Tag Archives: mid life

Comic Sarah Hendrickx has a mid-life crisis & plans to ride Gérard Depardieu

(This was also published by the Indian news site WSN)

Sarah Hendrickx yesterday

Sarah Hendrickx yesterday – from dreadlock kid to Depardieu

Comedian Sarah Hendrickx is 45, twice divorced, a mum of two, grandmother of twins and an expert on autism – she has published five books on the subject (plus one on student cookery).

She trains professionals – care workers, doctors, psychiatrists, foster carers, teachers – who have to deal with autistic people.

“And when you were a kid?” I asked her yesterday.

“Council house kid,” she said. “Scholarship. Private school. Croydon. Left at 16. Went to live in squats. For years and years, I was a squatter. Squatting in London in the early 1980s, as soon as I left school. Dropped out completely. Punk. Got pregnant. Lived in a van with my daughter. Dreadlocks. Dog on string. Travelling around a bit. Moved to Devon. I’ve only looked sensible in the last ten years. I’m a bit of a late starter.”

“And you have Tourette’s Syndrome,” I said.

“Yes,” Sarah said. “Facial ticks. Eye ticks. I used to blink around 100 times per minute. Now I have Botox injections around the eyes on the NHS – I get free Botox, which is what every middle-aged woman wants, isn’t it? But it’s a horrible, horrible process.”

“And you’re an international expert on autism,” I said.

“Apparently so,” said Sarah.

“Because…?” I asked.

“Because I’ve written books, I guess,” she replied. “And because not that many people know that much about it.”

“You’re autistic yourself?” I asked.

“Yes. The only people who really understand it are people with it, because it’s about a different neurology. Even people who are married to it don’t really understand it, because it’s a whole different way of seeing the world. It’s all about cognitive processing. It’s much easier to have set rules about something. There’s no grey. Everything’s black and white, because that makes your life easier and calmer. The logic is not necessarily perfect logic, but it’s your own logic. There’s always a logic; it may be a flawed or a skewed logic, but it’s not random thinking. You can’t make judgments very well, because judgments are grey.”

“But isn’t the whole thing about performing comedy that you can suddenly take off on a flight of fantasy?” I asked.

“Not my comedy,” said Sarah. “Because I have no imagination. I don’t get the surreal humour. The Mighty Boosh. I don’t get that at all. Oh I have a fish and you have binoculars! Really? Why is that funny? My comedy is all true.”

Hans Asperger in Vienna c 1940

Hans Asperger working in Vienna, c 1940

Asperger’s Syndrome interests me,” I told her. “Robert White, who won the Malcolm Hardee Comedy Award a couple of years ago, has it.”

“There was research on stand-up comics a few years ago,” Sarah told me, “which found many were quite unusual in standard personality-type profiles. They might be extrovert on the stage but, in their personal lives, they were socially awkward.”

“I’ve found with quite a few of the comedians I’ve tried to help,” I said, “that they’re extrovert on stage but do they want to publicise themselves? No they bleeding don’t. They want to hide in a cave rather than be interviewed.”

“Well,” said Sarah, “you stick me in a networking event or a party… I’ve been to autism events as a speaker and I’m the one out of 300 people who’s hiding round the corner because I just can’t bear to be visible.”

“So how can shy people who want to hide away be comedians?” I asked.

“Because,” explained Sarah, “they stand in front of people with a microphone, a script, a set period of time to talk and a plan of what they’re going to talk about and, when they’ve had enough, they get off. It’s not a two-way dialogue. It’s not socialising.

“My experience of the comedy circuit is it’s like a special interest group. Most people aren’t the traditional type of friends. We turn up and say Done any gigs lately? How you gettin’ on? What you doin’ next week? There’s very few other comedians, for example, who know the names of my children or what I do for a living or where I’m going on holiday – which is my understanding of what friendship is supposed to be about. But that suits me fine.

“I think the comedy circuit includes a whole bunch of people who don’t have many ordinary friendships – we are, after all, people who are happy to spend all their weekend evenings away from their loved ones, driving round the country by themselves. That totally fits autism or, at least, it’s a lifestyle that suits someone like me very well.

“To me,” Sarah continued, “comedy is a puzzle. It’s like a scientific experiment. These are the words. This is my material. Did it work? Feedback from the audience tells me whether it did or not. If it didn’t, I go away and try to work out why and try to fix it. To me it’s a system. Trying to write the perfect joke, the perfect set, trying to analyse it. It’s all about analysing it. I never go home and worry about having had a bad gig, because it’s nothing to do with ‘me’, it’s to do with ‘that’ which I’ve created. I am separate from ‘that’.”

“So,” I asked, “if you get a bad audience reaction, it’s not a personal rejection, it’s a rejection of the product you created?”

