Tag Archives: performance

Why you should always seek out and watch really bad live comedy shows

“Saw my first really terrible show yesterday. What a relief after so much brilliance.”

That is what Claire Smith, esteemed comedy critic and Malcolm Hardee Comedy Awards judge, posted on her Facebook page this morning.

She is at the Edinburgh Fringe.

As a result, I really want to see that show if it ever plays London.

You can seldom learn much from watching perfection. You can learn a lot from other people’s mistakes (and your own).

If you are interested in the creative process, which I am, then to see what does NOT work in a show is far more educational and interesting than to see something with no flaws which just flows.

I seldom seek out long-established, very successful acts because what is the point of being entertained by a well-oiled, flawless piece of work which can be – and is – repeated perfectly night after night, performance after performance?

Uniformity is the enemy of originality.

So I prefer to see newish acts (but with some experience) which are still developing as well as good acts which are very professional but are not yet famous in a general everyone-in-the-queue-at-the-bus-stop-knows-them way. 

When success hits, acts do not need to have gone for the lowest common denominator. But they need to have found some common denominator of some kind which will appeal to a mass audience.

So, to an extent, there is a smoothing-over, blandifying factor involved.

If you see a very good, solid, professional act who has NOT yet had mainstream success, there is probably some interesting edge which has not yet been knocked off. 

And acts with enough experience to be watchable but which can still be variable and unpredictable (because they are still trying out new ideas and approaches) will have multiple jagged edges some of which may or may not work or which may half-work.

Sometimes, a show is bad because a good performer has had the balls to try out something truly original which does not quite (yet) work.

If you watch a truly truly bad show (and they are as rare as a police station without corruption) you can learn.

I have no urge (and no ability) to be a comedy performer, but the creation of the on-stage character and the performance interests me and – to repeat in a sledgehammer way a previous sentence – You can seldom learn much from watching perfection. You can learn a lot from other people’s mistakes (and your own).

Don’t bother telling me that posting this blog was a mistake.

It is too obvious a punchline.

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Juliette Burton: Defined as an erotica-reading introvert extrovert performer

“I have now moved to the label of ‘single’…”

Juliette Burton’s new show Defined has just opened at the Edinburgh Fringe. So…


JOHN: What’s it about?

JULIETTE: How we define ourselves and the labels we use. I was labelled as ‘engaged’ last year and I have now moved to the label of ‘single’.

JOHN: But not ‘vacant’.

JULIETTE: (LAUGHS) No. Certainly not my mind. There’s too much to think about. I started using a dating app after I broke up with my fiancé and, when I was filling out the dating profile, I realised they tend to ask you to tick either/or boxes:

Male/Female

Straight/Gay

Left/Right politically

It got me thinking about the extremes we sometimes get pushed towards – optimism/pessimism – introvert/extrovert – whereas we are maybe somewhere in the middle or are both at various times.

In the past, I have been defined by a whole list of mental health conditions and sometimes, in previous shows, I may have defined myself through the mental conditions I have, like a ‘mental health comedy girl’. Whereas, in fact, there’s a lot more to it.

Juliette Burton: in last year’s Butterfly Effect

I have been writing this show for ages and the main thing I want it to be is… well, I did a national tour of the previous show Butterfly Effect and, in that, I started testing out material for this show.

I genuinely think the new show is the funniest I have ever done and the only thing I want to be defined as now is funny.

JOHN: Do the dating apps ask what you do for a living?

JULIETTE: Yes. And I always wonder: Am I Theatre or am I Comedy? I used to think I was Theatre, but now I think I’m Comedy.

JOHN: So what do you put on the dating apps as a job?

JULIETTE: ’Journalist’ usually. (LAUGHS) I’m a journalist at heart. My shows are truthful and I don’t like dishonesty generally. One of the problems in saying you are a ‘comedian’, of course, is that you get asked: “Tell us a joke, then!”

JOHN: How do you react?

JULIETTE: I usually tell them that’s like me asking them to act out their job.

JOHN: You also do voice-over work.

JULIETTE: Yes. I have done educational language tapes and sung songs for people learning English as a Foreign Language. I’ve done corporate training videos. I’ve done audio books for children and adults. Usually I do newly-published books.

JOHN: And for the blind…

JULIETTE: I used to do audio books for the RNIB. That’s how I got into voice-over work.

JOHN: Why did you start?

“Do you do all the voices in the erotica…?”

