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Joz Norris


Tape 36: Cutting Through & Protecting Yourself

  • Tape 36: Cutting Through & Protecting Yourself

“Cutting Through”

I’ve been thinking a lot about making shows for the Edinburgh Fringe recently, so this newsletter might be of particular interest to those readers who are fellow writer-performers, but hopefully it’ll have some broader ideas in it which might be of interest to all of you. I’ve been discussing the making of shows, and the process of taking them to Edinburgh, with quite a few different performers, writers, artists and other creative types recently, and have started to notice something that a lot of us seem to be preoccupied by that I’m starting to find concerning.

As a lot of you will know, the Edinburgh Fringe did go ahead this year, in a massively scaled-back form, and all those who went up seemed to really enjoy taking part in the Fringe in a way that had none of the media scrutiny or pressure to “succeed” that normally comes with it, simply doing it on their own terms and pursuing smaller, more creative goals. It looked really nice and a part of me was envious to have not been involved, but at the time it was being booked I simply wasn’t ready in my head to go back to performing live. For a little while now, I’ve had a low-lying dread that next year’s Fringe won’t take forward the lessons of this year’s. Rather than maintaining a renewed focus on sustainable creativity and artistic development, I’ve feared that it’ll be a super-charged return to the high-pressured, media-frenzy-trade-fair Fringes of old. Some of the conversations I’ve had with people have borne this out.

There’s been a lot of talk about “cutting through,” which is a phrase I’m quite suspicious of. It inherently subscribes to the theory that the creative industries resemble a ladder, and progress up it is reliant on unlocking some sort of mythical “Level Two,” which is a kind of thinking that runs counter to the truth – that the creative industries are just a vast collection of people doing interesting stuff, and figuring it out as they go. A number of performers have told me they’re hoping to really double down on this Fringe and apply to the bigger, more industry-friendly “Big Four” paid venues rather than the more independent Pay-What-You-Want venues, and pay for PR, and so on, in pursuit of that most nebulous of goals, “cutting through.”

To be clear – there is nothing inherently wrong with any of that. I had been anti-PR for years before giving it a go in 2019, and lo and behold, hiring someone to do a job for you that helps your show get seen by more people helped my show to get seen by more people. I was very anti-paid venues until this year, and now I find myself working on a show that’s quite technically complex and will probably need to be staged in a paid venue so it can benefit from the more advanced technical infrastructure and support available at those venues. So I myself am one of these acts finding myself making plans to go for a more “professional”-looking package of options at the Fringe next year, because ultimately it makes sense to put what you can in place to help a show find the widest audience it can, and to put it in a space that gives it its best chances of looking and sounding and feeling the way it does in your head. Engaging with these sides of the Fringe is not a bad thing in itself, and I think a lot of the tribalism at the Fringe, and the weaponisation of Pay What You Want-versus-Big Four is often reductive and ignores the fact that different shows require different things. But, just as finding the right venue and putting the right package of support measures in place to help a show do well is an important process, I think far more important is putting support measures in place for yourself, and your reasons for doing all this in the first place.

Thanks to Google for this picture of some scissors “cutting through” a piece of paper. Can you tell that I sometimes struggle to think of what pictures to put in this newsletter?

Protecting Yourself

I ultimately don’t believe that anybody should be making a show in order to “cut through,” whatever that means. “Cutting through” is a phrase entirely to do with external reward and validation, and those things are not, have never been, and never will be, in our control. You can put all the right things in place to help the things you make to do well, and work hard on them and wish them the best, and that’s the extent of what you can do. This might deliver all the material reward and validation you hope for, or it might result in absolutely none of the things you desire coming your way. I’ve seen people go to the Fringe before piling enormous pressure on themselves to have a “hit” show, something that will represent a huge change for them in their careers, and end up quitting comedy less than a year later because the failure of those things to materialise destroyed their faith in the doing of it full stop. Quite simply, if the principle goal for a show is for it to “do well,” and deliver external rewards for the person who made it, then whether or not a show is a success or a failure is entirely outside of that person’s control. The only route to a sustainable creative existence is to choose goals that are within our control. Personally, I think that anybody embarking on a creative project needs to have three, and only three, things in mind when it comes to their desired outcomes:

  1. In what way will this project make me better at the thing I am doing? How will I come away from this project having improved, or learned something about my creative practice?
  2. What things do I want to explore and express in this project that matter to me? These could be new techniques, new approaches, or particular themes or concepts, or particular stories we want to tell. Why do these things matter to me, and what do I want to get out of them?
  3. How do I want my audience, the people who experience this project from the other side, to feel when they come away from it? What sort of experience do I want them to have, and how do I want my ideas to interact with them, or intersect with theirs?

That’s it. There really shouldn’t be anything else. Of course, we all want to do well. We all want to be rewarded and told we’re good, and offered more opportunities to do more stuff. And it’s ok to hope for that. But that external reward really has to be a natural byproduct of our addressing those three points with total sincerity and total dedication. There’s nothing wrong with ambition, but it has to be a product of creativity, rather than the other way around. Creativity, in turn, ought to be a product of curiosity.

If I do end up taking part in the Fringe next year, I’ll do my best to take a leaf out of Ben Target’s book and treat it like a job – to go in each day, to take pleasure in performing my show, and then to remove myself from the scrum, rather than feeling like I have to navigate the social and media frenzy that I’m sure will very much be in the water next year. It remains to be seen whether my ego will get in the way of that, but I write this at least partly as a manifesto to myself over the next year of making a show, so that I keep the right things in mind as I go about working out what I want it to be. I’d love to hear your thoughts on all this too if you’d be happy to share them with me!

Finally, I’m sure most of you have seen this already, but here’s David Bowie making a similar point to what I’ve been going on about above but far more succinctly in one of the best bitesize pieces of advice about creativity ever recorded:

David Bowie on why you should never play to the gallery

A Cool New Thing In Comedy – A handful of shows have been put on early sale for VAULT Festival 2022, including the special Valentine’s week run of Christian Brighty’s very romantic debut show, which I’m sure will be great. Book a ticket!

What’s Made Me Laugh The Most – Sam Nicoresti and Aniruddh Ojha put together a routine for last week’s Weirdos Hallowe’en show Murder At The True Crime Convention about a Youtuber and TikTok star living in a houseshare with a professor of forensics who was obsessed with being a little baby, and then trying to call his dead wife’s ghost, and it was one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen.

Book Of The Week – I’ve just started Tim Etchells’ The Dream Dictionary For The Modern Dreamer for yet more dream researchLiterally only about a page in, but it’s good so far.

Album Of The Week – Time Clocks by Joe Bonamassa. Joe Bonamassa’s ridiculous, he makes 21st century bombastic blues rock and is somehow simultaneously the coolest and least cool man in the entire world. The new album is by-the-numbers Joe, but I really like by-the-numbers Joe, it’s very cool and dumb.

Film Of The Week – Not seen any films, soz, too busy giggin’.

That’s all for this week! As ever, if you wanted to share this newsletter with a friend or encourage people to subscribe, I’d hugely appreciate it. There won’t be a Therapy Tape next week as I’m visiting family in Wales, so have a lovely couple of weeks, look after yourselves, and catch you next time,

Joz xx

PS Here’s a picture of me dressed as the Devil for a cameo in the latest series of Comedy Central’s gameshow Guessable.

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