Thank you all for your responses last week about the possible expansion of this newsletter into a two-tier system, one for free subscribers and one for paid, and your ideas for the various different things you might like to see in an “evolved” version of what this newsletter offers for you all. It was lovely to hear all your thoughts. This is an ongoing idea I’m mulling over, and not something I really know how to do just yet, but your thoughts may well help me to figure out the right approach. I’m really proud of having built a large, engaged community through this newsletter, and have no intention of fragmenting it by splitting it into those with money to throw around and those without. I’m keen to find some kind of model that preserves what this place means and offers to people without putting it behind a paywall, but also opens up further ideas, discussions, opportunities etc for those willing to join a community that’s more directly engaged with each other’s creative projects. We will see. Watch this space. Frankly, I’m currently so tired and burnt-out that I might need to take a few weeks off from writing the newsletter full stop, so maybe I’ll use that time to work out exactly how I’d like it to work in general, but fear not, the Therapy Tapes will continue to exist and will remain free! I’ll just be working out whether or not to launch a separate strand alongside it.
Long Feedback Loops
Anyway, onto this week’s thoughts. A couple of weeks ago I performed a couple of work-in-progress performances of a brand new show at the Pleasance – a big thank you to them for having me, and to the audience for coming along to see what I’d been cooking up. I enjoyed the shows a lot, but they confirmed something I’d suspected in my gut for a while – 2024 will be another year in which I don’t make a new live show. The fire isn’t there. The ideas are fun, I enjoyed them, and I can see the potential in them, and the audience were enthusiastic about them too, pointing me in various different directions of where they thought it could go from these early stages. I thanked them for their enthusiasm and went along with their suggestions and ideas, all of which were great, but I already knew it in my stomach – none of these ideas were going to turn into a live show within this “cycle” (which I suppose is measured, broadly speaking, August to August, Edinburgh Fringe to Edinburgh Fringe). The excitement, the enthusiasm, the certainty of “Yes, THIS is the project I will throw my weight behind this year,” hadn’t materialised.
It was quite a satisfying feeling – at various times this year, and in this newsletter, I’ve been sitting with the frustration of moving into a world of work where you lose a lot of the control you once had over your creative output. Suddenly, it’s no longer solely up to you whether you get to make stuff, and on what timeframe that stuff emerges out into the world. You shut yourself away, you do a Walden (keep meaning to read Walden because I’ve been told I am a “Thoreau Bro”), you give your time and focus to long-form projects which take a hell of a long time to gestate, and you sit with the pain of losing that control. I won’t lie, it’s been a hard year. I can’t believe it’s October already and, while I’ve written and developed more stuff than I’ve ever done in a year before, I currently have nothing tangible to show for the time I’ve put in. A part of me feels like this year has been a bit of a failure, but I know that’s a very negative part of myself speaking, the part that demands validation, results, instantaneous reward, and can’t see the value in a long feedback loop. I’m trying my hardest to shut that guy up, because he is NO GOOD for me. But he is loud.
So sometimes I’ve considered going back to the live scene, or leaning in more to the online scene – places where you can have an idea, make it, and put it in front of people and get instantaneous feedback. That instant feedback can feel encouraging, but I’ve realised that for the time being, neither of those are things that light a fire under me and make me think “Yes, THIS is it” in the same way that writing scripts or making films or recording radio shows does. So, while the ideas from those Pleasance shows may turn into something at some point in the future, for now what it’s done is put me back in alignment with my heart, which I’m very grateful for.
A feedback loop, if you’re struggling to work out what I’m talking about
Why Make A Show?
So, with that in mind, this week I thought I’d share the big question I’ve been asking of comedians when I’ve been working with them on their live shows as a director or dramaturg in recent months. It’s a question I was able to answer definitively for myself after those Pleasance previews, and I think it’s a crucial question when you’re making live work:
Why do you want to make this show specifically? Actually, scratch that, why do you want to make a show full stop?
It often throws people when I ask it, because it reveals to them that one of the core places they’ve been operating from creatively is actually an assumption, and that’s that making a new live show every year is in itself a valuable and useful thing to do. For most comedians, the reason they make shows every year is because there is a big festival every year where comedians make shows. I no longer believe this is a good reason to make a show. Does the festival exist because comedians make shows for it, or do comedians make shows because the festival exists? It’s become an ouroboros, and I think it’s really important for comedians to identify what their own authentically-felt reason for making a show is before they do too much work on it. October, then, is a good time to be asking yourselves this question, if it’s something you’re considering for next year.
