Wednesday, 26 April 2017

20.17 Blog #13: Make 'em laugh

Last night was a very lovely evening.  Words & Whippets has been running since 2013, born from Yorkshire season but has continued to be York Theatre Royal’s annual advertisement for spoken word and poetry.  As programmer, I’ve been very proud to bring ace acts from across Yorkshire (and beyond) to the theatre and hugely delighted by super audiences.

One conversation that came out of last night’s post-show drinking session was about the need for a few decent comedy poems.  The headliner, the sublime Kate Fox, has a whole back catalogue of funny stand-up poems.  Kate, as she chats about in the Say Owt podcast (plug plug plug) is very proud to celebrate the stand-up tag.  Also performing was Andy Bennett, a master at rhyme, meter and using those to great comedy effect to lampoon Lord Byron, internet trolls and boozy behaviour.  Both Kate and Andy got the audience roaring with laughter.

A few Yorkshire Ales down in conversation with poet & play-wright Hannah Davies, we compared out sets to this stand-up ability.  The very useful tool to pull out a very funny poem.  Though no joke is ever guaranteed to land, sometimes you can be sure a funny poem will leave the audience smiling.

“But Henry!” I hear you cry:  “You’re a political person and a political poet!  You shouldn’t have to make people laugh just to appease and amuse them!”

Well you’re right gentle reader, I think it’s perfectly reasonable for a poet to do an entire set without going for a single laugh.  And many do, and that’s about how you want to engage with an audience. Some poets we’ve had at Say Owt events write very moving, fierce or personal poetry but actually it’s their chatter between pieces that has the humour.

But I know for a fact I’ve been in situations at certain nights, usually buzzing with energy, where I think a good few laughs would dissolve some tension, shift the atmosphere or lead nicely into the next poet whose work is less intense.

I think I use humour in most of my poems, so I’m not really talking about employing comedy.  I more mean a very specific, well-crafted, well-rehearsed poem that’s definitely going to get smiles if you pull it out of the well-worn poetry bag.  A useful tool in the ongoing struggle to make a room entertained.

So how do you go about writing a ‘funny poem’?  I do remember, many years back, being annoyed about the fact I did not have more gag poems up my sleeve, because, I felt, I’m a funny guy!  I tried to put the energy into the spontaneous audience participation I rely on.  I think I have a list of ‘issues’ I want to face, for example I know I always want to address nationalism, sexism.  I know I want to write about home or friendship.  This is perhaps the punk in me, where most punk bands tick the boxes to earn punk points.

I don’t feel I really have this with a funny poem, no funny topic in the corner of my brain waiting to see the light.  But a great book I read was Off The Mic for stand-ups, with the advice always keeps your eyes peeled at the world.  Certainly poets do this, but I think I focus on the serious topics of the world.  That needs addressing.  That needs challenging.

For me, if I find a funny idea I immediately run with it.  Pretend You’re A Dinosaur came from when me and some mates pretended to be dinosaurs at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park.  I’m Sorry I Missed Your Gig came from a wicked zine by Emma Thacker.   These are poems I know have some comedy currency.

Having said that, Pretend You’re a Dinosaur became about being tough in the face of anxiety, and I’m Sorry I Missed Your Gig about improving the gig-going experience so I suppose I always find some substance in the sentences.

Sunday, 16 April 2017

20.17 Blog #12: All Change, Ta: Gender Equality in Theatre

I’ve just finished reading All Change Please, Lucy Kerbel’s new book about achieving Gender Equality in Theatre (find it here).

This isn’t so much a review as more a reaction.  And when I say reaction, it’s only my own instinctive thoughts (in 20 minutes and 17 seconds, as per my blog rule).

I need to re-read it, even though Lucy’s book is very manageable.  It’s not hugely long (150 pages) and broken down into bite-size sections and subsections.  But when we talk about Gender Equality in any industry, it’s a vast discussion with a lot to explore.

My quibbles with the book are two, and that’s mainly because of the company I keep rather than my own skin in the game.  One is the book is hetronormative in the sense it sees a clear binary between female and male and (unless I missed it) doesn’t clock queer experiences.  And after centring my feminism through riot grrrl, zines, radical feminist poetry and radical feminist friends maybe I wanted some more confrontational language.  But I totally appreciate Tonic, Lucy’s organisation, are about working within the structures to question the structures, being practical and opening dialogue.  So I guess I’ll pop the petrol bombs away for today.

My experience with women in theatre was they were active inspirational educators.  My Mum took me to see theatre from as early as I can remember, and my Year 6 Teacher had studied Drama and wrote our school plays.  Drama teachers at secondary school were women, and my years spent learning in York Youth Theatre was defined by confident and inspiring women.  Tutors are University were sharp, intelligent and, admittedly, slightly bonkers.

