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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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How to alienate an Edinburgh Fringe audience with mis-conceived videos

Yesterday’s blog was about things which could be wrong in an Edinburgh Fringe comedy show’s script but which can be changed even at a very late stage.

Today’s blog is about something it is less easy to sort out.

AND IT IS BLOODY ANNOYING!!

When people ask me about performing at the Fringe, they are concerned about getting audiences in. They are concerned with bums-on-seats. Fair enough.

But one thing I remind them – rightly or wrongly – is that the real reason performers flock up to Edinburgh in August is not to fill seats with money-making ‘real’ members of the public (most performers make a loss) but to be seen by the media and the showbiz industry.

Many years ago, I was up in Edinburgh with one act who was unknown at the time and was getting virtually no audiences. He was talking about giving up and going home. I told him not to. One night (when I was not there) he had only four people in the audience.

But it turned out that two of them were TV producers looking for talent for a new series they were preparing. He was booked for two full runs of a BBC2 TV series.

Oh, alright, it was Charlie Chuck and the series was The Smell of Reeves and Mortimer where he performed as the Charlie Chuck character but was called Uncle Peter.

Another time, I turned up to see an interesting-sounding show at the Fringe. The only audience members were me and another man. But the two performers had given up a few days before and gone back to London. I was looking for acts for a Channel 4 TV show. The other man was a BBC Radio producer. We never saw the show or the performers.

It is not the number of bums-on-seats that matter… It is whose buttocks they are.

30 ‘ordinary’ punters in an audience cannot make you famous.

One person in the audience could make you a millionaire and the biggest thing in British entertainment.

Though not if it’s me, obviously.

It is all smoke and mirrors.

I remember several years ago, one act who was hot, hot, hot. He is now a known Name comedian. Everyone was talking about his Fringe show that year. It sounded massively successful. And it was. But, when I went to see it, he was performing in a small shipping container. Perhaps there was room for 30 people in the audience. But the right people had seen the show and the word-of-mouth was massive. I repeat:

It is not the number of bums-on-seats that matter… It is whose buttocks they are.

Richard Gadd clearly did it right at the Edinburgh Fringe

In 2015, Richard Gadd was booked into a venue in Niddry Street that turned out to be too small when the word-of mouth about his show Waiting for Gaddot became massive. People were getting turned away every night, which just fanned the flames of the word-of-mouth.

In 2016, he was nominated for an increasingly prestigious Malcolm Hardee Cunning Stunt Award because – now much much better-known and guaranteed to sell out a much bigger venue – he had booked himself into the same small venue on the basis that even more people would NOT be able to see his equally superb show Monkey See Monkey Do, thus making himself and the show even hotter.

At least, that was the story. It might have been bullshit to get nominated for a Cunning Stunt Award. But, if it was untrue, that was a successful Cunning Stunt in itself.

My point is that acts perform on the Edinburgh Fringe to be seen by the press, TV & radio producers and prospective managers, agents, promoters, whatever. They want to be talked about. They want to be hot and to be seen to be hot.

But, as a result of this, an appalling habit has crept in over the years.

Pre-recorded video clips.

They started, I think, because people wanted to demonstrate to TV producers what fine comedy sketches they could do if given a TV show.

That was bad enough.

BUT, OH COMEDIAN OF LITTLE SELF-BELIEF, YOU ARE SUPPOSED TO BE PERFORMING A LIVE STAGE SHOW, NOT SCREENING A SHOWREEL!!!!

It has now got worse than trying to demonstrate TV sketch performance potential on stage via pre-recorded video clips. Comedy performers are now willy-nilly bunging pre-recorded videos in their solo shows, having ever-changing stills backdrops and all sorts of appalling visual distractions.

This CAN work and it CAN be relevant.

