When looking for audience participation, how do you pick your volunteers?
Apart from ‘Tape Face’ what other shows (comedy or otherwise) have you taken part in?
Do you constantly add new elements to the show? Where do you get your inspirations?
You’ll be touring everywhere from Dubai to South Africa – how did you first break into the international stage?
What is the most difficult thing about being a mime comedian?
Any words of wisdom for all the budding comedians out there?
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Click here to read my review of Sam’s show at Stanley and Audrey Burton Theatre, Leeds!
You’ve made it very clear that every show is fully improvised, but how do you create such brilliant and flawless improvisation night after night?
We spend time together and do lots of training. It’s like a football team – you practice your skills and hone your communication with each other but you never know what’s going to happen when you get on the pitch and every “game” (or show) is different. And we are far from flawless! We may appear otherwise because we support each other and make a virtue our of our ‘mistakes.’
The key thing is trust. If you completely trust the rest of the team, then you will immediately accept anything they throw your way without thinking. That has two results: firstly, it means you’ll do something more interesting with it than if you had to think it through, and secondly, the speed of the acceptance will make it look like telepathy between the cast.
What are rehearsals like for you guys?
As I said, we approach them as a team practice so we get to know each other and everyone’s strengths and weaknesses.
We also practice emerging musical theatre styles so that we’re ready for what ever the audiences shout out. We don’t rehearse specific songs or song structures but we practice understanding what characteristics make, for example, Ghost the Musical sound the way it does or what gives an Andrew Lloyd Weber love song its distinctive sound – we then learn to put those characteristics together with the band while improvising brand new songs.
What were some of the awkward moments you’ve had during a show, and how do you handle them?
If we get stuck we ask the audience for help and they are always one step ahead of us!
The great thing about this form is that, so long as we keep our nerve, we can’t really go wrong. If the story goes massively off-track, the writer can simply freeze the action, announce it to the audience and ask for a fix. So even if someone accidentally shoots the lead protagonist in a fit of story-telling halfway through, we can change the whole – plot structure to suit it. There is no limit to the set, since it’s all imaginary; there is no limit to the number of characters, since the cast play as many different ones as they have to; there is no limit to the props, since they are mostly mimed. It’s very liberating!
Has there ever been a time when you really cannot find a way to create a musical?
No – we have some quieter audiences though and most audiences like to try and trip us up. Mostly that’s part of the fun.
But the exciting bit is when audiences try to nurture greatness rather than silliness. That’s when the project really buzzes. We have had lots of random suggestions. We only take those suggestions if we think they will lead to something marvellous on stage. I vividly remember a Commedia Dell’Arte / Tellytubby sequence in Bath for one such example!
Do you ever get tired of having to come up with new material constantly?
Nope. We love our jobs. The cast have fun with each other and the audiences. Genuine, all-out, ‘I can’t believe we are getting paid to do this’ fun.
The beauty of improvisation is that two actors can walk into a completely blank space with no discussion, planning or instruction and simply by listening to each other, being present and being generous, they can create magic.
What was the most interesting show you’ve done on ‘Showstopper’?
Several shows stand out. ‘Don’t Look Down’ concerned two couples in crisis on a white water rafting retreat. The relationships and environment were beautifully entwined. Our superhero musical ‘Flying Without Wings’ remains a favourite – and ‘The Hobnocker Prom’ about a prom night at an American school was a delight.
If you could play any role in any play or musical in the world, what would it be and why?
I have no idea! I get to play much more interesting roles in Showstopper than most of the ones that have been written down!
I’ve heard that ‘Showstopper’ is just a part time job for most of you – is taking a break from it every now and then important?
Mostly we do it as much as we can but we cover for each other so that everyone can take breaks to do other things (like doing rehearsed shows or having children!).
Do you feel like your acting persona seeps into your personal daily life too?
Not exactly, but improv definitely affects your everyday life. You become much more open – or frustrated with other people who are closed and resistant!
What makes a good improviser?