Lucy talks about the way that women in theatre buildings tend to be found in administrate roles than artistic.  It reminded me that as much as I owe a huge debt to the women who inspired me to work in the arts, and I’m sure they are chuffed to be an inspiration, is it not the role of women to be the muse for men.  And each of these women were, and are, dynamic artists whose role extended (and continues to extend) beyond educator into theatre-maker.

My own current experience is being a Youth Theatre practitioner, and Lucy talks about the important role of young people in the discussion around gender equality in a whole chapter.  Youth theatre tends to be 60-70% girls, and actually Youth Theatre practitioners tend to mostly be women too.  In fact, I’ve heard it’s quite good to get men to work in this context to offer some diversity to the freelance pool.

I don’t need to repeat all Lucy’s insight into how scripts for young people are often male-heavy, and resign the girls to very mundane, archetypal roles.  This is reflective of scripts as a whole.  The Platform plays, as well as other writers like Laura Lomas and Evan Placey, have been trying to address this.  In my own plays for youth theatre, I’ve always deliberately set up, from the start, the goal that female characters will have a strong voice in the narrative.

There’s an argument that lurks often in Telegraph articles and the Facebook threads of white hetcis male directors and actors that this is a token gesture, that the story is what matters in plays is the telling of the tale and it’s the narrative drive and it’s the universality of experiences and other such dismissible gibberish so the boys can swagger and protect their platforms.

The fact is, the girls in the youth theatre groups I work with are passionate, enthusiastic and highly talented people and deserve to have roles which challenge them as much as the majority of male roles are diverse.  And if the female characters are defining the story, it encourages female actors to define the world.  With Harrogate Youth Theatre, next term we’ll be working on Bryony Lavery’s It Snows.  With a few edits (replacing the insult given to a character in the play called Huntly from C**tly to Runtly) I’m excited that the script puts an equal emphasis on female roles as male roles.

I’m a cisgender man, and very privileged to be afforded many opportunities in life and career not available to women with the same experience.  Like I was inspired, I’d also like to try and inspire.

I’m still very much learning how to achieve gender equality in the arts settings I work, but Lucy’s book is great additional tool to the conversation (or battle).

Monday, 10 April 2017

20.17 Blog #11: Retail Therapy by Out Of Character Theatre Company

Out Of Character Theatre Company’s production of Retail Therapy

Out Of Character’s Retail Therapy starts with a simple sketch.  A casual conversation between two people discussing the failings of the NHS.  It’s a nice gentle opener that settles into a realistic tone.  That is, until the reveal these two characters, grumbling about the NHS, are actually Doctors on their break.  This sets the tone for the rest of the show, taking the recognisable aspects of the world and giving it a clever, often surreal, spin.

The frantic rush that surrounds Black Friday is turned into a manic fist fight reminiscent of a Beano comic.  The outcome is the birth of twins and the disastrous loss of a place in the queue.  Other highlights are the ex-Investment Banker working at McDonalds whose desire to please results in an assassination.  Similarly, two cleaners in dead-end jobs are revealed to secretly be mercenaries (when they can get time off work).  An Argos catalogue bonking you on the head can result in the transformation into a fascist wannabe-despot.

This is a cartoon alternate reality, based loosely on our own consumer-heavy world of shops, shopping and business.  But it is populated by people with strange glints in their eyes.

What makes the show really powerful, however, is when these strange people provide no help whatsoever to people who do need help.  Instead of supporting a woman who is having anger issues, she is batted back-and-forth between Nurses and Doctors and Consultants who do more harm than good.  The initial jollity of League Of Gentlemen-esque caricatures soon proves to be a disturbing Kafka-esque web of bureaucracy with no redemption.  Each sketch as a satirical bite making the audience take a hard look at the consequences of a world so obsessed with shopping channels rather than real support and emotion.

Out Of Character charge into each role with a great sense of humour and play.  The sketch-based format is made easier to digest over the hour by the curiosity of what characters will re-appear, what combination of actors will work with who, and their commitment to the recognisable-but-offbeat world of shopaholics.

The twisted humour has the audience laughing at each and every sketch, but the giggling soon fades for the final moment when Out of Character present heart-wrenching facts about cuts to mental health services.  Out Of Character are capable of drawing out the absurd humour of a world fixated by shopping, and then hitting hard the point that this obsession with retail does more harm than good.  For all its chaotic surreal nuts and bolts, Retail Therapy is cuttingly honest.

Friday, 7 April 2017

20.17 Blog #10: 13 Things To Do You Do When Your Punk Play Finishes And You Suddenly Have Lots Of Time

8 Things To Do You Do When Your Punk Play Finishes And You Suddenly Have Lots Of Time

A piece by Henry Raby

1.  Follow-up in the show.  Work out how much you spent, ask for feedback, collate feedback, chase promoters, chase producers.  Store all your stuff neatly so it can be re-constructed when the show breathes again.  Thank the venue, thank the audience, thank people that helped you out.  Thank yourself.

2.  Put Bojack Horseman on in the background and treat it like the radio.  Laugh so it reverbs around the walls at the clever writing.  Sink low alongside the characters into their unique pits.  Feel happy.  Feel sad.  Feel broken.  Thank yourself.

