Tuesday 30 September 2014

Actualism, or Why I Use Food in my Act

@Isabelle Adam
In my act, I use quite a lot of food: for example, fennel, grapes, and Rice Krispies. This is not a particularly original idea. Many alternative comics use food in their acts. All three of the performers nominated for this year's increasingly prestigious Malcolm Hardee Award for Comic Originality use food in their acts, as do many of the shows of The Weirdos collective. Is food funny?

I have long believed that there is a list of things that can happen on stage that are more "actual"* than others. These are things that transcend the fakery and pretence that are inherent to scripted performance, striking the audience as happening inescabably in the actual present. The list is long and quite varied, but here are some examples. When a gun appears on stage, the audience seldom believe that it is an actual gun, though they will be braced for a bang. Stage knives are usually fake, but a knife quickly becomes actual when it is hurled at another performer strapped to a rotating wheel. A baby on stage is not a baby actor; it is a baby. A baby's reactions to everything that happens to them on stage are absolutely genuine; the words "believable" and "convincing" do not even apply to a baby's performance. Dogs and other animals can be trained to fake their way on stage. Bees, however, cannot. I want to see more shows that use bees.  

When two actors kiss, the act transcends any pretence. It doesn't matter if the actors are bad, or if we don't believe the emotions supposedly conveyed by the kiss: the kiss actually happens. In a rare example of theatrical synchronicity, the actors kiss at exactly the same moment that the characters do, and we witness this act live. Stage nudity is the same. When a character gets naked, the actor does too, and we see that they do. Any action that breaks the surface of the performer's skin will appear more actual to the audience, propelling them into the now. When an actor sweats, spits, pisses, shits or shoots ping pong balls out of their vagina, they are using their body in a vivid and immediate way that demands attention. 

When liquids spill and splash in a scene, they do so on the actual stage, too. The same when smoke billows from the wings. They may be special effects, but they are not artificial. It has been said that when André Antoine first staged his naturalistic productions at the Theatre Libre in Paris in the late 1880s, audiences were shocked to see actors drinking real water actually poured out of ordinary jugs. Prior to fourth-wall innovations such as Antoine's, the convention had been for props to be clearly fake, and the use of them was always mimed. 

There are many other examples of "actualism" on stage. I invite you to find more. Actualism is why I use food, eating and drinking in my act, and I suspect that is why other comics do too. Using food alerts the audience to the actual that is happening in front of them. It helps to make the performance live.

I do often feel, however, that these techniques constitute only short-cuts to creating an "actual" live performance. Smoke, water, food, kissing, nudity and bees are all gimmicks. That's not to dismiss them; for example, I intend exploring gimmicks such as smells and reflected light in future performances. But they are in themselves no substitute for the emotional connection that audiences crave. There can be no trickery involved in this, as audiences demand the authentic, the actual. After all, even the act of crying, of forcing water out of your face, can be faked.

To invite an audience to experience your authentic feelings as vividly as they can see you are actually covering your arms with jam: that, for me, is a creative goal worth pursuing. 

* I am being careful here to use neither the words "real" and "realism" (which carry the absurd implication of "truth") nor the words "natural" and "naturalism" (which relate only to one particular style of representation). 

Wednesday 10 September 2014

Sympathy for the Heckler

My experience performing my act at stand-up comedy nights is very limited, though on the whole I've enjoyed doing these nights more than I expected to. I've been lucky enough to only ever perform in smallish rooms, with rather polite, sober and attentive crowds. On the few occasions that people have been chatting over me, I've stopped and asked them to be quiet. And, so far, this approach has worked. But I suspect that if anyone were to heckle me aggressively, I'd flee the stage in tears and give up comedy for six months.

One aspect of stand-up comedy I've never managed to fully enjoy is the whole microphone thing. I like to think that it is a minimum requirement for me as a performer that I should be heard at the back of an ordinary sized room, and that what I'm saying should be worth listening to. My voice has never had any professional training – I've been told that I'm sometimes too quiet or too shouty – but it's definitely getting better. (As for whether my material is worth listening to, there is a limit to the extent to which I can modify it to guess an audience's tastes. On the whole, I am reliant entirely on my own enthusiasm for it.)

The microphone immediately puts a barrier up between the comic and the audience. It establishes the comic as the only legitimate voice in the room, performing the same role aurally that powerful lighting does visually, forcing the audience into silence the same way the lights plunge them into darkness. I think lights and microphone conspire to make the stage experience more artificial, more like watching a film in a cinema than a live person in a room. The audience want to see and hear me clearly, yes, but I also want to see and hear them.

