The essential contradiction of professional wrestling is that it is both fake and real at the same time. While its outcomes are predetermined, the participants still have to push their bodies to their limits, using daring physical feats to tell elemental, primary-coloured stories. Although the Alison Brie-starring GLOW finds much delight in its 1980s setting – you worry that everyone on screen is about to choke on hairspray at any minute – the series uses the premise of a fledgling women’s wrestling promotion to explore the nuances of female friendship, the barriers to career advancement facing women and the opportunity to find empowerment through the reclamation of one’s own physicality. Given her shaded, customarily excellent work in everything from Mad Men to BoJack Horseman to Community, in person Alison is unsurprisingly passionate and thoughtful.
In both the show and the real world, wrestling is often dismissed as frivolous, yet the women of GLOW find something meaningful in it. Could you relate that to your own experience?
I think the women in GLOW are initially suspicious, they don’t take it too seriously, but they each learn that it allows them to tap into this primal warrior they had inside. Having studied acting and taken myself fairly seriously as an actor, I found that I’ve never had more fun than when I was in the ring, shooting our wrestling scenes and getting to be a larger-than-life wrestling character. It reminded me of theatre school where you can play anything. Sometimes you were doing a man’s role and sometimes you were someone really powerful and all of these things are no longer part of the equation when you start working in film and TV and you’re playing mothers and daughters and annoying girlfriends.
Have you made a deliberate decision to avoid those sorts of roles?
It’s part luck and part choice. Early on in my career I would have done anything, and I have – I’ve certainly played girlfriends and I’ve found value in every project I’ve worked on so I don’t want to totally dismiss it – but I’m drawn more to work where I get something to do.
There’s a beautiful scene later in the series where your character Ruth undergoes a difficult personal experience and she says “I’m a wrestler”, almost to herself. I like the idea that it becomes a self-definition: she’s someone who fights.
It changes the way she thinks about her body and her self, and I found that too while training for the show and shooting it. I almost started to think of myself more as an athlete than as an actor. It positively affected my confidence because as an actress so often your body and the way you look feels like it’s not your own. You’re trying to be what other people want you to be, or to look a way you think people want you to look, and in this show we were training for something so specific. You really had to take ownership of your body and then I became almost in awe of what I was capable of. I learned so many moves and surprised myself all the time, and that made me feel really empowered. That’s what Ruth is talking about in that moment. She’s made herself into a different person. She owns her body. She owns her decisions. She’s a bit of a warrior.
What was it like to train to that level?
It was so fun, at the time it was all I wanted to do. I’d been looking for a project that was more physical. I’ve worked with my trainer for six years and had already gotten into pretty good shape but I knew that I needed something to set goals for. When I was chasing this show, a part of the reason was to show this other aspect of myself that I’ve been working on for a while, and I loved it. I was ready to get my hands dirty.
How much thought do you give to the direction of your career when choosing parts? Do you often look ahead?
I’ve learned that it’s hard to set really distinct goals because you never know what opportunities may arise that you hadn’t thought of. I don’t want to limit myself to my own imagination. Recently I’ve been trying to be more strategic and I’m always looking to do something I haven’t done before, whether that’s due to the character or the genre or the people making it. Especially in regards to Annie in Community, I felt like it’s time to grow up. You can only trade on your adorableness for so long before you want to play a character who’s got a bit more depth, who’s dealing with complex emotions and has lived a bit more. My ambition is to stay interested in and excited by what I’m doing, and to be able to show different facets of myself as a performer and as a woman. There are so many ways that a script or a job can be appealing, so while I have some criteria in my mind and a general idea of a direction I’d like to go, it remains fluid. Being rigid makes accomplishing your goals nearly impossible.
Does that flexibility extend to coping with the job’s frequent lack of security? Community, for instance, was on the verge of cancellation for its entire run.
There’s no security, ever – even when a show is doing well, it’s still going to end at some point. When I was younger I thought there’d be a time where I’d know: “Now I’m successful and I don’t have to worry anymore”. It never comes. Every time I feel secure I have intense moments of vulnerability. I still think I’ll never work again. It’s a constant reality of the business and you need to deal with it. You have to let yourself think you’re going to fail sometimes and then just forge forward anyway.
Originally published in Oh Comely Issue Thirty-Eight.
It’s a compelling proposition: in her latest stand-up show Dope, Mae Martin details the significant addictions of her life, one by one. First, as a child she becomes obsessed with Bette Middler’s performance in Hocus Pocus, coaxing her parents into taking her to the cinema to see it over and over again. Her next fixation is live comedy, as she attends clubs around her native Toronto five nights a week, “a creep hanging around stage doors”. Then, at the age of 13, she becomes a stand-up herself, soon dropping out of school to focus on it entirely. A child in an adult world, Mae becomes addicted to pot and then cocaine. Still only in her late teens, she gets sober after her family learns that she’s been dealing drugs to supplement her income.
The presence of Bette Middler aside, Mae’s early years have the potential to be bleak, heavy subject matter, which perhaps explains the time delay in her work. “It seems to take me a decade to talk about things”, she observes, “My last show was about my childhood and puberty, and then this is about the period that came right after. I hadn’t felt ready before now. I hadn’t processed it”. Her tarrying is understandable: Mae felt it was crucial to get the tone exactly right. “I think audiences can sense when you’re not being honest. It’s difficult to find the balance – to not be too flippant while also making it funny. You want to make sure that you’re able to go to that dark place and then bring people out of it again, to feel really in control of it yourself”.
To meet this challenge Mae decided to initially write the whole show“like a TED talk”, without any jokes in it at all. She spent time researching addiction, becoming interested in the work of Dr Gabor Maté, a physician who argues for a broader definition of addiction beyond substances. “It was the first time I’d thought about how addiction is really a pattern of behaviour that’s in different parts of your life”, she says. Mae found her research provided a way to temper the darker material (“it’s funnier to talk about being addicted to Bette Middler than it is to talk about being addicted to cocaine”), but this was also useful on a personal level. “I didn’t realise that you can alter your brain chemistry with things like exercise. I’m now going to the gym for the first time in my life. When I was a teenager I just chose cigarettes over any sports or physical activity. I’m still working through it all. I think that comes across in the show; I don’t really know the answers and it’ll probably be an ongoing thing forever, but that process is valuable. I haven’t had severe addiction problems in so long and I’m pretty vigilant about it, but it’s definitely something that comes up elsewhere in my life. Recognising that has been helpful”.
One of Dope‘s central arguments is that it’s important to understand the positive effects of an addiction as well as the negative ones, to locate what problem someone is attempting to deal with via their addiction. She uses the example of comedy in her own life: “When I found comedy it was filling a certain need, and that’s not a healthy relationship to have with anything. I felt like such an outsider and then I discovered this community of people who were not only openly saying what made them weird and gross and embarrassing but were actually being applauded and rewarded for it. It was such a revelation and I became obsessed. It’s all I would think or talk about. That was pretty damaging to me. It was less physically dangerous than a substance, but just as consuming”.
Although her obsession with comedy prefigured the burdensome addiction to come, Mae is equivocal on the consequences of starting her career so early. “I went through puberty on stage. I did the worst comedy. Thank God that YouTube wasn’t a thing and people weren’t filming on smartphones back then because I was super embarrassing, but Toronto was a great place to learn comedy in a safe environment.” She admits that comedy has ultimately been good for her, but this could only happen once it stopped having a monopoly on her thoughts. “I’m still passionate about it but now my life is pretty full so it’s just one part. I’ve been doing stand-up for 17 years and it mellows out. You don’t get the same huge high. I’m lucky that I’ve managed to turn that particular addiction into a career, but also I dropped out of school so I have no other qualifications. I had to make it work”.
Even without the difficulties of being a young adult in recovery, it was a complicated transition from child prodigy to just another working comic: “Later on I had lots of day jobs, but in my teens I was able to do it full-time”, she says. “I got tonnes of gigs because of the novelty of my youth. There were newspaper articles and buzz because I had braces and was talking about my parents and school. I was a weird circus act of a kid. I coasted for a long time and then I had to start writing. Suddenly I had to try to be good.” It was one of the many tough experiences that Mae weathered, coming out stronger on the other end. “It took me until my mid-twenties to be comfortable with being myself on stage. I always felt confident but I used to physically shake, I’d get so nervous. Now I don’t feel like I’m on a knife-edge where I could slip at any minute. There isn’t the fear that I might actually melt into a puddle on the stage or burst into tears. I still bomb sometimes and get nervous before big gigs but I’m okay. I know I can do it”.
Originally published in Oh Comely Issue Thirty-Eight. Portrait by Liz Seabrook.
On certain days it’s possible to wake up in a country you don’t quite recognise. From bruising austerity cuts to the spread of nationalism, it hasn’t been the easiest decade to believe in a fairer, more compassionate society. It’s one thing to lose a fight, and another to lose it over and over again. In search of some practical idealism, we spoke to Josie Long – comedian and co-founder of the charity Arts Emergency – about the positive steps that someone can take if current events have left them dispirited.
When you formed Arts Emergency you wrote a manifesto, and its final point said “Optimism is a weapon”. Why do you think optimism is essential?
The notion of not being cynical and resigned doesn’t feel like a mainstream concept. The whole nature of our press and even the national character is “just put up with it”. Much of the discourse in the country and a lot of what it means to be British is to deny yourself the idea that there might be something better out there and that there might be a chance to have a more humane society. Optimism is essential but I also don’t think it’s been an entirely depressing time. I’ve met so many people and been able to join in with things that have given me hope and consolation. If you look at activist organisations that have formed in the last seven years like UK Uncut and Sisters Uncut, they’ve managed to get issues such as inequality and tax evasion onto the news agenda. I’m inspired by people who are managing to effect change on a local level.
How do you think we got to this point?
What’s happened since Thatcher is the erosion of civil society, the erosion of ways that people can feel rooted in their community and useful as participating citizens in the longer term. That’s exacerbated by the housing crisis where young people have to move and move and move, and by pay going down in real terms so people are working harder but have less money. People are desperate and frustrated but they’re also disconnected from one another, and they feel let down by those who represent them. To contest this, I would say the best thing to do is to contribute regularly as part of something, no matter how small or seemingly disconnected from politics. I’m literally talking about joining a local group that helps young people learn how to garden. Anything where you’re engaging with people in a sphere that’s not inherently capitalist is useful to building a society that has different values.
If people are interested in such actions, what should be their first step?
