The venue is dark with couches facing different angles and Beat magazines strewn across low tables. It has a student accommodation feel: grungy with miss matched furniture. Spilling out from the arms of some of the couches is yellowing foam. It’s like the couches have been injured, the wound is fatal and an ambulance should have been called hours ago. There is a fetid smell of late nights and spilt drinks. Dim light is cast from a few lamps with old fashioned tasseled shades on them. Most of the shades are tilted slightly, like the lamps have had one too many bourbons. It is a cavernous space, with a long bar at one side, the stools are haunted by barflies.
‘That venue is going to be great,’ I say to four year old Jess, as we leave.
Jess is steadily licking on an ice cream from Trampoline. ‘Really mummy will work wonders in a venue like that.’
The triple choc frenzy double scoop begins to melt as Jess smiles up at me.
On opening night of my Fringe Show – North By North East the 20/20 summit we had to have, the venue is exactly the same as when I had booked it. No exceptions, no changes, just a slight upward shift of the chin from the owner – ‘Probably do your show over there, the mic is plugged in.’ Ticket sales were slow, one stranger has bought a ticket, the rest were friends or complimentary.
I launch into a monologue about growing up in North East England. There are people coming in and out of the venue, my mate who is on door has no success in asking people to buy a ticket.
Some punters have come there to sit with substance abuse noddy heads on a couch. They nod ,they nod, they nod to sleep.
About half an hour into the show a busker sets up outside.The busker begins playing, loud, thudding, discordant drums.
I keep going with my long monologue about growing up in North East England, travelling in Europe and my loneliness when I arrive in Australia.
The ‘audience’ consists of my dad, my step mother and two of their friends who are over from Canberra. Their friends look at me with open pity.
On another couch is a friend of mine. My friend sucks hard on her drink through her straw, she focuses her whole attention on the sucking, her cheeks are concave with the effort, she doesn’t look at me, she just keeps on sucking.
The Fringe season is 11 shows over 3 weeks. I go home after the first nights’ show and fall into a deep dreamless sleep. I get up the next day, take the kids to school and crèche,then go to work. Around 5 o’clock as I am begin to make dinner, my head makes room for the fact that I have to go back to the badly lit bar, to the busker who drums, to the punters who are there for the chat and a beer, to the very poor tickets sales and do the whole thing all over again.
I get two reviews:
‘..if Sless is having some kind of mid life crisis, then I wished she had just driven off on a red sports car rather than putting us all through this.’
Online review by John Bailey:
“Sless had a book of bad poems she’d written as a teenager. She gave them to an audience member and asked her to read one out loud at random. It was nicely emo and angsty …the whole idea of letting your teenaged self be humiliated by someone else was a great touch.”
It feels like I have come to a very dark place, almost as dark as the bar I’m doing the show in, the furnishings in my mind are grim and derelict, I feel a heaviness, a dead weight in my head and throughout my whole body. I have sunk once more into the inferno that is comedy hell.
There are different categories that you can list a Melbourne Fringe show under: dance, , comedy, children’s theatre.
Mine was listed under comedy. If there had been a category : ‘experimental therapy session in front of paying audience:’ I so would have ticked that box.
I had dug myself into a deep death by comedy hole. Each night I spoke as if in a trance. I watched in agony the expressions of friends and family become heavy with pity and embarrassment. Here’s some of my schtick:
My parents had divorced when I was two. Access weekends were a guilt-ridden sojourn into my dad’s bachelor life, he drove an MG sports car, and there was the parade of women.
My step dad collected first and second world war paraphernalia, he was mad for it: bits of shrapnel, medals, helmets, all neatly cataloged and stored in museum type drawers.
He also collected Beatles cups, plates, fist edition Let it Be albums. “This” he would look around and gesture grandly “This will all be worth something one day.”
He alphabetized his vast vinyl collection. He chronologically ordered his books, row after row of history books relating to every aspect of the two wars.
My sister took an active dislike to my step dad. His response to her as she got older was to ground her for longer and longer periods of time. My step dad’s response to her disobeying his rules was to slam doors and go on week long silence campaigns. That my step dad did not talk for so long was at once powerful and strangely terrifying.
We lived in North East England, where ships had once been built, steel forged and coal mined. As Thatcher’s rule began to hammer harder, the industries crumbled, so too our lives behind the ex miners cottage door began to disintegrate.
My Fringe show contained an hours worth of personal history spewed out in a voice that I hoped would sound ironic and pithy, but instead came out as, boring, monotone and very tedious.