In Richard Gadd’s aforementioned, rightly-acclaimed 2015 stage show Waiting for Gaddot, the conceit was that he was not there. The pretence was that he was late for the billed show and other people performed while waiting for him to arrive – and this was interspersed with make-believe-live video clips of his various problems trying to get to the venue. Eventually he did arrive and he ran into the venue just as the show was about to end.

In that case, the video clips had a very well-thought-through purpose which was part of the cleverly-conceived format of the show.

But, mostly, comedy performers – an insecure and neurotic breed at the best of times – witter on about wanting to add ‘production value’ to the show and how just watching them stand at a microphone talking for 55 minutes would be dull for the audience. They want to make the show “more interesting”

Well, if you are worried about people getting bored watching you talk to them uninterrupted for 55 minutes, you should not be taking a show up to the Fringe and you should consider a career change. If you want the show to be more interesting, then be more interesting.

One thing you definitely don’t want in your show – feared comedy critic Kate Copstick commenting via a video screen. (In this blog, this is an example of an irrelevant distraction.)

Adding videos to the show is not ‘adding production value’, it is distracting the audience and interrupting their concentration. Every time you show a video or a series of stills to ‘add production value’, the audience has to switch attention from the performer’s face to a TV screen of totally different luminosity. Their visual focus literally shifts and their ears have to re-tune to a different type of sound wave. And sometimes there is also a lighting change involved to further distract their concentration.

It destroys whatever momentum the performer has built up.

The audience, who have been (or should be) intent on watching the performer’s face and listening to his/her carefully-crafted spiel, have to mentally switch off and re-tune to the ‘other’ (pre-recorded) video performance or visual.

At the end of that, they have to mentally, visually and aurally re-adjust back to the performer. Literally change their focus, literally re-adjust to a totally different visual display.

Every time the performer stop/starts his/her performance, the momentum is stop/started and the audience’s concentration diluted or lost.

Also, the audience must inevitably have at least a slight thought in the back of their minds: I came here tonight to see a live comedy performance. Why am I sitting watching a TV screen/projected image that has been pre-recorded?

And, while they are watching this unexpected interruption, they are half-flicking their attention every now-and-then back to the performer who is just standing around like a wanker doing nothing or – God forbid! – has walked off-stage for the duration of the clip.

The audience will and must think: Hold on! Am I watching this because the performer doesn’t have enough confidence to risk doing it live and has pre-recorded it? Or: Is the performer not talented enough to entertainingly describe in fascinating language what I am watching?

I am not a performer. I can show you a video of a monkey juggling a meringue and get laughs. A talented comedian can describe it to you and get even more laughs.

Every time I have to sit through bloody video clips in a live show in which the performer stands to one side and scratches his/her nose/anus, I start to wonder: If this wanker can’t perform the whole show live, why not just record the whole thing, email the video file to me and I wouldn’t have to come out on a wet night, have my luxuriant hair half-blown off by the wind and be shat upon by giant seagulls with attitude problems! (This is Edinburgh, after all.)

These annoyed and annoying thoughts will also, most of the time, be shared by the TV or (God help them) radio producers whom the performer most wants to impress.

If you don’t think you are interesting enough to hold people’s attention in a 55 minute live show, just don’t go to the Edinburgh Fringe. (This is another distracting picture.)

If you are trying to demonstrate what a good writer and live performer you are in front of a live audience on a stage, then don’t go multi-bloody-media luvvie unless it is vital to the whole caboodle (like it was in Richard Gadd’s show).

If you are a sketch group, don’t bloody have me sit in a darkened room in Edinburgh watching you being clever in Take 13 of some video you pre-recorded in a London park four months ago. It’s not big, it’s not clever and it’s not going to impress me. If you can’t think of an entertaining way to perform sketches live on stage in a room in Edinburgh, then don’t go up there and go get a job stacking shelves in a supermarket.

