Category Archives: Performance

My Comedy Taste. Part 2: Eccentrics, anarchy and performers’ mad minds

In 2017, oft-times comedy festival judge and linguistics expert Louisette Stodel asked me about my taste in comedy.

I posted Part 1 of this chat yesterday.

Here is Part 2…


LOUISETTE: So you don’t like actors trying to be stand-up comics…

JOHN: To an extent. I am also allergic to a lot of character comedy. I don’t like character acts in general, though I do like some. I think the closer the ‘character’ is to reality – to being like a real person – the less I like it. But, if it’s a cartoon character – Charlie Chuck is a perfect example –  I like it.

I adore Simon Munnery; he can be very surreal, but I didn’t like his early Alan Parker, Urban Warrior character – It was too close to reality for me.

LOUISETTE: You mean realistic.

JOHN: Yes. I have met people who really are pretty-much like that. When I was a researcher for TV shows, I got typed for finding eccentrics and bizarre acts. I would find genuinely different-thinking people who did odd things and usually lived in provincial suburbia, bored out of their skulls with the mundanity of their lives, unable to unleash their inner originality and unconventionality.

So, if I watch a performer pretending to be eccentric, I think: Why am I watching someone faking a ‘performance’ when I could be watching the real thing? You can see in their eyes that these performers are not the real thing. They are sane people trying to be, to varying extents, oddballs they are not.

Well, all good comedians are, of course, mad to an extent.

LOUISETTE: They are not all mad.

JOHN: They are all unconventional thinkers or they have some personality disorder. The good ones. And I think one of the reasons I like watching comedy is I like watching some of the bizarre characters which a lot of comedians genuinely are. I don’t like people pretending to be odd characters, but I like watching people who ARE… well, a bit odd. They are the good comics for me.

There is maybe a difference with pure gag-delivery acts like Jimmy Carr, Milton Jones and Tim Vine.

LOUISETTE: But, getting back to character acts…

JOHN: If someone does a character act, they are pretending to be someone else, which is what an actor does… rather than being themselves or some version of themselves, which is what a modern comedian does. So, if I can watch a comedian – let us not mention Lewis Schaffer – with bizarre character traits, I am happy. If I watch an actor pretending to be a bizarre character but not being themselves, I am not really that interested because I can go out and find the real nutter.

LOUISETTE: So what you are saying is you want the person to be the person and you want that person to be nuts. Is that because there is no danger in playing a character, no risk except that the audience might not like it? Whereas, if the person is being themselves and they get it wrong or they go off the rails, there is a risk?

JOHN: I suppose so – like watching a motor race because there is always the danger of a disastrous crash.

I may be like a Miss World contestant. 

LOUISETTE: I don’t think so.

JOHN: But you know how contestants in old-fashioned beauty contests were always asked their interests and they would say, “Oh! I’m interested in people”? 

Well, I AM interested in people and how their minds work.

Most of my blogs are not objective blogs. They have very little of me in them. That is not because I am hiding me. It is because I’m interested in finding out how the other person’s mind works and – because they are usually creative in some way – how their creative juices shape their performance pieces or their life – how their mind creates original end-results. Or – because I sometimes mention crime – how their slightly non-mainstream thoughts work. And, of course, if there are quirky anecdotes in it, that’s great. I am interested in the people and I am a sucker for quirky anecdotes.

LOUISETTE: You say you are interested in the creative process – the thing that makes that person tick both on and off stage – But how do you analyse that? How do you figure out from somebody’s performance – even if it’s very close to the real person – what that real person’s process is?

JOHN: I don’t know. Maybe that’s why I keep watching people perform. If I knew everything, there would be no point seeing any other act.

LOUISETTE: But what are you looking for?

JOHN: I dunno. I’m just interested in how everyone is different. Everyone is different; everyone is unique. There is no end to it, missus.

At a distance, people are similar but, up close, they are, like Charlie Chuck, unique

LOUISETTE: Infinitely different.

JOHN: Yes. It sounds wanky to say it out loud, but people are infinitely interesting, yes. At a distance, people are just a mass of similar heads but, in China, the Terracotta Warriors in Xian all have individual faces. 

LOUISETTE: How does that come into it?

JOHN: I have no idea. I’m making this up as I go along. But, if you read about identical twins, they are usually a bit the same but a lot different. I’m interested in individuality. It’s not nature OR nurture. It’s BOTH that creates infinite uniqueness.

LOUISETTE: I’m still interested in getting at this elementary, basic thing that you are looking for. You do not want things to be off-pat. You don’t want an act to be overly polished. But what about someone like Spencer Jones who has a very well-formed act.

JOHN: Yes, he is interesting because he IS an actor and he IS doing character comedy… so I should not like him, but I do… But, then, he is doing a cartoon character. In no way are you going to find that character working in Barclays Bank or walking along the high street. So I like him, I think, because he is a cartoon character. I think it is mostly tightly-scripted…

LOUISETTE: Yes, that’s why I am asking you…

JOHN: Maybe physical comedy and prop comedy is different. 

LOUISETTE: Is he prop comedy?

JOHN: I dunno. Martin Soan created The Naked Balloon Dance for The Greatest Show on Legs… The Balloon Dance has to be done exactly as it is choreographed.

The whole point is that you never see any naughty bits and therefore the balloons have to be… It looks chaotic, but, if it were actually done willy-nilly – if that’s an appropriate phrase – it would fall apart and would not be as funny.

LOUISETTE: You said it LOOKS chaotic. Do you enjoy that? What you are saying is that, if it looks chaotic but it actually isn’t…

JOHN: Maybe prop comedy and physical comedy are different to stand-up. I suppose with Spencer Jones, you are shocked by the use of the props; the… unexpectedness… This… this falls apart as an argument, doesn’t it? There must be something different…

I like pun comedy: Tim Vine, Milton Jones, Darren Walsh, Leo Kearse to an extent. They are very tightly pre-scripted or, at least, prepared. With puns, if they have a vast number of puns, they can move the order around but the flow, the pacing, the momentum has to be kept going so they need to be highly pre-prepared.

So that’s where my thing falls down. Verbally, pun shows and short gag-short gag-short gag shows like Milton Jones’ have to be very tightly choreographed and the prop comedy shows have to be very tightly choreographed physically.

I know from being involved in Tiswas – the ancient slapstick kids’ show – that, if you do something that appears to be anarchy, you have to organise it really, really well. You can’t perform anarchy in an anarchic way; you have to organise it in advance.

LOUISETTE: Like Phil EllisFunz & Gamez.

JOHN: Indeed. And I remember one Tiswas production meeting, after the show had been going for years, where the producer said: “We have to figure out some way to make things go wrong during the show.” Because they had been going for so many years, all likelihoods were covered-for in pre-production meetings. Everyone was very experienced, very professional and nothing really went wrong that threw everything off course. You could script-in things to go wrong, but nothing ever went genuinely disastrously wrong of its own accord.

LOUISETTE: Which you seem to like…

JOHN: I do like anarchy. I don’t especially want to see a Michael McIntyre show because it will be too smoothly professional. I do prefer shows that are up-and-down like a roller-coaster in an anarchic way. Though, if it involves immense detail like props or puns, then you can’t have real anarchy. The only way to have apparent anarchy with props and puns and tight gag-gag-gag routines is to prepare it all very carefully.

So I am… I am getting schizophrenic here, aren’t I…?

LOUISETTE: You are. But that’s good. I was discussing it with Frankie (Louisette’s son Frankie Brickman) and he asked me if it was unpredictability you like or feigned unpredictability.

JOHN: Maybe if they feign the unpredictability in a very professional way and I don’t spot the fact it’s feigned…

It’s not even unpredictability I like. It’s the cleverness. If it’s clever and a rollercoaster, I will forgive them the bits that don’t work for the bits that do work. 