A good improviser really needs to be able: To listen. To be present. To be willing to fail. To want to work with others and make them look good. To have fun. To be naive, childlike and playful. To be generous. To be able to handle themselves when they’re not getting any of the above from anyone else!
My first proper encounter with spoken word poetry was at Leeds University’s Black History Month Spoken Word Night a month or so ago. Although it was an interesting evening, I have to admit that I was getting a little bored by the fifth or sixth performer. That’s not to say they weren’t good poets, it’s just that everyone seemed to be talking about the same things in the same way. As an atheist, I really cannot relate to any of the religious stuff, and much as I’m all for racial equality, it just felt like most of them were not bringing anything new to the table. That was until Oliver came on stage with his signature turtleneck jumper (‘Once you try it there’s no going back,’ he promises). It was apparently the first time he’s ever performed in front of such a large audience, but judging by his confident stance and beautiful poetry, you wouldn’t have been able to tell at all.
‘I started writing poetry two or three years ago when I was in Washington DC because I met a girl – you know how it is,’ said Oliver as he rolled his eyes ever so slightly. ‘It wasn’t meant to be shared – sort of like a diary – but the writing process was really cathartic.’
His interest in the art form grew, and soon he began searching along the American East Coast for poetry events. This led him to the famous New York Bowery Club, where he first encountered spoken word.
‘I just saw them do it and thought, this is cool, this is what I want to do,’ said Oliver. And that’s where it all began.
He started writing slam poetry about a year ago, and his first break into the performing scene came when he was working in Ethiopia over the summer. He met poet/MC I Timothy on a bus, and it was the beginning of a beautiful friendship. I Timothy was at the time trying to establish an English-speaking poetry club, and he soon invited Oliver to perform at a jazz club.
‘It was by no means the perfect entrance to the scene,’ Oliver admitted. ‘But I wasn’t dejected. You’ve got to start somewhere.’
He has had quite a few gigs at various open mic nights since coming back to Leeds in September to finish his final year as a Politics student at the University. He has also been actively trying to promote the spoken word scene in the city by establishing a monthly event called ‘Spit and Soul’ with his friend and fellow slam poet Darwin Jr Turton. They had their first show a few weeks ago at the Henry Moore Institute, which I was unfortunately unable to attend but heard only good things about.
The element in Oliver’s poetry that really caught my attention is its freshness. His rhymes are clever, his rhythm flows, and he offers a unique take on things that have already been discussed before. I felt like I was hearing new material, as opposed to lines and clichés that have been regurgitated too many times to a jaded audience.
‘I try to stay away from the conventional things,’ Oliver confirmed. ‘I don’t talk about my life in my spoken word poems much because I’m pretty sure no one really wants to hear about it. It’s pretty boring. My written poetry is quite emotional, but my spoken word ones are more political. Although that said, I do have to keep in mind that most people don’t give a crap about politics either, and sometimes I hate it because it gets so cheesy. But then again, I think poetry is almost assumed to be pathetic anyway.’
He does however face a challenge when performing, not because he isn’t confident enough or gets stage fright (he’s been on a debating team before and is thus used to public speaking), but because he feels like it’s not sincere.
‘My poems are mostly of the moment,’ said Oliver. ‘I mean I know all of them back to front, and when I look back on what I’ve written a few months later, I know they’re alright, but they feel more like an act because the moment has passed.’
And yet there are undoubtedly moments of glory, such as the times when he performed before his high school bullies.
‘There is nothing more vindicating than having those who used to make fun of you, clapping for you,’ smiled Oliver.
I saw him looking at his watch and he apologised that he’d have to be off to stand in for a friend’s radio show, so I finished my hot chocolate and wrapped up our chat with a question I’ve been dying to know. In his self-explanatory poem ‘Spoken Word and Me’, he claims that he could recite all 131 lines of TS Eliot’s ‘The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock’. As that is my favourite poem, I wanted to know if can he actually do it.
‘Yes, I love that poem’ he replied looking a bit sheepish. ‘I actually copied out the whole thing by hand and had it stuck to my mirror, so I see it all the time.’
I was impressed, and it occurred to me that maybe I should do the same. You never know – it might come in handy at some awkward party in the future.