If you can’t do 55 minutes of straight-to-the-audience stand-up material then (unless you can make it VERY original and an integral part of the live-to-the-audience act), don’t have video inserts. Just do a bloody stand-up routine entertainingly. Or send a showreel to Netflix or Amazon or BBC3 or put it on YouTube. Don’t inflict it on me, sitting on an uncomfortable chair in some annexe to a church or some student lecture room draped in black curtains in Edinburgh.

I could be watching re-runs of old Tommy Cooper shows instead.

Of course, if you take all the advice above, you will never be nominated for, let alone win, an increasingly prestigious Malcolm Hardee Award For Comic Originality.

Life is a bitch.

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How to mess up an Edinburgh Fringe comedy script and lose one review star

The Edinburgh Fringe Programme is published tomorrow – almost two months before the world’s biggest arts festival actually starts.

So here is my two happence on why some comedy shows will fail or will lose at least one star in reviews.

Performers have to think up their show title in around February, usually well before they have written the show and often before they have developed any ideas they have.

During the much-later writing process, they then discover what their show is actually about. This is often barely relevant to the show title.

And, even if they think they know what their show is about when they start writing, it may turn into something totally different by the time they are finished – and even further-removed from the title which they are now (because of unnecessarily-early Fringe Office deadlines) stuck with.

If they are sensible, they will preview the show a good few times in front of genuine audiences (ie NOT their friends) to see where the laughs really are. These laughter-points may be totally different to what they assumed. And the audience may be uninterested or extremely interested in parts of the show unforeseen by the performer.

This is good. Dry runs of the show are good. But there is a danger.

The comedy performer will often, perhaps usually, have written the show themselves. This is good.

If they are wonderfully creative, they will have had hundreds of ideas and sidetracks swirling through their brain as they constructed the show. This is good.

They test-run the show in front of audiences to see where the laughs are so that they can adjust the structure. This is good.

But they are comedy performers. They crave laughs. They feel in their heart, mind, body and soul that, if the audience is not laughing, they are failing as performers.

Or, more to the point, they are not having their egos boosted as they constantly require.

So, after each dry-run performance, they will tweak the structure of the show so they keep in the laughy bits and cut out the non-laughy bits. In theory this is good.

But there is that fine cliché saying: You can’t see the wood for the trees.

At the Edinburgh Fringe, people choose to go to a live stage show.

The live stage show has a title. If it is a literally attractive and very specific title, it will have drawn the audience in.

If the title bears little or no relation to the content of the show, there is a high risk of confusing or alienating the audience during the performance or, at least, distracting them.

They are sitting there thinking (even if only subconsciously):

This show is called FISHING IN GUATEMALA and there has been no mention of fishing or Guatemala so far. When is he/she going to mention it? Is all this stuff I am sitting through heading towards a story about a fish-based tourist trip which will pull all these funny but unconnected jokes/stories together?

The other danger is that, during the writing process, the performer has bunged-in and kept-in everything funny they can think of to get laughs. And, during the previews, he/she has kept in everything that gets laughs while removing everything that doesn’t get laughs. Including the linear narrative that holds the bleedin’ show together.

So, even if there was originally a single unifying idea to the show, it is now a mishmash of funny but unconnected and disconnecting 2-or-3 minute items swirling around uncontrolled within a 55 minute show.

If it is a pure ‘gag’ show a la Jimmy Carr or Tim Vine or Milton Jones, that works. Especially with those three, because they are brilliant, highly-experienced performers with total control of their content, linking and pacing.

But, if it is a show that supposedly has a subject and/or a show with a title that implies a subject but the subject is not constantly holding the show together or propelling it forward, then, dear performer, you are fucked with a very sharp stick indeed.

You will lose the audience’s concentration and you will lose – at the very least – one star in reviews.

Even at a late stage, though – like tomorrow, when the Fringe Programme is published – not all may be lost.

In 2005, the Scots comic Janey Godley wrote her autobiography, which I edited. She wrote every word. It was a single flowing narrative which could happily have had no division into chapters but, for ease of reading, it was broken into chapters.

