As I mentioned in last week’s Tape, I’m crawling back into Input Mode, where I start to take in ideas that might eventually turn into Output projects, having just put two big long-form projects to bed. As such, the Tapes are probably set to become a bit more free-wheeling and all over the place and less concerned with tracking the progress of specific creative projects, but that suits me pretty well because I prefer them that way. I prefer exploring stuff to selling stuff. Anyway, this week I’m toying with the idea of moving further away from the idea of making work centred on my own personal narrative, inspired, oddly enough, by a board game called Spirit Island.
My big mantra for Input Mode, which I try to follow whenever I’m in one of those in-between stages trying to work out what to put my energy into next, just goes:
Pay attention to what your curiosity moves towards, and what your enjoyment comes from. If you orient yourself between those two poles, you’ll be fine.
With that in mind, Miranda and I played Spirit Island for the first time on Sunday, and I now can’t stop playing it or, worryingly, thinking about it, regardless of whether or not I’m playing by myself (it’s designed with this option in mind, it’s not as sad as it sounds. Or maybe it is, but I don’t really care, I’m having fun with it). I have become dangerously obsessed with it. The premise is that you’re defending an island from colonialist invaders, playing as any combination of the nature spirits that protect the island, like Pocahontas or Moana or something. The repeatability of it is all to do with the fact that whichever spirit, or combination of spirits, you choose to play as will completely change the strategy you’d use to play and the methods you’d pursue in order to win, so that there are feasibly dozens of different games you can play with the one basic setup and set of rules. The extent of my burgeoning obsession with it has reminded me of the similar obsession I developed during lockdown of revisiting a bunch of choose-your-own-adventure gamebooks I played when I was a kid. When I was a kid I just enjoyed the experience of going on an adventure, but replaying them as an adult I found I became fascinated with them on a structural game-design level, with the way your increasing familiarity with a book meant that you could create and manage completely different playing experiences based on the paths you chose to explore, the risks you chose to take, the style of play you chose to pursue.
What’s all this got to do with making comedy? The connection is the best show I saw at the Edinburgh Fringe this year, the phenomenal work.txt. The show had no performers and was performed instead by the audience, forcibly filtered into self-selecting groups by instructions projected onto the back wall, so that some dialogue was only delivered by audience members who identified as freelancers, others by audience members who identified as coffee drinkers, others by audience members who identified as early risers, and so on. The choices the audience made about themselves decided how they became involved in the show and what role they ended up playing in the broader narrative, which explored our relationship with the concept of work. I was absolutely dumb-founded by it, by the sense of being able to simulate a self-sufficient community within the context of a live audience that then commented on the functionality of communities themselves in a story that telescoped ultimately beyond humanity’s lifespan to an imagined infinite future. I was left feeling very very small and shattered and grateful and appreciative of it. My tiny life had been given a huge injection of meaning by the context of this incredible theatrical experiment. I’ve found that experience has started filtering through into the kinds of comedic ideas I’m trying to play with going forwards, and it seems to be mirrored by the kinds of interest I’m taking in my leisure time as well, the kinds of entertainment that capture my attention and don’t let it go.
Moving Away From Personal Narratives
Broadly speaking (and I’ve talked about this in the Therapy Tapes a lot), I became bored of making shows centred on personal narratives in 2017. I felt I no longer had any interest in saying anything about myself, because I had become fundamentally bored by every story I had to tell about myself, so why should I presume an audience would feel any different? The trouble was, the centre of the creative impulse was, for me, always still a case of needing to communicate to an audience how I felt – how could I find a way to do that if I was basically deciding that standing on stage and telling my story was something that now bored me? My solution was to make shows centred on a feeling, and shattering that feeling into a thousand pieces that were then reflected or refracted back at the audience through the lens of an overarching concept. A feeling of isolation and fear was refracted into the Mr Fruit Salad show, and I hope spoke to the parts of its audience that also felt isolated and afraid. A feeling of paranoia and need for control in the wake of the pandemic was refracted into Blink, and I hope spoke to the parts of its audience that also felt paranoid and out of control. Autobiographical detail in both shows was stripped back to the bare minimum, to give the audience only the details they needed in order to understand the feeling I was trying to communicate, not the extraneous detail I would need if I were actually trying to tell the story at the heart of both shows.
Now I find myself wondering about taking some cues from work.txt and going even further in that direction by making a show even more theatrical than usual, where the ways in which the audience chooses to engage with a show, and the types of experience they want to have with it, fundamentally changes what the show is from performance to performance. I’m currently trying out an idea live that involves exploring the negative space in between an audience’s laughter (inspired by Cornelia Parker’s recent exhibition at the Tate and her own experiments in negative space), by sculpting the audience’s own enjoyment and engagement with the idea into a physical shape which then becomes the shape of the routine itself. Lee Griffiths at Soho Theatre also helped me to recently stumble my way into another idea that could eventually become a show, in the form of an escalating system in which I use promises made to an audience, and their promises made in return, as bargaining chips to buy my way onto the property ladder. The working title is Joz Norris Buys A House (With Your Money), and it feels like an interesting structure on which to explore a lot of my own feelings of anger and frustration and shame and disappointment at the property and rental market, the economy, and capitalism as a whole, while disguising all of that in a game essentially played by the audience, choosing how to engage with the structures and rules I’ve put in place in order to curate their own experience.
It all feels like fairly lofty, ambitious stuff for the time being, and God knows if it’ll turn into anything, or how long that’ll take, but then this is exactly the kind of thing I created Dinner Time for (which launches tonight at the Glitch on Lower Marsh!) It’s a space for Miranda and Ben and me to try out new thoughts without fear of results-based judgement, with the engaged input of a generous audience to help shape the process. If there’s a better space in which to explore the concept of user-generated comedy-theatre, I don’t know what it is! Maybe see some of you there if you fancy it!
A Cool New Thing In Comedy – String v Spitta, the late-night kids-party mayhem show from Kiell Smith-Bynoe and Ed MacArthur, is on at Soho Theatre for two Hallowe’en specials this week and I’ve heard it’s brilliant.
What’s Made Me Laugh The Most – It’s Don’t Hug Me I’m Scared again, because it’s been a cornerstone of the comedy I’ve been watching over the last few weeks. This time it was the Duck singing “What about my shredder?” in episode 6.
Book Of The Week – Make Time: How To Focus On What Matters Every Day by Jake Knapp and John Zeratsky. This is like Cal Newport’s Deep Work but much less interesting or thoughtful. It’s teaching me that writing down what you want to do in a list will help you to do it. Shocker. It’s fine, basically.
Album Of The Week – If I Should Fall From Grace With God by the Pogues. I didn’t know “Fairytale Of New York” was on an album! I thought it was a Christmas single! What a delight to stumble across it on a whole album! Great album anyway, “Fairytale Of New York” isn’t even the best song on it by that big a margin. “Thousands Are Sailing” is also very, very good.
Film Of The Week – Not got round to seeing any this week. Lock me up and throw away the key!
That’s all for this week! As ever, if you’ve enjoyed the newsletter, I’d love it if you shared it with a friend or encouraged others to subscribe! Take care of yourselves, and catch you next time,
PS Did some filming this week for a very exciting project from Matthew Highton, Briony Redman, Richard Soames and Rufus Hound and think it’s something they should be very proud of. Here they are gearing up for the final scene.