Why comedy writers and performers are different and clowns are not clowns?

James Hamilton at the Soho Theatre bar yesterday

James Hamilton – Soho Theatre bar yesterday

So yesterday afternoon I went to the Soho Theatre bar to talk to Nelly Scott aka Zuma Puma about her weekly – always unique – Friday night Lost Cabaret shows in London.

It never happened.

I arrived early and found multiple Malcolm Hardee Comedy Award nominee James Hamilton sitting at a table, writing his sketch group Casual Violence’s next show for the Edinburgh Fringe in August.

“How much have you written?” I asked.

“10%,” he said glumly.

“I was going to do a solo show this year,” he told me, “but I got talked into doing a Casual Violence one. Do you remember the Siamese Twin hit-men from Choose Death? I am giving them a full story. They work together as assassins until one of them decides he would rather be a baker instead. They fall out and decide to go their separate ways.”

Casual Violence 2014 Edinburgh show

Casual Violence: new 2014 Edinburgh show

“The Siamese Twins?” I asked.

“Yes,” said James. “It’s about the brotherly dynamic.”

Then Nelly arrived.

James and Nelly had never met before, but it transpired they had both been on Dr Brown/Phil Burgers‘ clown workshops.

Clown workshops seem to be trendy for performers at the moment but, as far as I can see, have nothing to do with clowns as any normal person would recognise the word. They are actually improvisation workshops under a ‘sexier’ title.

Interestingly but perhaps not surprisingly, James (a writer who performs) found the workshops more difficult than Nelly (a performer who can write).

“The people who could be themselves or a version of themselves on stage,” said James, “were the people who did best in the workshop and I wish to god I could do it. I loved the workshop and got so much out of it but I also really struggled. It was so difficult.”

“It is really difficult,” agreed Nelly. But those people had probably been to loads of these workshops and practised a lot of dropping it and ‘being with themselves’. Or hadn’t been to anything at all.”

“Yes,” said James, “a lot of people who did best in that workshop had never done any performing of any kind.”

“The people who find it hardest, I think,” said Nelly, “are people like actors or stand-up comedians. With actors, there’s always this mask: that they never want to show themselves. With comedians, they’ve always got to have a punchline. Stand-up is very wordy; it’s always about what they’re saying, not what they’re doing. Whereas, in clowning, it’s not what you say, it’s how you say it and how you do it. It’s all about How not What.”

Nelly Scott aka Zuma Puma with James Hamilton

Nelly Scott aka Zuma Puma with James Hamilton yesterday

“It’s a very performance-driven thing,” said James, “whereas I tend to approach stuff from a very writery point of view. Writing is very introverted and thinking about ideas and not letting go. All the clowning stuff is very counter to that. Not in a bad way. But it’s the opposite of what you’re taught as a writer.

“I remember at the workshop,” James continued, “being told off because I had an idea before going on stage. So what I did for the rest of the workshop was every time I had an idea ahead of going on stage I would immediately dismiss it because I knew if I went ahead with that idea he would pull me up on it. He wanted people to go on stage with nothing and then find something.”

“Well,” said Nelly, “it’s OK for you to come on stage with an idea, but you have to be ready to drop it in a split second if the audience hate it. People who come on stage with an idea can be more in love with their idea than they are with the audience. It’s not necessarily that he wants people to come onto the stage with nothing, because some people literally don’t have anything and it’s boring. You need to have something. What’s your impulse? What are you thinking? But, if it doesn’t work, you just throw it out the window. You do whatever it takes to make the audience love you.”

“I think, when I do more solo things,” said James, “it will be more of an even balance but the way it works at the moment is I’m the sole writer for a group of people, so I need to bring stuff in. It doesn’t need to be perfectly finished. We play with it and develop it. But it does come from a very scripted starting point.”

“When I go on stage,” said Nelly. “I always have an idea of something. I’ll have a character and a costume or I’ll come up with a game and go on stage and play with that.”

