Tag Archives: cabarera

Susan Harrison & Gemma Arrowsmith: not necessarily aiming for Radio 4 series

Mina The Horse with delusions of unicorndom

Mina The Horse with delusions of unicorn-ness

I last blogged about Susan Harrison in 2013 and first saw her perform at Pull The Other One – as Mina The Horse. Yup. a horse. Not an act I am likely to forget. She also runs Cabarera! themed comedy nights. The next one has a 1970s theme and is on 24th March.

“You must have done most decades?” I asked her last week.

“We’re revisiting some,” she told me. “We did a pre-historic one and one act came on as a prehistoric rock. He took ages to get to the stage.”

When we chatted, she was with Gemma Arrowsmith. They are previewing their separate new Edinburgh Fringe shows as part of a double bill at the trendy Proud Archivist in London this Tuesday. The two met at Free Fringe venue Le Monde in Edinburgh in 2012.

Gemma Arrowsmith (left) and Susan Harrison

Gemma (left) and Susan at The Actors Centre in London

“This year,” Gemma told me, “I’m operating my own sound in Edinburgh; my techie will just do lights. I saw Ivan Brackenbury – Tom Binns – do everything himself and I think it was seeing that which inspired me to do it myself.”

Susan chipped in: “I saw Michael Brunström do that recently. He was being Mary Quant for Cabarera! and he was operating the sound of whales noises because it was Mary Quant who went whaling, obviously.”

“Obviously,” I said. “Can we recap? Whaling? He was being Mary Quant?”

“It was for the 1960s night,” explained Gemma, then asked Susan: “Who were you that night?”

“I can’t remember,” said Susan.

“That sounds like a very realistic 1960s night,” I suggested.

“Andy Warhol,” said Gemma.

“Yes, Andy Warhol,” said Susan.

“What did you do with your hair?” I asked Susan.

“I emerged from a soup can,” said Susan.

“I still want to know what you did with your hair,” I told her.

“A wig,” she replied.

“But you have an awful lot of hair,” I said, enviously.

“Well,” explained Susan, “if you’re a character actress and you have long hair, you get used to wig caps.”

“I suppose,” I said, “once you’ve played a horse with unicorn aspirations, you can play anything… You’re both actresses, really.”

“I think we’re both obsessed with comedy,” said Susan, “and have been since we were little.”

“Recently,” said Gemma, “I had to get rid of my enormous comedy collection to the Museum of Comedy. It was getting out of hand. Absolutely ridiculous. I started collecting comedy when I was 10 and, by the time I was 12, I had 500 VHS tapes. So you can imagine what it was like by 32… VHSs, books, scripts, book tie-ins. Getting things signed as well. Going to see Ben Elton, Jack Dee, Hale and Pace. I saw Hale and Pace at the Wolverhampton Civic when I was about 13. They were amazing.”

“I think,” said Susan, “they’re much-maligned because they were on ITV, not BBC.”

“That could be true,” I said. “So what are your shows?”

Everything That’s Wrong With The Universe

Gemma exposes Everything That’s Wrong With The Universe

“Mine is Everything That’s Wrong With The Universe,” said Gemma. “I call it a rogues’ gallery of quacks, charlatans and con artists. So homeopathy comes in for a few blows.”

“That’s a bit harsh,” I said.

“No it’s not,” said Gemma.

“I’m guessing,” I said, “that you have traditional medicine people in your family…”

“No,” said Gemma, “I just have a hatred of nonsense. I was in a double-act with a guy called Steve Mould for a long time. We did a trilogy of shows in Edinburgh and Steve got me interested in science. I did a video for a charity called Sense About Science and their Ask For Evidence campaign, which means, if anyone makes a bold claim, you should ask for evidence.”

“I go down the Fortean Times route,” I said, “where you just accept anything, unless…”

“Oh God!” said Gemma. “Fortean Times!” Then she asked Susan: “Have you ever read the Fortean Times?”

