Friday 5 May 2017

Don’t Believe the Ballyhoo

In 2015, I performed a show called The Golden Age of Steam six times at the Edinburgh Fringe and won the ‘increasingly prestigious’ Malcolm Hardee Award for Comic Originality. Off the back of the ballyhoo surrounding that announcement, I had comedy promoters get in touch with me. They were keen to have me on, because they assumed I must be good because I’d won an award. The Malcolm Hardee Award isn’t an award for being good, however. It’s just for being weird. I will never forget the looks of disappointment on the faces of the promoters who booked me after I came off stage.

A few people liked The Golden Age of Steam a lot, but most people didn’t. A good chunk of each of those six audiences walked out before the end, and one review complained that the show was meaningless.

I’m not one of those comedians who delight in boring or upsetting their audiences. People walking out isn't a good thing. I don’t think I’m ahead of my time, or a misunderstood genius. I don’t even think I’m very original. If you’ve seen my act, you may find this hard to believe, but I’m actually trying to be as good as I can be. My job is to entertain whoever comes to see me, and to do this by being as fully true to myself as possible.

So I didn’t take the criticism of my ‘meaningless’ show to heart, but I did take it seriously. To me, The Golden Age of Steam wasn’t meaningless at all, but I hadn’t made much effort to convey that meaning. Hardly anyone ‘got’ it. I’ve only ever met one person who ‘got’ it completely. (If you think it’s you, it probably isn’t.) There’s a thin line between being wilfully, ironically obscure and just being sloppy and lazy; I wasn’t completely sure what side of that line I was.

The first thing I decided about my 2016 show was that it would be easy to understand. At no point, I decided, would the audience not know what was going on. Was it possible to cram my loose and lazy creativity into a straightjacket of comprehensibility? The challenge of the show was to answer that question.

The second thing I decided was that the show would be about a painting: a strong, instantly recognisable image that the audience could cling on to. It would anchor and structure the show in such a way as to allow flights of fancy. I chose John Constable’s The Hay Wain because the idea of a comedy show about The Hay Wain made me laugh hard. The Hay Wain Reloaded began life as a collection of three sketches bookended with bits from Constable himself. The structure could hardly have been more banal: opening remarks; Noel Edmonds is a cello; Mary Quant was a whaler; Anita Dobson is weird and fucked-up; finale. It was almost insultingly foolproof.

If you visit Willy Lott’s Cottage on the River Stour (on the border between Suffolk and Essex), and stand at the spot where The Hay Wain was painted in 1821, the first thing you will notice is the enormous red brick building to your right. Initially, you assume that it’s a modern intrusion into Constable’s quiet landscape, but actually that’s Flatford Mill, which was owned by Constable’s family. Young John used to help out there when he was a child. But he decided not to put it in his painting. You can see hints of it, at the far right-hand side of the canvas, but that’s all.

As I previewed my foolproof Edinburgh show, I read more about John Constable’s life and his fraught relationship with his wealthy father, who didn’t always support his career choice as a struggling artist. It began to make sense that his father’s mill should be most conspicuous by its absence from his most famous painting. Themes about difficult paternal relationships and difficult career choices started to seep into my silly sketches. Noel Edmonds had a father who said he could never be a TV presenter. Mary Quant had a father-figure who led her into a new career. Anita Dobson was… well, still weird and fucked-up, but it turned into an opportunity to stop the show and talk about my father, thus breaking up the dismal three-act structure that bored me so much.

It turned out that The Hay Wain Reloaded had always been more about myself than I had cared to admit. (Anita Dobson turned out to be the key to the whole thing.) Because it was suddenly clear: I was John Constable, the disappointing son to an ambitious, but emotionally detached father. I’d have a photograph of my dad on stage, peering over my shoulder the whole time, and I’d acknowledge its presence only at the end of the show. My dad never saw me perform comedy; he died five years before The Hay Wain Reloaded. And Golding Constable never saw his son’s success; he had died five years before The Hay Wain in 1816, or exactly 200 years before The Hay Wain Reloaded. Then I remembered that before I was born my dad once lived in a cottage next to a quiet stretch river, on the border between two counties. That was my Edinburgh show: it had a clear structure; the marketing possibilities seemed limitless – think of all those jigsaws and tea towels! – and it was about my Dead Dad. Perfect.