You don’t need to set up your own organisation. A small amount of googling will find something to get involved with that you don’t even need to do the work of starting. It’s hard because services are being cut to the bone, but if you do have any ideas about what might be useful and there aren’t local groups already doing them it might be worth attempting to set them up. If you do have any sort of passions or a desire to work with younger or older people, now is the time to try.
I’d imagine it’s also a way to learn that there are those who share your values?
If you’re looking for enemies you’ll find them and if you’re looking for a fight you’ll find it, but by that same reasoning if you look for friends you’ll find them always. There are wonderful organisations everywhere if you scratch the surface, and the people in them will inspire you and make you feel like you can carry on. There’s a case to be made for caring for each other on a broader level. It’s not enough to say you’ll just look after your family and friends. We all have a responsibility to act as citizens and participate in whatever way we can. There’s a beautiful idea that you should live like you’re already in the early days of a better society.
What advice would you give someone who feels particularly demoralised?
The first thing I’d say is read Hope in the Dark by Rebecca Solnit, which is a really useful book. She says you must “make yourself one small republic of unconquered spirit”. Remember that you’re allowed to hold values that are different to your government and you’re not wrong and you’re not insane and you’re not in any way treacherous for wanting to have a kinder society that has values other than extreme capitalism. It’s important, just like with self-care and mental health, to repeat your values to yourself as a positive mantra. Don’t be unrealistic about the composition of the United Kingdom or what politics might mean at the moment. It’s wrong to expect socialism to suddenly romp home to victory when money and power are entrenched, but even though the Conservatives control something like 90% of the British media doesn’t mean that 90% of Britain holds far right views, it just means currently that’s the fight to be won. If regressive beliefs are dominant, that doesn’t mean there will never be room in this country for a social democracy. Things are difficult but you’re not going anywhere. You learn from loss and you try your hardest to regroup. You just have to keep going, because what else are you going to do?
Originally published in Oh Comely Issue Thirty-Seven. Portrait by Ellie Smith.
The programme was called Mean Town. Pearl Mackie hadn’t heard of it before, but had been asked by her agent if she might be available. Since leaving drama school five years earlier she’d mostly performed at fringe theatres, but a lengthy spell in the West End production of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time suggested that she was ready to move on to the next stage in her career. Mean Time, she would soon learn, was an anagram of “Woman Ten”, which was itself a codename for Bill Potts, the name of the eponymous Time Lord’s next companion in the tenth series of Doctor Who.
Pearl was to become well-acquainted with elaborate acts of subterfuge; few television programmes invite as much speculation as Doctor Who, a genuine national institution over fifty years into its run. Suddenly the word “unknown” was being attached to every description of her in the press, and she was sequestered in Cardiff for ten months to film the series. When we meet she is only weeks from the end of her marathon shoot, exhausted but palpably excited. “I just can’t wait for people to meet Bill,” she says, meaning it, “She’s the kind of person I’d want to be friends with. I think she’s awesome, but I’m probably biased because she’s me.”
More than most programmes, people are hungry to find out what’s going on in Doctor Who. What’s it like to work on something for almost a year under intense scrutiny?
Everyone wants to know about it. Friends keep asking me what’s happening, begging me to send them pictures. It can be difficult when you come home from work and you’ve had an amazing day, filming something really cool, and you want to tell someone but you can’t. I’ve gotten very good at discussing the show in non-specific terms, so I can explain without giving anything away. I just hate spoilers. My cousin used to tell me the ends of movies all the time. Five minutes into the film she’d say, “Oh I’ve seen this, he dies”. I’ve just started watching it! Now what do I do – should I carry on watching, knowing that this poor man is going to die? It ruins the experience.
How far in advance did you learn what would be happening?
We get the scripts episode by episode, which has actually been great. It’s something I’ve never experienced before: when you’re in a play you know the whole story from beginning to end, but one of the best things about this job is that I don’t know what’s going to happen next. As a real person I don’t know what’s going to happen to me tomorrow, so it’s interesting to have the same thing with a character, to gradually build on her over time. Very occasionally though there’s something you read and you think, ah, I didn’t know about that, if I had I would have put it in earlier!
Did you feel any pressure about joining such a well-established show?
I’d watched a few episodes, bits and bobs, but Doctor Who was never a massive part of my life. I’m 29 so I didn’t grow up with it. The show came back when I was about 16, and pretty much the only thing I watched back then was The O.C., in bed on Sundays. When I got the job I said, “okay, give me the back catalogue, let me watch it all”, but they told me no. Bill doesn’t know anything about that world, so they liked the idea that I was discovering it all at the same time as her. Also, it’s hard as an actor to watch a brilliant performance and not subconsciously take a little bit from it. If I watched any of the previous companions, who are all fantastic actresses, I’d struggle to not emulate some parts of their performances within my own, especially as they’d be in similar situations. I thought maybe it’s best not to do that for now, and when I’m finished I can binge-watch the whole thing.
You’re from South London, so is it helpful to film away from home?
It really is. I’m mainly able to head back at weekends but I do get homesick sometimes. It’s useful though because during the week I can put my head down and work hard, which I need because I have to be up at twenty past five every morning. At night I get in and have a bath, eat dinner, learn my lines and go to bed, so it’s handy to not be distracted by my mates wanting to go out for food, or they’re doing something and want me to join them. Even swinging by for an hour would be scary. “I’ve got to get back, it’s past my bedtime!” I’ve become Cinderella.
Was it an adjustment to act in an effects-heavy TV programme after mostly working on stage?
There’s a myth that you have to act smaller for camera. You can be quieter as you don’t have to project to the back of the auditorium, but there’s definitely room for subtlety on stage and broad emotional work on screen. The way my performance has changed regarding the technical aspects is that I didn’t really know what I was doing before! Peter Capaldi has been very helpful with that. He’s so experienced, it’s fascinating seeing the difference in his work: his performance looks great in real life but then you see it on screen and it’s phenomenal. I’ve learned to use camera angles – how to hit marks and tailor my acting to the frame they’re using. If it’s a close-up then you don’t want to do stuff that’s too big because it’s distracting. By the end of the first block, six weeks in, I’d probably done more consecutive hours of filming than lots of my friends who’ve been doing television episodes for years. I feel like I’ve learned my craft in front of the camera. But I haven’t seen it yet, so don’t take my word for it.
Originally published in Oh Comely Issue Thirty-Six. Portrait by Liz Seabrook.
When we think about physical performance, we have a tendency to ignore the journey in favour of the result: how much, how high, how long, how fast. A career of effort, persistence and ambition can be judged on milliseconds, but a sporting life isn’t just measured by one’s personal best or the number of medals on the shelf.
As the theme of this issue is strength, we decided to speak to four women who are dedicating their lives to physical excellence. Although their pursuits and stories differ greatly, they’re each united by the same determination, the same bloodymindedness, the same audacious grit.
Megan Giglia, Paralympic track cyclist
Achievements: C3 world records in 3km Individual Pursuit and 500m Time Trial, gold at the 2016 Summer Paralympics in Individual Pursuit, gold in Individual Pursuit and Time Trial at the 2016 Para-cycling Track World Championship, and an MBE for services to cycling.
How did you become interested in cycling? In January 2013 I had a brain haemorrhage that resulted in a massive stroke. I have issues with memory and co-ordination and my physical abilities, as well as other neurological problems and epilepsy. I used the bike originally just to get movement back in my right side. It was a way of handling my emotions: when I wasn’t ready to deal with them I’d blast it out on the road. Six months later I considered doing it competitively. My pre-stroke relationship broke down and I ended up cycling 120 miles to a friend’s house with my foot tied to the pedal and my hand tied to the handlebar. I don’t know how I made it there alive. My friend’s mum had terminal cancer, and she told me I couldn’t let others hold me back, that I should find something and take it all the way. I’ve always loved sports – I used to coach – and it’s the one part of me that’s stayed the same. The routine and structure of competition gave me a focus and a new beginning.
What was hardest about the experience? That period, where I’d gone from being completely fine, able-bodied as they call it, having my job, my family, a life around me, and suddenly I’d lost it all and had to create a new past. I couldn’t remember family members’ names, or what I liked, and I couldn’t taste so didn’t even know what food I enjoyed. You have to relearn so much about yourself, and because it’s not something I was born with, I had to work out what was wrong as well. It took two to three years to be able to say, “this is who I am”, rather than always refer to who I was. I call myself Megan the Second now.
What do you enjoy most about cycling? I strive for competition. When you go into the competitive environment it’s a breath of fresh air because it’s about what you can do rather than what you can’t. There’s a quote I like: ‘I’m not what happened to me, I’m what I choose to become.’ Within my C3 category, everyone is there because they cycle. They just want to pedal their bikes.
Have you had to make any sacrifices? You’ve got to be completely professional, focused solely on what you’re doing. It can become unhealthily addictive, and I’m definitely addicted to my sport. It becomes your life. Before Rio I had a partner for two years who I met after my stroke. I never thought I’d find someone who’d love and accept me for who I was, but I actually ended that relationship in order to progress. I didn’t have time for it and couldn’t give her what she needed, and I needed to focus on being the best I could be. You sacrifice so much. Sports is very selfish and I’m beginning to realise that, but I’ve got a better balance now. I have a new partner who’s very supportive and we’re dealing with things as they come along.
What are your goals for the future? I’m hoping to go to World Championships this year in Los Angeles, but we’ll see what happens. I’ve got a long way to go before I’m the best. I’ve got a Paralympic gold and two world records, but that doesn’t mean I’m the best cyclist. There are still so many technical skills I can improve on. I love what I do and that’s the only way I’ll get better. The day I stop loving cycling is the day I stop.
Emily Ackner, multi-sport athlete
Achievements: Completed solo 300-mile run across Cornwall in 12 days, founder of challenge-focused coaching programme Fit for That.
How did you get into an active lifestyle? From a young age I played a huge amount of sports. As I got older, I started skiing and snowboarding and got into coaching. Growing up in Cornwall, nature has always been at the forefront of everything I want to do and create. I like having an outdoor life.
What’s the toughest thing about training? I’ve had to become a morning person. You need to commit to days when it’s raining and horrible and sometimes you might not want to get out of bed, but that’s part of it. If you weren’t able to get through those tougher moments then the joy and celebration of actually completing a challenge wouldn’t be as sweet. If it was easy then you wouldn’t feel like you’d accomplished anything.
What do you enjoy most about it? You discover things about yourself. I love how it feels to push myself physically in the moment of taking a challenge. There’s real focus and clarity that you get from that time, be it on the road, on the trail, or in the open water. You can use your body as a vehicle for fun and adventure rather than just pleasing people with how you look. I want to lead an active life and to ensure through training that my body is strong enough to keep me going. From a coaching perspective, I want to help grow a community of women who enjoy exploring but also are mindful of putting in the work.
