're bringing with them for the occasion.
On any given evening, the most important thing is that the filk circle be healthy. I'm going to adopt a relatively low bar for the health of the circle:
This seems self-evident to me. We do this for fun, after all. If we're not enjoying ourselves, there's no reason to be doing it. This leads to an interesting corrolary:
See, the problem is that if I'm not enjoying myself, I may try to drag the circle into directions that it really doesn't want to go. This ends up making me frustrated (not good), but it also is going to frustrate the people who are perfectly happy with the current state of the circle. The filk circle at WindyCon this year went aggressively folky one evening. The majority of the people and performers there seemed happy with that; I wasn't. I didn't really feel like listening to folky material, nor did I really want to play it myself.
So I left. There was absolutely no point in spoiling everyone else's good time, but there was also no point in me hanging around and not having a good time. I'm sure you can invent your own, similar examples.
There are a lot of prescriptions out there floating around to try to produce a healthy filk circle. We have names for them like "bardic circle" or "chaos", just to pick two diametrically opposed prescriptions, each of which has many variants. And our personal choice of prescription is going to vary, depending on what we value the most.
The bardic circle (which I'm going to use here to refer to a performers' circle, where the rotation moves between performers and excludes non-performers) values an egalitarian ethic: everyone should have the chance to play, equally often.
Interestingly, it's a still more egalitarian version of the bardic circle, "Pick, Pass, or Play", that includes the non-performers actively in the circle and -- in my experience -- can produce the least egalitarian results. Take, for example, a circle that contains an infrequent visitor to the region who we will, for the purposes of this example, call "Leslie Fish". The PPP circle frequently will have non-performer A ask Leslie to play a song, as will non-performer B, and non-performer C, and...
What you end up with is an impromptu Leslie Fish by request concert with an occasional song by someone else. Here's one of those circles where -- with no disrespect intended to Leslie -- the best thing I can do for the health of the circle is to go somewhere else. The circle is fine and healthy, save for me. I should go.
But let's go back and look at the performers' circle. The good thing about it is that everyone gets a turn (modulo occasional exceptions, see below). You'll sometimes get to hear something good that you didn't expect to hear, because someone who wouldn't manage to get a song in edgewise in other formats will screw up his courage and sing, as did the young woman I saw at Marcon two weekends ago.
The problem is that a performers' circle can get to be too large. The circle at Marcon on Saturday night took 90 minutes to go around. And I'm going to assert that any circle that takes more than an hour to go around is inherently unhealthy, because singing a particular song is now going to become more important to the performer than singing the song that is best for the health of the circle.
Let's think about this. Ego-driven monster that you are (aren't we all? :) ), you've got a new song that you'd like to sing sometime tonight, or something that you've worked up for your repertoire, or just a song that you really like to sing. It's your turn now. The song that you really want to sing doesn't follow worth a damn. You could sing something else that would make the sing "better", maintaining or gently changing the mood. (Or maybe completely disrupting the current mood, if that's what's called for.) Or you could sing the thing that you really want to sing.
What're you going to do? I submit that you're probably going to sing the song that you want to sing, because you just don't know if you're still going to be awake when the circle gets back around to you again.
And the circle is less good because of it.
Would you make a different decision if the mean time between songs dropped to 30 minutes? I would -- and I suspect that most of the rest of you out there would too, because then you feel like you're going to get another shot at singing that song that you want to sing at a better time.
So if you figure that the average song is about 4 to 5 minutes long, that suggests that a "good" number of performers in a bardic circle would be 6 or 7, if you want folks to be able to sing every half hour or so.
By not-so-odd coincidence, that's the number of performers that I usually say is the maximum that a good chaos sing can support. But that's because I'm all about the flow -- and any sing that is too large is a flow killer.
A chaos sing can support more than 6 or 7 performers, but generally not more than that number who want to sing each turn around the circle. Yes, contrary to what it may appear, a good chaos sing actually does move around in a circle, it's just in non-Euclidean space and points are not always touched in the same order.
A good chaos sing is based on shared knowledge and observation. I may know someone else's repertoire well enough to surmise that if I sing X, they'll follow it with Y. People are looking to see who has hands on the necks of their guitars, or who is standing up with songbook in hand, to get an idea of who wants to sing next. And they'll frequently communicate non-verbally across the room to determine who's going to sing that follower. Sometimes the previous song will end and one person will say to the other, "I've got a really good follower. Do you want to follow me?"
Most times, this works, as long as there are few enough performers in the circle, the sight lines are good, and everyone's paying attention. Some times, not so much. I've seen people who have things queued up and are patiently waiting their turn get trampled.
I try to avoid that myself. I don't always. But I never claimed to be perfect.
I find that I'm not quite done, but I think that's enough for now.