“No,” Susan replied.

We live in Fortean Times

Should we disbelieve or believe unprovens?

“It’s this magazine,” Gemma explained, “of nonsense. Aliens and stuff like that.”

“It’s not a parody?” asked Susan.

“No,” said Gemma, “it’s on the level, though sometimes I think Is it? because it’s so ridiculous.”

“Their philosophy,” I explained, “is Don’t disbelieve anything, unless you can disprove it.”

“Surely,” argued Gemma, “Don’t believe anything until you can prove it should be how you look at things?”

“But,” I said. “if you don’t disbelieve anything, there’s some tremendous fun to be had. I think they mostly don’t believe most of it. They used to have annual UnConventions. Do you remember the supposed alien autopsy film? The newspapers had been talking to doctors for months to prove it was a fake.  Fortean Times flew over two movie special effects men from Hollywood who immediately explained how it had been faked.”

Susan Harrison as Jennie Benton: Wordsmith

Susan as Jennie Benton: Wordsmith

“My show,” said Susan, “is called Jennie Benton: Wordsmith and it’s about a character I’ve done on the circuit and in sketch shows for years.”

“Does the horse appear?” I asked.

“Unfortunately not,” Susan replied.

“She could appear as a pot of glue,” I suggested.

“That’s harsh,” said Gemma.

“There is a line about glue in it,” said Susan, “but it’s not about her. This show is all about two 15-year-olds who are really into spoken word and hip-hop. At the moment, the other act is Richard Soames from the Beta Males. Basically, he’s in love with her and she’s in love with her teacher and it’s all about unrequited love.”

“And the object of appearing at Edinburgh,” I asked, “is to get commissioned by BBC Radio 4?”

“I don’t think those are the aims any more,” Susan told me. “I think the thing with my stuff and podcasting and YouTube is, because you’re making it yourself, you know it’s going to get made – as opposed to sending a script off on a wing and a prayer and getting so far and then it’s Oh, the producer has left and it’s not happening any more. That just happens so many times.

Susan Harrison’s Back Row image

The Susan Harrison hipster Back Row podcast reviewer

“We do a podcast where we play two reviewers. It’s called Susan Harrison’s Back Row and it’s a bit like BBC Radio’s Front Row. So we are these two hideous reviewers who are… I’m a real hipster reviewer and Gemma’s character is more of a broadsheet reviewer.”

“Everything,” explained Gemma, “is very super-beneath us.”

Susan added: “We started reviewing proper things – books, exhibitions and things like that – but recently we’ve reviewed Christmas crackers…”

“…and,” added Gemma, “our experience of New Year and Hallowe’en costumes.”

“The thing I hate most,” said Susan, “is pretentiousness, so it’s really fun to lampoon that. It’s these characters’ nonchalance that’s annoying.”

“So no Radio 4 aims?” I asked.

“The point is to create,” said Susan. “It’s just a matter of making something, doing something. I wouldn’t see it as a realistic option to have to be on the radio, because there are so many reasons why people get on there and so much of it is a fluke. There’s no point that being your goal. Your goal should just be to make what you want to make and just keep getting out there and performing.”

Gemma does Sketches In My Flat on YouTube

Gemma creates Sketches In My Flat

“That’s certainly,” Gemma agreed, “why I started doing my YouTube channel Sketches In My Flat. I got home after doing the Edinburgh show in 2012 and decided, purely for fun, to record a few of the sketches in my living room with a budget of zero.

“One of the sketches got re-Tweeted by a few people – Simon Singh, Richard Dawkins – and overnight it was seen by 10,000 people – It was seen by ten times the number of people who had seen my Edinburgh show across the whole month.

“That was on a budget of zero and it makes you think when you know how much you spent on your Edinburgh show. So I decided I would take at least a year out just doing videos on YouTube. I started off doing some of the sketches from the show and then I started making new sketches specifically for YouTube. One of my un-written rules is I don’t spent any money whatsoever on it. Except wigs.