I approached Edinburgh 2016 all wrong. I was so pleased with my show that I expected it to be a hit. The reviews were good. One of them seemed to ‘get’ it. The same reviewer who had complained about The Golden Age of Steam was meaningless enthusiastically said how much better this one was (thought it isn’t clear if they ‘got’ it.). But people didn’t come. I was performing to three or four people, plus my friends. One show was cancelled because no one showed up. It was frustrating. But all the while I heard rumblings; I started hearing that people liked my show a lot; I heard that people were talking about it – national press, so-and-so, Mr and Mrs Important. It was all very exciting.

Everyone waited until the final show of the run to come to see it. I crammed the room to bursting and gave an untidy, sweaty, hoarse performance to rapturous applause. After that I packed up the show thinking that I had created something very good indeed, and that I had almost but not quite made a big splash in Edinburgh.

I immediately started promoting the post-Edinburgh show, sending out lots of lovely press quotes. In response, I got several invitations to perform The Hay Wain Reloaded at theatres and festivals, but one by one they all fell through. Absolutely nothing came of my efforts. The show was over. Eventually I put it on myself at a loss for a few friends at the Museum of Comedy. It was a slightly sad end and I felt bitter and hard-done-by. I wanted to blame somebody, but there was no one to blame but myself.

I had fucked up. I had started to listen to the echo-chamber of my own bubble of friends. I had started to believe I was brilliant. I was starting to actually believe all the ballyhoo written and said about myself. I was exactly like those promoters who booked me after I’d won the Malcolm Hardee Award. I’d done nothing except set myself up for massive disappointment.

So what next? I have a little show called Parsley, which amuses me a lot. I’m not going to tell you about it. Is it as good as The Hay Wain Reloaded? It’s too early to say, but who cares anyway? It will be as good as I can make it. But I’ve had it with ballyhoo. My goal and challenge for Edinburgh 2017 is to have fun instead.

Wednesday 14 December 2016

2016 'Comedy' Self-Appraisal

Twenty sixteen has been a strange and busy year, creatively. After I won an award in 2015, I felt as if I had the wind in my sails. I abruptly got a few higher-profile-than-usual gigs, such as Pull the Other One and Knock2Bag, on line-ups that included people like Simon Munnery and Kevin Eldon.

I already had most of the elements of The Hay Wain Reloaded in place right at the start of the year. So I was able to preview it in January, although at that stage I didn't have a clear idea of what the show was trying to do, and I anticipated major rewrites. The process over the course of the year turned out to be one of working out why those elements had been there from the outset. When I discovered what the show actually meant to me personally, it was a thrilling experience.

So pleased was I with myself and The Hay Wain Reloaded, I fell into the trap of believing that it was entitled to popular success, and while it slowly built its audience of keen seekers in Edinburgh before the short run ended, it never attracted as many people as my previous shows did. I made numerous attempts to keep the show going in the second half of the year, but they all either came to nothing or fell through. I had to be content with putting the show on myself (at a financial loss) for two nights at The Museum of Comedy. I can't be bitter, though. The Hay Wain Reloaded was so much better than anything else I've done, and it will be a tough thing to follow.

Although collaboration with others doesn't always come naturally to me, there were a handful of new and unusual joint projects that made this year special. It's always a pleasure to work alongside energetic, brilliant and lovely people. Among them there was 'Double Act' (a short film), 'Jalapeño High' and 'A Load of Croc' (a couple of mini-series with the Weirdos) and of course the Weirdos Panto. My New Year's Resolution is to attempt more collaborations and to instigate one or two myself.