So for those of you lucky enough to be in Leeds, keep an eye out for Oliver’s next performances – he’s the next big thing in town and definitely worth checking out. We shall hear more about him in the near future.
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You can find Oliver’s performances of Matthew 5:5 and Shadeless History on YouTube, and read his political blog for the Independent at
Here it is ladies and gents, my stories from last-last weekend’s Compass Live Art Festival along with short interviews with some of the brilliant participating artists. I would like to thank them all once again for a meaningful weekend that offered something different.
Bake Me A Cake by Jenny Lawson
Everyone loves cake. It’s one of those things that you use to persuade people to go to events. And yet with shows like ‘Ace of Cakes’ and whatnot cropping up faster than you can chew, it’s difficult to come up with innovative ways of presenting them. So Jenny decided to do something special but very challenging – to bake deliciousness from people’s stories and memories. To do this, she set up a huge book at the front desk in which anyone can write. She also had a very specific list of questions next to it – things like ‘How does this memory/cake make you feel?’ or ‘Who or what occasion is this cake/memory dedicated to?’ And from these answers, she lets her imagination and superb baking skills take over. When I walked into her inconspicuous kitchen/workshop in The Light where the ex Benetton used to be, I was impressed by how efficient but cosy everything looked. I was soon offered a cuppa as Jenny invited me to sit down for a chat, and here’s what came out of it:
What do cakes mean to you?
They’re interesting because they’re both happy and sad. Happy because everyone loves cake, obviously, but they also bring back a certain sense of nostalgia and represent a loss of childhood.
Who is your biggest inspiration?
Artistically, my biggest influence is performance artist Bobby Baker. She has used food in her work in both provocative and moving ways, and she has been a huge inspiration.
What was the best cake you’ve ever made based on your own memory?
It was about three years ago when my parents moved to France and had to sell the family home, so I made a cake called Farewell 228 [their house number]. It was a coffee cake, because I’ve always associated coffee cakes with home and my mum and things, and then I had a photo I took of the house iced onto it.
Have you worked with food or cakes before?
Yes, I did an exhibition in 2009 called ‘If I knew you were coming I’d have baked a cake’, which was a similar concept except I baked the cakes beforehand so that I had more time to work on them. I feel torn between baking before or during the exhibition though, because I can do more with the extra time, but this is more challenging.
What do you think Art is about?
Wow, difficult one. I guess it’s about engaging with ideas and people, and to explore what it means to be part of the world.
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Inspiration Exchange by Third Angel’s Alexander Kelly
Shamefully, I have never been inside the City Museum before. It’s my third year in Leeds and I kept hearing fabulous things about it, but it’s just one of those places that I haven’t been in, so this was a very exciting opportunity. Making my way upstairs and leaving winter outside, I finally reached a strange little room. It had old wooden floorboards, and white-washed walls with some things-of-the-past splashed across it, and a very ancient-looking stove squatting at the back. And then, like living anachronisms, I saw Alex sat on a wooden chair with a very amused smile as he listened to a man coming to the end of his story about a lecturer, or a moon, or something along those lines (I’m afraid I missed the beginning, and so everything I heard was taken out of context). There were five chairs arranged in a semi-circle around Alex, and so I took a seat. After the man was done Alex said hello and explained what he was doing – we were to take a piece of card from the table, each of which had a title written on it, and he would tell us the inspiring story behind it – in return for one of ours. I picked one called ’300 Cameras a Day’. It was about the time Alex found out that 1) you don’t need a license to film the public and 2) on average you get filmed 300 times a day. It was, as he admitted, not so much as inspiring as thought provoking – but I enjoyed it. I ended up telling him about how inspirational some of the people I’ve met for this blog have been, and still continues to be.
I still didn’t get round to seeing the museum properly, in case you were wondering. But I will. One day. Promise. A little Q&A session I had with Alex will be coming soon so watch this space!