JULIETTE: Two reasons. One is I used to work as a newsreader for BBC Radio, which led into voice-over work. And I also got into audio books because my granny had gone blind by the end of her life but her mind was so sharp and she just used to devour audio books. The local library had to ship in audio books from across the country because she kept getting through them so quickly. I always tried to think about her when I was recording audio books… (LAUGHS) except when doing erotica.

JOHN: You do all the voices in the erotica?

JULIETTE: All the voices.

JOHN: So Lady Chatterley AND Mellors…

JULIETTE: Exactly. (LAUGHS) Everybody needs to experience the full kaleidoscopic beauty and glory that is being alive.

JOHN: Is it mildly embarrassing?

JULIETTE: Oh yes. Especially when the studio engineer is your ex-fiancé.

JOHN: That happened?

JULIETTE: Yes, And I talk about it in my show. The last erotica book I recorded was just about a month after we broke up, in the middle of the heatwave last year. It was very awkward and we started having arguments about how you pronounce words like EE-THER or EYE-THER in the now-infamous sentence: “He could have licked either of my lactating nipples”… That’s a genuine sentence I had to read.

That book was actually – for erotica – very well researched. But, in all the books I’ve done – maybe 50 or more – I have only done 2 or 3 erotica.

JOHN: Has the voice-over work impacted – a horrible American word – on your stage performances?

JULIETTE: Yes. It has forced me to really get better at my accents. My repertoire has got much stronger with accents in general. Also, when you record audio books, you are speaking to just one person, you are not speaking to a whole audience in a group. 

I now like thinking about that when I am on stage. Although it is a whole audience, you are really still just appealing to that one person who is experiencing your show. So it teaches you how to be a bit more personal and personable.

“Shows CAN change your perception…”

I want every single person in the room to feel special. It sounds saccharine. It IS saccharine. But shows CAN change your perception of and perspective on the world and your attitude towards yourself. I have been to shows like that and I want every audience member to leave my shows feeling like they can take on the world and they have more fortitude, more resilience because of the show.

This last year has been a hard one for me. The break-up with my fiancé was the right thing, but it was hard. And I’ve had quite a few recent deaths in my family – and friends – A friend passed away earlier this year. Even my therapist for the last ten years passed away, which I thought was hilarious at the time. 

JOHN: Why?

JULIETTE: Because she was the one person I could actually turn to.

The thing that kept me going was the fact I had to perform a show at the Edinburgh Fringe in August. I had to do all my previews before that and there would be audiences out there who needed to laugh about dark things in their lives.

JOHN: You are very likeable, bright and bubbly on stage… Sally Sunshine.

JULIETTE: I hope I’m not too TV kids’ presenter any more because I don’t feel like that any more. I am trying to move away from saccharine stuff.

JOHN: You’ve changed?

JULIETTE: I think so. I think I was quite naive. Now I’ve come down to earth and I’m a bit more grounded. But I still want all my audience to feel like they’re part of a community. When I did that national tour last year, it made me realise the value of a comedy show to help unite groups of complete strangers. If they can laugh about things like mental illness and grief, then they become a kind of community on that one night. Especially in these times when people feel quite divided politically and socially. 

JOHN: You were involved in the recent Pride events. Why? You’re not gay.

JULIETTE: Well, sexuality is fluid.

“…where no-one will talk to me…”

JOHN: Fluid is definitely in there, yes.

JULIETTE: I was invited to join in by someone who works for the mental health charity SANE. I ended up wearing an amazing feather headdress on the SANE float and I look completely blissed-out in the photographs – not because I’m feeling super-confident but because I’m thinking, on that float in this crowd of people, Finally I have found somewhere where no-one will talk to me.

JOHN: Why is that good?

JULIETTE: Because I’m a very introverted person.

JOHN: So you don’t like people talking to you…

JULIETTE: Why do you think I stand on stage and hold a microphone for an hour talking at them? 

When I am flyering in the street, I think I feel more naked than when I’m on stage. You are more prone to rejection when you’re flyering. I am a very introverted extrovert.

That’s part of what the new show is about. You can be an introverted extrovert. You can be an optimist AND a pessimist. You don’t have to be one thing or the other.

JOHN: But you tend to stand next to the door and chat to the audience as they come in…

JULIETTE: Yes. Because then they are individual, special people who are there for their own experience of the show. They are individuals, not a whole big collective. I want every single person to know they matter because, without those people coming to my shows… It’s all about finding other people who want to hear what I have to say and can relate to what I have to say…

JOHN: You are working on a book. What’s it about?

JULIETTE: How to be relentlessly positive and how to find the light in dark times.

