Adrenaline is a powerful and addictive drug that elicits powerful emotions and actions – the most common of which are fight or flight. Its been a while since I’ve felt any genuine excitement about much at all in life, but a spark of passion and a burning curiosity was alive within me that night. Curiosity about whether my abilities, skills and desires still matched up with the understanding of who I am and what I’m capable of. Curiosity about whether I could be a doer instead of an observer and curiosity about success and failure.
Monday night I stood in the wings of a stage for the first time in my life – ready and waiting to stand-up and attempt to make people laugh – it was a key moment in my life and one that I’ll never forget. I had around four minutes of material I’d written, honed, tweaked and rehearsed but until that moment had never tried it out in a performance setting to attentive strangers – daunting would be an understatement.
Three deep breaths later and my name was called, I checked my hand one final time…then stepped onto the stage.
But how did I end up here?
…These feelings and emotions I attributed to the moment weren’t entirely about the act of performing, but a culmination of the events of my life over the last few years or so. Leaving a career I thought I wanted behind me, after realising just how wrong I was, but never quite letting go for fear of failure or feeling too overwhelmed by what to do with my life. Travelling the world and coming back to reality with far too heavy a thump. Financial, family and professional stress – not too mention personal mental and physical health issues – all a tangled web of anxieties, regrets and worries.
The one thing that has never wavered over the years are my passions – I have many but one has always stood above the rest…comedy. Growing up with the words of Neil Simon and Phil Silvers before I knew what laughing was, then TV comedy with Aaron Sorkin and FRIENDS, Peep Show, Fawlty Towers etc…discovering standup comedy with Eddie Izzard, Bill Bailey, The Mighty Boosh, Dylan Moran, Billy Connolly, Louis CK onto more alternative stuff like Simon Munnery, Stewart Lee, Tony Law, Josie Long, Robin Ince, Daniel Kitson etc I was enamoured – these people were my heroes, it wasn’t just about comedy, or making me laugh – it was the hidden messages within the comedy, their perspective on the world, the ideas that screamed sense to me when everyone else was more interested in the X-Factor and alcohol. I felt (and still do to a degree) detached around most people, feeling like an outsider and just wanting to be part of that world inhabited by comedians and thinkers, who thought like I did and expressed things the way I wish I could.
Yet my passions remained passive ones – observing, critiquing or commenting on what I’d seen. I’ve always felt unfulfilled, not quite knowing why – eventually realising it was my desire to create and my lack of self confidence and esteem that was hindering me from pursuing these fleeting sparks of imagination, and the absence of structure or motivation which never forced me into action.
Growing up is about realising you need to take things into your own hands and I’ve always been a late bloomer.
At 24 I cut my loses – my hard work at building a healthy CV as an advertising exec and packed it in. I was lucky enough to have a friend who allowed me to stay at her home in Bordeaux for three months alone and get myself together and start planning for a new future – and so I did. Those three months were pivotal for me and I’ll never be able to show my gratitude for that offer of kindness from her.
On my return I attended the London Screenwriters Festival and felt the spark of possibility arise in me. Writers workshops, meeting new people, networking, sitting down to write, outlining ideas, entering competitions, absorbing information, masterclasses and plenty of doubt later I got my first little break. I won a brief on Ideastap to have a rehearsed reading of my play Resolution (which you can watch on the Work in Progress page), it was the first time anyone had shown true interest in my writing and the feedback was pretty good. Spurred on by this, I’ve been polishing it up to send off for the plethora of writing competitions and prizes open this month.
I’ve known for a while now that I’d love to make a living out of writing, but I never for one second considered life on the other side – performing. I had that urge as a child, a child who did after school amateur dramatics, who would shout out in class because I thought something was funny. I was a child who liked to show off, but somewhere along the line that confidence dissapeared and I became more anxious about being noticed. You grow up and you’re taught to shut up, sit down, be practical, be sensible, be mature, don’t do that, think about the future…that process had changed me into a person afraid of trying new things, afraid to dream – I’d go as far to say and I’d lost a sense of myself. People noticed the change in me – I was turning into someone I didn’t particularly like.
As I’ve begun to be proactive about the idea of a creative future, I’ve had to overcome personal demons and external pressures and expectations – I still am and will for a long time to come I expect. In spite of this though, I’ve continued onwards, which is the key difference.
Not too long ago I was writing reviews of standup comedians – with the sole intention of seeing more comedy, it came from a positive place – with a desire to see how things worked and praise what I thought was great work and let others know about comedy they might like. A lot of this comedy took place at the Leicester Square Theatre and the Soho Theatre, two great hubs of comedy in London.
I came across the Soho Young Company – a programme for those under 26 interested in learning and developing skills in writing, be it plays or comedy and I just couldn’t help myself. I applied and to my surprise and terror got a place – 10 weeks of workshops with course leaders Leisa Rae and Jen Brister, followed by a showcase at the Soho Theatre itself.
The experience was so alien to me at first – coming into a group of people who seemed at ease with the idea that – of course you can do standup comedy if you feel like it. Most of which knew each other from a previous term and a fair few already seasoned on the open mic circuit in London and beyond. There was a sense of fun, enthusiasm, passion and possibility but also a strong feeling of a clique already formed.
Over the weeks my confidence grew, I began to write for the Prince Charles Cinema among other online publications and each little boost of positivity helped me to push on with the idea that I could eventually become financially independent doing things I actually wanted to do.
I began to try and write comedy but it all came out quite article and speech like – I spent most of the time at the microphone staring at my page of notes and reading, never looking up for fear of seeing discomfort or pity on the faces of the people watching. I knew that I was on the right path though and with each week felt more comfortable speaking, trying out things that may not work, taking on criticism and feedback and seeing it as positive help rather than an attack or an insult. This was a place where people wanted you to succeed, an encouraging and supportive bunch who despite their cultural, style and idealogical differences all had a shared passion and understanding of “funny”.
By the final week I’d gotten myself into a muddle – jokes were overwritten or weren’t jokes, they were witty ideas or concepts – I looked at the page afresh and tried to change my mindset from writing amusing paragraphs meant to be read, to writing jokes meant to be performed – a piece that’s meant to engage with a live audience with me there orchestrating – my intonations, voice and body language all forming part of the performance. It felt bizarre at first but trying out little bits with the tutor I noticed a change in not just how the ideas I’d formed were received but in how I expressed them.
Cutting, tweaking and adjusting – I got myself into the mindset of “fuck it” time to do or die and committed myself to going through with the showcase, as I’d always had it in the back of my mind that I could/would back out if I didn’t feel ready.
The day came and coincided with an interview at the Soho Theatre itself – successfully taking on a front of house position that allowed me to see more comedy, have flexible working hours that would allow me to write and more pressingly pay me something to support this new lifestyle.
Hours of pacing, rehearsing in my head and nervous chatter later I was in the wings, waiting to get on stage at the Soho Theatre – where only weeks ago I’d reviewed standup comedians from the safety of a seat in the audience, in the dark, out of sight.
My name was called, and off I went for the first time into the spotlight.
I eased into the set, calming my nerves and playing the long pauses I’d built in which leant an air of confidence to the exaggerated version of me I’d created. I got through to the end without a hitch and relished in delivering the final joke – filled with relief and satisfaction, knowing I’d done the best I could.
Unfortunately there wasn’t a recording of the event, but it is burned into my memory and the feedback seemed rather positive.
So “what next?!” I hear you cry…who’s to say.
I’ll just keep moving forward and trying to do the things that scare me, continue to be proactive and grown-up but also trying to re-capture that lost confidence of my younger self.