“I did a year of doing a lot of YouTube and then a year of doing… well, it’s put out as a podcast, but it’s like an audio series. And I’ve really enjoyed not going to Edinburgh.”

“So why are you going back this August?” I asked. “Someone once described performing at the Fringe as like standing in a cold shower, tearing-up £50 notes.”

Somewhere under the rainbow - madness in Edinburgh

Edinburgh, where there may be gold at the end of the rainbow

“Well, it’s a trade show for comedians,” said Gemma, “but I heard someone recently also describe it as a dog show for comedians.

“I like what Holly Burn said: that basically you just throw a load of shit at a wall. That’s what Edinburgh is – Everybody throwing shit at a wall and hoping that something sticks. Both of us have had a break from Edinburgh and I feel like getting all the shit and throwing it all out there and seeing what comes of it.”

“That’s a show I would like to see,” I said.

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The unicorn comedian

Mina the Horse cum unicorn in full flow

aka Mina the Horse cum unicorn in full flow

I first saw Susan Harrison prancing around the stage at Pull The Other One comedy club in SE London. She was appearing as Mina The Horse – a horse which has had plastic surgery to become a unicorn.

But, with character comedian Rebecca Shorrocks, she also runs a monthly variety night called Cabarera, which they started two years ago. The next show is this Thursday.

“We always host it as characters from a particular era – or imaginary characters,” Susan told me, “so, for our first 1980s night, we went for Timmy Mallett and Michaela Strachan.

“Rebecca and I host it as different characters each time. So we’ve been Timmy Mallett & Michaela Strachan and Buzz Aldrin & Neil Armstrong. We like playing men.”

“So are you,” I asked, “basically frustrated actresses waiting until you get the big part?”

“No,” Susan said. “We started as actors. We met on the 10-month tour of a play called Bad Girls – not the TV prison one – and we used to play alternative characters in the wings and, from that, we started doing sketch comedy. We host Cabarera as different characters and it’s nice for the audience because they get invested in our story through it, as well as having the other conventions of a comedy night.”

“No openings for Mina The Horse/unicorn, then?” I asked.

“I did a version of the her in the Victorian night, “ replied Susan. “I made her Victorian.”

“How do you make a horse/unicorn Victorian?”

“I changed her speech patterns. That’s the nice thing about Cabarera: you get to write new material each time.”

“So who is your audience?” I asked. “The comedy club audience or the performance art audience?”

“Maybe a bit of both.”

Susan Harrison: non-unicorn persona

Susan Harrison: non-unicorn persona

“Where did you train?”

“At the Royal Scottish Conservatoire in Glasgow. I really like Glasgow. Have you ever been?”

“I prefer Edinburgh,” I said, “When I was about six years old, I nearly got run over by a car on a zebra crossing in Glasgow. I never forgave the city.”

“I think Edinburgh’s prettier,” said Susan, “but Glasgow’s friendlier.”

“Not on zebra crossings,” I said. “But you spent three years in Glasgow?”

“Yes,” said Susan. “And then a year at Dundee Rep. I do love Scotland and the potato scones, but I came to London for more acting work.”

“And you fell into comedy?” I asked.

“I’ve been doing it since 2005,” said Susan, “and I’ve done three Edinburgh Fringe solo shows, so it’s definitely the primary thing now. I think comedy parts are a lot more interesting.”

“Why?”

“Because I always used to get cast as straight, boring, innocent young…”

“Ah, yes,” I said, looking the diminutive, fresh-faced Susan. “You’re always going to be the daughter, aren’t you…”

“Yes,” said Susan. “It was really tedious. The way people write young female protagonists is really boring. There’s nothing to play with. Like Alice in Wonderland. Her role is just reacting to all the more interesting roles. I’d much rather be a weird creature.”

“So maybe there are no innocents in comedy?” I asked.

“A lot of character in comedy,” suggested Susan, “is flawed character.”