 

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Advice to stand-up comedians on how not to utterly mess up their stage acts

I am not a performer.

I am an audience member.

So I am well-placed to tell stand-up comics when they are annoying the audience and destroying their own act.

Lighting is vitally important in a comedy club.

New/inexperienced stand-up comedians understandably want to see the faces and the facial reactions of their audience.

But performers can be dazzled by the light or lights aimed at their faces, so the inexperienced tend to move their eyes – and thus part or all of their heads – out of the centre of the light.

This means they can see the audience slightly better but it also means the audience inevitably see the performer’s face less sharply lit.

Communication is all about people.

People are interested in people.

If you are writing an autobiography or a biography or a novel, it is almost always not the facts which are gripping; it is the people involved, their thoughts and their emotions.

This next bit actually IS relevant.

If you wrote about the physical causes and facts of an avalanche on a mountainside, it would not be especially interesting to a general readership. If you write about what happened when two people were caught in an avalanche, it IS interesting.

People are interested in people.

This next bit is relevant too…

Years ago, I read some research on violence in movies. The researchers were able to pinpoint where on the screen a viewer’s eyes were focussed.

In an action sequence, you might assume the audience would be watching the action. 

They are not. They are watching the RE-action.

If someone is punched or shot, the viewer’s eyes are not watching the punch land or the bullet hit… The viewer is watching the face of the victim.

There may be special effects blood spurting out from the bullet impact; the victim may be throwing his arms up in the air; but the audience are not looking at that. The audience are watching the face of the victim.

They are not watching the action. They are watching the RE-action.

When it gets down to basics, people are interested in people and people’s emotions.

It is exactly the same in comedy performance.

Being told a joke by a stand-up comic on-stage is, of course, about the greater or lesser effect of the material and the delivery. But, by-and-large, stand-ups do what the name suggests. They stand up, tell a joke and that is it. 

What are the audience looking at?

They are not looking at the stage backcloth; they are not looking at the comic’s costume; they are not looking at the comic’s hands, though they may be aware of them peripherally. They are looking at the face of the comedian telling the joke. They are looking at the performer’s face and at the eyes.

If the performer is moving around in-and-out of the main light, the constantly-changing visual information – or lack of it in dimly-lit shadows – starts to distract from and overwhelm the spoken words. One vivid picture IS worth a thousand words.

The audience, by and large, HAS to see the performer’s face clearly. Which means a bright light shining directly at the performer’s face.

The reverse of that is… If the performer can see the audience clearly, he or she is standing in the wrong place and being badly lit.

If the audience can’t see the stand-up comic’s face clearly, he or she might as well play a tape recording on an empty stage. The audience have not paid to come and see a chair or a curtain or a bit of wall while listening to disembodied words coming out of the gloom.

They have come to see a stand-up comic delivering lines. 

They have come to see a person.

The clue is in the word SEE.

My advice to new stand-up comics is…

The more YOU can see the audience, the less THEY are probably seeing of you.

If you are dazzled, you will be dazzling. If you are in the gloom, you are dim.

STAND IN THE FUCKING SPOTLIGHT!

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What happened when award-winning Becky Fury went to Berlin for a week

Becky possibly possessed by a dead actress.

When Malcolm Hardee Comedy Award winning performer Becky Fury told me she was going to Berlin for a week and offered to share her insights with me, I leapt at the chance and said Yes.

Though it is always a risky strategy saying Yes to anyone who has won a Malcolm Hardee Comedy Award.

I have just received this missive from Becky which is more a thesis on support of the arts but is worth reading for the unexpected (at least by me) twist in it…


I woke up in Berlin yesterday. 

I meant to. It was not some happy, drunken accident.

I woke up in an arts space which calls itself the new Kunsthaus Tacheles (Art House Tacheles) and I put my coat on – the wrong way round, I was informed. But the coat served its function that way for a few more hours, so maybe it was not the coat that was the wrong way round but the perspective of how the coat should be on that was inside out.

Facade of Kunsthaus Tacheles at Oranienburger Straße, Berlin

‘Tacheles’ is a word – רעדן ניט בולשיט – meaning ‘speak no bullshit’ in Yiddish. So I had broken the only rule of the space before breakfast.

The old Tacheles grew out of the rubble of the Second World War, after the collapse of the Berlin Wall in a space in East Berlin.

It was named in Yiddish as a memorial to its pre-War Jewish inhabitants who had never returned.

