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.

Monday 9 February 2015

I'm doing good, thanks

Not long ago, my brother was recounting an anecdote about his son. My nephew had recently come home from school announcing that he'd "done good" in class. It became my brother's duty to sit him down and teach him a couple of important lessons. Firstly: the correct use of the adjective and the adverb. More importantly: doing well is not at all the same as doing good. The people who do well in this world are rarely if ever the same people who do good. That's quite a grown-up lesson.

For the last couple of years, I've shifted my creative energies away from improvisation towards solo semi-scripted comedy. In doing so, I've met with a degree of success. I've done a few decent shows; I've been given opportunities to perform in front of larger audiences, alongside some remarkable people; and I've been written about on prestigious blogs.

People sometimes tap me on the shoulder to congratulate me on how well I'm doing.

But "doing well" in a creative career is not the same as "doing well" at school. At school the rewards are fixed and specific: getting good grades, winning prizes and coming first. In a creative context, the grades, prizes and targets are the ones that you set for yourself. And these targets are constantly shifting and will never, ever, ever be entirely met. If I happen to do a good show, the goal is to do a better one. If someone happens to pay me to perform, I will afterwards wonder if I might get paid a bit more in future. And so on, forever. (For comedians, this process continues until they become Lee Evans, and then they stop.)

Achievements such as fame, money and creative success are not the rewards for hard work. They will only ever be receding mirages that seem to beckon me onwards through a featureless landscape. For me, the true measure of my work is the confidence and joy I get from doing what I want to be doing, to the best of my ability, moment by moment. The work is the reward.

If my goal is to "do well" in comedy, I will always be disappointed. Instead I have resolved to "do good".

This way of thinking has its roots in the philosophy of improvisation, which continues to inspire me, even though I'm no longer an improviser. Whatever my nephew chooses to do with himself in the future, I hope he does good.