I gave Janey advice and wrote the chapter titles. She wrote 100% of the text of the book.

We had both suggested titles for the book to the publishers. Some were random thoughts which might lead to other thoughts.

One of these was Handstands in the Dark because, during her very very dark childhood, Janey would do handstands, sometimes without the room light on.

The publisher liked the counterpoint of the happy handstands and the darkness of her life and insisted on Handstands in the Dark as the title. I personally think the publisher also liked it because it sounded classy and publishers are partly in business to boost their egos when they talk about their books to wanker friends at Islington dinner parties.

When, while writing the book,  Janey prepared her next Edinburgh Fringe show – which would be used partly to publicise the book and covered the same autobiographical subjects – she chose the much more commercial Good Godley! as her show title. The publisher could have used this title but had brain-freeze on Handstands in the Dark.

So, when structuring the book – which was not fully written when Handstands in the Dark was decided-on as the inevitable title – we had to bear in mind what the tenuously-relevant title of the book was.

One of my contributions as alleged editor was to get a reference to Janey doing handstands on the first page with a brief mention of why. She wrote:

“I liked doing handstands. I loved the world upside-down. It made me dizzy but I liked that feeling…  Sometimes I would only talk upside-down. Sometimes I would talk in a code only I knew. Sometimes out in the street I would kneel down and scoop water from puddles with my hands coz I was thirsty but too scared to go home and face what was there…”

The book has 27 chapters.

The first chapter is titled THE WORLD UPSIDE-DOWN.

The penultimate chapter is titled THE HANDSTAND, implying that the book builds towards a particular handstand and there is a relevant handstand theme important to the structure and (that terrible publishers’ term) ‘story-arc’ of the book.

But the importance of the concept of handstands in a dark world is something added on top of the book. It is not what the book is about.

The book has its own terrifically strong structure of throat-gripping hook-after-hook-after-hook (all Janey’s doing, not mine), leading up to an unforeseen end.

When published, Handstands in the Dark was a top-five hardback bestseller in Scotland and a top-ten paperback bestseller in the UK. It is still in print and selling 12 years later because it is an extraordinarily well-written book (and I did not write a word of the text).

My point is that the content of the book itself is actually not defined by the title. It grew organically and brilliantly as Janey wrote it. The addition of the penultimate chapter title and the inclusion of the first-page reference were to make the irrelevant title seem relevant.

So my advice to anyone with an Edinburgh Fringe comedy show stuck with an irrelevant title is this…

Bung in a reference to the title of the show at least three, ideally five times, scattered throughout the show. This will make it seem like the title defines the show.

If your comedy stage show meanders all over the bloody place, then you are probably dead in the water, but…

In your own mind, define in one single short sentence exactly what the show actually IS supposed to be about (which may well have changed since you first thought you knew what you were going to write). And make sure that everything – EVERYTHING – in the show relates to that short single sentence concept.

It does not matter if one 2-minute section gets big laughs. If it is irrelevant, cut it. You can use it in another show.

An audience can be carried along on laughs and an idea.

But, if you have laughs and no single central idea which is developed through the show and builds to a logical, relevant climax, then (unless you really are as technically brilliant as Jimmy Carr) you are going to have a show with laughs but no actual audience involvement – you will lose the audience’s attention and emotional involvement and you will probably lose at least one less star in any review.

If your show is called FISHING IN GUATEMALA then, for fucksake, at least mention fish and Guatemala.

(My apologies to anyone who actually HAS written a comedy show titled and fascinatingly about fishing in Guatemala.)

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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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Why audiences do not need to laugh for a live comedy show to be successful

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Dumbing-down will never be an option for intelligent, increasingly-prestigious comedy commentators like us

This evening, I recorded the latest weekly Grouchy Club Podcast with comedy critic Kate Copstick.

