Archives for the month of: August, 2013

So…. Just got back from my first Edinburgh Fringe. Woop-doo!

Had a superb time, obviously (chiefly thanks to some particularly generous friends). It certainly felt like a milestone for me. On top of the expected seeing of many good things, I got some education in what it means to be part of the festival. As anyone who’s actually performed there could undoubtedly explain it better, I won’t elaborate at length – but here are a few notes, just for the record.

Its obvious that putting on and actively promoting a run of twenty plus consecutive daily shows away from home will naturally be a bit of a gauntlet. Arriving for the final five days, I saw quite a few Fringe-weary faces sighing, and regularly heard the mildly battered refrain ‘It’s been a long Fringe’. Stamina and strategy aren’t pre-requisites, but they definitely help.

On the other hand, as one comic pointed out to me, the Fringe offers an otherwise rare opportunity to those who make the effort. Beyond touring or getting an extended run somewhere (much less likely for those just getting into it), there aren’t many other experiences for performers as intensely focused as the Edinburgh Festival. Twenty odd audiences in as many days – all varying in number, tastes and expectations – an epic proving ground. Gaining similar experience in the real world could take a fair bit of time – particularly if you don’t perform regularly or for a living. All that condensed into just over three weeks means that you gain more simply by having so much in recent memory to work with and mull over. At least that’s the theory. Wonder if it works.

As for what was on – the sheer variety of it all, while great for me as a punter, slightly intimidated me as a performer. Seeing so many acts, with such diversity in subject, style and intensity, performing to wildly differing audiences at a range of venues was as exciting as it was mildly disorienting. However, I confess to wondering at several points whether I had anything worth adding to the innumerable voices, viewpoints, styles and aesthetics already proliferating at the Fringe. Of course, the correct answer to that nagging doubt is: it doesn’t seem to stop anyone else.

My week definitely gave me a better perspective on the kind of performer I’d like to be – or perhaps more appropriately the kind of outfit I want to be part of. It’s probably easiest to talk about this in terms of who I saw and what I got from seeing them.

The Beta Males and Cariad and Paul were like entertainment engines powered by synchronicity – one through slick and deft design, the other through amazing chemistry. The results were impressive and intensely entertaining. There’s nothing quite as satisfying as two (or more) people who clearly share a sense of comedic rhythm. Better still when it manifests as a sort of bone-deep, near-reflexive awareness of the other. As this apparently only emerges from long-standing creative partnerships – time together is key.

Who Ya Gonna Call (go team!), Beardyman and John Robertson’s gleefully cruel The Dark Room reminded me that I’d quite like people to have fun whilst I’m revelling in my own. Riskily self-indulgent? Answer: only if you don’t invite the audience to the fun. These shows were all fantastic at taking personal passions and translating them into something anyone could appreciate and be part of – a really beautiful thing to see. WYGC and The Dark Room particularly, with their knowingly (and literally) recycled aesthetics, convinced me that the key to really engaging your audience is ultimately just about respecting them. As most improv is based on some level of audience involvement, this feels like an important thing to bear in mind.

Finally, there’s something about the power of personal truth or revelation in comedy. At almost opposite ends of the scale here were Tom Wrigglesworth and Al Lubel. Wrigglesworth’s was an intimate, charming and moving account of his grandfather’s lasting impact on him as a person. Lubel, by contrast, used all manner of revelations about his relationship with his mother to deliver an absurdly narcissistic, borderline loathsome account of himself. Both funny for completely different reasons, but both left me thinking: I can’t believe you just shared that.

So, the inevitable question – do I now want to take a show to the Fringe? Yes, absolutely.

Will I..?

If I can find three weeks lying around of an August – maybe.

The last month has seen another unfeasibly energetic lunge of improv activity.

Susan Messing. Nuff said.

Actually, not nuff.

I’d been in two minds about committing to the two-day Brighton workshop (mostly for financial reasons), had made a hash of booking it initially and only discovered my error just in time to rectify it. Meanwhile, everyone I knew was raving about how Messing was (a) a true force of nature; (b) unremittingly sweary; and (c) liable to tear me a new improv areshole. She was one of few universally praised by those who’d worked with her. I suddenly realised missing Messing was unlikely to be a good idea for me as an improviser. FOMO indeed.

Thankfully (and aptly) I got my act together and committed. The two days were intense – full of silliness, noisiness, anarchic disarray, daring physicality and (of course) bountiful curse words – with Susan at the eye of the storm; the gleefully insane conductor of an apocalyptic orchestra. Despite what seemed at times utterly chaotic, she clearly knew what she was doing at all points. The pace rarely let up, and the exercises (however uncomfortable, unnerving or just plain strange) often left me feeling like I’d crossed a threshold to some new, uncharted place internally. We barely did a ‘straight’ scene the whole weekend, and I think that was entirely deliberate. Straight scenes aren’t designed to test you, they’re the home you come to when the battle is over – but they shouldn’t be. The battle is never over.

Though she didn’t preface it as such, it was clear that Messing’s focus was on the improviser’s perpetual adversaries – fear, shame, lack of connection and, above all, commitment. Unlike most teachers, however, she understood it wasn’t enough to just talk about these ideas (though she did, at length – her oft-repeated mantras pummelling her lessons through even the thickest 4-ply skulls). No cerebral short-cuts on this joyride – Messing’s way was to nudge you into that dreaded awkward moment, make you recognise the tension it generated within, then say ‘fuck it’ and push through. Touch it, taste it, smell it, feel it AND fuck it – actually.

There were boat loads of exquisite moments that weekend, I couldn’t recount them all. But if there was a moment that will stay with me longest, it was the narrated lucid dream we created that, unknowingly, moved her to tears. I remember thinking – ‘Holy fuck, this shit is powerful’.

People I know (usually not improvisers) look at me oddly when I occasionally get earnest about what is effectively just making up silly shit. Besides being unapologetically passionate about this very thing, Susan (a) refused to put the process (or herself) up on a pedestal; (b) was serious enough not to let anyone slack it off; and (c) was enlightened enough to know how to make the inevitable discomfort fun. That was the Messing experience for me. It was terrifying, vivifying, embarrassing, emboldening and joyful. It reassured me that the difficulty of improvising that will always be there can always be overcome, provided you commit everything you have to it.

That, to me, is good fucking news.

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I went straight from Day 2 of Messing into my first show with my new team, C3467X (we’re named for comfort, not speed). This being a Crash Pad, the crowd was naturally very improv-friendly. Nonetheless it felt like a great first show. Everyone was on cracking form, and our synchronicity was high. With the spirit of Messing freshly distilled in most of us, I’d have been really disappointed if it wasn’t.

Since then, we’ve done a couple more shows, and had plenty of practice. Most of all its been really heartening to know how committed the team is to rolling its sleeves up and getting in there – not being tediously complacent or self-aggrandising. The hard work of a few in particular has paid off, with gigs now flying at us from all directions (and apparently countries). We’ve even got the opportunity to host our own monthly night in London. I’m massively excited about it all. Can’t. Wait!

For all that, I want to get back to that place I was just after the Messing masterclass. The limitless place, where anything and everything is possible. Its actually the reason I do this, and its the only thing that keeps me interested.

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