I absolutely loved the one-off gigs. For example, 'Simpsons Night', when we recreated two episodes as faithfully as possible, creating something entirely original in the process; Hallowe'en, when I put in an appearance as 'The Upside Down'; and 'Eurovision Night', when, representing Macedonia, I belted out the rousing patriotic anthem:
Stand up,
Stand up,
And help me find my house keys.
Perhaps it's my background in improv, but the one-offs are altogether my favourite gigs. They might not be the most polished or well-constructed performances, but they give the audience, and myself, that beautiful sensation of having a unique, never-to-be-repeated experience. This feeling is one that I want to share with every audience, whether I'm performing a bit for the first time or the hundredth. Another Resolution: approach more gigs as one-offs.

It seems I'm heading into 2017 with less momentum than I had at the start of 2016. But I do have a rough idea for a new show, Parsley. I don't really know what will be in it, the way I did with The Hay Wain Reloaded – certainly no actual jokes, or stories, or sketches or characters – but rather a feeling I want to evoke, and the confidence that if I pursue it relentlessly, something will emerge. I look forward to finding out what it is. The word 'comedy' seems increasingly inappropriate, though the alternative comedy scene does provide a suitable stage for my hard-to-market Low Art strangeness.

There are many, many people who have helped 2016 be so remarkable for me in my 'comedy' endeavours. Here are the names of a small number of them: Jack De'Ath & Thomas Meek, Matthew Highton, Adam Larter, Joz Norris, Ed Aczel & Gabby Best & Justyna Bomba, Alexander Bennett, Phil Lindsey & Martin Willis, Gareth Ellis & Rich Rose, Edward At Last, Penny Matthews, David McIver, Bob Slayer, John Henry Falle & John Kearns, Dan Lees & Neil Frost, Michael Julings, Christian Talbot, Conor Jatter & Luke Spillane & Tom Webster & Dan Attfield & Tom Bacon, Steve Roe, William Lee, Mark Stephenson, Beth Vyse, Lucy Pearman, Kat Bond, Cassie Atkinson, Eleanor Morton, Gareth Morinan, Lottie Bowater, Helen Duff, Marny Godden, Ben Target, Charlie Miller, Suzanna Kempner, Ali Brice, Harriet Kemsley, Katia Kvinge, Tash Goldstone, Joe Davies, Louise Reay, Matt Tedford & Jon Brittain, Phil Jarvis & Andy Barr & Mark Dean Quinn & Alwin Solanky, Alex Hardy, Conor Darrall & Jo Scott, Dave Pickering, etc. & etc. & etc. & etc. Plus a lot of people who have given me an ego boost, a warning nudge or a belly laugh.


Friday 29 July 2016

The Hay Wain Reloaded: Edinburgh Fringe 2016

I'm off to the Fringe in a few days. I'm very pleased with my new show, Michael Brunström: The Hay Wain Reloaded. It's a truism for comedians to say their latest work is the best thing they've yet done – why bother, if not? – but, from my perspective, The Hay Wain Reloaded is obviously the most ambitious show I've yet done, by a country mile, not just in terms of props, stunts and characters, but in terms of structure, themes and ideas. The reason I can claim this legitimately is that I know the show wasn't very ambitious when I first conceived of it.

When I had the idea to do a show about The Hay Wain, all I had in mind was to choose an iconic (yet non-obvious) visual icon that I could use as a hook to hang a collection of surrealist stunts – very similar to what I had done with last year's show, The Golden Age of Steam. But as I delved further into the painting and its artist, John Constable, I found more and more that resonated with me on a personal level – about my childhood, about my dad, and about creativity and career. So I was able to make a show which isn't autobiographical, but which has an authentic, emotional coherence that hopefully underpins the silly and sometimes grotesque flights of absurdist comedy.