… CONTINUED HERE

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Becky Fury celebrates the joys of an anarchist festival – but not vegans

Becky Fury – real name – has something to say

I received what follows from Becky Fury yesterday.

She is not to be confused with Becky Sharp, the heroine of William Makepeace Thackeray’s novel Vanity Fair.

Becky Fury won a Malcolm Hardee Cunning Stunt Award in 2016.

Becky Sharp did not.

Becky Fury’s Award was well-deserved.


I have just got off the plane after being at a festival in Holland. I was performing my show Political at the Dutch anarchist utopia ADM. I need a proper sleep. In my own bed and not in a makeshift hostel in the middle of a 24 hour festival.

The poster for Becky Fury’s Political show

The anarchist festival at ADM platforms international anarchist artists working in any alternative medium – for example, vegan junk food boutiques raising money for anarchist solidarity causes.

My favourite and most edgy this year was the seitan (wheat gluten) wrap stand that was raising money for the solidarity campaign to support some anarchist bank robbers.

Tag line: Better rob a bank than be a thief that owns one. 

There were a number of other insurrectionary installations and tongue-in-pierced-cheek institutions… 

Punk hairdressers God Shave The Queen.

A fetish wear salon where the primary material for the kinky creations was recycled bike inner tubes. It was called Eco Slut. (Not to be confused with, but can be used in conjunction with, The Ethical Slut, an old anarchist handbook about the now super-trending polyamory.)

Even a robot had an axe to grind

A circus without a traditional ring person but with the tag line: No Gods, No (Ring)masters.

Also more standard festival fare bands, poets and one political comic performance artist. Me. 

This was the 21st and possibly last year of the ADM festival and alternative arts showcase.

The ADM is an amazing autonomous artspace near Amsterdam which hosts several sub cultural festivals a year – or did for the past 21 years. 

The location is unfortunately now a prime dockside development area and ADM is threatened with eviction this year. On Christmas Day. 

One may wonder who would do such a cuntish act. 

My explanation is Scrooge Industries (or Industrie de Scroogen in Dutch ). One can only hope that Meester or Mrs Scroogen receives a visitation from the Ghost of Festivals Past who gives them a fat spliff of Amsterdam’s Cannabis Cup winning finest and they chill out and reconsider and join the party 

Unlikely supernatural intervention aside, there is a petition on the ADM website you can sign, if that’s your sort of thing. It is against the closure of the space. Not for it. Though there is probably a petition for that elsewhere.

The sub-header for the pro ADM petition is:

Without Subculture, There is No Culture

The ADM Petition: Without sub-culture, there is no culture

Artists need space to develop interesting work without economic restriction even if its only function is to provide creative detritus to fuel the industries of mainstream culture. 

As an example of this, I offer the 5 Euro For a 10 Inch Vegan Pizza stall at the festival. 

Veganism and moaning about vegans has been a staple of the punk movement and squat culture for years – only recently commodified and adopted by the mainstream as part of woke capitalism and priced accordingly. 

The over-priced products are voided of their revolutionary potential as they are way out of the reach of the proletariat and the vegan vanguard that lived in my squat and threw my milk in the bin after scrawling COW RAPE all over the fridge in permanent marker. 

Vegans have always been known with the prefix ‘fucking’ – but I always had more affection for the ‘fucking vegans’ when their virtue signalling went beyond taking photos of their over-priced and under-seasoned lunch on Instagram. Back in the days when Insta-gram meant having your drug dealer on speed dial and the only virtue signalling done was by the Land Rover used for hunt sabotaging and transporting the vegan burger stand to festivals to fund all this ethically sourced nonsense. 

Sorry not sorry if that offends any fucking vegans. 

If you choose to take offence, that is your choice. This is not the Oscars. Save me your acceptance speech. 

I digress. 

To err in a blog is human; to digress is divine

But this is John’s blog, so that is traditional and part of the idiosyncratic construct of the oeuvre.   

My point is that, without free space, we end with no culture or a battery culture. Without nurturing and protecting artists, we end up with the artistic equivalent of battery hens laying mass-produced low-grade products for market. 

One would hope there would be a revolution in the hen house – or should that be a coup?

One would hope the fashion for things organic and free range would extend to people but one imagines that there is a lack of imagination that will mean this is not the case.

It betrays a lack of joined-up thinking – but nowadays everyone writes on keyboards.

Anyway, I should have written this article before I left the sanctity of the artists’ utopia in Amsterdam.

I have performed at five arts festivals this year and that was by far the finest. 

I have included some pictures for you to enjoy. You have seen them here first before they end up in adverts and their creators end up in the gutter. 

Viva the revoloucion! 

No Pasaran!

And come see my show Political when it’s next in your town or the one you’re squatting in the way that creative industry professionals do when they take over a town for their creative industrial professional ends.

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Lynn Ruth Miller – a ‘Rising Star’ at 84

Lynn Ruth Miller at The Marsh, San Francisco

Comic and now burlesque performer, 84-years-young Lynn Ruth Miller, is coming to the end of her three week series of return gigs in and around San Francisco – after living in the UK for four years.

This is her penultimate blog about being in the city that was her home for 30 years.


Last Wednesday was the highlight of my trip to this part of the world.

The Marsh theater is a highly prestigious intellectual venue that presents one hour solo shows much like London’s Soho Theatre and the Barbican on a smaller scale.  

When I lived here, I could not get them to let me do any of my storytelling or cabaret shows. They did not think I was accomplished enough. However, thanks to reviews I have received over the years from London, Edinburgh, Brighton and Melbourne, this time they said I could do my show I Love Men in their Rising Star section. (I am ‘rising’ at 84!).

I worked with a wonderful woman named Lauren, who was very efficient and very thorough. But, although my show was listed on the website, it was not promoted or highlighted in any way. So I was pretty sure I would be lucky if five people showed up. Still, it was a pleasure to prepare a show there. The theater is professional in every way. I had a spacious dressing room, a grand piano for Larry to play and a beautiful tech person named Alexa to troubleshoot the performance before we began.

Ticket sales turned out to be far better than I dared hope and, with our walk-ins, we had nearly 60 people in the audience.  

Bay Area people know very little about my life or why I do the things I do and I Love Men is a show about my failure to find a relationship. I was worried that it would seem insipid and pointless in a world where people find each other online and have sex before they have a coffee. My mother always told me my life would be ruined if I had sex before marriage. Now I think it is ruined if you do not.

I could not believe my audience. I had people come from Napa, Reno, Tahoe, Los Angeles and even Austin, Texas. It was all I could do not to weep.

I had thought that I was no more than a shadow totally unnoticed here and it was not until I moved to the UK that anyone thought I had anything of value to offer on a stage. Evidently this was not so.

This audience was with me to the finish and, once again, I got a standing ovation. Do we ever take a thing like that for granted?

Suddenly, I felt that all the work I have invested in these past 15 years of finding my voice as a performer had paid off. I felt validated and very, very proud. I really did it. I told a true story that touched a universal chord.

It was an amazing evening for me.  But the next night was just as exciting.  

Jamie DeWolf runs a tour de force show called Tourettes Without Regrets. I was in that show five years ago and he always told me that, whenever I wanted to return, I had a place in his line-up.  

This is a show of incredible talent and variety with pole dancers, acrobats, strippers, singers and poets… just about everything you can imagine.

I wanted to do something new for him so I decided to do the song I did in Edinburgh last month for the London Burlesque Best of Burlesque shows.  

It is a feminist diatribe and a bit different from the “give it a go” type songs I ordinarily sing. The response was totally amazing and once again I got a standing ovation from an immense audience. It was almost too good to be true.

