Part one of our chat with the genre-challenging comics at this year's VAULT Festival.
A few weeks ago we at BCG got a little tip from one of our regular comedy-performing correspondents that something interesting was happening at London's VAULT Festival, which takes place at various venues near Waterloo, from January 24th to March 18th.
It's a sizeable festival, and they've gone way bigger with the comedy strand this year, including a number of comics who are actively attempting to push the envelope. Indeed, are they even still comics at all? So we asked a bunch of them about that, and how this envelope-pushing occurs: is it a thin one that paper-cuts you the whole time, or a proper jiffy you can get some purchase on? Important questions.
Tell us about your VAULT Festival shows
Gavin J Innes: Blackout (pictured above) is a play that explores the fallout of an ill-conceived, booze-soaked one-night stand. Two characters, one room, no memory. There are still plenty of laughs, but events play out with extremely sinister undertones and implications.
Joz Norris: I'm premiering a new show, 60 Minutes after Feeling Sad, which is trying to experiment with the fact that nearly every comedy show adopts a form where it directly addresses the audience and acknowledges itself as a performance. It's a show about me, as myself, being alone in a room and feeling sad and trying to talk to myself and do various things to cheer myself up.
Fran Bushe: Ad Libido is a sexy-time quest (with songs) about my pursuit of a 'normal' sex life. It explores my own experience of Female Sexual Dysfunction, which covers problems with sexual response, desire, orgasm or pain during sex. Sexy stuff right? You can expect toe-tapping tunes, a magic penis and a visit to sex camp.
How does it compare to your previous work?
Fran: It's my most autobiographical show, everything in the show is 100% true (I promise). It's also the first time I've been onstage all on my own. I normally have the two other people in my sketch group [Kitten Killers] up onstage with me... there's a lot more space up there and my quick changes have to be really quick.
Gavin: I've always written for stand-up shows with strong narrative themes - Bec Hill in... Ellipsis and Caught on Tape, Abigoliah Schamaun's Post-Coital Confessions and Paul Duncan McGarrity's Ask an Archaeologist - but Blackout is a complete departure because it's not about just one person with a microphone giving their view on a particular topic; it's a show about two people battling to get their views accepted as the truth in a very specific situation.
Joz: In a way, it's a conventional comedic theatrical monologue, but also sort of has half a foot in stand-up because I'm also obviously playing the performer who knows the audience is watching him, but that he can't acknowledge them or it breaks the story he's trying to tell. So it's simultaneously an experiment in form and a story about somebody on their own and the attempts they make to reach out to people. But funny.
Is it a natural progression for comedians to explore more challenging long-form territory? And is this a fairly recent phenomenon?
Fran: It's always fun to explore new formats, styles and themes and as you keep learning new things your writing changes and develops. It's nice to have a full hour to explore something so personal and important to me and I think performers and writers will always be looking for exciting new ways to surprise the audience.
Joz: I think it's natural for any writer-performer to follow where their brain leads them, and never to question where it's leading them or assume they ought to be doing what they've done before, or what they know they're good at, or what they know will sell.
Gavin: For comedians and comedy writers it's a natural progression to explore beyond just laughs, and long-form gives a great deal of freedom to do that. I think age has a lot to do with it; as you get older you gain more confidence in your view of the world and question things that challenge you. It's certainly been highlighted more and accepted as comedy in recent times, but I don't think it's a recent phenomenon.
Joz: Quite simply, I knew I didn't have an idea for a conventional comedy show, but I had an image that I wanted to use as a starting point for a show, of a man sitting completely alone in a room, feeling upset and not knowing what to do, and I knew I wanted to write a story that span out from there. And as it developed it became clear that to explore that story properly I needed to do something formally quite different from what I usually do.
Fran: It always feels really odd and artificial having to decide if something goes under Theatre or Comedy in a brochure, because it's not as neat as that in real life. Ad Libido has loads of both: it's funny and theatrical and sits pretty comfortably with one leg on either side of the fence.
Joz: I think the only thing you must never do in comedy, or the arts in general, is do something you don't believe in 100%. There's no point making something challenging or radically new just for the sake of it, but there's also no point repeating old ideas if you begin to feel like you've got the most out of them for now, and you might benefit from doing something new.
How challenging did you find the writing of this? Were there points where you were tempted to add more laughs, or take them out, or take it in a really weird direction?
Fran: I've probably been writing this show for as long as I've been sexually active. Although I didn't always know it and I promise I wasn't taking notes the whole time.
Gavin: The hardest part is training yourself for silence, because normally you rate the success of a show on if an audience laugh or not. But for Blackout there are definitely moments where a laugh would be the worst possible result. During the rehearsal period I am finding myself taking out jokes and lines to ensure the drama isn't lost.
Joz: I've felt more able to hold my nerve in the writing of this. A comedy audience will allow you to go to quite thoughtful and introspective and serious places, but I think nearly always with the expectation that there'll be a big laugh at the end of it, something to subvert or undercut what's come before, or just to shift the tone back into something comedic. With something a bit more theatrical or multi-disciplinary I think it's possible to have quiet, thoughtful moments just for the sake of quietness and thoughtfulness, if that's what the piece needs at that point.
Fran: I loved developing the show in the rehearsal room with my director, Ellen Havard. I used all of my favourite things that I'd played with in my comedy: songs, big costumes, diary entries, bubbles and an old school overhead projector. When I write comedy I think it's natural to have a laugh monitor in your head saying 'it's been a while without a laugh, best pop a laugh in there quickly.' It was hard to turn off that instinct, but it's a different sort of show with laughs and 'aww's and 'oooh's and 'why is she telling us that about her sex life?'s throughout.
Having made this show, would you still introduce yourself as a comedian, or do we need another term for what you do now?
Gavin: I wouldn't call myself a comedy writer anymore; just a writer.
Joz: I started thinking of myself as a 'maker of stuff' a while ago. The word 'comedian' conjures up loads of images in most people's heads and a lot of those images are things I don't really connect with emotionally. 'Writer and performer' is pretty good and honest and clear, but 'maker of stuff' adds a sort of messiness and a silliness to it that I rather like.
Fran: I think it's fine to do it Craig David-style and be a comedian on Monday, do a bit of theatre on Tuesday, you can make a film on Wednesday and on Thursday and Friday and Saturday, slam poet on Sunday.