The new space is beginning to be like the old one but the artists there are having to deal with just making the space habitable rather than being able to create art. Putting into place the basic blocks of the artistic ecosystem which develops in a space which, like a rainforest or peak bog, has taken years to evolve. In the same way that you can’t just make a rainforest from scratch, you can’t do that with a creative space.

These spaces should be protected as important habitats to protect cultural biodiversity.

PROTECT THE PUNK is unlikely to be taken up as a campaign by the World Wildlife Fund. But something needs to happen. The eviction of the Freespace ADM in Amsterdam (Becky blogged about it here last year) was halted by the UN, who said that the space was a protected reservation.

If the World Wildlife Fund can’t do it, maybe one of the charities that allows you to indirectly adopt a child could run an adoption campaign for alternative artists. You could get updates on how well your alternative artist is doing, if it has been successfully released into the wild and how global re-population is doing. 

The British government used to run a similar scheme. It was called the dole.

If you have an issue with people claiming the dole, then throw away most of your favourite music because those artists were funded and had the space to do what they were doing because they were at some point in their career scamming the dole.

A staircase inside the Kunsthaus Tacheles building in Berlin (Photograph by Shaun7777777 on Wikipedia)

However, really, the most important fundraising needs to go into  protecting spaces where this art is created. Pop stars would do well to think less about the Rainforest or Africa and more about cultural reservations in the developed world, because it is in these places that the sounds and styles that go into the creation of commercially manufactured music are poached.

The commercial stylists and producers and ‘creative team’ are essentially poachers that go into these wild raw spaces and poach ideas. They return with skins and trophies that go into creating the latest look for whoever is being pushed to the top of what is left of the singles chart. Without these spaces, they wouldn’t have a career. They would do well to encourage people to save them.

Really, the important issue is the space. The individuals there can support themselves in lieu of the government doing it. The government never does anything that shows foresight beyond preserving their next term. It needs a charity which deals with protecting habitats like the RSPB.

 We need a  Royal Society for the Protection of Artistic Birds. 

Birds and Blokes.

I am using birds as the collective noun.

These artistic birds are endangered and they need to have their habitat protected otherwise the diversity will decrease and all the beautiful, wild, exotic, interesting species will die off and we will just be left with the equivalent of pigeons and seagulls – less sensitive, aggressive species that can survive in the barren cultural climate and environment that we have manufactured. 

I am not suggesting that Rentokil should be called in to deal with infestations of pop stars. 

I would just like to see pop stars on the list alongside rats and wasps on the side of the Rentokil van. 

If Rentokil could turn up at a Justin Beiber concert and trap him in a big net, I would pay for an overpriced stadium ticket to see that gig.


When I received that missive from Becky, I asked her if she had any photos she had taken of herself at the Kunsthaus Tacheles. She replied:


A Becky selfie on a train in Berlin

I didn’t take any there. I do have one of me on a tube train.

And one (above) that makes me look like maybe I was possessed by one of the former inhabitants of the Tacheles – a minor Hammer horror actress that died there… on stage in a dance interpretation of the Communist Manifesto.

I left some photos with the guy that invited me to Berlin, who has taken way too much acid and didn’t really think about the logistics of inviting people to make art there. So I decided to get a plane back to London after I went into Berlin itself on a psycho-geographic ramble.

I told you when I left for Berlin that I would see where it might lead me… Back to Berlin Airport, apparently, and then back to London.

Anyway. Now I can learn lines for my next show or just fanny about on Facebook in London. So that’s what I’m doing.

… CONTINUED HERE

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My Comedy Taste. Part 2: Eccentrics, anarchy and performers’ mad minds

In 2017, oft-times comedy festival judge and linguistics expert Louisette Stodel asked me about my taste in comedy.

I posted Part 1 of this chat yesterday.

Here is Part 2…


LOUISETTE: So you don’t like actors trying to be stand-up comics…

JOHN: To an extent. I am also allergic to a lot of character comedy. I don’t like character acts in general, though I do like some. I think the closer the ‘character’ is to reality – to being like a real person – the less I like it. But, if it’s a cartoon character – Charlie Chuck is a perfect example –  I like it.

I adore Simon Munnery; he can be very surreal, but I didn’t like his early Alan Parker, Urban Warrior character – It was too close to reality for me.

LOUISETTE: You mean realistic.

JOHN: Yes. I have met people who really are pretty-much like that. When I was a researcher for TV shows, I got typed for finding eccentrics and bizarre acts. I would find genuinely different-thinking people who did odd things and usually lived in provincial suburbia, bored out of their skulls with the mundanity of their lives, unable to unleash their inner originality and unconventionality.