In the afternoon, I had done a storytelling event for a tiny group of Holocaust survivors and that was one of the most beautiful highlights of this trip. There are very few of these people left and most of them were children in the camps so, although scarred in ways most of us cannot imagine, not nearly as bruised and torn-apart as their parents who were tortured, starved and beaten without mercy.  

I always feel that the most important thing I did and have done is to give these people my time and my performance skills so they know that their very existence is that important to me and to all of us who care about human survival.

… TO BE CONCLUDED TOMORROW …

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Nathan Lang: what it’s like to be an Edinburgh Fringe comedy performer

Nathan Lang performed at the Edinburgh Fringe this month in two shows – his solo comedy show The Stuntman and Jon & Nath Like to Party with Jon Levene.

He also worked as a technician on the show Dirty White Boys, saw other performers’ shows and appeared in yet more people’s shows.

The Fringe runs for 3½ weeks. This is part of the diary he kept which, I think, gives a flavour of what it is like for a performer at the Fringe.


DAY 20

Woke up early and went to see Derek Llewellin and Julian Roberts’ show Chores. So good seeing Derek and Julian again and got inspired to be skilful. Assembly courtyard glowed and sparkled in the sun with all the nice people in it and I dreamed of escaping the sewer. Went grocery shopping which, as the day went on, turned out to be a mistake. 

The Stuntman was OK but not amazing. Jon & Nath was worse – a small unresponsive crowd.

Got drunk and played pool with Claire & Nicky (The Kagools) and my groceries. Ended up with a huge Glaswegian ex-con who insisted on playing with us. Tried really hard to make conversation with him. Eventually he looked sideways at me (literally) and said “Why so many questions, pal?” I shut up and let him beat me (at pool).

Needed to sober up, went to my favourite health food cafe on Grassmarket and had a wrap. Mesmerised by a veteran flamenco guitarist playing inside, he never broke eye contact, taught me to be passionate in every moment. His name is Jesus and he lives in a remote Spanish village. He only brought one CD cos he thought no-one would be interested. 

Inspired, I strode through the sewer with my groceries. Teched Dirty White Boys. Schlepped my groceries home. The spinach wilted.

DAY 21

Did some marketing work on my posters, attributing 5 stars from one review to a quote from another and announcing my final 3 shows as extra dates. 

The Stuntman had a comedy industry person in and two catatonic guys in the front row. I tried several times to engage them before realising they were with their carer. Show failed to launch. Went to The Free Sisters. Laini saw something in my eyes and gave me one of her therapeutic hugs, which really worked. 

Jon & Nath’s dream show – everyone had seen The Shining.

Jon & Nath had a dream show, possibly the best one ever. Audience was totally on board and everyone had seen The Shining. The show was a 5-star but the collection bucket at the end read like a 2-star.

Watched Marny Godden’s show of unbridled joy with a tasteful touch of struggle. 

Came home, napped hard, then whipped up a stir fry of greens and had time to eat 2 gulps before rushing off to tech Dirty White Boys. Met Laini, drank beer and talked about films. Came home via the chip chop.

DAY 22

Woke up feeling very rough. 

The Stuntman had his dream show. Audience created a game with me that made it impossible to move on. Riding waves of laughter. They even laughed through the Dad speech, which has never happened before. 

Jon & Nath went OK. A woman screamed at Jon to stop after the first slap but everyone shouted her down chanting for more. 

“I had to drop my pants in the window…”

Got to Audrey the Mobile Vintage Cinema totally saturated. All the acts crammed into the cab to wait and I had to drop my pants in the window to get changed. Did one of my best gigs ever to twenty people. They carried Stuntman through his hoop. Had permission to push a lot further into the obscene with Faith Healer. Magic gig. 

Watched first half of wonderful Disney burlesque. 

Teched Dirty White Boys. Sneaky hug with Pete Nash in the underpass. Rotating Rostrum cabaret, did more Faith Healer and reckon I’ve now got 10 minutes of my next show. Bumped into Harry Carr and talked about letting go of these shows. Saw flatmates through the window of a bar; they bought me pints. Listened to the case for Trump voters from a Trump voter. Sausage, chips, cheese and curry sauce. Yummy shame.

DAY 23

A Malcolm Hardee Comedy Award cock-up

Woke up inspired and a bit delirious. Had a brilliant idea that I would award myself the Malcolm Hardee Cunning Stunt Award for awarding myself the Malcolm Hardee Cunning Stunt Award. I have no right to do this, especially as these awards no longer exist. Messaged John Fleming to advise him of my plan. He said it could not be officially recognised. Still obviously delirious, talked Shelley through the genius of an award ceremony stunt where the awarding of the prize itself guarantees my eligibility, nomination and victory. 

Watched Lisa Klevemark’s Lemons and won a bottle of lemon essence. 

Another amazing Stuntman show. He’s found his groove in the last few days. 

Football & comedy do not mix

Jon & Nath started with a full house but we were nervous, as a football game started on the screen at The Free Sisters halfway through our show. At 5.25pm half the audience left. Then the football started and – through noise bleed – no-one could hear us, so people kept leaving. Walkouts became the joke of the show. Managed to get a laugh saying with more walkouts we become more niche and our price goes up. (Thanks Mark Dean Quinn for that one.) Hardest work we’ve ever done. Even during the bucket speech about 10 people ran out. From a full house of 120 we ended with 30 and hardly any of them paid us. Turns out our price went down. 

Had truly shite cocktails with Laini. Went home for a nap, pizza and whisky. Went out despite every fibre of my being wanting to stay in bed. 

Teched Dirty White Boys.

Rotating Rostrum gig was diabolical, I was too shaken and delirious to make any sense. The Faith Healer got properly heckled by Freya the Beagle, she really didn’t like him or probably that joke I made about her on Day 0 either.

Beer at Bob’s bus with Dan Lees and Paul Vickers. Mused on the benefits of flop shows.

Power-walked home and crashed.

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The girl who loves gangsters the Kray Twins and imprisoned Charles Bronson

Sarajane at the Kray Twins’ grave in Chingford, East London

A few weeks ago, I got an email from Sarajane Martin which said:

“I am aware this may be a long shot but I’m a 21 year old Fine Art student living in London, studying at the University of Westminster and I am in the process of writing my dissertation…”

She asked if I could help her with something. Alas I could not, but I can spot a good blog subject when I see one, so we had a tea and coffee this week. She handed in her dissertation today.


Sarajane: I was born in a moving car going at about 80 miles an hour. My dad kept driving and he said he heard the sound of a child being born behind him. He turned round and me mam was sat there with me and he was fucking flying and he just kept going.

John: He was on his way to the hospital?

Sarajane: Yeah. He ran in and he said: Me wife’s had a baby in the car! And they told him: You are drunk, sir. Please go! And he’s like: For fucksake! My wife’s just had a baby!

John: It was unexpected, then?

Sarajane: Yeah. Afterwards, me dad went back to the house to get things for me mam, like pyjamas and stuff, and the second he hit the spot when I had come out, where he heard that noise, Pretty Flamingo by Manfred Mann came on the radio and he sang it all the way to Durham, thinking about his new daughter. He sang it to me my whole life. I have a tattoo of a flamingo on my leg and it says Daddy and he’s got one on his.

John: When Ron Kray shot George Cornell in the Blind Beggar pub, there was a jukebox playing, wasn’t there?”

Sarajane: Yeah. It was playing The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Anymore. Ron said, the second he shot him, it went: The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Anymore… Anymore… Anymore and it jammed. How weird is that?

John: What is your BA (Hons) dissertation called?

Sarajane: What Does Performance Art Contribute To The Myth of The Criminal?