We were possibly going to talk about the art of writing but, as usual, we got sidetracked. So we ended up talking, among other things, about great new UK comedy acts we had seen, the time when Copstick played Carnegie Hall, the abstract joy of listening to foreign-language comedy, why UK audiences laugh, why Chinese audiences do not necessarily react, why Copstick describes me as “the goldfish of comedy” and the death of US theatre producer Calvin Wynter.

We also talked about why audiences do not need to laugh for a comedy show to be successful. Here is a tiny part of that conversation:


JOHN
You can do a 60-minute comedy show and, if it’s intellectually stimulating and fascinating, it doesn’t really need three-laughs-a-minute.

COPSTICK
I think one of the things that comics need to remember is that the show is for the audience. If the audience are loving it quietly, that’s fine. Out-Loud laughter is really for the comic – to reassure him or her that they’re doing tremendously well and that the audience absolutely adore them and are hanging on their every word.

Some comics will say: Oh! Smiling’s no use to me… Well, I (the audience) am not here for you. I am here for me. I have paid money to sit and enjoy this show however I choose to enjoy this show.

JOHN
But it is difficult to react to an audience that you can’t ‘read’ – and you can’t read them very easily if they don’t laugh.

COPSTICK
Well, you should be able to – if you’re a professional performer.


The full 36-minute podcast is available HERE.

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Last night I saw a woman sing with her hand up several dead animals’ heads

The queue stretch along the tunnel last night

Queue stretched along a tunnel while dead animals warmed up

Last night was surreal.

Well, there is surreal and then there is pure gimmickry.

I am not sure which I saw last night.

Pull The Other One comedy club runner Vivienne Soan and I went to see a variety of dead animals sing and perform in The Vaults, which are in an extraordinary officially-graffiti-encouraged tunnel under Waterloo station in London.

The event was artist Charlie Tuesday Gates’ allegedly ‘private’ view and stage performance of exhibits at her Museum of Death.

Charlie Tuesday Gates’ dead bird house

Charlie Tuesday Gates’ dead bird house + nose

A very, very large audience was hanging around and queuing outside the venue for about half an hour after the billed start time because, according to the security guy on the door “They’re warming up inside.”

This is not something you necessarily want to hear about performing dead animals.

According to the tease by Saatchi Art, who know a thing or two about ‘bigging-up’ Art: “Despite never describing herself as a taxidermist, Charlie Tuesday Gates was instrumental in bringing this previously dark art into the mainstream with her pioneering performance series, D.I.Y Taxidermy LIVE!”

Charlie Tuesday Gates is a vegan.

The come-on for the show went:

Vivienne watched an ‘animaal-ation’ film last night

Vivienne watched a 21st century fox ‘animal-ation’ art film

“Gates’ first solo show since retirement transports you into a fantasy underworld where beauty and death collide with nostalgia and borderline insanity… Controversial ‘animalation’ video pieces will also be screened and a special live performance of Gates’ Musical: ‘SING FOR YOUR LIFE!’ in which real animals are manipulated by hand to perform, sing and dance in a bizarre talent contest: a cross between X-Factor and Pet Rescue…. Where the recently deceased compete for the chance to live again.

“Her fashion brand ‘Mind Like Magpie’ provides the perfect complement to her sculptural work: wearable art that will be showcased alongside the exhibition… Pieces have been commissioned for Elton John, Beyoncé and even appeared on the holy head of Cara Delevingne.”

So there were the exhibits last night…

…and then there was the performance.

Charlie Tuesday Gates

Charlie Tuesday Gates – hand up dead beast

Basically Charlie Tuesday Gates sang while her hand was inside the heads of dead, skinned animals, moving them as if they were doing the singing… and a man manipulated the fore-legs of the dead foxes, badgers, dogs etc. He used sticks attached to the limbs. It was a bit like some Muppet musical staged during the Weimar Republic with disembowelled dead animals.

Someone in the audience told us: “You know, she normally gives live skinning demonstrations during her shows?”

We didn’t.