So, if I watch a performer pretending to be eccentric, I think: Why am I watching someone faking a ‘performance’ when I could be watching the real thing? You can see in their eyes that these performers are not the real thing. They are sane people trying to be, to varying extents, oddballs they are not.

Well, all good comedians are, of course, mad to an extent.

LOUISETTE: They are not all mad.

JOHN: They are all unconventional thinkers or they have some personality disorder. The good ones. And I think one of the reasons I like watching comedy is I like watching some of the bizarre characters which a lot of comedians genuinely are. I don’t like people pretending to be odd characters, but I like watching people who ARE… well, a bit odd. They are the good comics for me.

There is maybe a difference with pure gag-delivery acts like Jimmy Carr, Milton Jones and Tim Vine.

LOUISETTE: But, getting back to character acts…

JOHN: If someone does a character act, they are pretending to be someone else, which is what an actor does… rather than being themselves or some version of themselves, which is what a modern comedian does. So, if I can watch a comedian – let us not mention Lewis Schaffer – with bizarre character traits, I am happy. If I watch an actor pretending to be a bizarre character but not being themselves, I am not really that interested because I can go out and find the real nutter.

LOUISETTE: So what you are saying is you want the person to be the person and you want that person to be nuts. Is that because there is no danger in playing a character, no risk except that the audience might not like it? Whereas, if the person is being themselves and they get it wrong or they go off the rails, there is a risk?

JOHN: I suppose so – like watching a motor race because there is always the danger of a disastrous crash.

I may be like a Miss World contestant. 

LOUISETTE: I don’t think so.

JOHN: But you know how contestants in old-fashioned beauty contests were always asked their interests and they would say, “Oh! I’m interested in people”? 

Well, I AM interested in people and how their minds work.

Most of my blogs are not objective blogs. They have very little of me in them. That is not because I am hiding me. It is because I’m interested in finding out how the other person’s mind works and – because they are usually creative in some way – how their creative juices shape their performance pieces or their life – how their mind creates original end-results. Or – because I sometimes mention crime – how their slightly non-mainstream thoughts work. And, of course, if there are quirky anecdotes in it, that’s great. I am interested in the people and I am a sucker for quirky anecdotes.

LOUISETTE: You say you are interested in the creative process – the thing that makes that person tick both on and off stage – But how do you analyse that? How do you figure out from somebody’s performance – even if it’s very close to the real person – what that real person’s process is?

JOHN: I don’t know. Maybe that’s why I keep watching people perform. If I knew everything, there would be no point seeing any other act.

LOUISETTE: But what are you looking for?

JOHN: I dunno. I’m just interested in how everyone is different. Everyone is different; everyone is unique. There is no end to it, missus.

At a distance, people are similar but, up close, they are, like Charlie Chuck, unique

LOUISETTE: Infinitely different.

JOHN: Yes. It sounds wanky to say it out loud, but people are infinitely interesting, yes. At a distance, people are just a mass of similar heads but, in China, the Terracotta Warriors in Xian all have individual faces. 

LOUISETTE: How does that come into it?

JOHN: I have no idea. I’m making this up as I go along. But, if you read about identical twins, they are usually a bit the same but a lot different. I’m interested in individuality. It’s not nature OR nurture. It’s BOTH that creates infinite uniqueness.

LOUISETTE: I’m still interested in getting at this elementary, basic thing that you are looking for. You do not want things to be off-pat. You don’t want an act to be overly polished. But what about someone like Spencer Jones who has a very well-formed act.

JOHN: Yes, he is interesting because he IS an actor and he IS doing character comedy… so I should not like him, but I do… But, then, he is doing a cartoon character. In no way are you going to find that character working in Barclays Bank or walking along the high street. So I like him, I think, because he is a cartoon character. I think it is mostly tightly-scripted…

LOUISETTE: Yes, that’s why I am asking you…

JOHN: Maybe physical comedy and prop comedy is different. 

LOUISETTE: Is he prop comedy?

JOHN: I dunno. Martin Soan created The Naked Balloon Dance for The Greatest Show on Legs… The Balloon Dance has to be done exactly as it is choreographed.

The whole point is that you never see any naughty bits and therefore the balloons have to be… It looks chaotic, but, if it were actually done willy-nilly – if that’s an appropriate phrase – it would fall apart and would not be as funny.