John: What DOES it contribute?

Sarajane: Well, if I’m being totally honest, I just said ‘Performance Art’ because I’m an art student and I had to connect it to art somehow. I wanted to write about gangsters and bad boys an’ that.

John: In her autobiography Handstands in the Dark, Janey Godley says that old-time Glasgow gangsters were like actors. They were putting on a performance of being gangsters.

Sarajane: It’s right, that. It IS a performance, like it’s not real. I got interested in criminals. I think it’s a thing we all do.

Sarajane Martin at Soho Theatre in a T-shirt

John: You have a Kray Twins T-shirt on.

Sarajane: Ultimate gangsters.

John: Criminals are bad people.

Sarajane: I know. It’s not that I think they’re nice people. I just find them more interesting than good people. That’s just a human reaction, isn’t it?

John: Any specific reason?

Sarajane: I know exactly why. I have two older brothers. The oldest one is 37. I’m nearly half his age. I’m 21 and I’ve done much more than he’s ever done because he has just like been in prison his whole life near enough. Petty stuff. Gone with the wrong crowd. Daft. Stupid. A rolling stone.

He would write me letters when I was a kid. I remember seeing it was an HMP (Her Majesty’s Prison) envelope and I was buzzing, thinking it was really cool. My brother in prison had sent me a letter! I was thinking of this when I was writing a letter to Bronson.

John: Charles Bronson, the criminal.

Sarajane: Yes.

John: He’s changed his name again, hasn’t he?

Sarajane: Yes. Charles Salvador.

John: Some women get married to long-term prisoners.

Sarajane: People start to write to a person because they know that person’s a murderer.

John: Why would they want to write to someone who has killed people?”

Sarajane: Because they see the good in people. They say Ron Kray was mad. But he was ill. Nowadays, he wouldn’t have lived like that. It was such a different time.

John: There are still psycho killers around today, though.

Sarajane: Yeah. Yeah. But they’re treated differently.

John: Have you seen The Piranha Brothers in Monty Python?

Sarajane: No.

John: People say the East End of London was safer when the Krays were around. They only killed their own, not ordinary people.

Sarajane: Yes. In a Fred Dinenage book, Ron is quoted as saying he wanted to kill George Cornell. He says he had shot people before but he did it just to maim not to kill. With George, I wanted to. I walked in there and wanted to kill him. That’s mad.

John: You are from the North East of England. There are loads of hard men up there.

Sarajane: Yeah. But Northerners are wankers.

John: Are you sure you want that quoted?

Sarajane: I’m a Northerner, so I can say it. They’re just not very interested in the world around them.

John: If this were 1963 or 1965, would you have thought of marrying Ron Kray?

Sarajane: Probably. (LAUGHING) I don’t think Ron would have done what he done if we had met. (LAUGHING) I don’t think Ron would have been that interested in me. They reckoned when Ron liked someone, that was it. Someone said: You would hear that the Krays were coming and all the good-looking lads would piss off. They knew Ron was on the way.

John: You just fancy bad boys.

Sarajane: I don’t fancy Bronson or owt like that. I just love ‘em, you know what I mean? I don’t fancy them. It’s not like that.

John: You would not marry Bronson but you love him?

Sarajane: Yeah, but in a different way… Appreciation…

John: …of what?

Sarajane: I don’t know.

John: You appreciate his art?

Art by Charles Bronson was controversially displayed at Angel station, London, in 2010

Sarajane: I do. I love his art.

John: It IS interesting.

Sarajane: Do you know he sent a Get Well Soon card to the girl who lost her leg in Alton Towers? (When a rollercoaster crashed at the amusement park.) Bless him.

John: I hate to say this, but Hitler was an artist.

Sarajane: And Joseph Goebbels was about five foot high and used to wear high heels when he was in photos. What a weird thought.

John: You graduate this year. What are you going to be?”

Sarajane: I felt I knew before I started the course.

John: What did you think back then you were going to be?”

Sarajane: Famous. That was the only thing I wanted. I wanted to come to London and be famous. Like Bronson. Go into prison and become famous.

John: Really?

Sarajane: No. I’m joking. I always just wanted to be a painter. I was going to be pure punk and drop out of Art School and just be a failure. And then I thought: No, I can’t go my whole life saying Oh, yeah, I dropped out of Art School.

John: Have you done any art inspired by the Krays?

Sarajane: I’m saving it for my degree show. I want it to be like you feel the presence of the two of them.  Possibly something like two life-sized sculptures which show the difference in their characters.

John: So what are you going to do when you leave university this year?

Sarajane: I haven’t got a clue. All I know so far is I’m going to Nuremberg and to The Berghof. And Nürburgring. Do you like Formula One racing?

John: I’ve never seen it live.

Sarajane: I like the old 1970s Formula One, me. Much cooler. And they were much more ‘for it’. Now it’s all money and there’s no, like, courage in the game. In the 1970s, they were like right up to death, looking it in the face: We don’t care. Niki Lauda is one of my heroes. His crash happened at Nürburgring. He was on fire. They had to put a thing in his lungs and like vacuum his lungs and he did it more than once. He was that much of an animal he was like: Do it again. It doesn’t even hurt that much, man: do it again.

John: You’re just looking for the ultimate bad boy.

Sarajane: He’s not a bad boy, though. He’s just a total nerd who had an accident.

John: You’re attracted to death and punk. It’s Goth Art.

Sarajane: Goth’s dead. I’m pure punk. I’m pure 1970s punk, me.

Sarajane Martin – work in progress

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Japanese Rakugo storytelling from a Canadian in London and New York

When I met Canadian performer Katsura Sunshine at Camden Lock in London, he was wearing a denim kimono and a bowler hat.

“What was your original name?” I asked.

“Gregory Conrad Robic,” he told me. “I’m a Slovenian citizen, born in Toronto.”

“So why are you doing Japanese stuff?” I asked

I met Katsura Sunshine in Camden Lock, London

“In my youth,” he told me, “I was writing musicals based on Aristophanes. One musical version of The Clouds ran for 15 months in Toronto. As I was researching, I read that ancient Greek theatre and Japanese Noh and Kabuki had all these similarities yet there was no chance of cross-pollination. They were coincidental similarities. I thought that was really interesting, so I went to Japan to see Kabuki. I intended to stay for 6 months, but 18 years went by and now I live in Tokyo and London.”

“Half and half?” I asked. “You are based in Tokyo and Camden Town?”

“Yes, for the last few years. I am going to perform at the Soho Playhouse in New York in November and then I might move to New York. Nothing is planned. I might not.”

“So,” I asked, “how are ancient Greek theatre and Japanese theatre similar?”

“Use of masks,” said Sunshine. “And the same actors playing different roles. And the musical instruments are very similar.”

“And, from Noh and Kabuki,” I said, “you got interested in other styles?”

“Yes. I loved being there so, after five years, when I could actually speak some Japanese, someone introduced me to Rakugo performance, which is quite inaccessible to a non-Japanese speaker; it’s not commonly done in English. Kabuki is very visual, but Rakugo is basically kneeling on a cushion and moving your head left and right to delineate different characters.”

The Kamigata Rakugo Association Hall in Osaka, Japan

Sunshine is currently the only professional non-Japanese storyteller officially recognized by the Kamigata Rakugo Association.

“It’s traditional Japanese storytelling,” I said.

“Yes.”

“So what attracts you to Rakugo?”

“The simplicity of it. All you need is a kimono, a fan and a hand towel to create a storytelling world for people. The first half is a lot like stand-up comedy, where you are just doing anecdotes and trying to feel out the audience and, while you are doing that, you are trying to figure out which story to tell… When you decide which story would suit this audience, you take off your upper kimono and launch into the story.