“Yes,” agreed Sarah, “it’s like baking a cake and it didn’t taste very nice. I don’t have any emotion in it at all.”

“So why did you want to be a comedian in the first place?”

“Oh,” said Sarah, “that’s a long story about wanting to be an actor as a child. I got pregnant at 18. I got a place to do Drama at Exeter. I got down there with my daughter aged three. I realised that drama courses and three year olds do not go together. I couldn’t do the course and that was the end of that.”

“So you were a frustrated performer?”

“Very much so. Now I’ve got a 25-year-old daughter and two grand-children and a 16-year-old son who lives at home. When my son got to the point where he was able to be left on his own, I took myself off and started doing a bit of comedy.”

“And now you’re preparing to do your first solo Edinburgh Fringe show in August,” I prompted.

“Yes. It’s called Time Traveller.”

“Why?”

Scene of horror - Sagrada Familia in Barcelona

Scene of Sarah’s panic attack – Sagrada Familia in Barcelona

“It’s about going back into my own past to an event which happened to me about twelve years ago. It was a pretty unfortunate time of my life. I was camping in Spain with my now ex-husband and kids. My mum had just died. I went up the Sagrada Família in Barcelona, had a giant panic attack, got agoraphobia, got relatively disabled by that though not house-bound.

So it’s kind of going back through that and saying Well, I was always a bit of an anxious kid and a bit of an odd kid. This thing happened. It all got worse. Stuff about my marriage. Stuff about my kids. Then this moment of clarity where I decide what I need to do is go back to Barcelona and sort all this shit out. And then I decide to go by bicycle.”

“And you are actually doing that?”

“Yes. I’m going to cycle to Barcelona at the end of May.”

“How far is it?”

“800 miles.”

“Have you done something like that before?”

“No.”

“And you’ve decided to do it, because…”

“I’m having a mid-life crisis. I’m just scared of everything. That’s the general premise. I need an adventure. I bought my bicycle off eBay. It’s called Gérard, after Gérard Depardieu. And I’ve written a song for the show.”

“You can play the guitar?” I asked.

“No,” said Sarah. “Playing the guitar when you can’t play the guitar is quite liberating.”

“I would pay to see this free show,” I said. “Have you practised for the bicycle ride by putting a scouring pad under your bottom and rubbing it backwards and forwards?”

“No. I haven’t even been on my bicycle for four months or so. I keep looking at my bicycle and thinking Ooh. I really should have a little go on it.”

“Will you be stopping at hotels along the way?”

“No. Camping. On my own.”

“Where will your camping equipment be?”

“On panniers.”

“Mmm…” I said.

“I know,” said Sarah. “It’s mad. I’ve never been camping on my own. I’m terrified. I’m terrified of everything. I’m terrified of being on my own. I’m an absolute weed. This is for the Edinburgh Fringe show but it is also because… well, I have been a mum since I was 19, my kids are now grown-up. This is genuinely a mid-life crisis. It’s the first time I’ve had the chance to do anything like this in my life, really.”

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Filed under Comedy, Psychology

What do street performers & comedians earn and why don’t they just give up?

Paolo Ferrari – reaching a spaghetti junction in his career?

(This was also published in the Huffington Post)

For decades, Covent Garden Piazza in London has had a pitch for street performers. One of the regulars there is Paolo Ferrari who also plays comedy clubs. I had a chat with him in Covent Garden yesterday afternoon.

“It’s all about guts,” he told me. “A performer had to have the guts to get into the business in the first place, but often they don’t have the guts to leave the business. They don’t know when to call it a day.

“I am not at all thinking of leaving the business myself but I am 35 and, when reach that age, you think OK. I can see myself doing this for another three, four, maybe five years, but what then?

“For me, street theatre has always been a stepping stone for comedy. When I perform in Covent Garden, I have to slightly change my act but, for me, it has always been an outlet to try things out so I can have an edge over my fellow comedians: the fact that I can play street theatre.

“What I was trying to say to you the other day was that I think I can tell you with a high degree of confidence that I will not become a mid-40s, goodish street act who is incredibly bitter because, for one reason or another, he or she hasn’t quite made it to the top.

“Ultimately, for me and lots of performers, street theatre is just an outlet to better yourself at what you do. In my case, it’s comedy. Street theatre is just a start and then you move on. But it’s not something you can do forever.

“With street theatre, when do you call it a day? Or comedy or performing in general. There must be an age when you should just give up and realise you are not going to get any further.

“A friend said to me last week: I’ve been doing it for years, Paolo. It pays the bills. Sure, I am 47, but I’m still fit. What else can I do? I can’t see myself doing anything else.

“This friend is scraping together a fairly good living, given the nature of the business. But what do you do when you have reached a certain stage… a certain age?

“I was at an audition recently. I was the oldest one there and I am 35. All the others were, I guess, between 19 and 23.

