Last August, Misha Anker was sound technician for the Malcolm Hardee Comedy Awards Show – as she was for several other shows at the Edinburgh Fringe. Three weeks ago I got this e-mail from her:
“It is with many apologies and a heavy heart that I must inform you that I won’t be able to tech at the Fringe this year. No amount of back-of-the-envelope maths will make my student loan even cover my rent for the summer let alone allow me to save the necessary £1,000 or so the Fringe requires me to have upfront in August.”
I talked to her at Hampstead Theatre in London yesterday and have now arranged for her to come up to specifically handle sound on this year’s Malcolm Hardee show. (She’s open to other offers!) When we met, she had recently handled sound at the Accidental Festival and the Machynlleth Comedy Festival.
“How many hour-long shows did you tech at the Edinburgh Fringe last year?” I asked.
“I had a core run of six a day,” Misha replied, “and then, at weekends, I did an extra one in the morning and some days I’d have an extra one in the evening. A couple of days I worked noon to midnight.”
“Good sound technicians have to very organised,” I said.
“Organised,” said Misha, “but not necessarily functional as people. If you take them outside their job, they just revert to being a man drinking beer and mumbling in the corner of a pub.”
“Yes,” I said, “most sound technicians are men.”.
“That’s why I have to have a short haircut,” said Misha, “otherwise they wouldn’t know what to do with me. You’ve either got to have a beard and a pony tail – which is difficult for me – or short hair and piercings.”
“I suppose a lot do look like ageing hippies,” I said.
“Ageing roadies,” Misha suggested. “You get to the point where you’re too old to travel in a van, so then you move into a theatre. And then, when you’re too old to climb up and down a ladder, you become a lecturer.”
“Comedians are of a breed too,” I said. “Usually wildly disorganised.”
“When I have to write a CV,” laughed Misha, “I always put down that I ‘provided technical support and emotional support’ because most of the job is somewhere between operating things and being their mother.”
“And what do you do to keep your own sanity?” I asked.
“Last year in Edinburgh, I played a game with Stuart Goldsmith,” said Misha. “It was called Wife or PA? He and I had to guess if the attractive lady following the other comedian round was his wife or his PA. It’s hard to tell. The average very shambolic comedian is often being followed around by a woman. Is she married to him or trying to make him do his job? Sometimes it’s both.”
“And sometimes they don’t know the other exists,” I said. “What is the attraction of men with no money who can’t organise their own lives?”
“God knows,” laughed Misha.
“The other game I played last year,” Misha told me, “was called Sweat or Rain? You can play it in the Underbelly Belly Dancer or in The Caves or any venue that gets quite clammy. You have to feel the back of your head and decide whether it’s all hot and damp and wet because you’re really sweaty from running around or because the inside of the venue has rained on you. That, of course, is a game you can only explain to someone who’s been in those venues. At least, outside, you know the rain has only come out of the sky.
“There was one show I saw in Edinburgh where they had plastic bin-bags over the speakers because it was raining from the ceiling inside the venue.”
“Ah!” I said. “The joys of water and electrics!”
“Well,” Misha told me, “I was at a venue the other week (not in Edinburgh) where the roof was leaking when we arrived and the speaker stacks and cables were in a puddle. They told me: Oh, it’s fine; we’ve been using it like that all week and I said, OK, but I’m not going to be the one to turn it on. I quite like the idea of not being electrocuted. They turned it on and it was OK, but that was a night I was operating from arms’ length just in case.”
“You should wear rubber wellingtons when you’re working,” I suggested.
“I wear Doc Martens with rubber soles,” explained Misha. “They’re just about sturdy enough if you drop something on your foot and they have rubber soles for when you unintentionally attach yourself to the mains.”
“That would have been a good sound effect,” I said.
“I was once asked to create the sound of a shadow crossing the moon,” said Misha. “I tried to create the sound of impending doom… And I was once asked to create the sound of summer rain. It can’t just be rain, they told me. It has to somehow ‘evoke’ summer. “
“How did you do that?” I asked.
“It involved some real rain and I spent far too long listening to summer birdsong.”
“But,” I said. “even real things don’t necessarily sound like themselves.”
“Yes,” agreed Misha, “Someone scrunching up newspaper sounds a lot more like walking through snow than actually walking through snow does. I think it’s partly to do with the way we perceive sounds. It’s not just what you hear through your ear. It’s the vibrations of the tiny bones inside your head. When you hear the recording of a real noise, you’re hearing it as recorded by a diaphragm, not the way you would hear that real sound internally through your ear.
“The most awesome things I’ve ever come across are binaural microphones, which are like two little headphones that you wear in your ears and they use the way your inner ear vibrates to record exactly as you hear things. It’s both very clever and really strange to listen back to. It’s proper surround sound. Really clever and really freaky.”
“Talking of which,” I said. “What did you think of the Malcolm Hardee Comedy Awards show last year?”
“It was fun,” said Misha. “It was chaotic, but fun.”
“That’s why I wanted you back again this year,” I said. “Because it was chaotic but nothing went wrong technically. You doing the sound and Ellis of Ellis & Rose helping on the lighting. It must have been awful for you, because things kept changing during the show.”
“It comes with working on comedy a lot,” said Misha. “When you do a mixed bill night, you get people turning up saying: There’s a point in our sketch. You’ll know when to play it or You’ll know when it’s ended. And I think I really won’t and I ask Have you got anything more specific? and they never do. I think the trick is, at all times, to have a laptop with you – I have a MacBook – and make sure it’s running every type of software available.”
“Scripted plays much be much more satisfying that chaotic comedy,” I said.
“Not necessarily,” said Misha. “When the same thing happens every night, you could almost automate to a time schedule and go away. Whereas comedy is fun.”
“And the performers?” I asked.
“I suppose it’s like being a mother with children. They can be frustrating and annoying and you might sometimes want to slap them but, at the end of the day, it’s worth it because there are moments where it’s just the most fun you could possibly have. Though the thing about working with comedians is they don’t understand to concept of I need an early night.”
“Ah,” I said. “The Malcolm Hardee Awards Show ends at one in the morning.”
“I have to tell you,” said Misha, “that the Counting House is not the place for that show. If you’re directly in front, the Naked Balloon Dance is very clever but, because the technical position is off to one side and slightly behind the performers… from that angle, the balloons are not doing their job. Last year, I saw more of Bob Slayer than I ever want to see again. It was really quite difficult to work out where to look. I thought: I’m just going to stare at shoulder height…”
“I dread to think how many times I saw the red spots on Malcolm Hardee’s buttocks,” I said.
“Well,” said Misha, “I think I’ve seen Tom Parry of Pappy’s and Lee Griffiths from Late Night Gimp Fight naked more than any other men I know. Both of them just seem to have this desire to expose themselves. The more people there are in the room, the more exciting it is for them to take all of their clothes off.”
“It may be a growing trend,” I said. “I saw The Beta Males at the Brighton Fringe last night and…”
“Yes,” said Misha, “John Henry likes to take his clothes off a lot.”
“But he does have great tits,” I said.
I regretted saying it almost as soon as the words were out of my mouth.