I think I mentioned it here previously that I’m currently slogging through a funding application for a new live show, and it’s got me thinking about the different creative processes behind different artistic disciplines, so I thought I’d write a bit about that this week. I’ve never pursued funding for a comedy show before, largely because comedy isn’t really subsidised by funding bodies all that much. The logic, I think, is that the entire art-form arbitrarily labelled “comedy” is supposed to be commercially self-sustaining in that it has very small overheads and sells tickets in decent numbers, but this seems a very outmoded and limited understanding of what live comedy can be, and seems to tether it to the old “one person and a mic” mentality. I’m not looking to fund the run of the show itself, because I know how to fund a run at the UK’s comedy festivals culminating in a run at the Edinburgh Fringe – I’ve done it before and know how to make money from it and how to pay my collaborators out of the ticket sales. But the show I’m working on this time isn’t one I can just make by performing it in work-in-progress previews in rooms above pubs. It’s quite a theatrical concept that needs to be previewed in theatrical spaces, and the only way I can think to make it is to rehearse it in a room with my collaborators over a dedicated period of time, and that’s something I’ve not had to do before, and something I’d need to raise money for in order to make sure everyone gets paid for their time (including me).
Since the show I made in 2019, I’ve become more and more interested in making shows that explore imaginative space that isn’t easily labelled as “comedy” or as “theatre” or as “performance art” or whatever else you might want to call it. I’ve been trying to make shows that try to articulate an idea about humanity through absurdist imagery and nonsense and storytelling. It’s a sort of territory that I think a few other comics and artists – Ben Target, Sean Morley, Bryony Kimmings – are helping to explore and build as well, and I’ve been excited to learn more about it and continue discovering things in that territory. The more I learn about this imaginative space, the more I wonder why we ever bother trying to label ourselves as artists in the first place? Why not simply follow the requirements of the idea, and see where that leads, rather than saying to ourselves “I am a comedian, so this idea must emerge as something comic” or “I am a theatre-maker, so this idea must emerge as something theatrical.” Why not simply say “I have had this idea, and I will honour it, and follow it, and discover what it is” and label yourself as nothing other than a performer who stands on a stage and expresses ideas to an audience?
Photo by Alex Hardy
I have friends who work in theatre who simply won’t make work unless it’s funded, because they value the time and work of themselves and their collaborators. This I can respect and admire, but I can’t emulate it. If this funding application gets rejected, this show will still get made. I’ll fall back on the older ways of working I learned from the DIY comedy scene, where you self-fund or beg, borrow and steal, or call in favours, or pay people out of eventual settlements rather than paying them established fees up-front. It’s an approach that prioritises creativity and expression, but devalues time and work. The opposite approach, of scrapping a project if its funding is denied, prioritises the worth and value of the people making it, but devalues the idea, says “This idea is only worth exploring if it’s financially viable for me as an artist to do so.” The truth, surely, must be somewhere in the middle – that comedy projects can benefit from the discipline and the structure and the commitment of theatrical approaches, where formal periods of research and development are embarked upon and people are paid fees for their work; and that theatrical projects can benefit from the independent approach of “I’m going to make this thing because I need to, not because I want to.”
Ultimately, I think we’ve got to stop believing that there are “paths” to follow for any individual artistic discipline – an artistic life is one that inherently involves exploring, trying, re-appraising, sniffing out, experimenting, learning. Rather than telling ourselves “These are the options open to me as comedian” or “These are the options open to me as a theatre-maker,” the best thing is to explore everything that is right for an idea, and letting that idea take shape at its own pace. If this funding application leads me to a new working process where things are more structured and formalised, then that will be an exciting journey to go on. If it doesn’t and I fall back on old methods, then the attempt to explore new ground and present this project to the Arts Council in a shape they can understand will still have taught me a huge amount that can then feed back into the show itself. I think we should all feel less inhibited by the expectations attached to the things we do.
A Cool New Thing In Comedy – One of my favourite comedians, Sam Nicoresti, is performing his wonderful 2019 show UFO at the Soho Theatre. He’s spent the last 18 months adapting it into a really fascinating, genre-bending, exciting audio project and I think has rewritten the live show a fair bit to incorporate some of the ideas from that adaptation process, so even if you saw it back in 2019, it’ll be worth seeing it again.
What’s Made Me Laugh The Most – Found out that my friend Grace can make her top lip vibrate, and tried to learn how to do it myself and ended up nearly sucking my two front teeth out. Laughed like a drain.
Book Of The Week – I just started The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead. It’s great so far but I’m a bit early in to say much about it yet. While I’m here, though, I’m gonna re-recommend Carl Sagan’s Contact, which I started and recommended last week. I’ve finished it now and the ending made me sob, and it’s by some distance my book of the year. Read it. And read The Underground Railroad, it’s also good.
Album Of The Week – I recently found out that Nick Cave released a 3-disc compilation called B-Sides And Rarities back in 2005 and have been making my way through it, which is time-consuming as it’s nearly 4 hours long. But the guy’s endlessly brilliant. This is up there with Tom Waits’s Orphans or Bruce Springsteen’s Tracks in terms of mammoth, expertly curated career retrospectives of forgotten little oddities. I love it.
Film Of The Week – Not seen any films this week. Mea culpa. Blame Nick Cave.
That’s all for this week! Take care of yourselves and, as ever, if you ever want to forward this newsletter to a friend or encourage people to subscribe, it’s hugely appreciated. Have a great week,
PS Here’s a couple of swans I met last week.
PPS If you’re really at a loose and and wanna read more thoughts from me, here’s an interview I did this week for Factually Inaccurate Comedy about failure and finding your way. Enjoy!