The Lowdown, Downstairs at The Albany, 2008… I had done acting with a comedy genius who I named Tommy Toon because of his excellent face. (He is in fact, a properly named gentleman called Tom Golding). Like me, he was torn between wanting to be a serious hactor and following his comedy dreams. He has and is doing both and one day will rule the world, such is his talent. At the time I met him, he had a comedy duo with the multi-talented Gemma Arrowsmith, one of their best sketches being The Chuckle Brothers Shoot a Baby in the Face.
They were performing at the Albany, did I want to do something? It was a character night. You had to do your comedy in a character. So Polly the Temp was born. She appeared dressed as a secretary covered in blood and holding a Starbucks:
“16 women are attacked every month for looking like Maxine Carr. Genetics is not always our friend.”
Yep. It was bleak. I wanted to mix comedy and horror. I brought some friends. They weren’t embarrassed. There were no massive laughs, I think the audience were terrified but the promotor said it felt new, he’d not seen stuff like that. He asked me back. Did I go back? NO. BECAUSE THE FEAR WAS IMMENSE EVEN THOUGH MY STARBUCKS CUP WAS FULL OF RED WINE AND I DRANK ALL OF IT. That night I met Sara Pascoe for the first time. She’d seen my show Pramface in Edinburgh and was really nice about it, saying she wished she could have done a show like that and all the time, I was thinking ‘I wish I was doing what you’re doing, with as much guts.’ Then something happened…
It didn’t go away but, over the next few years, it changed. I was 40ish. I KNOW. As an actress, that’s past middle age and almost dead. But for some strange reason, the good roles started to happen. And I learned 3 MASSIVE things:-
1. “It’s not about you, it’s about them – your fellow actor, your audience.” I was told this by Cheek by Jowl director, Declan Donnellan. I kinda knew this already but it’s just so much nicer showing off and thinking everyone loves you. Declan can smell a show-off. He’s written a book about it. I couldn’t get through the book, it’s well hard but working with the actual man meant he said it all in words in the rehearsal room and that was much easier to follow. And guess what? You ARE a better actor if you put your attention in your fellow actor and in your audience. Anyway, even THIS is not the massive thing I learnt. The massive thing was that when you do put your attention on your fellow actor and your audience, it is no longer on yourself. You are able to be properly in the moment and guess what? It reduces stage fright. A simple thing of getting the attention away from yourself and the fear suddenly drives you instead of controlling you. Well f*ck me.
2. I got a season with the RSC. Like, 20 effing years after I wanted one. And a proper job too, not a spear carrier with one line. I had a comic scene on my own talking to the audience. I was not amazing. Obviously I thought I was. But it was a hot summer and I was in a big corset and to be honest, I got bored. I also got a bit annoyed when the audience looked asleep. Quite common in Stratford. So I messed around a bit. And the MASSIVE thing I learnt was this: the audience liked my improvised lines better than the ones by Thomasses Middleton and Dekker. (Not amazing if you’ve read The Roaring Girl…) It reminded me of the one-woman shows, even an adult panto I did straight out of drama school where I had to talk to an audience on my own. The thing was, I was doing my dream job, yet those bits – the bits I was in control of, just me and the audience breaking the rules – were the bits I was living for. And you can’t really do that in Hamlet.
3. I WORKED WITH KIDS. 2hr workshops for the RSC. All ages, all abilities. Kids are the most truthful audience there is. From 7-17 years-old, if they’re bored, they let you know. French exchange students in Stratford-upon-Avon are particularly skilled. In any 2 hour workshop, you learn to change tack in a split-second, skip material, invent new material, keep their interest, stay in control, not make them hate you or detect you are seeking their approval in any way. You can. Not. Show. Fear. Like dogs, they smell fear. Like a stand-up audience.
And then something broke. I was watching and listening to stand-up more than ever. Mock the Week on iPlayer, Ricky Gervais’ podcasts, audiobooks of Kevin Bridges, Dara O’Briain, Jo Brand. I saw live comedy: Henning Wehn, Sara Pascoe, Katherine Ryan, Sean Lock, Nish Kumar, Desiree Burch, Kerry Godliman – and I could feel something shifting. The urge to do it outweighing the fear. Just.
Over 20 years after I first failed. I am going back to stand-up. The challenge this time is to find my own voice, not hide behind a character. Nothing wrong in character work but I’ve done that as an actress. I have no real professional idea of what I’m doing. The personal challenge is to see if I can be funny in my own voice and have fun with people – live. After that – dunno. So back off, we’re about to go on Google and book some gigs…