Have you had to make any sacrifices? If you’ve chosen something you’re passionate about then it doesn’t feel like a sacrifice. My lifestyle has changed greatly over the last few years as I’ve prioritised fitness and that’s not something I regret. It doesn’t feel like it’s one or the other for me.
What are your goals for the future? I’m very much of the mindset that it’s easier to work towards a specific goal if you set yourself a big challenge. Over the last couple of years I’ve focused on endurance challenges which incorporate exploration so there’s something of a journey to be had both metaphorically and physically in getting to the finish line. I like to have one big physical challenge that I can do in a year that revolves around logistical planning, so this year I’m travelling across Croatia with a group of cyclists to raise money for a refugee cause – I’m going to swim 50 miles up the coast of Croatia, cycle from Trieste down to Dubrovnik, swim 50 miles back up and then finish with a 48km mountain race in Italy. Having a training focus like that keeps me going in the bleak winter months. That’s the main thing I’d advocate to anyone – have a goal that excites you. It’s a sure-fire way to ensure that you take the time to commit.
Maëva Berthelot, contemporary dancer
Achievements: Founding member of dance, live music and video collective Collectif Larsen, six years as a full-time member of the Hofesh Shechter Company, work with choreographers including Wayne McGregor and Emanuel Gat.
How did you become interested in dance? I started dancing when I started walking. I was always a very active child and gave anything a try. I had the schedule of a prime minister, and grew up surrounded by contemporary dancers. My mum taught dance, in a very different way from how I do now. It wasn’t strictly dance, but working with little humans to encourage movement and play. I spent Saturdays and Wednesdays at her best friend’s dance school. From nine in the morning until nine at night, going to every single class. It became more focused when I turned ten – I started doing half school, half dance, taking classes for people that wanted to become dance teachers – it was just me and lots of adults.
What’s the toughest thing about it? It’s not physically demanding so much as it’s exhausting. If you’re a full-time member of a dance company you don’t get a minute for yourself. You perform the work again and again, you tour again and again, and when you don’t perform you’re teaching or rehearsing. To be honest it’s been tricky. I could say it’s always fantastic but even as a teacher I try to make my students aware that it’s a hard job. There’s very little recognition or financial reward, so you do it for the love, and the level of commitment and dedication is something else. You work 365 days a year and you’re devoting all your time and energy. You don’t really have a life outside of the company. It’s been hard for me to sustain friendships and relationships.
What do you enjoy most about dancing? It demands everything but the feelings you experience, they’re amazing. My love for it has definitely gone up and down: when your passion becomes a routine it’s easily killable. It’s a daily challenge to make it fresh, to keep something spontaneous and honest in the work. That’s mainly why I teach. In a company, the dimension of enjoyment isn’t what you focus on. You don’t have fun, you work. You work hard. So my class is the opposite. I don’t necessarily teach a style, but try to help people find themselves in dance. Everything is connected to that first feeling when you started dancing, to those bursts of pleasure in movement. Sometimes you have to train to get that love back.
What are your goals for the future? I’m taking this year to do personal projects that I’ve always wanted to try. I feel like I need to work with movement in a different context – video art, photography, film. The dance audience, I know how to play with them, how to grasp their attention. I want to start working in a new way. After 30 years of focusing so much on one craft, it’s time to make sure I don’t fall asleep. I just want to start playing again. I want to keep on challenging myself, to keep learning and growing. I’m in a period of reconnecting with pure creative enjoyment.
Sorrell Walsh, marathon runner
Achievements: Completed five ultra marathons and 15 marathons with a sub-three hour personal best, co-founder of running crew Still Waters Run Deep and women’s collective WMN RUN.
How did you get into running? About five years ago my brother was training for the London Marathon, and I wondered why on earth was he going out running for 20 miles at a time. I was always active at school and then had a stagnant period through college, so I tried a one-mile loop near my parents’ house. I dry heaved the first time I did it but started to build up from there.
What do you enjoy most about it? For me running is about so many things but it gives me balance: if I don’t feel great one day I can go for a run and come back feeling better. I like the feeling that I’m achieving more out of life. Running is a physical activity but it’s very much a mental experience as well. If I achieve something with my own body I never thought I could, then I can apply that to other areas. I’m not saying I can become an astronaut, but it does open your mind up to possibilities of life, career or anything really. If there’s something I think I can’t do, maybe I am able to achieve it.
Have you had to make any sacrifices? I don’t feel like they’re sacrifices. I can always find more hours in the day; if I’m busy, maybe I’ll get some running done at lunchtime. I enjoy juggling life like that. Then again, when I’m home for Christmas and my family are all around, I feel like I have to get my work out in the morning because if I’m running all day it’s not fair to them. Sometimes it can be a bit of a strain but that’s my own responsibility. No-one’s forcing me to do this. If I want to get somewhere then I have to keep at it.
What are your goals for the future? It’s good to have lofty goals – whether I reach them or not depends on what I can actually achieve. I’d love to do the UltraTrail du Mont-Blanc, and the Bob Graham Round challenge in the Lake District, and in my lifetime I’d like to get a marathon time of 2:45. At the moment I’m trying to get faster, so I’ve got a coach now which is really exciting. Place and landscape is a big part of why I enjoy running so I’ve done marathons to see a new place or visit a new city: for instance, last year I ran the Sierra Leone marathon. The media portrays it as a place you should be scared to visit, let alone run around, but actually it was incredible. I’ve never met people who are so welcoming, even though they don’t have much. I only learned that by going. The temperature was about 35 degrees, but it’s more the humidity. You can’t naturally cool down so you have to watch your own body. Not that I would expect to get heatstroke, but they don’t have life support machines there. Obviously that’s a risk, but a lot of running is knowing your own body and your limits. And then pushing them.
Originally published in Oh Comely Issue Thirty-Five. Portraits by Liz Seabrook.
In the introduction to Animal: The Autobiography of a Female Body, Sara Pascoe writes, “I’m not attempting to be the last word in a conversation, I just want to be part of it, and then I’ll sit back and listen some more”. The statement is beautiful but unnecessary: at every turn in the book, the comedian demonstrates an inquisitiveness towards subjects that tend to make people dogmatic. Existing in the space between memoir and scientific non-fiction, Animal explores love, the female body and consent from an evolutionary and sociological perspective, using bracingly honest examples from Sara’s own life. Miraculously, it is somehow also very funny. Sara sat down with us to discuss her work.
Why did you decide to create a book rather than another stand-up set?
In 2014 I was writing a show that was about all of the inherited things that you take into a new relationship, which was happening to me at the time. You have these three kinds of history: your own relationship history, your parents’ relationship and then genetic inheritance, what we’re conditioned to do. I was researching and kept finding things out that I wished I’d learned as a teenager or child, but what’s frustrating about comedy is that if something doesn’t have a punchline it’s difficult to find a legitimate reason for saying it on stage. I was going to do an entirely non-fiction scientific book, and then I thought that although personal stories are utterly subjective – the exact opposite of science – there could be a balance between the two. When we read a book, we filter it through our own lives and experience. The ones we really love feel like an amazing counselling session: you understand things about yourself.
What was the writing process like?
It mutated a lot. I originally had 10 chapter headings which would each be a part of the body. I wanted to do one on the clitoris, the vulva, the brain, but it became a complicated way of organising it. This is what people who want to write a book and haven’t should remember: writing is really messy, you just only see the final version. I wrote 20,000 words on karaoke that was never used, but it was a breakthrough because I realised I had personal things to say, and some of them wouldn’t be relevant but I needed to get them out of my system. With stand-up you always think your fear is the audience saying horrible things. What you realise when you’re alone is that you heckle yourself constantly. The thing you have to battle is your own lack of self-belief, the voice saying you’re not good enough. You have to shout back: “Shut up you! I’m going to do it anyway. You don’t have to read it!”
There’s a lot of equivocation in Animal: you always take pains to mention that it’s just your experience and doesn’t stand for all women. Why was that important?
My hackles rise when I read other people not doing it. We all make the mistake of projecting our subjectivity onto everyone, and in feminism that’s a real problem. It’s meant there are women who feel unsupported by other feminists, especially women who aren’t born into female bodies. I’ve written a book about female bodies, and so I had to make sure I was inclusive. My insecurity was also at the idea that a 40-year-old man would read it. Have I convinced him too? It forced me to ensure my arguments were sound, to stop a passive aggressive guy saying “well, what about this?” I always answered that question for him.
Were you surprised by any responses you received?
I’ve not really dealt with them. This is a helpful thing I’ve learned from stand-up. I thought at some point I would harden, that I’d get used to negative comments, and also positive ones where you’re misinterpreted, but I haven’t. So I’ve really protected myself, otherwise those bad sentences tattoo themselves onto your brain. Once someone tweeted about how I had a grating laugh on panel shows, and now every time I do one, at some point I’ll hear myself laugh and remember – oh, I’ve got a grating laugh. I’ll think I shouldn’t be laughing. I get in my head and that’s a place where you need to do the opposite. The internet is a door you can close, and you can choose what comes through to you.
The book argues that many of our evolutionary instincts that have developed over millennia are unsuitable for the modern world. Do you feel that this encompasses the internet?
Well, the dopamine cycle in the brain goes crazy with messages. Dopamine is essentially a chemical incentive to do things: our brain rewards us for making new social connections because that’s a sign of strength in the tribal group, and it does the same when we learn new information so we can avoid danger and stay alive. On the internet those two things are happening all the time, so we get depletion and need bigger hits. It’s an addiction circuit like any other drug that releases dopamine. Scientists did an experiment with chickens: you can train a chicken so they peck a button a certain number of times and get some corn, but if you make it a random number then the chicken pecks forever because it’s addicted to the process. It isn’t a regular pattern so they can’t walk away, because it never knows when the corn’s coming. That’s the same thing with checking e-mails. When I used to have wi-fi on my phone, every few days I’d get an exciting e-mail about work, but then I was checking my phone every 20 seconds, getting sad at the weekends because nothing was arriving. It’s a personal journey though. I would never tell anyone how to use their phones, especially if you get pleasure from it. It’s only if it starts to wear you down, or you feel depressed and you think one of the things affecting you might be that you’re getting your dopamine from a tiny computer rather than from people.
Originally published in Oh Comely Issue Thirty-Four. Photograph by Clare Hewitt.
Alexandra Roach is conspicuously nice. This sounds like damning her with faint praise, but Alex’s defining characteristic is her easy, generous warmth, a quality which carries over into her work.