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Take Me To The Bridge by Katie Etheridge and Simon Persighetti
It was wet and rainy and horribly England last Saturday, and yet a flock of people in macs and brollies braved the elements on Leeds Bridge (yes, we do have a Leeds Bridge, apparently). What were they doing? Well they were queuing up to get fake tattoos stuck onto their palms. Katie and Simon had spent Friday taking photos of different parts of the bridge and have had them transferred onto circular body stickers that they gave to anyone wishing to participate on Saturday. The point is that they go and find where their photo was taken, and then have a photo taken of their palm against the original part of the structure. Essentially – they become a part of the city. I wish I took part in this, but the crowd was just too big and Katie and Simon were already moving around at supersonic speeds and inhuman efficiency, so I just observed the scene for a while. It was quite a sight to behold, with people walking round putting their hands against everything that remotely looked like anything. I wonder what it would look like to passers-by who had no idea what the hell was going on, but I suppose that’s an effective means of advertising in itself?
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The Speech Maker by Oliver Bray with Mark Flisher
Although I’ve done a fair bit of public speaking, it still scares the living daylights out of me. So I can’t imagine how Oliver must’ve felt standing there at the podium with his bow-tied sidekick Mark, dwarfed by the grand Courtroom in the City Hall. On top of that, he was there for 12 hours straight. Throughout the day he read out speeches both by The Famous People Who Have Shaped History, as well as extraordinarily ordinary folks like us. Anyone was welcome to send him speeches by email or Twitter, which Mark would sift through before passing them onto him for reciting. Sitting on the wooden bench at the back of the room, I was in awe of the power of his speech. He read clearly, beautifully, and possessed the aura of a true orator.
Did you manage to complete the 12 hour run?
Yes! Well pretty much anyway. I took three toilet breaks and each of them lasted about a minute, so 11 hours and 57 minutes to be precise!
Have you ever done anything like this before?
Not for 12 hours straight, no.
Was the experience pretty much like what you expected or was it tougher than that?
I prepared myself for it quite well I think, so I was alright.
What was the most difficult part of reciting the speeches?
I was reading from two computer screens, so my eyes were really strained.
Will you do this again? For an even longer time perhaps?
Probably yes – but probably not for any longer!
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Carpe Minuta Prima by Brian Lobel
Dorian Gray bartered his soul away to the devil for youth – would you sell a minute of your life to a man you don’t know for a quid? I did. It was probably the most awkward one minute I’ve ever had to live through (apart from that time when I was playing Emilia in the school production of ‘Othello’ and Iago forgot to kill me), mostly because my worst nightmare is being filmed. So when I was ushered into a little room and told by the friendly Willy Wonka -like Brian to press the button when I was ready to start the camera and ‘make my minute count’ – I was petrified. But still, it was a really meaningful exercise. In this busy world, how often do we take time to just reflect on a minute for what it is? Brian collected 60 minutes in total, and burnt each one onto a DVD to be sold, for a pound, the next day to the earliest bidder. My original intention was to buy my own minute back, thrust it in a drawer and never let it see daylight again. But alas – some poor soul had already bought my embarrassing minute. So I had to buy another one – by a girl named Polly something (her fancy signature defied readership), but it turned out to be the best quid I’d ever spent. I swear I have not been that touched by a minute in my life before. She sang, with a beautiful voice, ‘Feed the World’ by Band Aid. It is a song that means a lot to me as I had sung it with my high school choir, and it brought back so many memories. Brilliant.
Here’s a quick chat I had with Brian:
So what’s the big idea behind the project?
Well, a minute is a minute is a minute is a minute. And no matter what you do during that minute – like some people tried to be really cheeky and do things like sleep or whatever – it’s all worth the same. Everyone’s minute is worth exactly a pound.
How did you come up with the idea of Carpe?
I created Carpe Minuta Prima in response to having been told for nine year since finishing cancer treatment that I’m lucky to have knowledge of what is truly valuable – the true value of time.
Any unexpected or particularly interesting minutes?
Some were really bad, so those were interesting.
What would you have done during that minute had you participated?
I HAVE NO IDEA. This is the best thing about being the creator… I don’t actually have to do it. But if I had to, I’d probably watch a youtube video.