Is it Art or is it gimmicky?

Is it Art or just a gimmick? People thought Art.

According to the publicity: “Working with audience participation, she skins and stuffs an animal using only the most basic ingredients: salt, sanitary towels and Shake n’ Vac.”

There has been talk of Charlie Tuesday Gates appearing at one of Vivienne & Martin Soan’s Pull The Other One shows at Nunhead, in London.

I said to Vivienne after the show, as we left through the graffiti-festooned tunnels under Waterloo station: “You should maybe put her on at Pull The Other One in Leipzig. It might remind them of Berlin in 1936. When is your next Leipzig show?”

“June the 7th,” said Vivienne.

“Have you any locals on the bill?” I asked.

“We have Felix & Jander, a couple of local artists in Leipzig. Jander is a mathematician and an artist. He is going to give a lecture to the audience on mathematics.”

“Is he a fine artist or a performance artist?” I asked.

“A performance, fine and mathematical artist,” replied Vivienne.

This did not make things any clearer.

But, perhaps, I would not have it any other way.

Last night was surreal.

That is good.

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Why comedy writers and performers are different and clowns are not clowns?

James Hamilton at the Soho Theatre bar yesterday

James Hamilton – Soho Theatre bar yesterday

So yesterday afternoon I went to the Soho Theatre bar to talk to Nelly Scott aka Zuma Puma about her weekly – always unique – Friday night Lost Cabaret shows in London.

It never happened.

I arrived early and found multiple Malcolm Hardee Comedy Award nominee James Hamilton sitting at a table, writing his sketch group Casual Violence’s next show for the Edinburgh Fringe in August.

“How much have you written?” I asked.

“10%,” he said glumly.

“I was going to do a solo show this year,” he told me, “but I got talked into doing a Casual Violence one. Do you remember the Siamese Twin hit-men from Choose Death? I am giving them a full story. They work together as assassins until one of them decides he would rather be a baker instead. They fall out and decide to go their separate ways.”

Casual Violence 2014 Edinburgh show

Casual Violence: new 2014 Edinburgh show

“The Siamese Twins?” I asked.

“Yes,” said James. “It’s about the brotherly dynamic.”

Then Nelly arrived.

James and Nelly had never met before, but it transpired they had both been on Dr Brown/Phil Burgers‘ clown workshops.

Clown workshops seem to be trendy for performers at the moment but, as far as I can see, have nothing to do with clowns as any normal person would recognise the word. They are actually improvisation workshops under a ‘sexier’ title.

Interestingly but perhaps not surprisingly, James (a writer who performs) found the workshops more difficult than Nelly (a performer who can write).

“The people who could be themselves or a version of themselves on stage,” said James, “were the people who did best in the workshop and I wish to god I could do it. I loved the workshop and got so much out of it but I also really struggled. It was so difficult.”

“It is really difficult,” agreed Nelly. But those people had probably been to loads of these workshops and practised a lot of dropping it and ‘being with themselves’. Or hadn’t been to anything at all.”

“Yes,” said James, “a lot of people who did best in that workshop had never done any performing of any kind.”

“The people who find it hardest, I think,” said Nelly, “are people like actors or stand-up comedians. With actors, there’s always this mask: that they never want to show themselves. With comedians, they’ve always got to have a punchline. Stand-up is very wordy; it’s always about what they’re saying, not what they’re doing. Whereas, in clowning, it’s not what you say, it’s how you say it and how you do it. It’s all about How not What.”

Nelly Scott aka Zuma Puma with James Hamilton

Nelly Scott aka Zuma Puma with James Hamilton yesterday

“It’s a very performance-driven thing,” said James, “whereas I tend to approach stuff from a very writery point of view. Writing is very introverted and thinking about ideas and not letting go. All the clowning stuff is very counter to that. Not in a bad way. But it’s the opposite of what you’re taught as a writer.