The Welsh actor’s professional life began in earnest when she played a young Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady, but she’s acted since joining the Welsh-language soap Pobyl y Cwm as an eleven-year-old. What’s heartening is that this niceness doesn’t come at the expense of ambition – in one of Alex’s many references to the strong women who have inspired her, she mentions how working with Meryl Streep reassured her that you can be personable and decent and still achieve great work. “If it’s good enough for Meryl, I’m going to stick with that,” she says.
Even with a career continuing to gain momentum, however, when we meet she admits she’s at a crossroads. A veteran of her industry at 28, Alex is impatient for her next challenge, and is taking control of her career to nudge it in new directions.
You recently moved to Bristol. Did you want to live away from the acting profession?
I was struggling in London somewhat. I wasn’t feeling creative and was often in a bad mood, which isn’t me. I thought: hang on, let’s do something about this, so I took myself away and have spent the past few months resetting. It’s important to question what you do, and I’ve been acting non-stop since eleven. I’ve been writing a lot since, so it was definitely the right move. My friends are still in London, that’s the only thing. It’s been a month though, so give me time! I’m just trying to make pals. Hanging around my yoga class for ten minutes more, putting on my socks really slowly.
Do you approach acting differently as an adult? Is it still fundamentally the same job?
If I approached everything as I did when I was eleven that’d be strange, but I’ve still got that strong instinct. I don’t overcomplicate things. When I start a role it’s almost like my atoms change and I become that person. Subconsciously they become a part of me, so I don’t think about it too much. At eleven I probably didn’t think about it at all.
Although you’d been acting for several years you decided to go to Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London. What was that like?
I’m glad I went but it was difficult. It’s exactly how you’d imagine it. I remember one teacher said I should stay in London alone for Christmas and listen to Radio 4 to stop my accent getting any stronger. I didn’t do it. People told me I needed to lose my accent and I said: “No, I can do other accents fine, that’s my job. This is me. I’m not losing me.”
Coming from a former coal mining town, did you worry about the response when you were cast as Margaret Thatcher?
I’d love to sit here and say I mulled the part over but I got that phone call and it was one of the best calls I’ve ever had.
It’d be hard to turn down playing the young Meryl Streep.
“No, sorry Meryl, it’s not for me.” Imagine! My grandfather was a miner but passed away before I did the film, so that’s always something I wonder about. What would he have said? I was nervous about going back to Ammanford because there was such animosity towards Thatcher, but everybody was really interested and wanted to chat about it. It was a challenge because I was tasked with making her human. Politics aside, I saw a lot of myself in her, this ambitious young woman trying to take control of her life. At the time several people told me I couldn’t make it, and I felt a steeliness inside.
You mentioned you’ve been writing. How did that come about?
I’ve acted for so long, and it’s not that it’s unfulfilling, but I wanted more control. On some jobs they hire me, I turn up, someone else’s words are given to me, I’m told where to stand, where to look, sometimes even how to say the lines, and I feel like I need more. I look at Lena Dunham and other women doing it themselves and I think I want a bit of that.
What are you working on?
I’m writing three television one-hours with Ruth Jones, who co-created Gavin & Stacey. The project is actually based on my mother. When she was in her twenties she was working as a nurse in the Valleys and in an abusive, dead end relationship. One day she was flicking through a magazine after a massive row, and there was an advert saying an American family needed an au pair. She’d always dreamt of America, so she ripped it out, put it in her pocket and went home to another row. She decided to write to the family, telling them her story, and five weeks later a one-way ticket arrived. She couldn’t just pack her things and leave though because he was really controlling, so every day she’d take a pair of knickers in her bag and give it to her best friend, who slowly filled a suitcase for her. When the time came my gran drove her to the airport and she was gone. It was the late 60s so she hitch-hiked around America by herself and joined in the hippie movement and became a free spirit. I only found out about eighteen months ago when she told me over a drink. I knew she went to America but not why or how. It was definitely the wine. We’d had a couple of bottles.
At what point did you decide you want to write about it?
Oh, from the second it left her mouth, but I had to wait. I went to Ruth a year later. She knows the Valleys, she knows the humour. I didn’t consider anyone else. Now we meet every week at her house. She’s been so positive but it’s scary when you’re starting out. The other day she asked me to forward what I’d written, and I was hovering over the send button for ages. But it’s exciting. I’d be playing my mother and Ruth would be my grandmother. I’m really giving it a go.
Has writing about your mother changed your relationship?
Yes. You think your mother’s just your mother. I’m guilty of it. You forget she had a whole life before you. Last week she gave me her travelling diary and I’ve been delving in, getting to see her as a young woman going through all these terrible and great things. There’s a reason why her advice is so good: she’s been there before. I feel like I’m finally getting to know her.
Published in Oh Comely Issue Thirty. Photograph by Liz Seabrook.
Without even noticing, you invest emotional energy in people who create things you like. Regardless of whether they are musicians, writers, film-makers or something else entirely, they assume a function in your life akin to a favourite sports team: you take pride in their accomplishments, defend their honour against the unconverted and become disheartened when they stumble. You root for them. You love to see them win.
This instinctual solidarity makes the arrival of that familiar sighing sensation in the chest especially disappointing, as you discover you’ve seen everything they has to offer. While there’s pleasure in watching them return yet again to the territory that was so exciting originally, it is also dispiriting to realise that they’ve run out of new things to say and new ways to say them.
Despite regularly inhabiting different characters, actors aren’t spared from this fate either. Being typecast is a lurking hazard of the job: when you demonstrate you’re good at one type of thing, people want you to keep doing it. Viewed in this light, Maxine Peake’s career is even more impressive. It would be easy to imagine how she might have got snagged on the success of her early comic roles in dinnerladies and Shameless, subsequently becoming doomed to play variations of “brassy and bombastic Northerner” until retirement age. Instead, Maxine’s vital, daring performances chart new ground as she has embraced the challenge of portraying everyone from Hamlet to Myra Hindley. You never quite know what she’s going to do next, but it’s always worth a look. That sighing sensation is thankfully absent.
As these thoughts bobbled around my head, I took Maxine to the most echoey corner of the Barbican for a chat.
Given this issue’s theme, I thought it might be nice to talk about the idea of change in relation to your work. Acting can change constantly, can’t it? Is that a part of the appeal?
Definitely. I find it difficult to stay in my seat. When I’ve done a few series of a programme it becomes really hard to come back to a character, to attack the same person again. Even though the audience might not notice, I’ll have slightly changed in the months since we last filmed, or I’ll have different ideas about the part. My attention span is quite short. I don’t want to get bored doing something and become complacent. I tell myself that I’ve done that thing now: successfully or not, I’ve ticked that box. It’s time to move on.
Was it difficult earlier in your career to establish that you didn’t just want different projects but different kind of projects?
Yes, and it might have been an easier career if I’d said okay, this is what I do now. After I played Twinkle in dinnerladies a lot of scripts came in that were substandard Twinkles, but I’d already been the proper one. I just had to tell them I wasn’t doing any more of those thank you very much, even if it meant I probably wasn’t going to work for a bit. You have to try to steer the boat yourself. I’m usually looking for a challenge. If I get sent something and don’t know why they think I can do the character, that’s usually why I have a go. “I don’t quite get this one yet. Great!”
Is that why you moved from London to Salford?
It gave me more artistic freedom really. I suppose it gave me more time. It took the pressure off. I just remember thinking if I bought a flat in London I’d feel trapped. I would have to do jobs to pay a mortgage. Of course, most people get up in the morning and go to work because they have to. It sounds arrogant but I didn’t want to get stuck doing that. It depends what you’re in it for, and for me it’s never been the money. I wanted to be able to pick and choose what I do. There’s little worse than being two weeks into a shoot, wishing you’d never said yes and you’ve got months to go. It’s got to be fulfilling for me to get something out of it.
In that case, what’s fulfilling about your role as an Associate Artist for the Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester, where you also played Hamlet?
It’s the luxury of being able to have a creative partnership with Sarah Frankcom, the artistic director. To have that building where we can ask ourselves what do we want to do, and then do it. I don’t want to hog the theatre, or for people to think oh no, not Maxine again, so we try to keep it sporadic and do a piece together about once a year. I feel really blessed about it. Someone asked me recently how much of a feminist statement Hamlet was, but it didn’t start as one. Me and Sarah just said let’s do something where we really have to push the boat out and it’s going to frighten the life out of us. The scarier the better, you know? So Hamlet came out of us asking what is one of the most difficult and monumental pieces of theatre we could do. I’ve got this opportunity, so why not push myself? And it’s amazing what that play can absorb. I played Hamlet as trans: a character who was born a woman but felt more comfortable in a male body, and the play took it. It seems to be able to support whatever themes you throw at it or whatever route you decide to take.
As well as acting you’ve also started to write plays over the past few years. Is that a part of the same process?
Yes, it’s been about feeling able to have a go at what I want to do. I spent a lot of my early years being very self-conscious. It’s not that I was under-confident, but now I feel more secure people will actually take a bit of notice because of the body of work I’ve got behind me. I wanted to write when I was younger but I just thought, well, who’s going to take me seriously? It’s not that as you get older you get more confident, it’s just you care less. What’s the worst that can happen? Nobody’s going to die. It was like that with Hamlet. It could have been a disaster. People could have said it was the worst Hamlet they’d ever seen. So what? Obviously you want to do things that people like because they’ve paid their hard-earned cash to see you, but you’re allowed to try new things.
Does that shifting attitude apply to being a public figure too? In recent years you’ve spoken out powerfully against austerity: is that something you feel more comfortable doing?
I’ve sort of always been that way, but people pay more attention now. I remember when I would do interviews for Shameless: I’d talk about being in the Young Communist League when I was 18, and they’d ask me how I lost all the weight after dinnerladies. Nobody was particularly interested in a young northern female talking about politics. I suppose I’ve banged on long enough now that people ask me about it. For me it’s all tied in. When I read a script, I ask myself questions. Is that character is a female role model? What are we saying? What’s the message in this piece? It’s all linked, so I thought I might as well be open about it. I think television especially has an important part to play in changing perceptions. We need to get with the programme and show Britain as it is, this amazing multicultural melting pot with people from all walks of life. I find it so frustrating. You watch telly and so much of it doesn’t reflect us. There’s still gender stereotyping, class stereotyping, race stereotyping. We’re not putting a magnifying glass up to Britain and I don’t know why. How are we still so very behind?
Do you feel an obligation to take roles in socially progressive projects?