All of this probably says less about my own ingenuity than about Constable's genius: his painting can offer inspiration even to a weirdo prop comic at the Fringe. After Edinburgh, I'll write more about what I found in The Hay Wain.

The only doubt I have is whether I can muster a performance that lives up to the show's ambition. The stakes seem higher than usual, and Edinburgh can be a hothouse. To do the show justice, I will have to put all the paraphernalia and ballyhoo of the Fringe out of my mind, and focus solely on the joy of performance itself. I am immensely grateful to have been given the opportunity to experience that joy, and to have had the support and encouragement of so many fellow performers whose work never fails to astonish and delight me.

Saturday 16 April 2016

KEN by Terry Johnson, Hampstead Theatre

Went to see Terry Johnson's KEN at the Hampstead Theatre. In such a grand environment, I half expected a watered-down collection of pleasant theatrical reminiscences and anecdotes. On principle, I don't like anecdotes. (Or jokes, for that matter.) Anecdotes (and jokes) are what we reach for when we would rather say something meaningful, but are too afraid.

There were plenty of knowing references for Tentringer enthusiasts, of course – which elicited appropriate chuckles from the cognoscenti – but the play itself was shockingly eye-opening, giving an authentic insight into what it was like to experience the early days of The Warp and the failures of the Rainbow Theatre Hitchhiker's Guide. But, more importantly, it was a play about what it was like to have Ken Campbell in your life. And the script bubbled and shone with genuine poetry.

Jeremy Stockwell embodied Ken better than I've ever seen attempted before. He picked up on microscopic mannerisms that we hadn't even noticed before, leaving us ever so slightly spooked. In the bar afterwards, Jeremy declared, 'We all have our own Ken', which is true. Mine tends not to be the nasal, opinionated practitioner that some have found, but rather the childlike, whimsical supposer. These are two sides of Ken's enantiodromia. But possibly the most astonishing moments that Stockwell and Johnson found, I thought, went beyond that simplistic dichotomy, to when Ken went quiet, impassive, with nothing to say, observing and absorbing. That, I discovered, was Ken at his most potent.

Watching KEN is inspiring, not like a shot in the arm, but like a poke in the chest. Yet again, goddamnyou, I'm forced to answer (not half-assed pretend to answer): 'What are you doing?'

Tuesday 1 September 2015

Ken Campbell: Lighthouse

Sometimes people come up to me after a show to tell me that they can see the influence of Ken Campbell in my performance, even in an interrogative nasal twang that inflects my voice.

I used to mention Ken in the press blurb to my last show, ‘The Human Loire’. It was a somewhat crass attempt to give myself some professional back-story, to ride some famous coat-tails, given that no one has heard of me. (I should never have supposed that being ‘known’ was a meaningful attribute in its own right.) One listings website mis-read the blurb and stated that the show was ‘directed by Ken Campbell’. I didn’t write in to correct them.

When thinking up stuff and how to perform it, I always keep Ken in mind. He is the most discerning critic of what’s boring, half-hearted, lazy and self-indulgent. His role is a symbolic one; like Socrates’ daimonion, he tells me what to avoid rather than what to do. What would his opinion really be of my performances? I shudder to think.

Ken was known to get furious if you wasted his time on anything that wasn’t astonishing and fascinating. I was (fortunately?) not on the receiving end of his ire very often. At first I thought that he was being indulgent towards me purely out of mischief towards the experienced trained actors he would put me on stage with. ‘Look at Michael,’ he would hiss at the RADA graduates, ‘He’s brilliant, and he edits gardening books!’

