Performer Richard Gadd played Macbeth in a school play.
“I enjoyed the nerves and the adrenaline,” he told me yesterday. “And the sense of accomplishment at the end. I liked that. I wanted that.”
Ten years later, he was playing Macbeth on stage at the Globe Theatre in London. But he is currently in his own show (categorised as comedy) at London’s Soho Theatre.
“Are you a comedian or an actor?” I asked.
“I’m difficult to pigeonhole,” he agreed, “but I like that. I am not a comedian, but I do comedy.”
“What does your agent say you are?” I asked.
“I think he’s as confused as I am,” he laughed.
“If you had to put your profession on your passport,” I asked, “what would you be?”
“A writer-performer. If someone introduces me as a comedian, I think Oh fuck! Don’t say that! Comedy is limiting. I am not a comedian in the purest sense – I can’t tell jokes.”
“And you don’t play the comedy circuit,” I said.
“The circuit is a circle,” said Richard. “You need to figure a way to get off it, otherwise you keep going round and round and then, all of a sudden, you’re 40 years old and what the fuck have you done? I was not mainstream enough and I was not good enough to make it as a full-time circuit act.”
“Which is?” I asked.
“A circuit act is a good, reliable, dependable act who can earn money and knows where to get the laughs. I wasn’t like that. I would go on with a wig and a stuffed parrot and stuff my face with cake and whip myself with a belt. You can’t guarantee that’s going to go well every single time.”
“So what is your schtick?” I asked.
“Your show last year,” I said. “Cheese and Crack Whores. What was that about?”
“That was about a break-up I had with a lady and I stalked her and my life spiralled out-of-control. It was more-or-less a veiled truth. I never stalked her. I would never stalk anyone.”
“It was heightened reality?” I asked.
“Yes. I was going through a break-up and I teased it out. You know when you go through a break-up and you sort-of go insane and you think those thoughts: I’m going to do this… I’m going to do that…? But you can’t do them, because no sane person would. So I did a show about What would I have done if…? But, in fact, I don’t like cheese and I don’t like crack whores.”
“You’re halfway through your current show – Breaking Gadd – at the Soho Theatre. The Guardian called it a comedy of relentless degradation.”
“Yes. Up until 20th December.”
“What is this one about?” I asked.
“In this one, I lose my memory after getting attacked in an Edinburgh street and then I have to piece my life back together, because nobody comes to my bedside in hospital. I piece my life back together only to find out that my life probably wasn’t worth remembering.”
“That’s most people’s reality,” I said. “What was this fabricated truth based on?”
“A fractured family,” said Richard. “Not that I had a fractured family. There’s no reality. I’m from a place in Fife called Wormit, which sounds like what you do to a dog. Kids from St Andrews had their teddy bears. I grew up hugging a bottle of Buckfast.”
“You told me you got drunk on Buckfast after the show last night,” I said.
“That’s what I do,” said Richard. “A bottle of Buckfast before bed. It’s got a lot of caffeine in it, so it doesn’t really work, but I pass out awake.”
“Why did you shave your hair off?” I asked. “You used to have long hair.”
“So I look more like a psychopath on stage.”
“Are you interested,” I asked, “in damaged characters?”
“Yeah. All comedians are like strippers.”
“You’ve been preparing your quotes,” I said.
“I don’t even think it’s my quote,” said Richard. “I think it’s a bastardisation of some well-known quote, but it’s a good analogy. In comedy, you strip your emotions in front of an audience. Good comedy is always revealing and truthful. You emotionally unravel in front of an audience, like a stripper physically unravels in front of an audience. The difference is a stripper is attractive and a comedian is often ugly and neurotic.”
“And the difference between comedians and actors is…?” I asked.
“Comedy is, at least, interested in pure art,” said Richard. “Comedians create something which they then tell an audience. Actors are very much conduits of someone else’s text: they are an echo of someone else’s work. They probably require the biggest egos and the biggest inflated sense of self-worth. But, in reality, they’re the least important part of the artistic process. Their art wouldn’t exist unless there was an original creator and actors are not original creators unless it’s improvisation. I get more annoyed at actors than I do at comedians.”
“Why annoyed?” I asked.
“Because comedy is creativity and ego, whereas a lot of acting is solely I want to be an actor because I want to be adored. It’s pure ego a lot of the time.
“I think I used to chase that and, when I realised I was chasing it, I decided I wanted to step away and wanted to write and want to create stuff. I was chasing ego and adoration and I don’t think that’s good. I don’t think that leads to happiness.”
“Being adored doesn’t lead to happiness?” I asked, surprised.
“No it doesn’t,” said Richard. “You need to learn how to self-critique and not chase your own ego. You need to learn to appreciate what you have, not what is waiting for you in the future because you’ll just keep chasing your own ego. The ego inflates and inflates and inflates and never pops; it never bursts.”
“Sounds a bit Buddhist,” I said.
“Well,” said Richard, “I do meditate.”
“What type?” I asked.
“Transcendental meditation,” replied Richard. “Two 20-minute sessions a day.”
“Maharishi?” I asked.
“Maharishi, yup,” said Richard. “It’s very important, transcendental mediation. I used to have so many performance anxieties, so much anxiety in life. I still have in certain cases, but I’m a lot better than I was. It teaches you to focus your mind on one thing and not let it run away with itself. The second I did it, I realised my life was getting better. It’s like being given the keys to a secret truth. It genuinely is.
“And I’m not spiritual. I’m not into the hokey-pokey spiritual side. I don’t believe in that side to it. But I believe there is a practical, extremely useful, scientific, proven methodology behind transcendental meditation.”
“So you’re not doing it for philosophical reasons,” I said. “You’re doing it for physical reasons?”
“Yeah. It takes your anxiety levels down. I used to not be able to get on public transport. I used to hate the tube. I used to not be able to make eye contact with people. Once, I would have found talking to you quite difficult.”
“What was the problem with the tube?” I asked. “Too many people?”
“A mixture of claustrophobia and the fact you are forced to be in other people’s gazes. The public’s gaze can be quite hard sometimes – if you catch eyes with someone. What are they thinking of me? I used to very much care how I was coming across in every single situation.
“Everybody makes a faux-pas every now and again but, if I made a faux-pas back then, it would stay with me for days. I would think about things I did when I was 16 that still made me embarrassed. I would ruin a day. It was affecting me professionally. I wasn’t performing well on stage or when I went to auditions. I was too anxious.
“Meditation has really helped me. I’m still a long way from being perfect, but it helps. I’m very manic on stage, but that has to come from a place of stability. The one tool I lacked was mental stability. I have not got it yet, but at least I’ve got the hammer and chisel towards getting my full tool box.
“I don’t have inner peace, but performance is something I do because I think it’s important.”
“Do you enjoy performing on stage?” I asked.
“I’m still not sure,” said Richard. “It’s not something I enjoy particularly. I don’t enjoy it like I used to when I was a kid. But I enjoy writing and putting stuff out there that’s different.”
“What you’re telling me,” I said, “is you used to enjoy it when you were terrified. Now you are less terrified, you don’t enjoy it so much.”
“Yeah,” said Richard. “It’s interesting, isn’t it? I don’t want to play the stereotype of the suffering artist, but I definitely feel like I’m sometimes one of those awful fucking guys saying I dunno why I do it; I hate it so much! but then can’t stop doing it.”
“Adrenaline?” I asked.
“Adrenaline,” agreed Richard. “Fear of failure. Fear of What if in 20 years time? Plus the fact of those rare instances when you do enjoy it and you do feel proud of yourself or you meet someone who says they were touched by your stuff. That is a priceless feeling.”