LOUISETTE: You said it LOOKS chaotic. Do you enjoy that? What you are saying is that, if it looks chaotic but it actually isn’t…

JOHN: Maybe prop comedy and physical comedy are different to stand-up. I suppose with Spencer Jones, you are shocked by the use of the props; the… unexpectedness… This… this falls apart as an argument, doesn’t it? There must be something different…

I like pun comedy: Tim Vine, Milton Jones, Darren Walsh, Leo Kearse to an extent. They are very tightly pre-scripted or, at least, prepared. With puns, if they have a vast number of puns, they can move the order around but the flow, the pacing, the momentum has to be kept going so they need to be highly pre-prepared.

So that’s where my thing falls down. Verbally, pun shows and short gag-short gag-short gag shows like Milton Jones’ have to be very tightly choreographed and the prop comedy shows have to be very tightly choreographed physically.

I know from being involved in Tiswas – the ancient slapstick kids’ show – that, if you do something that appears to be anarchy, you have to organise it really, really well. You can’t perform anarchy in an anarchic way; you have to organise it in advance.

LOUISETTE: Like Phil EllisFunz & Gamez.

JOHN: Indeed. And I remember one Tiswas production meeting, after the show had been going for years, where the producer said: “We have to figure out some way to make things go wrong during the show.” Because they had been going for so many years, all likelihoods were covered-for in pre-production meetings. Everyone was very experienced, very professional and nothing really went wrong that threw everything off course. You could script-in things to go wrong, but nothing ever went genuinely disastrously wrong of its own accord.

LOUISETTE: Which you seem to like…

JOHN: I do like anarchy. I don’t especially want to see a Michael McIntyre show because it will be too smoothly professional. I do prefer shows that are up-and-down like a roller-coaster in an anarchic way. Though, if it involves immense detail like props or puns, then you can’t have real anarchy. The only way to have apparent anarchy with props and puns and tight gag-gag-gag routines is to prepare it all very carefully.

So I am… I am getting schizophrenic here, aren’t I…?

LOUISETTE: You are. But that’s good. I was discussing it with Frankie (Louisette’s son Frankie Brickman) and he asked me if it was unpredictability you like or feigned unpredictability.

JOHN: Maybe if they feign the unpredictability in a very professional way and I don’t spot the fact it’s feigned…

It’s not even unpredictability I like. It’s the cleverness. If it’s clever and a rollercoaster, I will forgive them the bits that don’t work for the bits that do work. 

… CONTINUED HERE

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Lynn Ruth Miller – a ‘Rising Star’ at 84

Lynn Ruth Miller at The Marsh, San Francisco

Comic and now burlesque performer, 84-years-young Lynn Ruth Miller, is coming to the end of her three week series of return gigs in and around San Francisco – after living in the UK for four years.

This is her penultimate blog about being in the city that was her home for 30 years.


Last Wednesday was the highlight of my trip to this part of the world.

The Marsh theater is a highly prestigious intellectual venue that presents one hour solo shows much like London’s Soho Theatre and the Barbican on a smaller scale.  

When I lived here, I could not get them to let me do any of my storytelling or cabaret shows. They did not think I was accomplished enough. However, thanks to reviews I have received over the years from London, Edinburgh, Brighton and Melbourne, this time they said I could do my show I Love Men in their Rising Star section. (I am ‘rising’ at 84!).

I worked with a wonderful woman named Lauren, who was very efficient and very thorough. But, although my show was listed on the website, it was not promoted or highlighted in any way. So I was pretty sure I would be lucky if five people showed up. Still, it was a pleasure to prepare a show there. The theater is professional in every way. I had a spacious dressing room, a grand piano for Larry to play and a beautiful tech person named Alexa to troubleshoot the performance before we began.

Ticket sales turned out to be far better than I dared hope and, with our walk-ins, we had nearly 60 people in the audience.  

Bay Area people know very little about my life or why I do the things I do and I Love Men is a show about my failure to find a relationship. I was worried that it would seem insipid and pointless in a world where people find each other online and have sex before they have a coffee. My mother always told me my life would be ruined if I had sex before marriage. Now I think it is ruined if you do not.

I could not believe my audience. I had people come from Napa, Reno, Tahoe, Los Angeles and even Austin, Texas. It was all I could do not to weep.

I had thought that I was no more than a shadow totally unnoticed here and it was not until I moved to the UK that anyone thought I had anything of value to offer on a stage. Evidently this was not so.

This audience was with me to the finish and, once again, I got a standing ovation. Do we ever take a thing like that for granted?

Suddenly, I felt that all the work I have invested in these past 15 years of finding my voice as a performer had paid off. I felt validated and very, very proud. I really did it. I told a true story that touched a universal chord.

It was an amazing evening for me.  But the next night was just as exciting.  