I do. It’s funny, what I find now is that scripts are getting much more female heavy, but I’m not sure if the parts are actually getting any better. You get some amazing female parts, but at the moment I get offered a lot of women in their late 30s, early 40s: last stab at childhood, last stab at a family. Me and my friends are in that age range and that’s not what we sit around and talk about. There’s more to women. Come. On. Female writers can be just as guilty of it. This is why doing things like Hamlet’s cross-gender casting is important. Women don’t have to sit and suffer in silence and say, well, I’m at that age where there are no good female parts. Grab yourself a good male one and go and do it!
What would you like to do next? Do you look ahead to where you might want to be in the future?
I would like to continue. More theatre, film, good television. Just to be able to carry on doing scripts that I want to do. It’s more difficult as you get older. I guess that’s where the writing comes in, and theatre as well. My dream when I was younger, and it seemed like a dream because I was a working-class oik from Bolton, was to be a classical theatre actress. I wanted that but I was never quite confident enough to vocalise it, so I went all around the houses. Now I’m starting to do the theatre that I really want to, and it’s taken me over twenty years to get here.
Published in Oh Comely Issue Twenty-Nine. Photographs by Liz Seabrook.
If, say, you’re researching the Lancashire folk singer and historian Jennifer Reid for an upcoming interview, the first thing you’ll read on her website is that she self-identifies as the “pre-eminent broadside balladress of the Manchester region.” This august position, she will later gladly admit, is partially due to a lack of competition: Jennifer is the only broadside balladress in the Manchester region. In fact, she’s the only broadside balladress in the country. And she made up the word balladress, so there’s that, too.
In spite of being the only iteration of a thing she invented, Jennifer wasn’t how I expected someone who devotes themselves to the study and performance of Industrial Revolution-era ballads to be. “I’ll never not be crazy, so it’s always good to have The Booglies,” was one of the first things she said to me, enthusing about her punk 1950s rock-and-roll band in which she “rasps and screams and prances about.” It wasn’t the omnipresent tattoos that caught me by surprise but her attitude of irreverent, puckish vim: it takes a certain kind of freethinking apostasy to create a profession that no one else does and then become pre-eminent at it.
As Jennifer started to tell me the history of her chosen field, however, I realised that everything about her made absolute sense. She is exactly the sort of person who would voraciously devour broadside ballads and try to make others equally excited about the topic. She is, in short, a radical.
I used to have a really good definition for it. Hold on. Yes. A broadside ballad was a poem intended to be sung, printed on a piece of cheap paper. Ephemera. They weren’t supposed to last. The paper was so thin that you’d get it, learn it, paste it up on the pub wall, forget about it and paste over it with a new one in a couple of days. But they’ve survived. There’s 5,000 in Manchester alone. People just didn’t want to let them go.
How long were they popular for?
Oh God, ages. They were around from the 1500s all the way up to the 1900s. They had black Gothic print and evolved into garlands, which evolved into chapbooks of poetry. Broadsheets were easier because you could have them in a roll on a stick, like toilet paper—pull it down, cut it off , sell it, pull it down, cut it off , sell it—so it was easy to just shove them out. When newspapers started becoming popular they were seen as gossip. Newspapers were rooted in fact whereas broadsheets became a guy shouting, “Murder! Betrayal! Torture!” It was all a bit medieval by then.
How did you first become interested in broadsides?
I was in Barcelona and we were squatting and after a year I ran out of money, so I started e-mailing all the cultural places in Manchester like Chetham’s Library and the Working Class Movement Library, saying I was interested in Lancashire folk music. Chetham’s got back to me and said they had this collection of ballads, seven big volumes of them. I looked through them and realised that I recognised some of the tunes but not where from. I started to sing them, and catalogued and digitised them all. And then the artist Jeremy Deller got in touch and asked me to sing on Newsnight and from there it went on.
Were you raised with folk music?
No, no, my parents don’t like folk music. Dad likes Leonard Cohen, Mum likes Bryan Ferry and that’s where it stops. Both police people. We’d go on holidays to Turkey because they liked getting tanned. It wasn’t my background at all; I’d never been to a folk festival in my life. But, I don’t know, things chime from it. Working class struggles. I can’t not be interested. I can’t not tell people about it. These songs, all these trade union songs, early anti-Corn Law and Peterloo Massacre stuff and the big mill disasters, it’s all really important and it’s exactly the same as now. I think people should focus more and learn from the past so we can move forward.
The ballads were created for working class people. Were they made by them too?
Some were. There were people like Tommy Armstrong, the Pitman Poet. He’d work in the pit, write poems, sing them, be at the front of strikes and represent the people. But then you had places like the Seven Dials that used to be a big London printing powerhouse. There was a famous printer there called Jeremy Catnach. He was a bit of a git. He used to hire people to write ballads, mimicking what working class people were thinking, but only to flog to them. He had a really capitalist mindset, trying to appeal to working class people in an exploitative way.
Do you have an idea of how many were written?
Loads loads loads. If you were a traveller and walked past a printer’s house they’d say, “Right, I can tell you’re new in town, come in here. You can earn twenty shillings a week to churn out ballads.” The circulation was insane. Some of them would say “a woman in ‘blank’ street” and the printer would just fill in the name of a street in his area. These ballads were reproduced everywhere and people would think they were specific to their neighbourhood when they absolutely weren’t. There’s a story about a guy who was being hanged, and the hack went to the hanging, wrote down the details, ran to the printing house, printed off a few hundred ballads, came back and had them to sell by the time the man was dead.
Your background isn’t in traditional academia. Is that a benefit in some ways?
Yes, especially with the Lancashire dialect stuff, which I find the richest part. I can’t come at it from an academic perspective because I’m too invested. I just have to sing it, I have to be the vessel through which more people can hear it. There are academics that I talk to, but they’ve only dabbled, used bits and pieces. I’m fully ballad girl, the end.
How does performance factor into your work? Have you done research on how they were sung?
The vocals are the glitzy, charismatic part. If I was just going to give a talk about ballads and not sing any, then I really don’t see the point at all. I like to sing a cappella because it’s got heart that way. If you were a miner or a weaver, you weren’t going to have an instrument lying around. Maybe an English concertina if you’re lucky. It’s like when you get drunk and you sing at the pub and don’t have an instrument to hand. I like the spontaneity, you can just burst into it. Anyone can sing these songs, so it’s only right for me to sing them in a very simple way where you can fully listen to the words. The tune isn’t important: they weren’t printed with them. You can put any tune you want to these songs. Often when I read a ballad I get the tune in my head by the fourth verse and then by the fifth I can sing it fine. It’s really strange how it comes at you, like it was there already.
Do audiences outside Lancashire react differently to your work?
I think they’re moved in a strange way. It freaked me out at first because I was just singing a song in my accent and doing a clog dance. I didn’t know what the big deal was. It stands for something that is almost dead in most people’s minds, and then you’re reviving it straight in their face.
As you weren’t raised with traditional folk music, has your work changed your relationship to the area you grew up in?
Yes, I’ve totally romanticised Rochdale, and if you ever go to Rochdale it’s horrible. Reading about the history of an area makes you more mature. It’s way bigger than you and it’ll continue to go on after you’ve left, so all you can really do is try to understand it and give it a platform. I’m just an interpreter, maybe helping people find something again.
Published in Oh Comely Issue Twenty-Eight. Photograph by Liz Seabrook.
When they can’t think of anything else to say, adults tend to ask children what they’d like to do when they grow up. Children will then duly respond to this—perhaps the most important question of their lives—as if they’d been asked to name their favourite type of biscuit. Although valuable as a thought-encouraging exercise, you’d surely get as much prognostic accuracy by cross-examining a bit of wood.
Even discounting that children only know about fifteen occupations, in truth most careers are determined by chance as much as premeditation. After years of false starts and sidesteps, many discover that they’re not really following a career path at all; instead, the path becomes evident only when they look back at the way they came. Among this meandering congregation, which includes me and probably you too, is Rachel Parris.
A comedian, actor, musician and improviser, Rachel’s work blends together so many different disciplines that the only way to properly describe what she does is to throw syllables together until you get some unwieldy portmanteau. “I wish there was a word that included everything I do but there isn’t,” she says. “I had the same problem when I wrote my Twitter profile. What do you put? I’m not famous enough for a cryptic comedy answer. I need people to be able to know who I am!”
This sort of confusion started early. After studying music at Oxford and taking a postgraduate course in acting, Rachel was unsure what exactly it was she wanted to pursue seriously. What do you do when you’re interested in several different fields at the same time, and you’re good at them too? She learned that playing piano at improvisational comedy gigs was more fun than attending insufferably sincere singer-songwriter nights, and that writing and performing funny songs was better still. “Comedy was the first thing that said yes to me,” she reflects. “It was the first thing that just worked straight away.”
In the years since, Rachel has built an unsurprisingly diverse career. In her solo work she performs sharp, perceptive comedy songs buoyed by her likeable stand-up. She’s also a member of several popular improv groups including Austentatious, the exceptional Regency-era troupe that improvises imaginary Jane Austen novels. This variety reflects her disparate talents but also her pragmatism and hard work. “For me the only way forward was to try new things. You add enough of them together and that makes a career,” she says.
“Comedians are fond of this idea of being pro. They ask, ‘Are you pro? Are you pro?’ which means, ‘Do you have a day job or are you full-time?’ as if it’s a really clear distinction. But sometimes you have to piece six different jobs together.”
Out of those many different jobs, the one on Rachel’s mind as she sits with me at her dining table is her solo musical comedy show. If there is an added pressure to this feat, it seems to come from her passion for the form rather than the absence of collaborators. “I want to write actual songs with interesting chord structures and melodies that will stick in your head,” she states. “It has to be a song for a reason. It can’t just be something you could say. Otherwise why not just say it?” In her effort to avoid being a modern Flanders and Swann (“I’m willing to get paralysed if I have to, though, don’t get me wrong”), she pushes herself to experiment with different musical forms: “As a pianist, piano-led ballads are a gift, but I once made myself write a sexy R&B number too. It was about ankles.”
Rachel is zealous on the subject of songwriting. “I love music and am a musician, and I realised that for a while I was ignoring that. I was doing funny little joke songs, with two chords,” she says. “That was fine and people would laugh, but now I don’t see why not try to make it a good song too. Having a less well-written song musically doesn’t makes the joke any funnier, it’s just that you can get away with it. And I don’t want to get away with it.”
Even when deployed ambitiously, craft can only take you so far. When you can make anything about anything, you usually end up not making very much at all. If Rachel has picked up any lessons from the unexpected cult success of Austentatious, she believes it’s that self-imposed restrictions can be creatively rewarding.
