Stand up if you’re terrified

The Porter Speech

One moment I had personally been dreading was the porter speech, which Sarah introduced to me with a stand-up comedy routine in mind. Sarah was up for being experimental and the brief was loose enough to be creative; however terrifying the words “stand” and “up” were to my ears. Perhaps our porter spoke in modern language, maybe it was a new speech concocted entirely from mine or Sarah’s experiences, or maybe we just used the original text, as written. The homework Sarah set me initially felt too much like fun to be work; which was to watch You Tube excerpts of Stewart Lee!

It felt dangerous, even sacrilegious at first, to be deconstructing the work of such a comic genius, but in the end it made me appreciate his skill even more. Sarah and I noted the devices used by great comics – the refrains, the timing, the ‘rule of three’, re-incorporation, exaggeration, absurdity, bathos, musicality…

Everyone has their own taste when it comes to comedy – but I was starting to notice what it was about my favourite comics that I found so appealing. They seemed so “right”. They knew they were right about what they were saying – it was the ultimate rhetoric – they could win the argument. It’s quite sexy. It makes them somehow omnipotent – if done right of course.

So over a cup of tea at my flat, with low expectations and high anxiety, I sat opposite Sarah as she coaxed some stories out of me, and told some of her own to reciprocate. And that was all it was. Telling stories. She asked me to re-tell some, perhaps with exaggerated character descriptions, or the invention of an extra character to make it “3”, to heighten reactions of the characters, and to use refrains, a la Stewart Lee. I took her advice and we told stories all afternoon. It was exhilarating.

With this newfound confidence gained from sitting in front of a trusted friend, fellow actor and business partner over tea and telling stories (why the hell was I so scared?!) I remembered a story in particular about a temping job on “the gates of hell”, or Barclays Bank as it was known at the time. With Sarah’s “golden rules of comedy” I bent the story in a ‘hilarious’ direction and prayed she would be amused by it. We were busy that week so I auditioned the routine at her over skype. And she laughed. So that was good.

When it came to performing it Sarah had talked about “units” of thought, almost like flash cards, and so I distilled the speech to some anchoring phrases or words to aid recall. However, as I practiced telling the story, flash cards seemed superfluous. After all, memory experts advise using stories as mnemonics to remember phone numbers or other such banal lists. A story, that you understand and have to an extent lived through, just sort of takes care of itself…

Which is what the stand up speech did really. I was blinded by the lights initially, which helped with the fear, but the aural reaction (er, laughter) was palpable, enjoyable, and made the audience seem very close and participatory indeed. The space helped – they were in a tunnel of darkness, I was in a tunnel of light opposite them, so I felt a very direct contact with them. It was like performing inside theatrical blinkers – no one was looking right or left, their attention was dead forward. I even began to look them in the eye once my eyes got used to the light. It was immensely freeing and I felt pretty invincible for about an hour afterwards.

I wonder how we’ll do it in October…

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