“The stories have been passed down for 200, 300, 400 years from master to apprentice, from master to apprentice. There is a shared pool of stories. My own master (Katsura Bunshi VI) has made up around 250 different stories.”

“The style of the stories,” I said, “is traditional but the details in them could still involve something like travelling on a metro or in an aeroplane?”

“Yeah. Stories about city life, the neighbourhood, human relations. The style of the story transcends the centuries.”

“It’s either funny or it’s wordplay or it’s clever…”

“So when you tell a story,” I asked, “are you improvising details within a template story?”

“No. You improvise in terms of the choice of material but the actual material is set. You limit yourself to two characters in conversation or, at most, three and every story ends in a punchline, as if it were one long, extended joke.”

“A funny punchline?” I asked.

“It’s either funny or it’s wordplay or it’s clever, but it’s something that ties the whole story together in a satisfying ending.”

“You said ‘wordplay’ OR ‘funny’,” I pointed out. “As if Japanese wordplay is not necessarily comedic.”

“There are so many levels,” Sunshine explained. “Japanese has a limited number of sounds so there are many levels to wordplay. Some are funny; some are beautiful. It’s not always making someone laugh with wordplay.”

“So sometimes the audience just appreciates the cleverness?”

“Yes.”

“There are basically three types of venue,” I said. “Comedy, theatre and music venues. Which is Rakugo most suited to?”

“That’s an interesting question,” said Sunshine. “It is a theatrical form that happens to be comical.

Sunshine at the Leicester Square Theatre, March 2017

“The first year I went to the Edinburgh Fringe, I listed myself in the Comedy section, but I think a lot of the audience were expecting guffaws from the very beginning. It is storytelling, but not laugh-a-minute and there is a through-line and I don’t think it suited that audience. The next year, I put myself in Theatre and I think it suited the audience much better.”

“How many years have you played the Edinburgh Fringe?” I asked.

“This would have been the fourth year, if I had made it. I had to cancel my whole run because, once you get out of hospital, they instruct you not to fly for a certain amount of time.”

“And you were in hospital,” I prompted, “because you had…?”

“Deep vein thrombosis and Economy Class syndrome – pulmonary embolism. I had one long flight back from New York which… I think that’s where I contracted it.”

“But you are OK now?”

“Mmmmm….”

Earlier this year, in March, Sunshine played one night at the Leicester Square Theatre in London, packed to its 400-seat capacity.

“You are,” I prompted, “doing ten more shows at the Leicester Square Theatre starting this Sunday and running until October 15th.”

“Yes.”

“In English.”

“Yes. Rakugo is surprisingly translatable. I don’t really adapt the stories. They are directly translated into English. The points where people laugh in Japanese are generally the same points where people laugh in English. The humour of the traditional Rakugo stories is very situation-based and character-based – miscommunication; husband and wife fighting; a thief who never manages to steal anything. It doesn’t depend on the intricacies of language as much as situations which anybody in any culture can understand.”

“Comedy audiences in this country,” I said, “are maybe in the 20-35 age range. Below that, they can’t afford to go out a lot. Over that, they may be stuck at home with children. So the material is aimed at younger adult audiences.”

“Rakugo is very ‘clean’,” said Sunshine. “Very family-oriented, so the whole family come; they bring the children.”

The chance of Rakugo dying out is about this…

“Is Rakugo dying out in Japan,” I asked, “with each new generation?”

“No. There are 800 professional storytellers in Japan and they all make a living from it. There’s a huge number of shows going on every day all over Japan, particularly in Tokyo and Osaka, but we travel all over the country all the time.”

“Is there storytelling on Japanese TV?”

“Not too much. Storytellers get on TV in the variety shows.”

“So it is not dying out?”

“No. No chance, though it goes in waves. Maybe every 3 or 4 years, there are TV series looking at Rakugo and that gets people interested again. In terms of the number of storytellers, it’s at its peak right now.”

“Men AND women perform?” I asked.

“It’s traditionally quite a male world, but now more and more women are joining the ranks. Out of the 800 storytellers, there are maybe 40 or 50 women. About 30 years ago there were almost none. In the Osaka Tradition of storytelling, the most senior Master is a woman and she is I think under 60 years old.”

“When you do your shows in Japan,” I asked, “do you see the audience?”

“Yes. One big difference to Western theatre is that, in Japan, we keep the house lights on. You want to see everybody in the audience. The visual communication is very important.”

Sunshine posters in London’s tube

“The lights will be up at the Leicester Square Theatre?”

“Yes.”

“You have,” I said, “posters promoting the show on escalators in Leicester Square tube station.”

“And in Piccadilly Circus station,” said Sunshine. “My dream was always to perform in the West End with posters on the escalators and my face on a London taxi.”

“You have ads on taxis?” I asked.

“Well,” said Sunshine, “to really advertise effectively on a taxi, you need about 200 of them.

“We just got one taxi painted. It is about £250 to have it painted and then something like £200 per month for one taxi plus £75 for one hour with a driver.

Man! You’ve made it! Sunshine is a big success in London!”

“So we paid a driver for two hours and just took pictures all round London. So, in terms of social media, the cost to have a Sunshine taxi all over the internet was maybe £600.

“When I put the pictures up in Japan maybe six months ago – six months before these shows in Leicester Square – people were like: Man! You’ve made it! Sunshine is a big success in London!

“And,” I said, “the name Leicester Square Theatre will impress the Americans.”

“Yes.”

“You are a very clever man,” I said. “And it is a very nice denim kimono.”

“I designed it myself,” Sunshine told me. “The sleeves are removable so I can change them. I will wear a more traditional kimono on stage.”

I did not ask him about the bowler hat.

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Edinburgh Fringe, Day 12: How to destroy a comedy career & other news

One thing I always tell performers at the Fringe is: Always perform, even if there is only one person in the audience, because you do not know who that one person might be.

The two examples I endlessly give are …

  • Comic Charlie Chuck, at his first Fringe, unknown, was getting very few bums-on-seats. He was thinking of going home. I told him not to. A few days later, he performed to an audience of four… Two of them were TV producers and, as a result, he appeared on two Reeves & Mortimer TV series.
  • I turned up to see a show at the old Holyrood Tavern venue. I was 50% of the audience. I was looking for acts to appear on an ITV series. The other audience member turned out to be a BBC producer. The act had gone back to London in despair because they were not getting audiences.

Perhaps nothing would have come of us seeing the act. But maybe it might.

The thing to remember is that you are not necessarily paying out large amounts of money to get money back from audiences’ bums-on-seats. You are also – perhaps mainly – performing in Edinburgh to be seen by showbiz and media people who may change your career and your life.

An empty stage in London (not the Edinburgh venue)

Today, I turned up to see an act. I had seen this English act ‘die’ on several occasions at ‘open mic’ nights in London, performing basically to other open mic acts in ‘dead’ venues. But my intuition told me the act had something that might work and I might see it in a 60-minute show.

The show was in an out-of-the-way venue and, when I arrived, I was the sole audience member.

The performer turned up about three minutes before the billed start time and, two minutes before the billed start time, apologetically cancelled the performance, saying: “It would be awkward just performing to one person.”

About to join me, but slightly delayed, was Nick Awde, playwright, producer, publisher and critic/feature writer for The Stage.

Now, maybe nothing would have come of the two of us seeing the act but, if you perform, there is a possibility, however slight, that something may result. If you do not perform, there is a certainty nothing will result.

Cancelling is never a good idea. Cancelling two minutes before the billed start time is an even more self-destructive decision.

The phrase ‘self-destructive’ is, of course, bound to lead to Lewis Schaffer, the man who, on getting a 5-star review in The Scotsman only half-jokingly said he was depressed because he feared it might destroy his image as a loser.