Sum up what Art means to you in a nutshell.
Art interrupts the everyday and makes us see the world a bit more clearly, or crisply.
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The Last Supper by Reckless Sleepers
Stories of the highs and lows of society were told over dinner to the 39 special guests.
Compass Late: Regional Artists’ Platform
Artists showcased their works and presented some new ideas.
And on the Thousandth Night by Forced Entertainment
Artists dressed up in crowns and cloaks to improvise stories on the spot for over six hours.
Local Radio Orchestra by Janke Schaefer
A symphony of the community was created with the aid of 12 classic radios as people tuned in and out of it.
Two Four One One by Grace Surman and Catherine Butterworth
The two artists re-enacted the meaning of hiding, in reference to the women and men supporters hiding to avoid taking part in the 1911 census to protest against women not being granted the right to vote.
What is it like being the only actress in The 39 Steps?
The cast are a dream team and I totally lucked out in being cast alongside them; namely Andrew Alexander, Stephen Critchlow and Ian Hughes. I love performing with them, and the roles I play in the production are a total gift – it’s rare and such a treat to be able to play such varied and exciting women! As for being the only female – well this is not unusual – there are fewer parts for women in drama generally, but I think this is something people are changing, particularly in the case of older women. There is a campaign to make TV and film makers feature women more prominently actually, to redress the balance, sign up if you agree!
Which – if any – of the three characters you play do you identify with most?
Well I’d love to think I had Pamela’s gumption, Margaret’s heroism and Annabella’s mystique, but in reality I don’t have much in common with them – apart from bearing a striking resemblance to them all of course.
How much creative license do you have as actors?
Rehearsing the play was a bit like learning a dance – there were ‘moves’ to learn. So we start with that and then flesh it out with our own embellishments and ideas, but whilst staying within that choreographed remit. It is quite disciplined, but it must be combined with mischief, playfulness and joy too.
Do you improvise or is everything scripted?
Everything is scripted even if it seems improvised thanks to Patrick Barlow’s script. He is a genius and I recommend you watch him in The National Theatre of Brent. You can see it online on 4OD:
What is the best thing about being in The 39 Steps?
I mentioned that element of ‘play’ which for me is at the heart of The 39 Steps – so that combined with getting a live audience reaction is the best thing I reckon!
What is the best moment you have experienced in your career?
I was a child actor so the one that stands out is one of my first acting jobs, which was when I was in Spring Awakening at the RSC (not the musical, the play adaptation by Ted Hughes). I had a total blast and made lifelong friends as well as running about backstage at the Barbican. For a 15 year old it was a rather dazzling experience!
How do you feel when you’re on stage in front of a live audience?
There is something great about telling a story to a room full of people, especially if they are listening and laughing. The reactions of the audience feed into what we’re doing on the stage. The trick is to relish the participation of the audience without getting self indulgent, so telling the story has to remain the most important thing.
Most awkward moment when you’re performing?
Recently there was a technical fault and so the lights didn’t come up for a scene at the start of Act 2. Us actors didn’t know whether to start the scene in the pitch dark or wait until some lights came on. We did the latter, which was fine, but there was a brief moment of blinking whilst retinas adjusted to the light! We got away with it, our technical crew are so professional and quick-witted I don’t think the audience even noticed!
What is your biggest dream?
To keep on working as much and for as long as possible!
Do you try and separate your work and your personal lives? Is it difficult?
I am lucky to have a terrific fiancé who supports me and understands how irregular the life of an actor can be, as well as great friends, many of whom are also actors, so I’m not short of people I can discuss the trials and tribulations of the profession with!
What is your message to any aspiring actors and actresses out there?
Get out there and do it! Join a drama club, or set up a play-reading group. Make your own work if necessary by setting up a theatre company – I did this with some friends a while ago and it is hard work but so rewarding and such a creative outlet – we are called Baz Productions and just put on our first show which went down a storm! I would add that my final bit of advice to aspiring actors is to be tenacious!!!
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Catherine will be performing at the Criterion Theatre until July 2012.