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Romanian musical comic Dragos aka Titus and a theory of universal comedy

I blogged about Dragoş Moştenescu almost exactly a year ago – around four weeks after he arrived in the UK from Romania.

In Romania, he was a TV star, appearing in his own hit TV sitcom La Bloc for seven years and more than 700 episodes.

This coming weekend, he will be starring in his almost two-hour show All Aboard! at the Leicester Square Theatre in London.


JOHN: You have been in the UK for almost a year now…

DRAGOS: Yes. I came to London because – first – the language. And second because – no matter what your field of work – if your performance is good, then they will accept you here. Britain – especially London – is already a mix of cultures. I like it. I have decided to move here for good, with my wife and kids, maybe next year – my son and twin daughters – non-identical. One is blonde; one is brown-haired.

JOHN: The Leicester Square Theatre event on Saturday is a one-man show?

DRAGOS: Not quite. The Romanian comedian Radu Isac is opening for me… and Luca Cupani from Italy, who won the So You Think You’re Funny contest a couple of years ago.

JOHN: Why do you bill yourself as Titus and not Dragos?

DRAGOS: Titus is my middle name and I think, when British people see a poster, Titus is easier to pronounce and keep in mind and Dragos is more East European so I think is not so appropriate whether or not Brexit happens.

JOHN: I can’t think of any big-name Romanian musical comedians in Britain. So I guess that’s your Unique Selling Proposition.

TITUS: I would try to put being Romanian to one side. I doubt that being Romanian is a selling point.

JOHN: Well, it makes you stand out from the opposition.

TITUS: I am not really trying to compete with very well-known and very talented stand-up comedians in the UK. I do not do stand-up comedy. What I do is more of a one-man show where music is involved and live piano and non-verbal moments. Like a pantomime, more-or-less. Musical comedy and non-verbal.

JOHN: So your act can appeal to anyone…

Titus/Elton as you won’t be seeing him on Saturday – possibly

TITUS: Yes, this is why I keep everything on the stage to general topics – family, kids, money, iPhones or technical things which have taken over our lives lately. I speak about Count Dracula, who is an international icon.

JOHN: And you do some songs as Elton John, who is known internationally.

TITUS: I won’t be doing Elton John on Saturday. Well, maybe as an encore. But I am trying to show people how I can combine music and comedy more generally. If I am only known for doing Elton John, I will never make a name for myself properly. Elvis Presley impersonators only get known as Elvis Presley impersonators; people do not even remember the name of the performer.

JOHN: Your Leicester Square Theatre show is an attempt to get seen by influential people.

TITUS: Yes. My next step has to be to try to get an agent, which would ease things for me. You cannot thrive by yourself.

JOHN: I heard about one agent who said they would not represent a 26-year-old performer because she was too old. Agents tend to want young, inexperienced people so they can mould them and take credit for their success.

TITUS: Being older than 26 has its downsides and upsides. My 20 years of television and performance experience means I don’t need to build up my performance or act in the same way a 26 year-old has to.

JOHN: Do you own La Bloc, the Romanian TV sitcom?

TITUS: Yes. I was not only the producer and an actor in it, but I created it. I created it from a blank page to what it became. It ran daily Monday-Thursday for roughly seven months a year over seven years – over 700 episodes.

JOHN: That’s a lot of sevens and a lot of plot lines.

TITUS: Yes. I developed a team of about ten writers.

JOHN: Not seven?

TITUS: No.

JOHN: How does British comedy differ from Romanian comedy?

TITUS: What we do not have in the Balkans so intensely or so consistently is one-liners. Here in the UK there are a lot of one-liner comedians: punchline after punchline after punchline. Short jokes one after the other.

JOHN: At the Edinburgh Fringe, the successful shows in the last ten years or more have tended to be story-based. The comics have to fill an hour and that is very difficult with just gags, unless you are Jimmy Carr or Milton Jones or Tim Vine. 

TITUS: Yes. I went up to Edinburgh this year to see shows and there were several shows like this. They were doing a type of storytelling where you do not necessarily have to laugh every two or three minutes. They build you up a little bit, then there is a good section of laughs and they end with an idea.

JOHN: And they love a bit of autobiographical tragedy in comedy shows at the Fringe. There is the ‘dead dad’ moment…

TITUS: Dead dad moment?

JOHN: The audience tends to lose concentration after about 40 minutes, so you suddenly throw in some unexpected tragedy like your father died of cancer – it has to be true – and the audience is grabbed by the throat and pay attention again. Their emotions fall off a cliff and then you build them up again to an uplifting, happy ending.

Titus: “Comedy equals Truth plus Pain”

TITUS: Yes. Comedy equals Truth plus Pain.

