March 2010

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Comedy Festival

Tonight, the Melbourne International Comedy Festival begins. 

 

What this means is:

 

The streets are made of paper. There are flyers and posters plastered across every surface from Brunswick to South Melbourne. You can tell what month it is in Melbourne by what colour the walls of The Vegie Bar are. If you see muted blues, dark reds, purples and blacks in your peripheral vision, it's Arts Festival time. Bright colours? The Comedy festival is upon us. If there's a big heap of pastel and everything is bordered by a vine, there's a music festival on somewhere a couple of hours out of town.

 

'Convenience stores' in Swanston Street are about to become restaurants. You know those festering hot dogs and sausage rolls teenagers eat as a dare in exchange for a hundred bucks? Comedians eat those. Deliberately. For dinner. As the healthy option. It's that or a Mars Bar.

 

Evenings are about to get dark earlier. It happens over the course of the festival. At the start, you can't believe shows start as early as six. It's still light at six! By the end, time has taken on a new dimension and you start thinking things like WOW, TIME IS AMAZING. WHY ISN'T THERE AN EXPRESSION IN THE ENGLISH LANGUAGE FOR THE FEELING OF TIME PASSING QUICKLY AND ALSO SLOWLY? MAYBE I WILL WRITE A THESIS ABOUT IT! YEAH! A THESIS! (Did I mention sleep deprivation has an effect on mental processing?) 

 

The other thing? From a hardened cynic like myself? The other thing is: it's so exciting. Walking through the autumnal streets - that little bit chilly but with the sun on your face - you don't know what you're walking towards. Good comedy is so fun to watch. Great comedy transforms you. Discovering good or great comedy before everyone else does? Delicious.

 

I'm hoping for some delicious.

 

Aren't we all?

Sad news

Standing There Productions is shocked and deeply saddened to learn of the death of one of our most valued supporters and friends - the whip-smart, funny, generous and loyal Nicol Beechey.

 I met Nicol Beechey when some of us started a theatre company at  Melbourne University as part of Union House Theatre (although then, in ancient times, it was called the Theatre Department). Nic was the head technician whose job it was to make sure theatre shows were properly planned and managed to standards that ensured safety and efficiency. As a result, many people who worked in the theatre were terrified of her.

 We went to her for help setting things up. She gave us pages of notes, told us a thousand things that could go wrong, told us to communicate with each other and with as many helpful people as possible, and told us that managing expectations was a major part of producing a theatre show on the smell of an oily rag. She taught me a few more things over the years including:

 - If you're serving alcohol at an event, serve twice as much food as you otherwise would. People will have more fun if there's free food than they will if there's heaps of alcohol and not enough food. If you don't have the budget, halve the booze budget. It's worth it. 

 - Profit share (a method of making theatre where the cast and crew agree to work for nothing and share whatever the profit might be) is the least satisfying means of payment since slavery. There is no way everybody can walk away satisfied (see above, expectation management). It leads to arguments and presumptions and interpretations and disappointments and it's also lazy budgeting. You can do better than that. 

 - Tape it down. When Nicol came to see Greatness Thrust Upon Them, our show in the 2008 Melbourne Comedy Festival, she noticed I hadn't taped down the boxes that were on stage the whole time. I told her what I didn't like about the look of taping them down and she told me a way to fix it that fitted in with the creative problems I had with her practical suggestion. She said: it's the problems you don't anticipate that you're trying to anticipate.

 - The theatre experience is about the entire experience. From the difficulty your audience has parking their cars to how comfortable your seats are. It's worth thinking about, so if you don't have time to think about it, you should get help. Fudging it will fool nobody.

 Nicol Beechey's ethos - a no-nonsense aversion to shortcuts and to not thinking things through, while projecting an ethical and concise vision of what our company is - very much shaped The Really Useless Theatre Company and Standing There Productions. Several of us met thanks to Nicol Beechey and I personally wished I could more often get her into a room to frown at my short-sighted guestimations, roll her eyes with a wry smile upon hearing my excuses, and then sit down with me to figure out the problem and get the giggles about how I thought I could possibly get away with what I was originally proposing.