Jamie DeWolf runs a tour de force show called Tourettes Without Regrets. I was in that show five years ago and he always told me that, whenever I wanted to return, I had a place in his line-up.  

This is a show of incredible talent and variety with pole dancers, acrobats, strippers, singers and poets… just about everything you can imagine.

I wanted to do something new for him so I decided to do the song I did in Edinburgh last month for the London Burlesque Best of Burlesque shows.  

It is a feminist diatribe and a bit different from the “give it a go” type songs I ordinarily sing. The response was totally amazing and once again I got a standing ovation from an immense audience. It was almost too good to be true.

In the afternoon, I had done a storytelling event for a tiny group of Holocaust survivors and that was one of the most beautiful highlights of this trip. There are very few of these people left and most of them were children in the camps so, although scarred in ways most of us cannot imagine, not nearly as bruised and torn-apart as their parents who were tortured, starved and beaten without mercy.  

I always feel that the most important thing I did and have done is to give these people my time and my performance skills so they know that their very existence is that important to me and to all of us who care about human survival.

… TO BE CONCLUDED TOMORROW …

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Japanese Rakugo storytelling from a Canadian in London and New York

When I met Canadian performer Katsura Sunshine at Camden Lock in London, he was wearing a denim kimono and a bowler hat.

“What was your original name?” I asked.

“Gregory Conrad Robic,” he told me. “I’m a Slovenian citizen, born in Toronto.”

“So why are you doing Japanese stuff?” I asked

I met Katsura Sunshine in Camden Lock, London

“In my youth,” he told me, “I was writing musicals based on Aristophanes. One musical version of The Clouds ran for 15 months in Toronto. As I was researching, I read that ancient Greek theatre and Japanese Noh and Kabuki had all these similarities yet there was no chance of cross-pollination. They were coincidental similarities. I thought that was really interesting, so I went to Japan to see Kabuki. I intended to stay for 6 months, but 18 years went by and now I live in Tokyo and London.”

“Half and half?” I asked. “You are based in Tokyo and Camden Town?”

“Yes, for the last few years. I am going to perform at the Soho Playhouse in New York in November and then I might move to New York. Nothing is planned. I might not.”

“So,” I asked, “how are ancient Greek theatre and Japanese theatre similar?”

“Use of masks,” said Sunshine. “And the same actors playing different roles. And the musical instruments are very similar.”

“And, from Noh and Kabuki,” I said, “you got interested in other styles?”

“Yes. I loved being there so, after five years, when I could actually speak some Japanese, someone introduced me to Rakugo performance, which is quite inaccessible to a non-Japanese speaker; it’s not commonly done in English. Kabuki is very visual, but Rakugo is basically kneeling on a cushion and moving your head left and right to delineate different characters.”

The Kamigata Rakugo Association Hall in Osaka, Japan

Sunshine is currently the only professional non-Japanese storyteller officially recognized by the Kamigata Rakugo Association.

“It’s traditional Japanese storytelling,” I said.

“Yes.”

“So what attracts you to Rakugo?”

“The simplicity of it. All you need is a kimono, a fan and a hand towel to create a storytelling world for people. The first half is a lot like stand-up comedy, where you are just doing anecdotes and trying to feel out the audience and, while you are doing that, you are trying to figure out which story to tell… When you decide which story would suit this audience, you take off your upper kimono and launch into the story.

“The stories have been passed down for 200, 300, 400 years from master to apprentice, from master to apprentice. There is a shared pool of stories. My own master (Katsura Bunshi VI) has made up around 250 different stories.”

“The style of the stories,” I said, “is traditional but the details in them could still involve something like travelling on a metro or in an aeroplane?”

“Yeah. Stories about city life, the neighbourhood, human relations. The style of the story transcends the centuries.”

“It’s either funny or it’s wordplay or it’s clever…”

“So when you tell a story,” I asked, “are you improvising details within a template story?”

“No. You improvise in terms of the choice of material but the actual material is set. You limit yourself to two characters in conversation or, at most, three and every story ends in a punchline, as if it were one long, extended joke.”

“A funny punchline?” I asked.

“It’s either funny or it’s wordplay or it’s clever, but it’s something that ties the whole story together in a satisfying ending.”

“You said ‘wordplay’ OR ‘funny’,” I pointed out. “As if Japanese wordplay is not necessarily comedic.”

“There are so many levels,” Sunshine explained. “Japanese has a limited number of sounds so there are many levels to wordplay. Some are funny; some are beautiful. It’s not always making someone laugh with wordplay.”