“I’m putting together my next show at the moment,” she explains. “It’s about entering your thirties. When I was little, if I’d drawn a picture about being this age there would have been a husband and a kid and a house and a car, so I’m writing songs about what it is to be this age and not have any of those things. It’s nice to have some parameters to be controlled by, otherwise you’re just sitting there, looking around the room for something funny. I quite enjoy the challenge of saying, ‘No, I’m writing a song from the point of view of my ovaries, and that’s what it’s going to be.’”
Published in Oh Comely Issue Twenty-Eight. Photograph by Liz Seabrook.
It’s odd when you think about it. Once a year, like something from a nature documentary, nearly every comedy performer in Britain moves to Edinburgh. Subsisting on a diet of square sausage and anxiety, thousands of stand-ups, improvisers and character comedians spend close to a month in the city, performing their shows or trying to persuade evanescent strangers to attend those shows. Even among the other performing arts that comprise the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, such industry-wide temporary migration is unique. For a handful of weeks, an entire art form exists in one place, just down the road from the Forth Bridge and its infinite paint job.
One of the many such performers who will decamp to the Royal Mile this year is Alison Thea-Skot, an energetic, admirably game comedian who has been playing the Fringe on and off since 2007. In her upcoming show, Some Like It Thea-Skot, she showcases a range of charmingly unhinged characters, from coal-jawed diva Bibi Babalicious to the newly single head of ‘The Heartbreak Club’ who propositions audience members while crying and attempting to mount them.
Shortly after she had completed her first full preview, I sat down with Alison to talk about the process of developing an Edinburgh show.
How do you get ready for the Fringe?
I gig different characters for ten-or twenty-minute sets all year round and start collating them into an hour. A month and a half before Edinburgh I don’t trust anything that I’ve got. There are bits that are brand new that don’t work and bits that I’ve replaced entirely.
In your show you involve a single audience member repeatedly. How do you decide who to go for?
It’s like casting. You’re choosing someone to come into your show with you. I think that’s what draws me to it as a construct. I love having a script, but I want every performance to be slightly different, and the person you choose determines the tone. Fairly quickly you decipher who you think will be open, who looks like they’re having fun already, but isn’t going to come up on stage and fight you. It’s not about picking on someone, but embracing them into the show and helping turn the whole room.
In the quick changes between different characters, how do you manage to wrangle costumes and props?
Oh, God, I’ve got too many props! I love that step in developing my show, though. How do I make it flow so there isn’t an awkward pause while I try to find some Doritos? I’m torn between finishing with a prop and putting it neatly away in a box so you can put the lid on and walk straight out at the end, and having everything everywhere. I did a set the other night and left the stage covered in grapes and it was terrific.
Other than the grapes, there’s a lot of food in your show. Are all of your profits going to fund crisps? Surely the crisp budget is untenable!
Every show I’ve done has always had some kind of food in it. The finale of my last one was me singing the Edith Piaf song Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien while gargling jelly that had a wig on it. For every show I had to make an entire jelly. I’d be up really late at night making endless jelly, cursing, “Why! Why!” This year I thought maybe I’d try to not write food into the show, and yet nearly every character has some.
What does food add, other than being inherently funny because it gets everywhere?
I’ve always been attracted to food and mess. I’m not sure why. Why would I be attracted to that? It makes me laugh. Being messy from the very start is a great way to get the audience to a certain level quickly. It’s like rounding up all your audience members and saying: “Right, I’m going over here and you’re coming with me.” They’re instantly in a silly, strange place, and the whole room can lift. I love that feeling because the audience is suddenly up for anything. The show can live or die on that, of course, but that kind of excites me. There’s something wonderful about a bit of chaos, the sense that everything might spiral out of control at any moment.
I think certain comedy works best when it feels like the final week of a panto.
Yes, I’ve never thought of it that way. I’ve done a lot of panto, actually. I’ve been Jack in Jack and the Beanstalk, Dick in Dick Whittington. That was interesting, having 500 children shouting “Dick!” at you every night for six weeks. I have real respect for the art of panto. There’s such a tradition to it. I loved being principal boy as well, because it’s something you don’t really see out of pantomime.
Was there lots of thigh slapping?
Loads! You can’t perform that kind of stuff without completely committing. It’s a mad world with people in wigs and a guy in a chicken suit but your character’s journey still has to be real. We had a massive snake appear on stage at the end and we all had to be terrified of it. I want little kids to be worried that I might fall off a beanstalk and die. I want that to be real for them. There’s really something to be said for giving work everything you can. Otherwise why are you doing it?
Published in Oh Comely Issue Twenty-Six . Photograph by Liz Seabrook.
Austentatious perform improvised comedy plays in the style of Jane Austen novels. Cast member Cariad Lloyd talks to Jason Ward about keeping fresh after 200 shows, critiquing work, touring and time management…
The idea behind Austentatious is that it’s an improvised Jane Austen novel with an audience-provided title. What elements of her work is it important for you to stick to?
When we started we were often playing Jane Austen-like plots, but we’ve done over 200 shows now. What we do is try to keep true to her world, so everything is seen through the eyes of the Regency era.
For example, when we got the title Breaking Cad: Meth Comes to Pemberley we did a Breaking Bad parody but it was about somebody dealing in buns: they couldn’t tell their wife that they were a bun dealer, and they had TB so they couldn’t afford to go to the apothecary.
Is it difficult to keep things fresh after 200 performances?
It’s definitely hard. We don’t repeat material but the danger is falling into patterns, so maybe Rachel Parris has been the love interest and I’ve been her mad mother for three shows. Everyone has default character tropes they’re comfortable with. We have rehearsals where we practice, and we’ll ban stuff.
For ages we had loads of French villains so we said no more for a while – even though in 1814 we’re at war with France at this point and we hate French people, let’s do something else. Or if someone’s been a maid for a few shows, let’s have them play a lady. We do our best to make it interesting for ourselves, which I feel makes it interesting for the audience.
In what way does the format aid improvisation?
Jane Austen gives such a strict set of barriers. There’s a certain way to behave, a certain way to speak. Women can only do certain things; men can only do other things. It’s a lot of restrictions to put on an improvisational group, but that’s why it’s successful. We’re quite an anarchic group so the more restrictions you put on us the funnier we are, because we’re trying to push them. If you told us we could do anything, it wouldn’t be as good.
How important are the working relationships within the group?
I think the show works because we like each other. We drive each other crazy but at the end of the day we all make each other laugh and that really helps. You could get the best improvisers in the world and put them in a group and they might not gel if they don’t trust one another and get on. Improvisation is a conversation. You have to trust that someone’s going to back you up and support you, and that they’re going to find you funny.
How do you critique your performances?
We do it ourselves. Some improv groups have coaches, which is popular in America. We’re actually just about to get one because it’s becoming hard to not annoy each other. It’s like a family – we’ve been through so much.
Austentatious is run as a complete democracy, which means our meetings are several hours long but everybody gets a say and nothing is agreed until everyone’s happy. With seven people that’s difficult, but it’s better than if just one of us was in charge. That’s how people get resentful.
Also, everyone is so emotionally invested. It’s our company. We own it, we feed it, it’s our baby. During critiques you just have to take it and trust that they’re saying something for the benefit of the show.
You’ve all got hectic careers outside of Austentatious. What do you do to manage your schedules?
It’s a nightmare. There’s a Google calendar and we’ve exchanged over 4,000 emails. When we started we were all just doing bits and pieces, but since then everyone’s gotten busier. It’s tricky but that’s why there’s seven of us – if one of us gets a TV job then there’s still six to do the show. Everyone’s really supportive of each other, so if somebody can’t do something then we work around it. We love doing this and want to do it, so that makes it easier.
Austentatious has two monthly residencies in London but you’ve also gone on nationwide tours. How is touring different?
Last year our tour was 20 dates. We learned the hard way that it was too many – we all nearly killed each other and didn’t have a social life for months. This year we just did 10. The nice thing about it is people come along who like Jane Austen but haven’t seen improv before. We get to open it up to them.
When I started doing improv 10 years ago lots of people would assume it was rubbish and unprofessional, so to do a show that looks good and is good makes me feel a little proud. It’s so joyful to spread improv in a positive way.
She called it the Whimsy Horn. If, at any point during Nadia Kamil’s debut stand-up show Wide Open Beavers! the proceedings were in danger of getting too political, the horn would go off and a jingle would announce that it was “whimsy time.” To redress the tonal balance, Nadia would then pretend to be a sexually adventurous unicorn, called Unicorn, from “the Meadow of Sparkles.” The joke, of course, was that Unicorn’s material was just as dialectical as everything else in the show, but she had put a shiny cone on her head, fashioned from an old gift bag. “You don’t undermine the seriousness of the stuff you’re discussing by being silly about it,” Nadia says. If she had a business card—comedians tend not to—then this sentiment would probably be printed on it.
Nadia’s impassioned embrace of both the political and the whimsical is evident throughout her comedy. Recently, she has been repurposing traditionally problematic art forms, writing and filming a rap song promoting smear tests, as well as performing a feminist burlesque—a sublime routine where she removes items of clothing to reveal statements like, “100% of rapes are caused by the rapist,” and, “Pubes are normal,” while staying fully dressed. The act culminates in the triumphant unveiling of her degree certificate, festooned with nipple tassels.
If Nadia’s work is serious and silly, fervent and fanciful, it’s because she’s all of these things herself. “Lots of comedians have a persona when they perform, but I guess mine is really me,” she says. “It’s not even especially exaggerated: it’s just me. It’s almost embarrassing. But I think if your comedy is about what matters to you then people feel more connected to the material.”
After years as part of absurdist double-act The Behemoth, as well as acting in sitcoms, writing for radio and working with sketch groups and esoteric comedy collectives, Wide Open Beavers! was Nadia’s first show as a solo performer. With its mix of traditional stand-up, dancing, songs and audience participation, the show reflects her magpie creativity: outside of comedy, Nadia is part of a four-person close-singing group, produces bespoke postcard short stories, and makes and sells her own jewellery, socks and other crafts (“I sell everything too cheaply, really, but it’s difficult to be a socialist and a businessperson.”). When we speak, she’s even mid-way through reading a hundred books to co-judge a Welsh literary prize.