JOHN: Truth plus Time?

TITUS: Truth plus Pain. What is Pain? It’s Truth and, if you can extract comedy from this, that is genuine, pristine comedy.

JOHN: I suppose the classic cliché comedy gag is someone slipping on a banana skin although, in the real world, that is not funny; it’s tragedy. So you are laughing at someone else’s troubles, from relief they are not yours.

TITUS: Exactly. In Henri Bergson’s book Laughter, he breaks the mechanism down to the basics and he explains how and why people laugh. He states there that punishment or accidents apply on human subjects and…

JOHN: I guess one reason why people laugh is the unexpected. A release of tension. Even if it is tragic, like slipping on a banana skin, they will laugh because it is unexpected. People laugh at one-liners for the same reason: because the punchline is unexpected.

TITUS: Yes, the book How To Be Funny Even If You’re Not is interesting. It mentions the Rule of Three.  

JOHN: And it does always tend to be better with three. Two or four don’t work. It’s all in the…

TITUS: …timing. 

JOHN: That is universal. But if, in Romania, there was no tradition of punchline-punchline-punchline comedy, what was.… In Italy, they had Commedia dell’arte… What was the tradition in Romania or the Balkans in general? Storytelling?

TITUS: More-or-less, yes. Monologues. Not necessarily told from your own perspective, which British and American stand-up routines are. In our monologues, you can talk about something that happened to another guy or it can be pure imagination and fiction.

JOHN: We had that sort of tradition in the Victorian and Edwardian music halls and in the 1930s – Stanley Holloway and others. There are storytelling nights cropping up in London now – Spark, Natural Born Storytellers and others. Have you seen any of those?

TITUS: No. But this is what I do in my show. A sort of storytelling. I come up with a kind of a theme, make a statement, a premise, build it up a little bit, then turn to music.

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If alternative comedy was the new rock ’n’ roll, is storytelling the new comedy?

Natural Born Storytellers at The Lost Theatre

Natural Born Storytellers went theatrical at The Lost Theatre

Comedy clubs in the UK are said to be on the decline. But storytelling is teetering on the brink of the possibility of becoming the new comedy.

Nowadays, by and large – especially at the Edinburgh Fringe – comedians do not perform traditional gag routines. They tell stories with laughs. Some – often the more interesting – do not even tell funny stories. They tell serious stories in a way that makes people laugh. I often say that my very talented chum Scottish comedienne Janey Godley does not tell funny stories: she tells stories funny.

A couple of weekends ago, at The Lost Theatre in London, I saw a Natural Born Storytellers show – their first in a theatre. It was packed. Their normal monthly shows are at the Camden Head pub. The next is tomorrow night. It is like sitting in some Icelandic hut thousands of years ago, listening to short sagas. Fascinating and entirely successful.

Natural Born Storytellers is run by comedians Michael Kossew and Matt Price. I talked to them at Soho Theatre yesterday.

“Storytelling clubs could take off big,” I told them. “But it’s a marketing problem. The word ‘storytelling’ is not as sexy as the phrase ‘stand-up comedy’.”

Matt Price (left) and Michael Kossew at Soho Theatre

Matt Price (left) & Michael Kossew at Soho Theatre yesterday

Michael said: “If I tell people it’s a true storytelling night, they want to know more. I think the themes help to get people in.”

“We have a different theme every month,” explained Matt. “And it’s the ‘true’ element that attracts people. It’s true, alternative, raw storytelling. That’s what we’re trying to do.”

Michael said: “I did Natural Born Storytellers at the Burning Nest Festival in May and I told one story. The rest of the 1 hour and 45 minutes was made up by everyone sitting round in a circle taking turns to tell their own stories. I thought This works! This really works! – in a festival environment, in a theatre environment. It works. People are really interested.”

“And in a corporate environment,” suggested Matt. “I am not lowering ourselves quite to the level of karaoke but, if you’ve ever seen a karaoke night, once one person has a go at singing, everybody else wants to have a go. We find our audiences stay behind after the show and people are telling stories. It’s a different vibe to a comedy night. Everyone has a story. It’s no different, really, to sitting round the dinner table. The difference is we are in a club and you have to walk into a building with strangers but, by the end, people become inspired and want to hear more stories and tell more stories.”

“It’s massive in America,” said Michael. “There’s a thing called The Moth.”

The Moth has taken off in the US

The Moth storytelling outfit has taken off in the United States

“The Myth?” I asked.

“The Moth,” said Michael. “It is like a fly-on-the-wall, but it’s a Moth. I’d never heard of them until we had been going a few months, but they do very similar things to us.”