“The fact people can do that is amazing,” said James. “It just terrifies me. Though in an appealing way. It makes me want to do it.”

“It doesn’t matter if you flop at some point,” said Nelly, “provided you bring the audience eventually to this place of magic and then they forget about the bit that flopped.”

James had told me earlier that he had been “talked into” doing a Casual Violence show at this year’s Edinburgh Fringe and, in a sense, the same thing had happened with Nelly and Lost Cabaret.

Zuma Puma (centre bottom) + her collective

Zuma Puma (centre bottom) + her collective

“I wasn’t going to go to the Fringe this year,” she told us. “I thought: I need a break. I’m going to be in Spain for the month lying naked on the beach or hitchhiking to Morocco and singing on the top of mountains until five in the morning. But then (regular performer) Dan Lees applied for a spot for Lost Cabaret at the Fringe and told me about it after we had been accepted.”

“So,” said James, “you will have to defer your month of naked hitchhiking to the top of mountains at five in the morning.”

“I’ll still do that,” said Nelly. “Maybe before I go to the Fringe.”

“You told me,” I said, “that you’ve been going for lots of castings recently.”

“Lots of auditions for short films,” said Nelly, “which I’m finding interesting, because a lot of writers are shit.”

“Are you cast as Girl 1 or Girl 2?” asked James.

“I’m usually cast as a femme fatale killer,” Nelly replied, “which is fun. I’m OK with that. But how many scripts are just so degrading to women?”

“Women are either in films to have sex or to be killed,” I said.

“There is a website called Casting Call Woe,” said James, “which has genuine casting calls which are horrendously sexist and awful.”

Currently on the site are these four descriptions of projected movies:

The actress would need an ‘Easy Access Skirt’ with leggings underneath so that the skirt could be lifted up and it would look convincingly like she was ‘being taken from behind. Consent to have fake vomit thrown on her. 

Please send a pic of your tongue so I can approve of your tongue length.

The egg shoots from her vagina and directly into the doctor’s mouth.

Bikinis will get this movie attention. Great acting will get it respect. 

“I got a script for a short film,” said Nelly. “Somehow they had got funding for it. I don’t know how. They were looking for an actress who could play seductive but bad and I thought Oh, I can play femme fatale no problem. But then I read the script and there is a scene where a female crime investigator is talking to me – I’m this girl who is covered in blood and freaking out – and she starts putting her hand up the girl’s skirt and fingering her. There was no conversation before the investigator starts randomly fingering the girl. And, in the next scene, her face is in the girl’s vagina – there’s a shot of the investigator’s head between this girl’s legs. What the fuck has this got to do with the investigation? And then she kills the girl. It drives me nuts. I will have to start writing.”

There is a Lost Cabaret showreel on YouTube.

and also a trailer for Casual Violence’s comedy.

2 Comments

Filed under Comedy, Performance, Theatre

2 responses to “Why comedy writers and performers are different and clowns are not clowns?

  1. Great article. I photographed James recently for his website and promo stuff. In the nicest possible way – he has a face built for comedy. People used to say that about me – I stopped caring years ago….

  2. I must re-iterate that clown and improv are very different things. Improv has a 4th wall, Clown is 100% with the audience. Improv is often centred around witty dialogue. Clown is always stupid, impulsive and less about what you say but how you say it. Improvisers show how smart and quick they are, clowns show how stupid and free they are. Clown and Improv is not the same thing, its only similarity is the idiot who thought it would be a good idea to entertain an audience with nothing. But that is only in practice until the clown develops his/her show and then there is a structure to play around then the structure is the same every night… Having said that the rest of the Blog is very interesting and accurate so have a read if you will. hehehe thanks John Fleming sorry I’m such a cheeky monkey…BUT Its important people understand the difference especially to a clown obsessed freak like myself. Much Love.
    Nelly Scott

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