Wide Open Beavers! was one of the most political shows performed at last year’s Edinburgh Festival, with an emphasis on structural inequality and feminist issues, and yet one of its most personal, too. “It wasn’t a conscious decision to make it about feminism, it was more that I wanted to talk about the things that occupy my mind, and what I deal with a lot of the time is misogyny. My response when I’m faced with adversity is: how can I make something funny about this?” Talking with someone whose interests are as diverse as Nadia’s means that conversation wends around everything from Japanese hosiery to grunting in tennis, but what she returns to again and again is the question of what comedy can do and mean.
“Context really matters,” she asserts. “When you go and see a famous, be-suited, rich, middle-class stand-up doing misogynistic jokes and bits about disabled people, the context is that it’s coming from privilege, from a rich, white man mocking those ‘beneath him’ for profit. It would be different if you saw the same material from somebody else, like Jerry Sadowitz. He’s playing an unlikeable character, so his horrible material makes sense in context because there’s nothing aspirational about him. Nobody goes, ‘Oh, I want to be that guy.’ You’re laughing at his character; he’s not laughing at you.”
The side-effect of presenting material that’s personally and ideologically expressive is an internal pressure to get it right. Given her on-stage confidence, it’s surprising to hear Nadia talk about trepidation. “Doing a show by myself for the first time was a really huge deal for me,” she confesses. “I used to have this big block in my head, saying, ‘Why are you doing this job?’” She came to realise that part of the problem was being a female comedian in a world where the idea of women in comedy is repeatedly challenged by hack journalists. “As a woman, I was always questioning my right to be doing comedy. I felt that if I wasn’t brilliant it was going to ruin it for other women, which is a ridiculous thing to put on yourself. It makes things so hard. I had to let go of that and just do what I wanted to do.”
Nadia fiercely defends the notion that comedy is more than just a vehicle for jokes. “Comedy can be so intricate and detailed and structured, and an audience that pays attention and listens makes that material exist. I hate the idea of stand-up as a background to a Friday night. You want to be a comedian who engages people, and similarly you want to have an audience who engages with you, who aren’t going to be there yelling, ‘Tell us a dick joke!’ I mean, not that I haven’t got plenty of dick jokes.”
Published in Oh Comely Issue Twenty. Photograph by Toby Coulson.
Andrew is seven years old and looks suspiciously like a grown woman. An aspiring stand-up comedian, he is eager to talk about history—if somewhat confused by the subject—ambivalent about his stepfather Colin and obsessed with Doctor Who.
An awkward, highly-endearing figure, Andrew also happens to be the first character ever devised by comedian Cariad Lloyd. “I was pushed into comedy, really,” she explains. She was at the start of an acting career when a friend suggested that Cariad try writing a comic monologue. “It took a long time to convince me. My friends were all doing comedy shows at Edinburgh and I went up with a very serious play about burning, this thing on people who died in fires. It was an amazing play but we had six people in the audience.”
Then, Cariad borrowed a late 80s Doctor Who jumper and her mother’s knee-high socks to perform Andrew at a few gigs. He was soon followed by other characters, creating a loose revue of monologues. “That’s how I tricked my brain: ‘It’s still acting, guys!’”
Cariad grew into her new career path slowly. “You meet some people who are obsessed,” she says, “and I never thought I was that person until I admitted to myself that all I do is watch comedy, talk about comedy, write comedy. I realised, oh, I guess I am in that gang now.”
She gigged solidly until her debut Edinburgh Fringe show found her nominated for best newcomer. Cariad has barely stopped since, filling her schedule with a second Edinburgh show, an upcoming BBC sketch show based on her characters, and frequent appearances as a member of Regency-parody comedy troupe Austentatious, who perform improvised, imaginary Jane Austen novels. (A surprise hit with Austen fan clubs: “We ended up on the cover of Jane Austen magazine. We didn’t even know there was a Jane Austen magazine.”)
Andrew is emblematic of Cariad’s characters: joyfully silly and random yet performed with obvious affection. “They’re like real people to me, which sounds mental, but it’s how they are in my head,” Cariad says. “So when people criticise them or say things about them it’s like someone talking about a friend. You want to say, ‘Well, you don’t really know them, you just saw them on a bad day.’”
From ASDA worker and femme fatale Kitty Romford to cult member Judith (who just does the admin), her characters work so well because even though they’re still clearly Cariad in a French jumper or a ball gown or dressed like a Moomin, they share her zestful sensibility. “You turn a bit of yourself up really loud and put a costume on it and call it something else. Each character I perform is a version of me, but I do a voice and go, ‘It’s not me! It’s not me!’”
Cariad also teaches improvisation to comedians and newcomers alike, and she is zealous about its benefits. “You see people whose ideas in their daily life are blocked, and then there’s this world where everything they say I’m going to say yes. That’s a really addictive thing—a place where you’re accepted.”
Disappointingly, improvisation still doesn’t have the reputation that it does in America. “I think it scares some people. They don’t know what to expect,” she says. “Also, there’s a lot of bad improv out there, but it’d be like if you’ve only seen one film and it was terrible so you think you don’t like films.”
Watching Austentatious perform their improvised show, you realise the gulf between bad improv and the work of professionals: as funny as anything written and rehearsed, their shows are emboldened not only by their playfulness but the sense that the performers are all in it together. Cariad agrees: “Bad improv is about people trying to outdo each other and being the funniest, and it should be about supporting each other. My job is to make you look amazing.”
Things are more complicated, of course, when the demands of collaboration and Cariad’s vividly personal characters collide. In filming the pilot of her BBC sketch show, she discovered it wasn’t always possible to walk a middle ground. On Andrew, for instance, she says, “At one point the producers said they were thinking about having him wear a hoodie. I told them I wouldn’t perform the sketch unless he wore the Doctor Who jumper. I’ve been really amazed by the things I’ll compromise on and the things I won’t. I wasn’t compromising the jumper. It’s who Andrew is. It’s the key to him.’”
Published in Oh Comely Issue Sixteen. Photograph by Trent McMinn.
For the daytime drunks of East London, a visit to St Leonard’s Church’s drop-in centre in early 2012 was an opportunity to court bewilderment. Rather than styrofoam tea and practical advice, many took the wrong door and found instead Serafina Steer playing the harp as she recorded her new album, The Moths Are Real, with producer Jarvis Cocker bunched up on one of the pews. Serafina braved the inebriated interlopers and biting cold for the sense of performance the church provided, only stymied by retakes provoked by the endless traffic outside. On one song, you can still make out a bus brake just before the first chorus.
A harp has been Serafina’s muse for over twenty years. “I don’t know if that’s because I like the harp,” she says, “or it likes me.” Her music is as gorgeous as it is adventurous, the delicate beauty of her harp finding itself perfectly at home amongst elements of electronica and her complex lyrical content.
One of the best-kept secrets in music, Serafina’s work is finally starting to receive the appreciation it deserves: the album she recorded in the cold, noisy church—the wonderful, searching The Moths Are Real—promises a real breakthrough. A long-time admirer of her work, Cocker agreed to try out recording together. “We worked solidly for two days. When I came back my housemates said I looked like I was on drugs. It was intense.”
It helps to have the attention garnered by having a producer who’s famous to the point of becoming a national treasure, but there’s more to Serafina’s ascent than that. While her songwriting is as strong as ever, it’s as if her self-assurance as an artist has quietly ripened into a mature confidence of her own voice. “You have to take a leap of faith,” Serafina agrees. “If you don’t feel like a very presentable performer, and you’ve been slogging away for years, at some point you have to hold your head up high and say, well, either people like it or they don’t. I had this mantra of being like a mighty river.”
Even her album cover has featured a photograph of her for the first time, however reluctantly. Serafina breathes deeply at the mention of it, as if reminded of old battles. “That wasn’t my idea. But I thought that if I’m trying not to hide away, then I don’t really have an excuse. Things hinge on me as well as the music. I had to say, ‘I might not be a cover girl, but I’m here anyway.’”
Several photo shoots followed, trailed by disagreements questioning everything from the photographs themselves to the way she should present herself. “I thought, ‘Well, that’s the end of my confident phase then!’ The thing that I liked about the cover in the end is that I knew that we’d taken the photograph in about half an hour and there was no make up or faffing or lights. That is how I look.”
At the heart of Serafina’s songwriting is emotional openness, articulate and finely-detailed, which many have misread as autobiography. She observes: “Not to be boring about it, but if you’re a female singer-songwriter you find yourself open to a slightly patronising interpretation of your lyrics, as if it’s just splurged out of your diary and you have no idea how to construct a concept. You think, ‘Did fucking Pink Floyd get this? Do you think I’m an idiot?’” Instead, The Moths Are Real is proof of her broad influences, inspired by the work of Jorge Luis Borges and about topics as varied as alien abduction and the pleasures of getting lost in music—not to mention its title track, a response piece to sexist sea ballads.
The possessor of a warm, generous laugh, the mixture of directness and intelligence that colours Serafina’s music is present in conversation with her. It requires a certain kind of courage to proffer yourself artistically and emotionally, but the result is the sense that she is coming into her own. This isn’t simply Serafina’s moment commercially, but also in terms of artistic authority.
“I remember when I was given the mastered CD, just some demo copy with my name on,” Serafina says. “I was walking back home along the river and I felt really emotional. There are so many times when you think something amazing is going to happen and it doesn’t. I suddenly realised that I’d been terrified for six months, but I had this thing with just my name on it, not anyone else.”
The Dorset village of Tyneham was one of the many British communities devastated by World War Two. Unlike Coventry or East London, however, its damage came not from Axis bombing but from the British Government. Requisitioned by the army for training manoeuvres, the village’s inhabitants were all evacuated in 1943, and after the war none were allowed to return. Tyneham still exists today as a ruinous ghost village, a home for wildlife and spent shells, stranded in a military firing range.
Illustrator Frances Castle became interested in the story of Tyneham after hearing a collection of songs about the village, created by a group of anonymous musicians from independent label Second Language. That music, along with a booklet illustrated by Frances, has now been given a limited-edition release as a joint venture between Second Language and Frances’ own label Clay Pipe Music. We spoke to Frances about Tyneham House and the pleasures of micro-releasing.
How did your involvement with the project start?
I initially heard the music and thought it would be a great project to work on graphically. As Second Language always have so much on, the idea of me designing the artwork and the booklet was good for them, and us each taking on half the work meant we could get the thing out.
Were you influenced by the music as you did the illustrations?
As soon as I heard it I instantly had an idea of the kind of illustrations that would go with it. I researched a lot of post-war and pre-war illustrations and drawings; I was inspired by Eric Ravilious and very English prints and drawings from that period. The illustrations are almost like a children’s book or school poster from that era.
It was definitely influenced by that sort of thing, and I think that’s what the music inspired me to create. The music is so English, and I wanted to reflect that.
