Pre-workshop reading for Bath Workshop 9th December
The Art of Performance - six 2-3 hour workshop sessions.
Session one: DYNAMICS - Relationship to the Fourth Wall.
The first session of the Workshop - discusses the Dynamics of performance, initially by understanding the difference between performing and acting; and then by exploring the consequences for the performer of directly communicating with a live audience without the theatrical convention of the fourth wall.
An Actor takes the part of a character in a play, his every word and move is written by a dramatist and interpreted by a director. The deceit is known. The Actor and the audience have a contract - The audience suspends its disbelief and agrees to be transported to the time and place of the action and watch the events on stage through an imaginary Fourth Wall. As soon as the play is over, the contract ends as the audience applauds.
A raconteur comedian walks on stage relatively naked. He speaks directly to the audience in the first person - here and now. There is no contract only a nebulous agreement that the performance is spontaneous and authentic. His words are his own and even though the set-piece jokes, skits and monologues may be learned word for word, the audience will over-look any discrepancy so long as they are engaged, given cause to laugh and feel included.
Performers and stand-up comedians, when telling a story or describing an event, may choose to erect a temporary fourth wall and inhabit their musings, memories and imaginings by acting out a character, short scene or conversation. But whatever the frequency and duration of these fragments, they will constantly return to directly addressing the audience by briefly sharing the implications of what's being said, with passing comments, rhetorical questions, and facial muggings. The audience are spoken to, conferred with and confided in, and more importantly their responses are acknowledged. Consequently the timing, placing or even the inclusion of some these asides to the room will vary from gig to gig; as will the amount of additional material and the moments of pure improvisation.
NOW AND THEN
Stand-up comedy therefore has two agendas - performing prepared material; plus all the business of delivering it to this audience on this particular occasion.
This double agenda has been described by comedian Ken Dodd as Then and Now. "A funny thing happened to me on my way to the theatre (Then). Oh yes! You can laugh, Mrs. And I wish the rest of you would."(Now).
The 'Now agenda' defines stand-up comedy. To deal with the ‘Now’ and assist with just about everything else, it’s important to have at least a competency badge in two basic clown techniques.
MUGGING and MIMICRY
The outrageous costume and antics of a walkabout clown create a range of immediate reactions: most often adults point and smile, children laugh, and toddlers are traumatised or burst into tears. Clowns thrive in this state of affairs. They happily drop their token business and start to improvise, switching playfully between two distinct modes of expression - Mimicry: aping, ridiculing, and generally sending up their subjects; and Mugging: Sharing with the audience little comic cameos of their own feelings via looks, double takes and visual asides. The greater the response, the more opportunity for creative play - re-working the familiar and experimenting with the immediate. The initial skills displayed, such as Juggling and riding a unicycle are abandoned, serving no more purpose than an excuse to perform.
CORPSING and timing the corpse
Corpsing - the suppressed giggle - is an important sub-genre of mugging, a simple ‘Now' technique that can assist a performer in all sorts of situations. While introducing a joke or funny story, the well-timed corpse can build expectation - “I'm almost laughing just thinking about telling this story." After a punchline, a corpse can mark time while the audience laughter subsides "Yes. That was so funny, I can understand why you're still laughing".
Clearly it's a deceit at the edge of reality and should be used sparingly, although not everyone believes that; there's always one isn't there? Billy Connolly has developed an infectious corpsing style of delivery, which he indulges continually to the extent that it is has become an important element of his core stage persona. You'd have to see his live act several times to say how much is random and how much is embedded in routine. Its effect however is to establish and sustain a very engaging 'now' performance.
KAY AT HOOD
At Hood Fayre in the early eighties, the Fool, Jonathan Kay was introduced on to the main cabaret stage. It was a long walk from the wings to the microphone stand and it took him several minutes. He stopped on entering and waited for the spotlight to find him; then he grinned and acknowledged the audience. He was then drawn to the edge of the stage by someone giggling in the front row. He mimicked them and mugged his thoughts to the rest of the audience. He mimed questions, translated answers and suggested scenarios all without saying a word. By the time he’d reached the mic and finally spoke, he had the crowd believing that some of those in the front row were half asleep having danced all night, some were stoned, one was sulking because their tent had collapsed, another was shy, one was coming on to him and several more were up for anything because they’d been drinking competitively. There was laughter at every gesture and expression and at every familiar reference. Laughter at his delicacy, daring, lightness of touch, impishness, sense of mock propriety; and laughter at being reminded of the simple joy of creative play.