By week 3 I asked the drummer boy to hold off until 9:30pm, created a comedy engagement strategy based on years of community development work.
Community development workers love butchers paper and the whiff of a texta, so why wouldn’t a Fringe audience?
Wearing my best non threatening foot wear I plunge into week 3 and transform the show into a strategic planning exercise. It frees me from the script, throws me into strategic planning mode, the life blood of the not for profit sector and easily translated into a comedy nugget. I do a mapping exercise about how I get from North East England to Australia via Europe. A SWOT analysis of living in Australia compared to England. I give out lollies and one liners to keep things moving along:
‘If by the age of 4 your child has not had head lice, then you aren’t getting them out the house often enough’
Take home crumbs:
When you write a joke you have to give everything to the audience, the set up, the story and the punch line.
You can’t give them a dot dot dot space where they need to fill in the blanks.
You are the comedian and have to pay it.
You have to take the audience on a journey come out somewhere unexpected and remain in control the whole time.
Then if your material isn’t good enough, you need a Plan B.
Take home crumbs
When you watch well established comedians you know that they are pulling on a compendium of jokes, years of stored up material that can be put into any situation, five minutes spots, corporate gigs, MC roles, all of it making them look smooth as.
I had seen Tom Gleeson in a comedy room tell a story about a camping trip. You could see that he’d told the story a million times, but what made it fresh was his delivery. He knew the audience would enjoy it as well. He took us on a long circuitous route to the pay off. Along the way building his rapport with the audience, he was in control and the audience had confidence in him from the get go.
A skilled comedian will deliver something that you don’t expect and Tom delivered.
The difference with my ‘story telling’ was because I didn’t get the response from the audience that I expected and lacked the skill to know why, I had no where to go, so I sank. Each line bringing me further and further down. The audience knew I was lost so they responded by just sitting there looking middle distance, not wanting to catch my eye, or they just left.
I thought that being under the umberela of a festival was a force field of protection.
I didn’t know that that some of the venues listed by festivals offer a space, no more, no less and that some venue owners have zero interest in performers intentions. I understood so little about venues, lighting and seating and wasn’t brazen enough till three weeks into the show to ask the busker to drum a little quieter, wasn’t bold enough to ask the guy who ran the venue to turn up the lights.
The final week of the show, I come to terms with the fact that I am a novice, that I have made some very bad errors of judgment of my own comedy capacity. The reviews I got were stinging. The place I was in by the end of week two was a comedic dead end. The furnishings were appalling, the effort it took to do the show each night was hard, watching the expression on my friends faces was embarrassing. Watching audience members walk out and some fall asleep on a student accommodation style couches was truly excruciating. But as dark and dingy as this place was I still wanted to master the beguiling beast that is comedy. I still wanted to stand there to do it and get it right. And I sure as hell wasn’t going to make this my last gig, what a way to bow out.
Crumbs from other comics
Crumbs from other comics
I saw a comedian at a comedy room who read from a bit of paper, but instead of looking sheepish about it he sneered at the audience and said “This is how contemptuous I am of youse all. I haven’t event learnt my script.”
I was too terrified to look at the audience, never mind tell them I was contemptuous of them.
I didn’t get the a sense of closure I was hoping for at the end of North by North East the 20 20 summit we had to have like I did with the prawn show.
My journey from North East England, then hitching through Europe, weren’t morphed into a Joni Mitchell lyric from the Hejira album.The relationship with my step dad didn’t getironed out into a Brady Bunch moment.
I live in a Northern Suburb of Melbourne called Preston, it’s an unassuming place, with very few redeeming features. I am 41 years old. My husband has no interest in what happens on the pages of my notebooks and how that gets translated into being funny . I am in this continual labyrinth,this conundrum of making sense of humour.
My kids are too little, I think, for me to hit the comedy rooms every night. I am a diligent housewife and mother, first a wanna be comedian second. It brings about a constant struggle – a battle of desire versus duty.
It’s November 2008. I have done 3 new solo shows in one year. I feel like a dam has burst and no amount of duty can stop the flow.
I am compelled, though really it feels more addicted to make itwork and do comedy every day. I wake very morning lamenting my own misfortune for having found comedy. It is the monkey on my shoulder, it is the puzzle with too many missing pieces, it is the thing I want to understand, to unravel, to conquer and succeed at.
I keep writing. I keep performing, in bars, at gigs and in my head.
There are themes that keep emerging: domesticity, the not for profit sector, the mundanity of suburbia,the kitchen bench, the kids, the dishes, the marriage.
I click on the link to register for 2009 Melbourne International Comedy Festival.