Later I would learn that Ken simply respected no hierarchy on stage or off. (My dad was the same.) For Ken, every human being, no matter what their professional back-story, contained the latent potential to amaze and astonish other people and themselves. There were no rules as to what form this potential should take; it was different for everyone Ken came in contact with. It might even be the ‘legendary minus factor’: the ability to leave the stage and make it look somehow fuller. Whatever Ken thought you had, he would seize on and whip it into shape. I don’t think Ken ever really knew what to make of me, but his interest in me was never to mould me into an acolyte, but to goad me into discovering my potential and developing my self-astonishment. Only after his death did I appreciate how many hundreds of lives Ken had changed in this way.

For me and for many others, Ken was a lighthouse, showing up the dangerous rocks of banality on which so many boats have foundered and revealing the vast extent of the expanses of exciting waters that lie beyond everything we're comfortable and familiar with.

When I half-consciously imitate Ken with my nasal mannerisms on stage, it is a sign that I am being fearful, not confident enough to be adventurous with my own voice. I am sailing too close to my lighthouse. And in playing safe, I’m courting failure. He’d want me to strike out further, and that is what I will endeavour to do in the future. I’m glad to say I've taken his name off my press blurbs, but I will always keep Ken in view, if only as a speck of light on the horizon to assure myself that I’m not sailing headlong up my own arsehole. Only then will I perhaps one day generate a little light of my own.

Wednesday 26 August 2015

Dave's Joke of the Fringe

Darren Walsh has won "Dave's Joke of the Fringe" for this joke:

"I just deleted all the German names off my phone. It's Hans free."

I'm not a big fan of jokes, though you'll often hear me laugh at a pun, and Darren has many. I don't know of any comedian who thinks that it is logical to rank individual lines in order of funniness. Every performer is unique, and every performance is a one-off. And every performance is experienced differently by every person present. But there are moments when in spite of all this audiences become united, and for an instant an illusion of shared reality is sustained for the duration of a burst of communal laughter. How that happens is an actual miracle, nothing short of magic. 

Like the review star system, "Dave's Joke of the Fringe" is an attempt to suck all the magic, wonder and joy out of the experience of comedy, and to reduce it to an abstraction of craftsmanship, a formula for gags, a list of comedy sentences. What is the motivation for the existence of "Dave's Joke of the Fringe", aside from a publicity stunt? I think it is fear: fear that something might exist in laughter that is impossible to quantify, something ineffable and weird. To admit it exists is to admit that our shared reality rests on immaterial foundations.

Darren Walsh's joke works, because Darren Walsh works, and he deserves to be celebrated. He works conspicuously harder than most comedians. The joke works because only he can deliver it in the way he delivers it, at the moment he delivers it, in that instant that becomes memorable in the light of the audience, who light up in recognition of it.

My favourite Darren Walsh joke is this:

"I was in an Indian restaurant eating a curry when I got some surprise bad news: my naan had slipped into a korma."

Darren tells it better.

"The Golden Age of Steam" – report card

Before the Edinburgh Fringe this year, I made a list of ten things I wanted to achieve. It’s time to return to that list, to see how well I did.

1. Make a show that (by my standards alone) is better than "The Human Loire". (It will include, among other things: less reliance on props, gimmicks and sound effects; better pace and structure; more audience interaction; a clearer thematic through-line. And it will end on a song.)

SUCCESS. “The Golden Age of Steam” is a better show than “The Human Loire” (though some will doubtless prefer the Loire’s more flamboyant moments). The whole show and props fitted into a single bag, and used only a handful of repeated sound cues. I loved chatting and interacting with the audience. Whereas “The Human Loire” was simply a collection of acts put in an appropriate order, “The Golden Age of Steam” had an internal logic to it. One reviewer complained that there was no structure or meaning in the show, missing the clues and associations I had placed there.* He didn’t get it, and he is entitled to feel let down, but I don’t think the show would have been better (by my standards) if I had made these more explicit. I’m proud of the song.

2. Preview it at least three times before Edinburgh.

SUCCESS. There were six and a half London previews booked in. One was cancelled.