“I remember at the workshop,” James continued, “being told off because I had an idea before going on stage. So what I did for the rest of the workshop was every time I had an idea ahead of going on stage I would immediately dismiss it because I knew if I went ahead with that idea he would pull me up on it. He wanted people to go on stage with nothing and then find something.”

“Well,” said Nelly, “it’s OK for you to come on stage with an idea, but you have to be ready to drop it in a split second if the audience hate it. People who come on stage with an idea can be more in love with their idea than they are with the audience. It’s not necessarily that he wants people to come onto the stage with nothing, because some people literally don’t have anything and it’s boring. You need to have something. What’s your impulse? What are you thinking? But, if it doesn’t work, you just throw it out the window. You do whatever it takes to make the audience love you.”

“I think, when I do more solo things,” said James, “it will be more of an even balance but the way it works at the moment is I’m the sole writer for a group of people, so I need to bring stuff in. It doesn’t need to be perfectly finished. We play with it and develop it. But it does come from a very scripted starting point.”

“When I go on stage,” said Nelly. “I always have an idea of something. I’ll have a character and a costume or I’ll come up with a game and go on stage and play with that.”

“The fact people can do that is amazing,” said James. “It just terrifies me. Though in an appealing way. It makes me want to do it.”

“It doesn’t matter if you flop at some point,” said Nelly, “provided you bring the audience eventually to this place of magic and then they forget about the bit that flopped.”

James had told me earlier that he had been “talked into” doing a Casual Violence show at this year’s Edinburgh Fringe and, in a sense, the same thing had happened with Nelly and Lost Cabaret.

Zuma Puma (centre bottom) + her collective

Zuma Puma (centre bottom) + her collective

“I wasn’t going to go to the Fringe this year,” she told us. “I thought: I need a break. I’m going to be in Spain for the month lying naked on the beach or hitchhiking to Morocco and singing on the top of mountains until five in the morning. But then (regular performer) Dan Lees applied for a spot for Lost Cabaret at the Fringe and told me about it after we had been accepted.”

“So,” said James, “you will have to defer your month of naked hitchhiking to the top of mountains at five in the morning.”

“I’ll still do that,” said Nelly. “Maybe before I go to the Fringe.”

“You told me,” I said, “that you’ve been going for lots of castings recently.”

“Lots of auditions for short films,” said Nelly, “which I’m finding interesting, because a lot of writers are shit.”

“Are you cast as Girl 1 or Girl 2?” asked James.

“I’m usually cast as a femme fatale killer,” Nelly replied, “which is fun. I’m OK with that. But how many scripts are just so degrading to women?”

“Women are either in films to have sex or to be killed,” I said.

“There is a website called Casting Call Woe,” said James, “which has genuine casting calls which are horrendously sexist and awful.”

Currently on the site are these four descriptions of projected movies:

The actress would need an ‘Easy Access Skirt’ with leggings underneath so that the skirt could be lifted up and it would look convincingly like she was ‘being taken from behind. Consent to have fake vomit thrown on her. 

Please send a pic of your tongue so I can approve of your tongue length.

The egg shoots from her vagina and directly into the doctor’s mouth.

Bikinis will get this movie attention. Great acting will get it respect. 

“I got a script for a short film,” said Nelly. “Somehow they had got funding for it. I don’t know how. They were looking for an actress who could play seductive but bad and I thought Oh, I can play femme fatale no problem. But then I read the script and there is a scene where a female crime investigator is talking to me – I’m this girl who is covered in blood and freaking out – and she starts putting her hand up the girl’s skirt and fingering her. There was no conversation before the investigator starts randomly fingering the girl. And, in the next scene, her face is in the girl’s vagina – there’s a shot of the investigator’s head between this girl’s legs. What the fuck has this got to do with the investigation? And then she kills the girl. It drives me nuts. I will have to start writing.”

There is a Lost Cabaret showreel on YouTube.

and also a trailer for Casual Violence’s comedy.

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