“Quite unlike anything else in the programme”

This week, he got a good review on the Chortle comedy website, for his show Unopened Letters From My Mother.

The review gave him three stars but started: “Look beyond the star rating here, for this is one of those shows that it’s hard to judge by the standards of a conventional Fringe offering. For some, the fact that this is quite unlike anything else in the programme will be enough to make it a must-see.”

It went on to compare him to Award-winning Kim Noble.

Lewis Schaffer decided not to share a link to the review on his social media.

This morning at Fringe Central, I bumped into American performer Peter Michael Marino. He told me:

“I found a cracked iPhone in the Lounge at the Counting House, wedged between the fireplace and the stage. I put word out to performers in the Lounge and it turned out the iPhone was Lewis Schaffer’s. Before I gave it back to him, I tried to crack the passcode, so I could access his text messages and next year I could do a show called Unread Text Messages From Lewis Schaffer.”

PM Marino – a man with saliva in his mouth

JD who runs Sweet venues told me the Fringe Office had told him that this year’s line-up included 300 more comedy shows than last year. Getting even noticed at the Fringe takes an effort of promotion.

If you don’t promote yourself, you are invisible.

The official Fringe figures are that, this year, there are 53,232 performances of 3,398 shows from 62 countries in over 300 venues, including 686 free shows with comedy making up 35% of the shows, theatre 28% and cabaret 4%.

And that is only the Fringe. There is also the official International Festival, the Jazz & Blues Festival, the Art Festival, Military Tattoo, Book Festival and Television Festival (the last being a private conference rather than public festival, but having a big influence).

People will do anything to get noticed.

Peter Michael Marino’s Show Up follows The Grouchy Club show in the Lounge at The Counting House. Have I mentioned The Grouchy Club before? The increasingly prestigious Grouchy Club hosted by me and Kate Copstick.

Flaunt it. Flaunt it.

This morning the aforementioned Peter Michael Marino told me: “I swapped saliva with Copstick yesterday.”

“I am not even going to ask…” I told him.

I may come back to this story.

Eric has filled Fringe venues under the radar for ten years

I went inside Fringe Central and bumped into Eric, who has been performing Eric’s Tales of the Sea – A Submariner’s Yarn at the Fringe now for ten years.

After a brief conversation, he told me. “I’m off now. I gotta see this werewolf.”

Nothing odd about that at the Fringe.

An hour later, I got a text from him: “The werewolf has just finished. Cracking show. You missed a great experience.”

By this time, I was going into The Hive to see Mark Dean Quinn’s You Win You Lose. A true original, he is a combination of Andy Kaufman, Dadaism, intentional shambles and (I think genuine) emotional self-flagellation. What more could anyone want in an Edinburgh Fringe show?

I had to leave quickly at the end, taking the newly-fried chips with me (don’t ask) to get to Simon Caine’s elevator pitch event at the Apex Hotel in Grassmarket.

‘Reformed Whores’ pitch their show to Robert Peacock etc

He and JD had arranged a collection of Sweet performers to get in a lift (US translation: elevator) with reviewers Nick Awde (The Stage), Robert Peacock (Wee Review) and me and they had to pitch their shows to us in the time it took the lift to travel from the Ground Floor (US translation: 1st floor) to the 5th and back.

Then I saw Phil Ellis Has Been on Ice with unbilled co-star Pat Cahill. Phil’s breakthrough at the Fringe was with Funz & Gamez in 2014 and it has taken this long for the BBC to faff around without giving him a radio or TV show.

Phil is a successful example of one type of comedy. Post-modern originality and regular, gigantic audience Whhoooaaaaahhhs!!!!

Smug Roberts is a successful example of another type of comedy.

Neither is better than the other.

For me, the Smug Roberts show was possibly the most highly anticipated of the Fringe.

In 2006, he did a one-off, one-night performance at the Edinburgh Fringe of a show he called Me Dad’s Dead. And that is what it was about. I wrote a review of the show for the Chortle comedy website and have remembered the performance ever since.

I started the review: “Smug Roberts is a Manchester based Jongleurs-style club comic who might be described, not entirely correctly, as old-school. He is clearly a very professional Northern circuit act who can play to any audience and quickly endear himself to them rapidly.”

The intervening 11 years have not changed that, except that he is even more warm, natural and extraordinarily skilful as a performer.

He is a real person in a pub doing stand-up

Smug is 57 and had a pretty-much full audience at the Three Sisters aka Free Sisters tonight in which, I think, I was the only person over 30. It was an audience of 20-somethings (at least one was 19) and they laughed virtually non-stop for 55 minutes because this is a masterclass in comedy. Autobiographical, fanciful (at home, his dog speaks to him), seemingly effortless comedy within straight, traditional stand-up, including vocal and physical bits of ‘business’.

Smug Roberts should be a national institution.

He is a brilliantly assured comic now incapable, I would suspect, of ever putting a foot wrong with any audience.

His show is called Just Me In a Pub Doing Stand-Up.

That is more than good enough for me.

Wonderful.

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Between the Sheets with Polly Rae, Entrepreneuress of Burlesque…

Polly Rae, entrepreneuress of burlesque

Tomorrow night, burlesque entrepreneur (entrepreneuress?) Polly Rae is fronting the first of seven summer shows called Between The Sheets at the Underbelly’s Spiegeltent on London’s South Bank. It is her fourth year there.

“Why that title?” I asked her.

“Because it’s a show about sex. I am the host and invite everyone into my boudoir to share my fantasies and sensualities.”

“Not a one-woman show?” I asked.

“No. There are eight of us. It’s a variety-cabaret-burlesque show. We perform as an ensemble but they also have individual acts. We have circus performers, male dancers, a clown-comedienne. We’ve been refining this show with various different casts for 4 or 5 years. This is our fourth season here at the Underbelly. The core cast has remained the same.

“The main headliner is an artist called Kitty Bang Bang, a burlesque fire-breather. We call her The bad ass of burlesque, the wild child, the rocker, the whisky drinker, the whip cracker. Lilly SnatchDragon is our hilarious, glamorous clown-comedienne. And we have Beau Rocks. In her act, she explores the more erotic and sensual side of burlesque – a contemporary act with UV lighting and UV paint. Quite a saucy, futuristic act.”

“Burlesque is stripping,” I said.

“Yes,” agreed Polly. “It is absolutely stripping, pioneered in 1940s and 1950s America and, obviously, Dita Von Teese has popularised it for this generation. I’ve been doing it for about 12 years.”

“Do your parents have a problem with stripping?”

“If you define the physical act then, yes, of course, it’s stripping. But the context is different from stripping in a gentleman’s club. Burlesque is very much about theatre and old-school Variety. It has the combinations of dance, comedy, singing, dancing and the various skills we use.

“So my parents don’t mind at all; they’re very encouraging and they love it. They come to see my shows… My mum brought me up on Madonna… Madonna in the 1980s!… What kind of influence was that?

Ensemble assemble Between The Sheets

“I like to think this show is quite titillating. I like to think it is quite hot under the collar. But it’s not explicit. If there are any moments that are explicit, we soften it with humour. I think it’s very important to have humour in my shows. You’ve got to balance sexiness with wit.”

“Parents in show business?” I asked.

“Not at all. Really, my influence came from my mother bringing me up on Madonna. My dad was an architect. Being an architect was his profession but, as a hobby, he worked on Gerry Anderson TV programmes as a model maker. He worked on Stingray. One of his main shows was Terrahawks… There was a big spaceship; he designed and made that.”

“But not a performer…” I said.