Clay Pipe Music’s releases are as much about the physical aspect of music-listening as about the music itself. Was that a conscious decision when you started the label?
It was. I make music myself but I hadn’t done so in a while. I’d put things out on other labels and then I stopped for a long time. When I started again everything had changed: the internet had really taken off as far as distribution was concerned. A lot of labels were deliberately selling less and as such were more willing to take risks.
I had actually seen Second Language and thought they were great. They’re very similar in that they put things out that are very tactile and well-designed with low runs and I guess that was an inspiration. But being an illustrator I wanted to use that as well. People seem to like the handmade side of it.
It’s such a contrast to the way we usually consume music these days.
Exactly. That’s the purpose of these releases. In the old days you’d sit down with a record; you’d gone out to buy it, or chosen it in a record shop, and you’d look at the cover while listening to the music. Now you can trawl through the internet and download lots of music straight away, but you end up not listening to it because the music was so easy to get and there was no effort involved in it. You can forget about a download, but an actual record occupies a physical space in your house.
On your side of things, what’s the appeal of running your own label?
I’m an illustrator and that’s my job, so a lot of time I’m doing work for clients and I don’t get a lot of space to try new things. One of the ideas that made me start the label was not having to work for a client who’s commissioning me to replicate something they’ve seen in my portfolio. It’s a place to push my work and experiment.
Are you hoping to get to a point where you can just focus on Clay Pipe Music, or do you want to continue balancing your commercial work with running your own label?
No, I completely enjoy doing both. I wouldn’t just want to do one or the other. When I’m not busy doing commercial work I have more time to put into the label. The thing with illustration is you’re either really really busy or you’re not, so it’s a good thing to do when you’re quiet. I do a range of things: I create children’s books, I’ve even just finished something for a building company. Nothing gets too boring.
Laura Veirs has butterfly wings and a guitar in her hands. Half-way through a song, she’s interrupted by an excited child, killing the sound with a careless knock of the amp. “Watch out,” she warns gently as a technician fixes the situation, “our equipment is made of lava.”
At her gig in the crowded basement of the Museum of Childhood, parents politely jostle to catch a glimpse of her, forgetting themselves and singing along madly. Their children are more concerned with the mass of bubbles unfurling above their heads, giddily raising their sticky hands trying to catch one. From the youngest baby to the oldest grandparent, everyone is happy, and everyone is wearing the most excellent jumpers. It is like heaven.
Laura Veirs is eight albums into a prolific career that began when she abandoned a life as a Mandarin-speaking geologist in favour of forming a punk band, which she then forsook for the literary, wistful folk for which she is now known. Her songs have a tendency to cuckoo their way into the listener’s brain: beautiful with hints of darkness. Unashamedly adult, her music is marked by its ornate lyricism. But even considering the left turns made earlier in her career, it is still a small surprise that one of the brightest, most grown-up of modern songwriters has released an album of folk songs for children, Tumble Bee.
The idea came from the birth of her own child, Tennessee, and from the many sleepless nights that she shared with her husband and long-time producer, Tucker Martine. “We were so tired,” she says. “It was really exhausting. I wanted to do something creative that didn’t involve writing songs. I knew I didn’t have enough in my well to create a great album of new material.”
Instead, the pair combed through the history of folk music to find the right songs. “It was like a history project. We found some old folk songs that we hadn’t heard before.” Wary of the cloying nature of most children’s songs, they had strict criteria for what they wanted to include. “There’s a fine line. You can easily make something that’s dumbed down. We wanted something that would have heart, and hold the attention of the parents, and also be historical. We were going for things that were up-tempo and melodic and also lyrically appropriate enough for kids.”
Considering the love children have for repetition, Laura wanted to make an album that had enough depth to stand up to endless replaying. Some songs have more meaning than is immediately apparent. “We did one song called All the Pretty Little Horses and it’s a lullaby. From my research I saw that it was written by a slave woman who was singing it to her master’s children because she couldn’t take care of her own. It’s such a heartbreaking story and when you hear the lyrics and the melody in that context it puts it in a completely different light. But a child doesn’t know any better. They’re just hearing a song about horses with a beautiful melody that’s soothing.
“There are a few songs that aren’t quite meant for children, but those are the ones with the darker lyrics. We were freaked out, wondering if I could really sing about lambs being dead in the field with bees and butterflies pecking out their eyes. But that’s one of our oldest folk songs. These songs teach about life and death through the medium of art. I think that’s important, to not let everything be completely watered down.”
Like all of Laura’s music, Tumble Bee was written and recorded in the converted garage at the back of her house. “It’s kind of like a little cabin,” she says. “It’s very secluded. I don’t have the internet back there and it’s a saving grace to not be checking facebook all the time.” If anything, she’s found the experience of motherhood useful to her productivity. “My window for song writing is half as long, but I feel like it has just made me more focused: this is my time to write, this is my time to be with my son, and I have to be as present and in the moment with both tasks as I can. It’s hard for me to quit sometimes. I’ll be writing and then I realise the babysitter is leaving in five minutes, and I have to switch out of that mode and go into the mothering mode. It’s a struggle to find enough time to do my art. But it’s my own choice. I’m choosing my hours and I want to spend time with him while he’s small.”
While the reality must surely have its share of stresses, Laura’s life can’t help but sound idyllic, splitting her time between recording music and her toddling child, two halves of her life that occasionally overlap: “He asks me to improvise songs all the time. He’ll shout out names of people he loves and I have to make up a song on the spot.” Living in the achingly creative northwestern city of Portland, Oregon, Laura’s a friend and neighbour with everyone from the Decemberists to Jim James of My Morning Jacket, and gets to collaborate frequently. “It’s really nice to be able to call someone up and say, ‘Come around and record something, and let’s get tacos afterward!’”
After an understandably long period without playing live, Laura is starting to tour again. Considering Tumble Bee has a primary audience for whom a standard gig would be far past their bedtime, this raises some issues. The solution she found was to do matinees for the children and regular gigs in the evenings. She says, “It’s a challenge to figure out how to pull it off in a way that’s fun for the kids and for us and for the parents too.”
Hence the bubbles and butterfly wings: “Funny outfits are the key! Things to keep their attention visually. They really go crazy for the bubbles. It’s like crack for them. We have to turn it off after a while or they just obsess over it. We try to balance letting them have a release and some fun and also trying to get them to pick up something from the music.” Laura appreciates the unpredictability of it all, though, “There’s just more chaos, you know. My shows with adults are organised and seated, a little bit formal and not too loose.” She smiles. “In a way it feels more like my old days at punk shows.”
Published in Oh Comely Issue Nine. Photographs by Fiona Essex.
Someone is heckling Isy Suttie from inside her head. She’s found herself imagining the worst ahead of performing her new stand-up show at the Edinburgh Festival. Politely but firmly, she responds, “I’m talking as Isy now: stop it please. Stop eating chips in my show.” This isn’t to say that a lot of chip-eating happens in Isy’s shows. “No,” she admits, “It doesn’t. But for some reason this morning I was imagining being heckled. I don’t know why I have to think it through in my head with every show.”
It seems unlikely that anyone non-imaginary would want to heckle her. Isy melted hearts when she joined Peep Show as Dobby, IT geek and only-chance-for-happiness for sadsack Mark, played by David Mitchell. Unlike many comics who feel overwhelmed by their best-known on-screen personas, Dobby is a comfortable fit with Isy’s stand-up. “She isn’t that far from what I’m like in real life, so hopefully people who like the show would like what I do live.” Isy radiates a warmth that carries through to her stand-up shows, and their disarming mix of musical numbers and bittersweet character comedy.
When she is finished rebutting the hecklers, Isy’s new show will see her playing Pearl and Dave, a couple who connect online and then discover that real life is far more awkward. Isy plays both parts, singing songs to dramatise their emails and webcam conversations, while narrating the story as herself. Her portrayals of the ill-fated pair are silly yet sad, touching on the regret that comes from a lifetime of diminished expectations. The show sounds typical of Isy’s comedy, which is defined by a clear-eyed but humane positivity. The characters she creates on stage are often wilfully deluded but the portrayals are fundamentally sensitive and without malice.
There’s a difference this time, though. Isy’s mother isn’t making so much of an appearance. “I feel like maybe I ought to start writing my own material rather than using my mother,” she says. That, one can’t help thinking, would be a shame. Along with swathes of her own diaries, a mainstay of Isy’s comedy is the portrayal of her hometown of Matlock. Her mother’s letters bring to life the town’s dodgy dealing, nosy neighbours and the heroin addicts who come round to borrow rolls of tin foil. She has always been a compulsive letter-writer, but Isy looks forward to her letters with more than just a daughterly interest. “I’m definitely always looking for comedy in her letters. I read them thinking, ‘I don’t care about Aunty Barbara, give me the funny!’” To Isy’s relief, her mother doesn’t mind, “She does it too. She’ll tell me a story about the vicar or something and then she’ll say ‘Do you think you can use that?’ It’s quite sweet. It’s like I’ve got a free writer.”
Isy’s comedy is all about the little things that make people happy or unhappy. She wants to move the audience, she says, not make them laugh at knob gags. “There’s a lot of comedy in people’s complexity and flaws. If you can tap into something that everyone identifies with, like you’re feeling unconfident on your first day of work or you’re hurt because a neighbour has said something about your rockery, you can make the whole audience feel that too.” She’s aware that big television stand-up isn’t always prepared for her softer, more subtle comedy. “If it’s Saturday night and people are in eating their eggs and chips, they don’t necessarily want to be thinking ‘The neighbour said something about the rockery, oh yeah, I’m really moved!’“
While other comedians are ambitiously chasing exposure on television, she seems in no hurry. “I feel like if I did more stand-up on telly or a big tour, I could do bigger venues and then it might move to something else, but I don’t mind really. I’ve never been someone who rings my agent and says, ‘Why am I not on that?’ I’d rather get my head down and work and wait, and if stuff comes to me I’ll feel more ready to do it.”
Her more relaxed approach comes with its own rewards. The freedom from single-minded ambition has given her the chance to explore different things. She played a serial killer in the musical Gutted and she’s now learning Welsh—“I could hold a conversation with a 7-year old, especially a 7-year-old farmer, because I know a lot of animals and numbers.” Isy is content to do what she loves. “I feel really happy. I was working at Oddbins until the beginning of 2008, and when I left it felt like a real leap of faith. I got Peep Show straight away, so I still can’t believe I’m not dealing with people’s wine that hasn’t got there.”
Published in Oh Comely Issue Seven. Photograph by Christoph Ferstad.