“So sometimes the audience just appreciates the cleverness?”

“Yes.”

“There are basically three types of venue,” I said. “Comedy, theatre and music venues. Which is Rakugo most suited to?”

“That’s an interesting question,” said Sunshine. “It is a theatrical form that happens to be comical.

Sunshine at the Leicester Square Theatre, March 2017

“The first year I went to the Edinburgh Fringe, I listed myself in the Comedy section, but I think a lot of the audience were expecting guffaws from the very beginning. It is storytelling, but not laugh-a-minute and there is a through-line and I don’t think it suited that audience. The next year, I put myself in Theatre and I think it suited the audience much better.”

“How many years have you played the Edinburgh Fringe?” I asked.

“This would have been the fourth year, if I had made it. I had to cancel my whole run because, once you get out of hospital, they instruct you not to fly for a certain amount of time.”

“And you were in hospital,” I prompted, “because you had…?”

“Deep vein thrombosis and Economy Class syndrome – pulmonary embolism. I had one long flight back from New York which… I think that’s where I contracted it.”

“But you are OK now?”

“Mmmmm….”

Earlier this year, in March, Sunshine played one night at the Leicester Square Theatre in London, packed to its 400-seat capacity.

“You are,” I prompted, “doing ten more shows at the Leicester Square Theatre starting this Sunday and running until October 15th.”

“Yes.”

“In English.”

“Yes. Rakugo is surprisingly translatable. I don’t really adapt the stories. They are directly translated into English. The points where people laugh in Japanese are generally the same points where people laugh in English. The humour of the traditional Rakugo stories is very situation-based and character-based – miscommunication; husband and wife fighting; a thief who never manages to steal anything. It doesn’t depend on the intricacies of language as much as situations which anybody in any culture can understand.”

“Comedy audiences in this country,” I said, “are maybe in the 20-35 age range. Below that, they can’t afford to go out a lot. Over that, they may be stuck at home with children. So the material is aimed at younger adult audiences.”

“Rakugo is very ‘clean’,” said Sunshine. “Very family-oriented, so the whole family come; they bring the children.”

The chance of Rakugo dying out is about this…

“Is Rakugo dying out in Japan,” I asked, “with each new generation?”

“No. There are 800 professional storytellers in Japan and they all make a living from it. There’s a huge number of shows going on every day all over Japan, particularly in Tokyo and Osaka, but we travel all over the country all the time.”

“Is there storytelling on Japanese TV?”

“Not too much. Storytellers get on TV in the variety shows.”

“So it is not dying out?”

“No. No chance, though it goes in waves. Maybe every 3 or 4 years, there are TV series looking at Rakugo and that gets people interested again. In terms of the number of storytellers, it’s at its peak right now.”

“Men AND women perform?” I asked.

“It’s traditionally quite a male world, but now more and more women are joining the ranks. Out of the 800 storytellers, there are maybe 40 or 50 women. About 30 years ago there were almost none. In the Osaka Tradition of storytelling, the most senior Master is a woman and she is I think under 60 years old.”

“When you do your shows in Japan,” I asked, “do you see the audience?”

“Yes. One big difference to Western theatre is that, in Japan, we keep the house lights on. You want to see everybody in the audience. The visual communication is very important.”

Sunshine posters in London’s tube

“The lights will be up at the Leicester Square Theatre?”

“Yes.”

“You have,” I said, “posters promoting the show on escalators in Leicester Square tube station.”

“And in Piccadilly Circus station,” said Sunshine. “My dream was always to perform in the West End with posters on the escalators and my face on a London taxi.”

“You have ads on taxis?” I asked.

“Well,” said Sunshine, “to really advertise effectively on a taxi, you need about 200 of them.

“We just got one taxi painted. It is about £250 to have it painted and then something like £200 per month for one taxi plus £75 for one hour with a driver.

Man! You’ve made it! Sunshine is a big success in London!”

“So we paid a driver for two hours and just took pictures all round London. So, in terms of social media, the cost to have a Sunshine taxi all over the internet was maybe £600.

“When I put the pictures up in Japan maybe six months ago – six months before these shows in Leicester Square – people were like: Man! You’ve made it! Sunshine is a big success in London!

“And,” I said, “the name Leicester Square Theatre will impress the Americans.”

“Yes.”

“You are a very clever man,” I said. “And it is a very nice denim kimono.”

“I designed it myself,” Sunshine told me. “The sleeves are removable so I can change them. I will wear a more traditional kimono on stage.”

I did not ask him about the bowler hat.

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