FRANKIE HOWERD / MUGGING
All successful performers use scaled down versions of these basic techniques. Mugging is an elegant shorthand for expressing who you are and what you feel. At his best, Frankie Howerd’s mugging was masterful – Attitude encapsulated in a veritable armoury of salacious lip-puckering glances, eyebrow-raising asides, pleas for sympathy and looks of world–weary resignation to the room.
A performer has so many opportunities to 'Address the Now' and establish their relationship with the audience; appropriately dealing with hecklers, commenting on the price of the beer, the state of the venue plus external noises and other interruptions; Such things are gifts to a stand-up comedian. To be seen to be genuinely improvising and doing it with attitude, an audience are yours for as long as you want them; yours to lose.
Sometimes, there are those occasions, when an audience has something on their collective mind - an external event that so demands attention - A big news story, the death of a national figure, a local taboo freshly revealed. A failure to acknowledge can nullify the potency of a live performance. For the comedian that is a dereliction of duty.
Conversely when an audience is addressed about something it shares but is otherwise unexpressed, stand-up comedy can get very interesting, dangerous even; and depending on the subtlety of the comment, and the potency of the subject, these occasions can turn shamanic.
Stage time and making mistakes
Stand-up comedy's peculiar route to professional status has similarities with other potentially get-rich-quick vocations like football, acting or pop music. One fundamental difference however, is that stand-up comedians gain precious little from training and rehearsal. They have to be out there in front of an audience larking about and experimenting. There is no other way for a stand-up to discover the essential attitude that will inform their unique stage persona. It's all in the doing of it.
Standing on stage in front of a live audience is a situation that appears to trigger a sort of strategic identity crisis. In order merely to survive, various sides of our personality come to our assistance. However idiosyncratic or inappropriate these minority personalities appear to be, they should all be given an audition.
Attitude cannot be selected off the peg and successfully donned or adopted. Attitude is a peculiar expression of personality under pressure. It is integral. It needs to be owned by the original owner. Someone else's attitude or one borrowed from the local gene pool will prove to be highly inappropriate at times of crisis.
If any theatrical analogy is to be drawn then it comes from the understanding that the essential driving force of a play is the dramatic conflict based in character; similarly the essential impetus of a stand-up comedy act lies in the juxtaposition of expressions of attitude.
How we recognise and then express these sides of our personality; how we assemble an individual palette of available emotional states; how we learn to switch seamlessly from one to another; and how we laugh at ourselves and the world around us; is the stuff of discovering our own unique range of Attitude.
Often comedians will give each other feedback on material but rarely mention attitude. Maybe to discuss Attitude is to get a bit too personal? In a workshop situation when we ask a group to give feedback on an individual's performance, the first question is always, "Who are they up there?" There is always a reticence from the group. But we are not asking what are they like in the bar or in private conversation, but who are they under pressure? Who do they become when they are faced with a live audience? What revamped parts of themselves do they show us? This is not a wholly personal question. It is distanced by the act of performance - of being in performance mode.
Some comedians display defensive personality traits, which they don't recognise or if they do, they refuse to investigate. Although this sort of self-deception can complicate real life, in a stage career it can be a long-term waste of valuable time and energy. A performer who is not owning and exploring those parts of their defensive personality is really doing things the hard way. Discovering your comic Attitude can be having the nous, humility and imagination to do it the easy way.
Every apologetic wince, intimidated nervous tic or pedantic repetition might just be the personality trait that leads to the discovery of a unique comic attitude. The essential curl from one expression of self into the next.
The joke with its familiar set-up and punch, exists in the juxtaposition of two complementary expressions of attitude, dormant in the first instance and consummated in the second. The essential curl of 'comic' attitude from one to the other can reveal the individual's performance truth. How subtle or blatant the revelation, is a matter of style and of personal choice.
And it's only while speaking to you here tonight, that I have realised just how interesting I am. (Arnold Brown)
Engaging and mildly patronising into quirky and egotistical.