3.  Keep up good habits.  Keep the vocal exercises, keep up the physical lessons learnt.  Keep up the positivity from the show.  Don’t look back in anger, I heard you say.

4.  Plan.  What’s next?  Not in detail.  But, you know, keep the cogs a’turning.

5.  Don’t be creative.  At least, I haven’t been.  I’m storing it up.  I’m itching for it.  When I do it, it’ll flow better than jotting stuff down.

6.  Do be creative.  But in a totally different way.  I played some guitar at an open mic. 

7.  Read something totally different.  I’m not touching anything punk.  I’m not reading any interviews, articles or zines about punk.  I’m reading something political, admittedly.  A Very British Coup.  It’s fun.  It’s scarily predictive of a Corbyn future.

8.  Go for walks by the river.  If you don’t have a river, go get one. You’ll find them just lying around, ripe for the plucking.

9.  Listen to all that Hip-Hop you forgot you said you'd check out

10.  Learn some new guitar chords

11.  Tidy your room (as of time of typing:  unfulfilled)

12.  Clean the house (1/2 fulfilled)

13.  Make a non-demoninational egg hunt around the house for your housemates

Sunday, 2 April 2017

20.17 Blog #9: 6 Things I Learnt From Vandal Raptor


So this week I presented my solo show, Whatever Happened To Vandal Raptor, at York Theatre Royal.  The show’s been in the works for a year, and I’m incredibly proud of the final product.  My first ever solo show which doesn’t just exist as a set of poems, but a full narrative story.  First show with entirely new material.  Far from extinct, VR will have a life beyond the walls of YTR’s Studio.

But, because this is the Internet, I have borrowed from Buzzfeed to neatly summarise some of the lessons learnt from this process, production and pretending to be a dinosaur.

You Can’t Prepare Enough

Like a clock ticking down until a detonation, I was very much aware once we hit the rehearsal process there would be little time for my other projects.  This meant my podcast didn’t have a new update for a while, but it also meant I got all my sessions for the Youth Theatre groups I run written up in good time.  We did a Big Shop of food.  As a freelancer, you often have the luxury of dictating your own timetable, but in this instance your timetable dictates you.

DIY lesson:  When you have no manager, you have to make sure your time is manageable.

The Writer Is Not The Editor

It’s hard for me to think of a poem as finished.  Partly because I enjoy tweaking for specific audiences, updating references or changing due to changing attitudes.  I also enjoy adding spicy spontaneity.  But many times during the process, I wanted to change lines, sometimes for the best to make something clearer, often because I worried about the meaning of the scene.  But there’s got to a be a point where the show is the show because the script is the script.

DIY lesson:  Just because you have the ownership over the script doesn’t mean you can control the script.

I Get By With A Little Help From My Friends

A solo show doesn’t necessarily mean you work alone.  A running gag has been the fact I’m an Only Child, and I don’t like sharing.  But I can’t express how much I love the bunch of people that offered their support.  Simon Bolly and Emily Rowan of Flora Greysteel for their advice on loop pedals, Jonny Gill for lending me equipment, John Holt Roberts for giving me some much-needed guitar lessons, for Hannah Davies, Dave Jarman and Jack Dean for coming into the rehearsals and watching a run.  To all the folks at York Theatre Royal, especially Juliet Forster, for their support.  For everyone that shared on social media, that came and everyone that couldn’t make it but wished me all their best.  Although, as an only child, I’m totally not prepared to share my toys, I would like to share my undying, eternal, unyielding and unending gratitude and hope I can return the favour somehow.

DIY lesson:  Punk is not, as Mr Lydon seems to think, about pissing people off.  It’s about building community.

Advertising your Marketing and Market your Adverts

I never studied publicity, I have just learnt it from doing gigs and events over the years, and I’ve far from perfected it.  My Facebook page has over 900 Likes, and the event I co-run, Say Owt, often sells between 60-90 tickets.  We plugged the show through these networks.  We had a feature in York Press, were in the York Lit Fest programme as well as the York Theatre Royal brochure.  We exit flyered punk shows, Josie Long and other York Lit events.  We didn’t get terrible audiences, but we could have done with more.  Was it the price (standard for theatre, not so much for poetry/music).  Was it the blurb?  Was it just too niche?  Things to think about.

DIY lesson:  It’s easy to be stuck inside your own world of punk, protest and dinosaurs, but you still need to make that madcap world accessible.

No Gods, No Masters, Yes To Quatermasters

On this project I worked with director Natalie Quatermass.  There’s no way in the 7 Hells that this show would even exist without Natalie’s ability to keep the cast on track (me) but also make sure the subject matter (kinda me) was heartfelt, well-paced, dynamic and had the true spirit of vital story-telling.  Natalie’s passion for making a strong, exiting piece of theatre is at the heart of this production.

DIY lesson:  Make work with your mates.