“I grew up loving performance,” Polly told me, “but I didn’t go to stage school. I originally wanted to be a special effects make-up artist. That was my original dream. My dad and I used to watch horror movies – science fiction alien movies and Freddie Krueger and so on. My dad actually worked on the movie Alien.

“When I was born, he moved back up North to Preston and his movie career was over. He was supposed to go and do the second movie – Aliens – but then my mum got pregnant with me and he chose not to carry on, which I feel a bit guilty about: he might have been in Hollywood now.

“I was a beauty therapist out of school. Then I moved from Preston to London and met lots of performers and that changed my life. At 19 years old, I flew to New Orleans and worked on the cruise ships for a few years, in the Caribbean.”

“As a beautician?” I asked.

Polly Rae – “a culture-building exposure” – reddy for anything

“Yes. But what was great was I got to see performers’ lives. It was such a culture-building exposure, meeting people from all parts of the world. I made friends with a lot of the dancers and singers and started to think: Ah! This is quite interesting!

“I decided I wanted to be a Social Host – like MCs who run the games, host the karaoke or whatever – but I couldn’t get that job because I had no experience. So, long story short, I started training in dance and singing and, around 2005, I met Jo King who runs the London Academy of Burlesque.”

“2005,” I suggested, “is around the time burlesque became respectable? Stripping was seen as sleazy but burlesque was acceptable showbiz.”

“I didn’t know what burlesque was,” replied Polly. “That was in 2005. My first performance as a burlesque artist was 2006.”

“Which was,” I said, “roughly when it started to get profile in the UK.”

“Yes,” said Polly. “Dita Von Teese had started slowly, slowly chipping away at the mainstream in the 1990s but, come the early 2000s, that’s when London cabaret clubs started. Bethnal Green Working Men’s Club had a show called The Whoopee Club. Then there was a show at Cafe de Paris called The Flash Monkey and a show Lady Luck and a venue called Volupté opened.

“I started working at Volupté and at the Soho Revue Bar – formerly the Raymond Revue Bar. I jumped on the bandwagon at the perfect time. I was in there just BEFORE everyone wanted to go and see a burlesque show and I formulated a troupe of girls called The Hurly Burly Girlies.

Polly Rae and her Hurly Burly Girlies troupe went West End

“Being a burlesque artist, you have to have a gimmick and my thing was singing and I had my troupe of girls with me. There were no troupes at that time.”

“What sort of singing?” I asked. “Ethel Merman?”

“More of a pop ’80s route…”

“Madonna…?”

“Exactly! Exactly! And it worked a treat, John! I wanted to try to be different and to appeal to a wider audience. I figured: If my audience knows the music, I’m gonna get a wider crowd. We worked on musical arrangements of modern songs. We made modern songs sound old. And we did pop songs but we dressed vintage.”

“Post Busby Berkeley?”

If you got it, flaunt it!

“Yes, post Busby Berkeley, for sure. I took a lot of inspiration from Dita Von Teese in the beginning and I think her styling is late-1940s/early 1950s. I also did the whole 1950s bump ’n’ grind thing to classic music like Benny Goodman. We just sort-of mixed it all up, really.”

“So,” I said, “You developed this over time.”

“Yes. I met a gentleman called William Baker, who was Kylie Minogue’s artistic director/visual stylist for the last 25 years. I told him I wanted to make the biggest burlesque show the world – or maybe the UK and Europe – had ever seen. I wanted to create the Cirque du Soleil of burlesque shows.

“I thought at the time I just wanted a stylist: someone to help me on my way a little bit and help me improve the production values. But William said: If I’m going to come and work with you, I want to direct it and bring in my entire creative team.

“And so we created The Hurly Burly Show. It started in 2010 at the Leicester Square Theatre, then we did a season the following year at the Garrick Theatre and, the following year, a season at the Duchess Theatre. After that, we did it in Australia and South Africa. We had a good 3 or 4 years of wonderful madness.”

“Cabaret and burlesque,” I said, “are colourful, kitsch, camp and…”

“Exactly,” said Polly. “It’s diverse, it’s innovative, it’s creative and it’s so unbelievably individual. That’s what I especially love about it.”

“So where can you go now?” I asked. “You have peaked.”

“Being on a West End stage was amazing,” said Polly, “and I won’t stop saying it was the most incredible experience of my life. However, as a burlesque/cabaret artist, when you’re in the Garrick Theatre, there are two balconies and you can’t see anything because the spotlight is blinding you and I can’t connect with the audience in the same way.

Between The Sheets – summer shows

“The intimacy in the Spiegeltent is amazing. You can connect with the audience. In Between The Sheets, we are walking in the aisles, physically sitting on people, stealing their drinks. It’s almost immersive. You can see everybody’s face. I can connect.

“It’s not a West End theatre, but I’m much happier in the Spiegeltent. I feel much more at home and stronger as an artist. My goal is I want to see people react, whether I make them laugh, cry, feel turned-on. The satisfaction of seeing that achieved is amazing.”

“If you have the house lights full up, though,” I suggested, “the audience can feel threatened.”

“Yes, you have to get the balance right. It’s not about having lights up; it’s the proximity. And choosing the right people in the audience.”

“So,” I said, “upcoming, you have…?”

Between the Sheets is my summer project and I like to think we might get picked up and do other little tours here and there. But I also have a residency at The Hippodrome every Saturday night. I also manage the dancers there and do some MCing for corporate parties. And I’m getting married next year.”

“Is he is showbusiness?”

“He’s in hospitality. His name is Eric; he’s from the United States; he’s been here for five years.”

“He’s a lucky man,” I told her.

Polly and Eric

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Zuma Puma is on her way to Mexico via Canada: “Clown is nothing like improv!”

Zuma Puma on Skype from the Midlands

Zuma via Skype, going to Mexico via Canada

Canadian performer Zuma Puma aka Nelly Scott is leaving Britain next Thursday. She has left her London flat and was with family up in the Midlands when I talked to her via Skype.

“Why are you going back to Canada?” I asked.

“To get to Mexico.”

“Why via Canada?”

“Because it was £100 cheaper and I can visit my family in Toronto. I might even teach a clown intensive at my mum’s university – Brock University. She teaches playwriting and directing there. I am going to Mexico on a one-way ticket.”

“Why Mexico?” I asked. “It’s full of Mexicans.”

“Exactly,” said Nelly. “I love the Mexicans. I have wanted to go there for a very long time.”

“Why? Are they lacking clowns in Mexico?”

“Yes. I’m going to work with my friend and his company La Bouffant Sociale. He was my clown partner in the Cirque du Soleil School in Montreal. I studied there for a year – L’École de Clown et Comédie.”

“You are going to Mexico City?”

“We are just meeting there and then we’re going to a salty beach where we have a 15-day artist residency, building a show out of beach garbage. So that’ll be exciting. Then there is a tour in Mexico.”

“But before you go, you’re busy in London,” I prompted.

“Yes. This Thursday, we’re doing One Man, Two Ghosts at Unscene 199 Festival at New River Studios in Manor House.”

“Which is…?”

“You saw it in Edinburgh and said you liked it.”

“I did, but for those who didn’t see it…”

“It’s a clown farce: basically Noel Coward’s Blithe Spirit as told by three complete idiots. A two-layered story of what’s happening in the play and with the players beneath the play.”

“And then,” I said, “your last Lost Cabaret show in Stockwell on Friday.”

Annie Bashford and Nathan Lang at the Edinburgh Fringe

Annie Bashford and Nathan Lang at last month’s Edinburgh Fringe

“Well, it’s not the last. I’m handing it over to Nathan Lang and Annie Bashford who will be continuing it monthly.”

“Until you come back from the Americas?” I asked.

“Yeah, but I don’t know if I will come back to London. I might come back to Bristol. I feel I’m pretty much done in London.”