 Nicol met with me regularly over the years and with the rest of the Standing There team to brainstorm the problems that face a small company like ours whose success she had nothing to gain from but to whom she offered ongoing support and critique, often on this page. She came to our shows, wrote me emails in response to my entries on this website (she was furious once when she thought I had backhanded Laurie Anderson) and she emailed and called me frequently from Queensland, where she moved into a job working "with Shrek and Superwoman" at Warner Brothers Movie World.

 Personally, I had the privilege of knowing Nicol as a friend as well as a theatre genius. Beyond her competent can-do approach, she was warmly encouraging, loving, soft-hearted, and gorgeously funny. I placed Nicol pretty high up on my "List of People To Thank When You Win". I'm not sure what it is I was hoping to win (something televised internationally, obviously, where my speech was played off by an orchestra) but this is as good a place as any: special thanks to Nicol Beechey for all she's done for Standing There Productions and for her friendship and for making me flinch every time I see something on a stage that isn't taped down.

 Nicol Beechey was generous and wise and funny and creative and Standing There Productions has been so lucky to have been the beneficiary of her guiding hand. She will be dearly missed.

 

Exciting times

Last year, Standing There Productions spent one amazing month in residence at Arthur and Yvonne Boyd's property, Bundanon, on the Shoalhaven river in New South Wales. It was a most productive, instructive and creative month and every now and then in the months since one of us will sigh in the middle of a production meeting and say, "Ah, Bundanon". Although, being Australians, we have of course shortened this for our own convenience and can now be heard at regular intervals saying "Good old Bunders" when the spirit takes us, as it so frequently does.

 

You can imagine, then, the joy with which we received the news that Standing There have been blessed with a second residency at Bundanon, this year, during August. It's like all our dreams have come true. Not only that but it's an enormous privilege and we're already preparing projects for what I'd like to call Part II: Bunders Returns.

 

Did I mention we've missed the wombats?

The Comedy Festival

Every year, at about this time, and for about a month, I receive emails from persons known to me personally, with the following subject headings, "COMEDY FESTIVAL - THOUGHTS?" or "COMEDY FESTIVAL RECOMMENDATIONS" or even sometimes "HOW DO I EVEN READ THE COMEDY FESTIVAL GUIDE MY BRAIN IS EXPLODING PLEASE HELP". 

 

Now, when it comes to arts festivals, I am very good at recommendations. I know what people are likely to enjoy and what's going to freak them out, piss them off, or bore their whole face off. I know what the safe picks are and what is likely to leave you feeling like you've been on a roller-coaster, naked, being chased by a bear. If that's what you're into? Fine. If not, I can recommend a bunch of other options.

 

But comedy is different. One of the things I found fascinating when I first started working in comedy is how people feel like they can contribute. People come up and suggest jokes. They tell you, straight out, when they don't think you're funny. It's bizarre - given nobody would approach a plumber and tell him they don't like the way he's used a piece of hose, or even criticise a writer/performer telling their tragic life story on stage - but that's the great thing about comedy: it's accessible. It's universal. Everybody does it. Everybody appreciates it. And everybody knows what they like. 

 

Different strokes, as they say. I know an academic - very clever, most sophisticated - to whom the funniest thing in the world is Eddie Murphy's laugh in the Beverly Hills Cop movies. Can't get enough of it. Nothing clever or witty about it. It's just an open-faced teeth-baring laugh and it kills. How the hell am I supposed to predict that?

 

I have thought of writing an official disclaimer to hand to people after they ask this question. You may consider this it. 

 

I know what I find funny. That's about all I can tell you. That and: if it involves audience participation, I will be the one in the back row behind the tallest person I can find. Weeping.

 

Writing buddies

 Some people write alone, some people write in a kind of group-workshop/brainstorming kind of scenario with junk food and cigarette breaks and too much coffee and arguments about pacing and occasional violent outbreaks of the giggles. 

 

Today? Me? Funny you should ask.

 

I've been working in a lovely room in Bendigo, from which I can observe - and be observed by - a giant lazy kangaroo lying on its side in the sun. The kangaroo's major concern is lying about for hours at a time twitching flies away from its huge beautiful ears and chewing occasionally on whatever it can find nearby.

 

I am, of course, in much the same position. 

 

Writing with a friend is nice.