3. Find new and exciting ways to promote it.

NON-SUCCESS. I had plenty of good half-baked ideas, the best of which was to lead a train-like conga of audience members through the streets of Edinburgh, chuffing and whistling. One excuse I gave myself for not doing this is that it would have been a distraction from the principal task of performing, but probably I was just chickening out.

4. Perform it six times in Edinburgh with wholehearted commitment.

MAJORITY SUCCESS. At the very start of the second show, I twisted my right knee painfully while jumping up onto the high stage at The Hive. For the rest of the hour I was in terrible agony, which was so intense that at times I almost forgot what I was doing. It was not a good performance, but I’m proud I soldiered through (bless me). For the remainder of the run, I wore a heat bandage and took strong painkillers. And I incorporated references to my limp and restricted movement into the show, which actually improved it.

5. Take big risks for the sake of fun and enjoyment.

MAJORITY SUCCESS, I think. Risks that you fail to take are hard to spot in hindsight. My favourite moments in the show were the ones where I allowed proceedings to get almost out of hand: engaging with a surreal heckle, overseeing a dangerous moment with a hammer, Bob Slayer jumping up on stage, etc. 

6. Fill the room to bursting for at least one performance.

NON-SUCCESS. After I wrote that aim, my venue was changed from a proposed space at Cowgatehead that seated “50” to the much larger Big Cave at The Hive that comfortably fitted more than twice that number. I employed two flyerers to help me get more people in, but my largest audience was a little under 50, more than last year’s show but not enough to fill the hypothetical room at Cowgatehead (which, in the end, never existed). I also had many walk-outs.

7. Perform guest slots every day I am in Edinburgh.

NON-SUCCESS. For five nights, I had fun playing the seventeenth-century mass murderer Elizabeth Bathory in Alexander Bennett’s “Hell to Play”. I also did a slot at ACMS, which was a hoot. But I failed to seek out those obscure comp shows of surreal, clowny delights. I ought also to have extended my enquiries to more conventional stand-up nights. Some missed opportunities there.

8. Watch more shows; spend less time recuperating in my room.

SUCCESS. Having a hostel room in the very centre of town helped greatly. Although I was suffering from a cold and a sprained knee, I refused to let this slow me down too much, and although I had a couple of “lazy” days, when I was simply too exhausted to go out to see certain things I wanted, I was delighted and inspired by the many bold, beautiful and varied experiences I had. Too many to list here.

9. Assist friends with their shows (flyering, teching and bucketing).

NON-SUCCESS. Probably my biggest non-success of the Fringe. Lack of planning and tiredness played their role here. I did a small amount of flyering and plugged friends’ shows after my own, but I was otherwise entirely focused on “The Golden Age of Steam”.

10. Secure opportunities to repeat and develop my show further in London later in the year.

NON-SUCCESS. But perhaps it’s not too late. I would love to perform “The Golden Age of Steam” a few more times. It’s hard to let go of it. But the come-down from the successes of Edinburgh make the prospect of reassembling the show in London a hard one. After all, one of my previews was in front of a single audience member and two of the bar staff. Another preview was cancelled because nobody showed up at all. I’m not good enough at self-promotion. It would be absurd to expect Edinburgh to bestow public recognition upon me, and I am still confused about how I should proceed. Or should I simply wait? Part of me would prefer to end on a high, and busy myself instead with new projects. 

There it is. I calculate my successes to be about 5 out of 10. Three stars. But like the star system on reviews, the figure is meaningless. The success of the first aim – the creation of “The Golden Age of Steam” – overrides all the others. The whole experience at this year’s Fringe was fun, exhausting and inspirational: enough experience for a whole month.

* E.g. the four modes of transport referenced: air, car, train and foot; the modified repetitions in the script; the “Golden Age” pre-industrial bucolic section on harp and flute; and the large number binary choices (“to be or not to be”, “do you get it or not?”, “praise or scorn”, “poetry or Lilt”, etc.) presented throughout the hour. All deliberate.