“You’ve been invited back to do a full run of One Man, Two Ghosts at next year’s Edinburgh Fringe at the New Town Theatre.”

“Yes. I will be back maybe in June or July next year to take One Man, Two Ghosts to the next stage.”

“And this coming weekend you are also doing your Clown Life Intensive workshops…”

“Yes. At The Pleasance Theatre in London on Saturday and Sunday.”

“What is Clown Life Intensive?” I asked.

“It’s a merging between the world of clown and personal development. So it’s clowning but not just for performers – it’s for anyone who’s interested in building their confidence and personal development, discovering their humour and looking at tools to play and understand themselves a bit more. So it’s a deep development process. You look at yourself and it’s an amplification of who you are.

“There are bits of themselves that most people don’t want to admit – they’re OCD or forgetful or a bit slow. Everyone’s got an issue. It is taking that issue and amplifying it, owning it and saying Yeah, this is a part of me. For instance, in One Man, Two Ghosts, I play a bit of a star diva and it’s all about me and how good the show is and a perfectionist and that IS me – that’s who I am. It’s just amplified to the next extent where everyone can laugh about it because it’s something and someone they all recognise.

clownlifeintensive“Clown is honest and it’s real. It’s liberating for audiences but also for the performers and my objective with the workshop is not for everyone to leave saying: I am now a clown! I am interested in people who are interested in personal development and understanding self and owning themself as a person and understanding how they connect with audiences and relate to people in life.

“Clown has been the most healing and incredible tool for personal development in my life. And there are loads of tools and techniques that have a real parallel between life and performance that I want to teach.

“It’s not like a weekend of intense guru-type development. I’m not there to be a therapist. But there are loads of tools and techniques and exercises that can teach someone a lot about themself and which are loads of fun. It’s basically a weekend of insane amounts of laughter and play, which is good for anybody… with the added bonus of being challenging at times. It is rewarding for anybody.”

“You did the Gaulier course in Paris, didn’t you?” I asked.

“Yes.”

“Why would these people not go to Gaulier instead?”

Sacha Baron Cohen - What was the hardest thing he has done?

Sacha Baron Cohen – The hardest thing he has done? (Photograph by Michael Bulcik)

“To go to Gauilier, you have to be the most committed performer in the world. Gaulier is the hardest school anyone’s ever gone to. Sacha Baron Cohen said it was the hardest thing he’d ever done in his life. You have to really want to be a performer to go to Gaulier.”

“Why is it hard?” I asked.

“Because he is so challenging. He does not accept anything that is not your most brilliant. You are shit until you find magic and how rare is it to find magic? When you have the whole audience in your hand, that happens once in a while and he teaches you to recognise when that happens and how to make that happen as much as possible. You are not hungry enough as a performer until you want every performance to be at that level. That’s what he teaches.”

“That’s it, then,” I said. “You happy with all that?”

“As long as you don’t say again that Clown is just like improv. Last time you said that, I had to write this whole post about No! It’s nothing like improv! It is so far from improv.

Alright.

Clown is not like improv.

There. I have said it.

onemantwoghosts

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How to fail at the Edinburgh Fringe

How NOT to succeed at the Edinburgh Fringe

At around this time each year, a lot of performers preview their upcoming Edinburgh Fringe comedy shows in London.

‘Preview’ in this case is a word with many meanings. It can mean the full, finished Edinburgh show; or a jerky show with the performer reading some or all of it off notes; or some thrown-together mishmash of ideas which do not yet gel but which may yet end up as a smooth Edinburgh show in August.

I have been seeing a lot of previews recently and, earlier this week, I saw one which was fully written, rehearsed and well-performed. Unusually, the show was in a packed-to-overflowing venue and went down a storm. The audience LOVED it, as well they might, because it was skilfully crafted to appeal to them.

And, as I watched it, I saw – minute by minute, second by second – an almost 100% Edinburgh Fringe disaster unfolding before me.

The show comprised observational comedy and was tailor-made for a wide audience who could identify through their own experience with all the observations in the show. To make it even more enjoyable, there were a large number of audience participation sections – dividing the audience down the middle; that sort of stuff.

The audience loved it.

We now have a flashback to my erstwhile youth when, on big TV shows like Sunday Night at The London Palladium, major US comedy stars would be flown over to the UK and would smoothly perform their slick, tried-and-tested material… material about living in New York; material about eating turkey on Thanksgiving Day; material about mom’s apple pie.

You can see where I am going with this.

The comedian I saw this week had a very-well-put-together themed show with the linking device narrative of a trip on the Underground, visits to ‘West End’ clubs etc etc. It was not just very very English; it was utterly London-centric and almost certainly could not easily have the London elements removed and replaced with other references.

One bit was: “You know what it’s like at 12 o’clock on a Saturday on the Central Line…”

The act performing this has never, as far as I know, performed at the Edinburgh Fringe before and this is his certainly his first show there.

The first hurdle he has fallen at is Know your audience.

The last time I heard any figures, the Fringe Society reckoned that around 60% of audiences at the Edinburgh Fringe come from EH postcodes. That means that they come from Edinburgh. Not even Glasgow or Fife. Specifically Edinburgh.

Sometimes ‘newbie’ performers assume that, at the Edinburgh Fringe, they are playing to the same audiences they play to in London. They are not. They are often not even playing to English audiences. They are playing to Scottish, Irish, Welsh, Australian, American, wherever audiences. And to English audiences.

It is reasonable for the performer to assume they are British audiences because foreigners will make allowance for the fact they have come to see UK comedy.

But it is not reasonable to assume they are audiences from South East England. The show I saw would likely get right up the proverbial noses of audiences in Manchester, Liverpool, Plymouth and Newcastle let alone Edinburgh or Glasgow.

It will come across in Scotland as “yon fuckin’ wee English cunt” showing disrespect for where he is.

I have seen South London audiences turn on comedians who talk too much about life in North London.

Move that to the Scottish/English divide and magnify it 100 times. Especially at the moment.

Of course, that figure of 60% of Fringe audiences coming from EH postcodes can only be from research taken from people buying tickets for pay shows. Who knows the make-up of audiences going to free comedy shows? But it may not be much different.

And the other thing to consider is word-of-mouth.

Word-of-mouth is HUGE at the Edinburgh Fringe. Totally unheard-of acts in obscure venues can suddenly take-off and become the hottest shows in town. Or in both towns (in Edinburgh). And, if any would-be Fringe performer reading this does not know why I wrote “both towns”, then he or she has not researched the city they are playing enough.

Again, the last figures I heard from the Fringe Society were that the average Fringe visitor stays for three days.

But those are visitors to the city and the word-of-mouth between genuine visitors is highly unlikely to be vastly significant. The real word-of-mouth is what happens between the locals (remember that EH postcode) and between the media. A single 5-star review of an obscure show from Kate Copstick in The Scotsman will likely fill a venue for the whole run and ensure the rest of the media pay attention.

When those American comedians used to play sets of American-themed observational comedy on Sunday Night at The London Palladium, UK audiences felt they were being shown contempt. The Scots have never taken kindly to English comedians per se (see endless horror stories of the dangers of playing the Glasgow Empire in its heyday).

My advice to any London comedian playing the Edinburgh Fringe is:

1) Remember Edinburgh is not in England

2) The audiences you are playing to are not entirely and possibly not even predominately from England.

3) The audiences you are playing to are almost certainly not predominately from London.

4) Showing what may be perceived as contempt for your audience is never going to end well.

5) The word ‘England’ is not the same as ‘the UK’ or ‘Britain’ or ‘here’.

6) Edinburgh is north of Watford.

7) If you do not know what a ‘Weegie’ is, you may end up ‘brown bread’ on stage.

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