“What do you do when you’re 47? You can re-invent yourself provided you have acquired a certain status over the years but, if you’re just a street performer – perhaps even a sublime street performer… Well, maybe some of them don’t want to progress. Some just don’t have any other options. They know they can put food on their table with the money they currently make.

“What sort of money,” I asked, “can you make playing Covent Garden regularly?”

“I could tell you,” said Paolo, “but then I’d have to kill you.”

“It would be a blessed relief,” I said. “But people probably make more money than being a comedian on the London club circuit. I don’t know how much the average run-of-the-mill, top-of-the-bill gets now in a middle-of-the-road club. Maybe £120? And they can only get that two or maybe three days a week and with luck and that’s topping the bill.”

“I have a very good friend,” Paolo told me, “who’s a very talented performer. Been doing it since, maybe 2002 or 2003. He’s my age, predominately playing the Jongleurs circuit. He reckons he can make £400 to £600 a week.”

“I think they pay a bit more than most,” I said. “But it’s less for comedy clubs in the suburbs… and for street theatre?”

“I would say,” said Paolo, “a very hard-working performer willing to play the game… Obviously, you need to sell the right product, especially at places like Covent Garden… I would probably say you could take home, at the end of your year, £20,000? I’m talking about someone working, on average, six days a week for ten or eleven months.”

“And,” I suggested, “to reach that point, they’d probably have been doing it for six or seven years?”

“Yeah,” said Paolo. “My earnings reflect what I do. I don’t ride a tall uni-cycle. It’s just me, my jokes and a couple of silly gimmicks. Whereas, if you are really, really trying to enhance your earnings, then you have to have much more marketable skills like juggling, unicycling, fire-eating and all that malarkey – though you can’t do fire at Covent Garden. But the more daring your act is – or appears to be – the more you can get in theory.

“The problem is lots of people get trapped. They start making decent money. It’s easy, in that you don’t have to do anything if you’re not in the mood. You don’t have a contract. If you’re good and if your product sells, it’s very hard to give up.

“Even if you don’t make £20,000. Let’s say you make £17,000. How many people can survive on £17,000? You can survive on a lot less and, being able to make that amount of money by just performing whenever it takes your fancy, is quite an achievement. It’s a very enticing way of living.

“I think the average annual wage for ‘normal’ people is around £25,000 now?” I said.

“Yeah, in London, maybe around £25,000 to £28,000,” Paolo agreed.

“Well,” I said, “They’d be better off working behind the counter in a building society.”

“I think a lot of people just get trapped,” said Paolo. “I recently asked a friend: In five or six years time, what will you be doing? and he couldn’t answer. And I feel the same. I don’t know what I will be doing.

“It’s not like you say to yourself: The 4th of March 2015 or 2017 is going to be my D-Day, my traffic junction, my Spaghetti Junction.

“Some people get bitter, old, twisted, angry, frustrated, but they don’t have the guts to leave the industry. Which is sad, because they had the guts to get into the industry in the first place. And it does take guts.”

“I guess they hope,” I said, “that, tomorrow someone will see their act and change their lives.”

“I think it’s habit,” said Paolo. “Human beings are creatures of habit; they get used to things. A business psychologist friend of mine told me recently that a lot of people have had problems during the current recession when they lost their jobs. Not, as such, because they lost their £50,000-a-year job but because, all of a sudden, they got stripped of their own identities. The job had become their identity. And that’s the hardest thing to cope with. You identify yourself with your job. You pull strings week-in-week-out and, if someone says No more string… That’s a problem. John is the writer. Paulo is the buffoon.”

“That’s the title for your show,” I said.

Urban Buffoon,” Paolo laughed. “That’s it! We got the show! We’ve got an hour-long show!”

“But surely,” I asked, “the last thing a performer would want to do is leave the industry? Because he/she would be so frustrated for the rest of their lives. You have to keep playing every card. The thing is to be in the right place at the right time, so you need to put yourself in as many places as possible as often as possible.”

“Well,” said Paolo, “if you have fired all the bullets you have at your disposal, there may be a level of peace that you may be able to acquire. If you’ve done everything in your power to achieve your goal… If it doesn’t happen, it doesn’t happen.”

“You can never second-guess what may unexpectedly happen out of nowhere, though,” I said. “It’s better to try and fail than not to try at all. And to keep trying because, if you don’t try, on your deathbed you will still be wondering What if?… That’s the ultimate lifelong frustration you would face eating away inside you: What if?… What if?

“There is no answer,” said Paolo.

“I don’t think there is,” I said. “Do you want to buy a Big Issue?”

“Are you selling one?” Paolo asked.

“Not at the moment,” I replied. “But I think maybe I should research the potential market.”

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Filed under Age, Comedy, Psychology, Retirement, Theatre