If you have a specific idea in mind, why is a live comedy show the correct form in which to express that idea? If you don’t have a specific idea in mind, then why is a live comedy show the form you want to adopt in order to find your way towards an idea?
Sometimes the replies people give me are variations on “Because Edinburgh,” but with more specifics – “Because I want to get this theatre transfer, or get a tour, or get a good critical response from these sorts of journalists,” but it can take people longer to step outside of those external factors and identify something they really connect with. Why do you want to make a show? And why do you want to make this show? What are you actually trying to say to an audience? What are you actually trying to say to yourself?
One of the best answers I ever got was from the brilliant Rob Copland, whose show Mainstream Muck. Gimme Some Of That won the Comedians’ Choice Award for Best Show last year (good award, that). As anyone who’s seen Rob will know, his shows tend to be full of madcap, unpredictable, chaotic lunacy, to the extent that you could be forgiven for watching them and thinking “What the hell is going on?” Rob once approached me for advice on Mainstream Muck and, in discussing what he wanted the show to actually say, he mentioned that “The world doesn’t make sense to me, so why should my show make sense to other people?” I thought this was brilliant – it was such a clear statement of intent, and it showed me exactly why he wanted to make this show. It didn’t mean that the show suddenly needed to have a grand theme or narrative or an emotional message, it simply demonstrated to me that there was a centre and an engine to the show that was truthful, and an element of Rob needing to make this show, rather than just wanting to make it for other’s approval.
I recognise the same pattern in my own work – all the shows I made purely because I thought that “making a show” was “what comedians did” are the ones I look back at as either vague misfires, or as promising seeds that could have grown into something more accomplished. The shows I’m genuinely proud of – Mr Fruit Salad and Blink – are the ones where I went into them with the certainty that there was something I needed to hear in them, that I could only fully assimilate by making them. With one, I was trying to heal myself from a time when I was in pain, by channelling it into something silly. With the other, I was trying to forgive myself for the parts of me that I found difficult to acknowledge – ego, shame, the need for control. For whatever reason, because of how I’m wired, the only way I could see to internalise those lessons was to create something where I got to tell myself that message every day. I think at this stage in the Edinburgh cycle, if you’re thinking of going, it’s a really good time to be asking yourself the same question – what do you want your show to teach you about yourself? What do you want it to teach audiences about themselves? You don’t need a big, grand answer that you monologue about at the end of the show, but I think it will help you if you find some kind of answer, that your show can carry around like a secret.
Let me know what you come up with, I’d love to hear all your thoughts on all this! As for me, I’m going to continue unlearning the habits of a lifetime by not committing to another live show myself this year, but I am available for directing and consultancy on other people’s shows, so feel free to drop me a line if you think any of this sounds interesting and/or useful and you’d like to discuss things in more detail! I may have one more slot for a full-time directing project for the year, and have plenty of room for a looser arrangement of occasional notes and creative consultancy sessions, so if you have an idea for a show that you think I might be a good fit for, drop me a line!
A Cool New Thing In Comedy – Do you know what, I don’t know anything about this show, but multiple people I really trust and respect keep recommending a clown show called Furiozo which is on at the Museum of Comedy in November. Apparently it was a bit of a sleeper hit at the Fringe this year, and I’ve heard enough people raving about it that perhaps it should be on all our radars!
What’s Made Me Laugh The Most – Eggerson Keaveney, by Jazz Emu and Sam Campbell, which was screened at the Paddock this week. Jazz Emu’s videos are always great fun, but this is something else.
Book Of The Week – Just started Madeline Miller’s The Song Of Achilles, which is brill. I love all that old Greek stuff.
Album Of The Week – This section isn’t always for the best album I’ve heard this week, so this time I’m giving it to Roger Waters’ The Dark Side Of The Moon (Redux), in which he recreates one of the greatest albums of all time without the other members of Pink Floyd. It’s a fascinating study in narcissism. You’d think it’d be hard to make these songs boring and bad, especially if you wrote them, but he manages it. My favourite bits are the moments where Gilmour’s guitar solos would normally be, which Waters has replaced with long ambient passages over which he reads letters from his dead friends that he used to go fishing with. The whole thing is absolute garbage.
Film Of The Week – Still not seen any films! Soz. Been busy. Maybe this week.
That’s all for this week! As ever, let me know what you all thought, and if you enjoy the newsletter enough to recommend it to a friend or encourage others to subscribe, I’d hugely appreciate it!
Take care of yourselves until next time, and all the best,
PS Here’s me hanging out with my good friend Death