“Well,” I said, “good comedians are maybe all damaged and flawed. You don’t seem weird enough to be a comedian.”

“I think,” replied Susan, “if you don’t have an outer madness, you do have to have an inner weirdness.”

“Mmmm… weird,” I mused, “I suppose you are prancing round as a unicorn. Why that?”

“That was from my second Edinburgh show,” explained Susan. “It was called Creatures and it was all mythical creatures. There was a Loch Ness Monster who was in foster care and a fairy who was on the verge of a nervous breakdown and a Borrower who was addicted to Tippex – it was a Trainspotting spoof. The unicorn was from that show and she seemed to also work as a stand-alone character.”

“It can be difficult to fit surreal characters like that into comedy clubs,” I said.

“Yes,” said Susan,. “We partly set up Cabarera as a way to create our own environment and be as weird as we liked. But there is a mixture. We have the more weird, alternative acts but there are also more straight character comedy acts or more straight sketch groups. It’s not all hardcore alternative. It’s a mixture.”

“Has it changed in the last two years?” I asked.

Susan Harrison’s  Cabarera audience

The eclectic Cabarera audience – as interesting as the show

“At the very start,” said Susan, “we were impersonating famous people and finding our own take on them. We would host as, say, Simon Cowell and Louis Walsh… but now we’re just doing fictional characters from the era. We co-write everything and it’s different mini-narratives each time.

“Hopefully it holds the audience’s attention throughout the night and they get invested in our relationship. We have some ups and downs within our relationship. The theme of this month’s show is Biblical, so we’re hosting it as God and Jesus.”

“Which are you?”

“Jesus.”

“Could the shows turn into a 6-part TV series?” I asked.

“It’s very theatrical,” said Susan. “It’s very much a stage experience. We involve the audience. And it’s interesting to see what the acts will come up with. Some have characters who naturally fit into an era; others write special material. Lindsay Sharman wrote something specific for the medieval night and brought a medieval instrument with her.”

“People seem to keep asking at the moment,” I said, “what the new alternative comedy is.”

“Well,” said Susan, “I think the distinctions now are blurred between performance art and comedy and acting. And I think the improvisation scene in London has become a lot bigger in the last couple of years. That’s probably had a knock-on effect, because a lot of comedians have been doing improv classes and I think that really feeds into everyone’s work.”

“Alternative comedy originally included jugglers and poets and mimes and people torturing teddy bears,” I said. “Now it’s just back-to-back stand-up.”

“That’s what’s nice about variety nights,” said Susan. “We try to have a mixture at Cabarera. Sometimes we’ll have a band that’s been adapted to the era. We had an amazing puppet burlesque – a Japanese puppeteer who has this maquette act where it’s her head on a puppet’s body and the puppet strips. It’s lovely to throw in stuff like that which you would never ever see at a stand-up club. It’s not jokes, but it’s beautiful and there are laughs.”

“It would be good,” I said, “if the stand-up, cabaret, gay and burlesque circuits overlapped more and there were more variety nights.”

“I think everything is blending more,” said Susan. “I’ve done cabaret nights and stand-up nights as Mina The Horse.”

Susan (2nd from left) in the CBBC series DNN

Susan (2nd from left) with the cast of the CBBC series DNN

“And,” I said, “you’re also appearing in the CBBC series DNN.”

“Yes,” said Susan, “that goes right into August. I think there’s quite a lot of cross-over now with comedians who do CBBC. I think Horrible Histories was really helpful: it was successful and adults enjoyed it as well. DNN is not patronising or cutesie or sweet; it’s good, really silly, daft stuff.”

“And beyond that?” I asked.

“Well, I’m writing a sitcom, as everyone is,” said Susan.

“Surreal?” I asked.

“It’s quite different from what I normally do,” Susan replied. “It’s much more naturalistic.”

“No unicorns?” I asked.

“No,” said Susan. “No unicorns.”

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