I shouldn't really be here tonight, not with my material. (Rory Motion)
Lack-lustre and distracted into honest and self-deprecating.
How are you all? Enjoying yourselves? As if I give a fuck! (Ian Cognito)
Routine and perfunctory into blunt and provocative.
A comedian's favourite joke (one that they insist on keeping in their act) may often be a key to their comic attitude and an expression of their essential performance truth.
How d'you get a nun pregnant? Fuck her!
knowingly in bad taste into gratuitously crass and obvious.
An anti-joke, with a stark truth, demolishing our expectation of something cleverer. It says a lot about the blunt, cynical throwaway, 'What you see is what you get' attitude of the late Malcolm Hardie. That he continued 'not to give a toss', and told this joke regularly even though his audience had been shouting out the punchline ahead of him for years, only underlines the point.
Den Levett and I have developed a very useful workshop exercise, which explores two if not more fundamentals of stand-up comedy - Timing and Attitude. It involves standing up in performance mode and exposing your inner nerd to the rest of the group. You just have to go on about something you know thoroughly or intimately. It doesn't necessarily have to be something useful like 'how to apply a tourniquet'; it can be something you have never given voice to before like a bunch of brief cameo descriptions of all your aunts on your mother's side. The idea is to get on a roll with it and lose yourself in it. Once we had an actual train spotter and he was a corker. Over a period of three days and without much encouragement he seized the opportunity and delivered the goods. In the initial exercises he was seen as amiable, earnest, honest, pedantic, slightly awkward and prone to bluster when excited. When 'a bit of a mad professor' was mentioned, he took it on board and started performing as if he was giving a lecture. Gregory had never been on a stage before and he may choose never to again, but in a ten minute showcase performance he took a studio theatre audience of thirty people giggling through the history of Britain's railways on the 12.08 from Kings Cross to Edinburgh (with a 17 minute fuel stop) and imparting more esoteric information than any of us could handle. The curl of his comic attitude - that his serious bureaucratic façade could never contain his passion and enthusiasm - revealed him as intelligent, endearing and intriguingly dotty. We ended up loving him almost as much he loved his subject.
Many successful comedians can remember a moment of enlightenment when they discovered the key to their Comic Attitude and like all personal quests; the Holy Grail is just as likely to be stumbled upon accidentally as it is by dogged experimentation.
Some performers have a comic attitude based in a very limited range of personal voices; some adopt characters - a type they know well and can inhabit with ease or invest with irony and perform with a broad-brush stroke of a style. Comedians can often reveal bizarre alter egos when experimenting with character.
Logan Murray is a good-looking youngish comedian, engaging, witty and with a penchant for the outrageous and left field image. For many years he has worked as a jobbing stand-up comedian plus doing occasional seasons of playing one half of the double act Bib and Bob with Jerry Sadowitz. His best work though, is in the character of Ronnie Rigsby, a cynical foul-mouthed MC from hell, with fifty years at the bottom end of show biz behind him and nothing to show for it but utter contempt. What makes Ronnie Rigsby the funniest character act on the London circuit, is Murray's control over the character's excesses and the intelligence of his continual deconstruction of what he's doing. Ronnie Rigsby is an ageless, media-savvy, post-mod creation just as likely to sneer and quote Chomsky as to slag off a minor 1930’s variety act. The curl of the comic attitude starts with half-arsed efforts to present a professional face, degenerates quickly into hollow apologies and ends with lewdness, insult and couldn't give-a-fuckery. With this dynamic Logan Murray has developed considerable space to improvise and explore further, as well as expressing his, and alter ego Ronnie Rigsby's feelings about the state of show business and of course the state of the world.
Further sessions will feature ATTITUDE informs MATERIAL, STRUCTURE - Giving it form, Word play - Puns and Wit, Rule of three, Clichés, Taboo and Truth. Personal Argot. Texture and Technique.
*Corpsing - derivation
In Victorian times, in low-budget touring theatre, the actor manager (usually a barnstorming old ham) playing the Shakespearean lead role, would be left standing in the last act, downstage centre, booming out his final speech. Strewn all round him were his cast, in the minor roles, slaughtered, playing dead, bored, thinking about last orders down the pub and presumably suppressing fits of giggling. Hence the corpses were corpsing.