This year I'm not going to the Edinburgh Fringe. I can't say I'm happy about that in itself. There are good reasons why I can't commit to it, the main one of which is that my family life has changed and we have a baby daughter to look after, which isn't compatible with fringe-going, or at least, not compatible enough. I AM happy about having a baby. It's a little conflict. No Fringe- boo. Being a daddy - big yay.
With the idea that I'd challenge myself to produce something comedic this year, I registered with the Henley Fringe to do Ashley Frieze's Greatest Hats Album, a show whose premise was simply that I'd do my greatest bits from 10 years+ as a comedian. A simple concept. The other idea was that I'd get some of the satisfaction of writing a show, without the pressure to run in new material, and I'd also get the pleasure of doing an hour long performance, twice, to a nice Fringe audience - Henley has always been reasonably attended for me, and last year's preview of Discograffiti was especially enjoyable.
That was the theory.
I should add that I'd used the Henley shows as an unofficial leaving do from my old day-job employer, and felt a few people might show up from there to boost numbers. I felt it was going to be a highlight of the month.
To answer some of my initial question, I'd have to say it didn't go anywhere near the way I anticipated. So many things were not as I imagined, and you could say that they took away from my aims. You could say that, I'm not going to offer any conclusions at this point.
- I never actually got the time to write the show - I had about 3 ideas in my head for how it would work, and then procrastinated horribly.
- Changing jobs between organising the show and doing it meant the dynamic of my life had also changed.
- My goal to do a purely guitar-based standy-uppy show crumbled when I realised I could take the piano, and that I wanted it as a crutch, making the show immediately more like the last 3 years' solo shows, the sort of thing I was thinking I might move away from.
- The venue wasn't equipped, so I had to take my own stuff along - this actually wasn't an issue, but made me feel like I wasn't being recognised by the organisers for what I do.
- The publicity that was made by the organisers somewhat failed to say what the show was about.
- There were 2 pre-sales on day 1 and 10 pre-sales on day 2.
- On day one, the numbers were boosted by three friends of the venue owner, who were asked to turn their evening into a spontaneous ladies' night out to avoid the place being totally empty. These ladies had an average age of about 60.
- One both days, the pre-sales were all from people I knew, except for two people on day 2, one of whom claimed to be a reviewer.
Somewhere there's a young comedian, who's just bust into TV laughing his head off at the fact that he didn't have to do these two gigs. Not like this.
So what did I make of performing my stuff to a bunch of ex-work-colleagues, and rent-a-crowd people? What did it feel like?
You can stop reading at the next sentence if you wish. It was pretty okay, actually.
To expand on this, I have to compare it with last year's full-show experience. Discograffiti was quite a difficult show to put together. I wanted to use more new material in it than I did, though I wrote quite a bit for it, and only kept older material which both suited it and which was really strong. I had a lot of awkward or awful previews with the show, which seemed not quite to come together before Edinburgh, though it got closer and closer to a show before I left to go there. I was so pushed for time and perhaps so uncommitted to the content of the show that I didn't learn it at all before going to the Fringe, taking a crib sheet on my tablet on stage with me. All in all, I ended the Fringe thinking it had been a bit of a disappointment, and I didn't listen back to the recording.
I forgot what I'd been doing between shows. I had been rewriting and editing the show. By the end of the Fringe I had a pretty slick 55 minutes which kept the laughs coming when it meant to. Of course, I'm judging this on the last two performances, which were extra special because the audience came in numbers with an end-of-term spirit. So everything appeared to work, which was great. When I eventually listened to the show back, I was proud of it. In February this year - 5 or so months later!
The point is, I didn't appreciate it when I had it.
The Henley experience this year is something I did appreciate as I went along. In terms of career, general writing, finance, and personal growth, I can't say I took anything away from the last couple of shows. In terms of everything else, it was lovely.
To understand why it was lovely, you have to understand the atmosphere. Pictured is the "stage" set up for my show. It's the back of a small but perfectly formed coffee shop in Henley called Hot Gossip. It's well worth a visit. Everything there is pleasant and personable.
I turned up with an estate car full of stuff and my high-falutin' demands, which mainly were "can I plug everything in and sort it all out for myself, please?" and I was treated like a member of the family. They couldn't do enough for me. I nearly left on both nights with a packed lunch. Just lovely.
The Henley Fringe woman on the ground as also very helpful and great company. Even if the show hadn't gone ahead, I'd have had a pleasant evening out.
Also, on day one, there was a member of the shop's staff sitting around doing not much (as there was not much to do). I discovered a "ring this bell for attention" bell on the counter and explained how, if I made a gag in conversation, especially a bad one, I could make it funny by just ringing the bell. So if someone said something like "With a salad I like dressing", I could say "Dressing, eh? That's my favourite sort of gown. [PING]". Yes, you had to be there. I want a bell for home! [PING]
Despite the low numbers, I decided to take to the stage and share my stuff with the audience to have fun. At no stage did I consider whether I was disappointed with the turn out. That wasn't my role. The only thing which gave me a few moments' anxiety was the suitability of the material for the audience. I knew they'd go with pretty much anything if they were comfortable, and I realised my scripted first page was simply the wrong tool for the job. So I changed it. I wasn't that married to the script. The script was really just a playlist of stuff I wanted to perform again.
I quickly came to the conclusion on both nights that I'd enjoy the overlap between the stuff on my list of things and the audience's tastes. I delivered two slightly different shows, switching in different material between the nights and the audience went with it, at least enough of them went for it for enough of the time.
Why wouldn't I enjoy it. I wrote these jokes to get laughs and I chose them because I enjoy them or at least enjoy the reaction they cause.
One of my ex-colleagues commented on one of my routines in my leaving card - it has an audience-participation element. I foolishly gave her her wish to be the person who writes the word that I have to sing. It didn't backfire.
On the first show with the more mature audience, I baulked at saying one of the rude-word punchlines in one of my songs. I replaced it with "I'm not going to sing that word". This was foolish, but my second brain, the one which edits my show and goads me into being silly, while my primary brain performs, told me that I had to quickly break the taboo I'd just declared, and that it would be funny to add, a line or two after my "I'm not going to say that" the line "by the way the word I wasn't going to say was...". I did this, which I think is quite funny, and then nearly gave myself the giggles.
Throughout both shows I had a chance to remember why my hard-won, experience-edited material is worth repeating, or at least, worth repeating to a dozen or so people in a small coffee shop. We all had a laugh and I really enjoyed it.
So that's how it went.
Gotta run, I think that's BBC3 on the phone. They want to know if I'm free. Do I look like John Inman? [PING]