“And there’s also RISK!” said Matt, “and CRINGE. I think raw and honest is the direction we want to go in although we have room for everybody – so long as their story has a beginning, middle and end. That’s what drives me mad sometimes. It’s such a simple concept and I can’t understand why some people don’t get it.”

“Even comedians?” I asked.

“Especially comedians,” said Matt.

“Surely in comedy,” I said, “comics are used to heading towards a strong end – a punchline?”

“But,” said Michael, “they are looking for laughs. They are not so comfortable with telling an eight-minute story – we have an eight-minute time limit – with no-one laughing. People can be sitting on the edge of their seats absolutely enthralled and then the comedian slips in a joke just to hear a laugh and the audience loses interest because it feels too contrived. People will laugh if it’s a funny story, but it’s a more natural laugh coming from empathy with the person telling the story. Not because there is a punch line. You don’t need that.”

“I guess,” I said, “that most of your current storytellers are comedians or showbiz people because of your contacts?”

“We’re looking to find a wider variety of storytellers,” said Michael.

“I don’t know if we want comedians, really,” said Matt.

“Some do get it,” said Michael. “They get on stage, use their normal voice and tell a story. That’s what we’re looking for. People to be themselves on stage. If you can’t be yourself, it’s going to be hard to tell a true story.”

“And you’ll hate it,” said Matt. “And the audience will hate it.”

“Eight minutes is not some arbitrary number,” explained Michael. “It’s pretty much the exact point where people will start losing interest in a short night. If you keep it to eight minutes, you’ve got them gripped the whole way through.”

“And the storytellers are restricted to the monthly theme…” I said.

Natural Born Storytellers Each month a different theme

For the last 18 months, a stage for Natural Born Storytellers

“The themes are designed to be flexible,” said Matt. “So, for example, with My Hands Were Tied there was the moral decision element, the sado-masochism element and we even had a guy who was a former escapologist who talked about the politics of being an escapologist.”

“In a future show,” said Michael, “we have a story about a man who boiled a parrot.”

“Perfect,” said Matt.

“I’m going to make up a special theme,” said Michael, “just so he can tell that story. It is one of the funniest stories I have ever heard in my life.”

“But,” I said, “the stories do not necessarily have to be funny.”

“Oh no,” said Matt.

“We have had people crying,” said Michael.

“It’s lovely to hear a gasp followed by a laugh,” said Matt, “and then people even crying.”

“Sounds like a synopsis of my sex life,” I said.

“There have been one or two occasions,” said Michael, “where events have happened almost too close to the person getting on stage and telling the story. To them, it’s more like venting and that’s not really what we’re about. We want a coherent story rather that a psychiatrist’s couch.”

Matt said: “We like to think of ourselves as alternative storytellers. We’re so modern, we don’t even know where we are going.”

“How can you develop it?” I asked.

“At the Camden Head,” said Michael, “we’re going to do a live podcast.”

“And,” I suggested, “although people don’t want to listen to the same jokes again and again, they will listen to the same song lots of times and still enjoy it. It can be the same with good stories.”

Chris Dangerfield’s 2014 Edinburgh Fringe show

Dangerfield’s Edinburgh Fringe show – quite a story to tell

“At the Edinburgh Fringe this year,” said Matt, “I went four times to see Chris Dangerfield’s show. The reason was because it felt like going back to listen to a really good music album. It was not radically different every night, but it took on a different tone each night. With stories, they evolve as you tell them. Some of the best stories are ones you can hear again and again and you actually gather more each time you hear them.”

“Well,” said Michael, “with any story, the more you tell it, the better you are going to get at telling it. I’m going to run a three-hour storytelling workshop starting in November – about techniques and figuring out how to elicit stories from your past and how to construct them. But every person tells stories completely differently. It’s mostly about constructing an atmosphere for sharing and constructive feedback between a group.”

“But if you can do workshops,” I said, “it implies there is no such thing as a natural born storyteller: the technique can be taught.”

“There are natural born storytellers,” said Matt, “but you may have to bring that natural talent out.”

“Some people,” said Michael, “need a little bit of coaxing out of their shell. It’s also about structure. Finding what is relevant. What is the story REALLY about?”

Can storytelling clubs ever become as widespread or as populist as comedy clubs?

At the end of each edition of BBC TV’s highly popular Graham Norton Show featuring ‘A’ List stars, he has ordinary members of the public tell stories in ‘the red chair’. If the story is not interesting enough, they get tilted out of the chair – a bit like a storytelling Gong Show.

Storytelling clubs could catch on now that the appetite for pure gag-based comedy appears to be waning.

The story told by Matt Price at Natural Born Storytellers in the Lost Theatre show is on YouTube.

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