Under some circumstances, I can almost sympathise with the heckler. I don't mean to imply that I have the slightest respect for anyone who maliciously interrupts a performer, and I dislike the laddish, confrontational culture that considers the swapping of insults between stage and bar to be the stock-in-trade of the stand-up's art. But if you're sat at the back in darkness, and the comic is separated off from you, bathed in light, on a platform, voice amplified, having been given a hero's welcome by the emcee, and you're drunk and you're finding it impossible to listen, but you want to be entertained, then wouldn't you naturally become frustrated at the situation?

I think audiences want to feel a connection with whoever's entertaining them. When they heckle, some of the artificial barriers are broken down. The comic has to come out from behind their microphone, shade their eyes from the glare of the lights to make contact with the audience, ditch their prepared lines and start some genuine, spontaneous interaction. It's horrible and aggressive, but it's at least something, something real, something that's actually happening.

I did a stand-up night in Edinburgh that began at 12:30 a.m. The comedians and the audience alike were generally very young and rather drunk, and the microphone was too loud – to help everyone concentrate, I suppose. One comic seemed as frustrated by the evening as the audience were. He slowly peeled off his jokes one by one, but his voice was amped up so disproportionally that, no matter how much the audience laughed, the gap after each punchline seemed silent by comparison. There were only about fifteen people in the room. Increasingly, he began to comment on the apparent indifference of the audience, then started berating the audience for their poor response, and eventually invited them to shout insults at him. A heckle is a better reaction than nothing.

When I got up to perform immediately afterwards, the first thing I did was get rid of the microphone, and ask if everyone could hear me without it. The loud cheer I got in answer to this question was one of the most positive responses I've received to anything I've ever done on stage.

Monday 8 September 2014

What I Got from the Fringe

It's not uncommon for performers at the Fringe to experience a come-down once the Festival is over. That makes sense to me. A great deal of energy goes into making an Edinburgh show. This energy consists of well-spent creative and emotional effort, as well as the physical work of dashing around the city, flyering, organising props and publicity and performing every day. It also consists of wasted energy: getting emotional about practical matters, and attempting to fix creative problems by running about.

But once the shows are finished, once all that energetic self-promotion and self-hype has died down, it can be hard not to feel slightly empty. It's in the nature of performance that the prizes are fleeting. The show ends, the audience goes home, the venue is dismantled, the flyers are thrown away. What are we left with?

No wonder that performers chase after whatever substantive rewards are available in Edinburgh. For some, this will consist of relationships with agents, promoters and other professionals likely to advance their careers and allow them to do more ambitious shows. Others seek out the stars. The star-system turns the complicated, infuriating, ambiguous language of show reviewing into pure currency, which can be weighed up, quantified and calculated.

A few comedians I spoke to said that the reason why they wanted to do the full month of the Fringe was simply in order to prove to themselves that they could. This "because it's there" reasoning appeals to me. Performing at the Fringe is akin to running a marathon. There is something fundamentally ludicrous about the challenge. I decided to do only ten shows, because I thought this would be my emotional and physical limit. In order to run a marathon, one must first be able to run 10,000 metres. If I do the Fringe again, I will do a bit more.

It's certainly the case that shows that are performed more than twenty times undergo a much more vigorous testing than those that are just done ten times. They are forged into much stronger shows through their repetition. On the down side, the work is intense, and at times becomes a feat of purely physical stamina rather than of creative honing. It is almost inevitable that a few of the performances will be sub-par.

One of the clearest advantages to doing a shorter Fringe was that I barely underwent any of the crashing lows that are typical of the full-run performer's experience. The shows were all enjoyable to do, and they all went more-or-less "well", despite a few obvious glitches, lapses in memory and concentration and poor choices. If I had done more performances, I would have made more mistakes and done a few more shoddy shows, but I would have made more discoveries along the way.

The most significant discovery that I made was that the almost structureless succession of "acts" that made up the backbone of my scripted show became almost subordinate to the banter with the audience. I increasingly enjoyed drawing the room together, pooling ideas from the crowd, responding to both their laughter and their confused silences. This meant that a show that originally had clocked in at a little over 50 minutes started to overrun quite considerably. Even after I had cut a lot of additional material I had originally thought I would need, I regularly made myself a nuisance to the group whose show was on in the same space immediately after mine.

But I find it hard to regret much about an experience that was so overwhelmingly positive. By dwelling on the lessons to be learned, however, I can escape the melancholy that might follow a straightforwardly "successful" Fringe. I have chosen to step away from improv for the foreseeable future, and devote myself to solo scripted performance, even if that means that at first I spend less time on stage. Starting at a lower level in the vast and diverse comedy arena is more exciting to me now than continuing to do shows of increasingly consistent quality, in an increasingly familiar setting.

I have also bought myself the official Edinburgh Festival Fringe t-shirt.