Friday 18 September 2009

Down the Rabbit Hole

Now, this could be a really long post – so, if that is a disincentive and you’d prefer something short and to the point, go here.

Ok, in 1983 I was invited by the promoter of the Hole in The Ground venue to perform at The Edinburg Fringe Festival with my then collaborator and partner Dave.

The Hole in the Ground was a building site that housed three circus tents – theatre venues for the occasion - and a forth, smaller tent that served as the bar.

The Amazing Mendezies were a “developing-out-of-the-street-towards-professional” juggling duo who had been together almost two years during which we had already appeared on stage in the now defunct Rainbow Theatre London, been thrown out of the Tower of London by the Beefeaters and spent two consecutive winters in Spain and San Francisco respectively .

Dave, who prefered to call us Street Pirates on the Wikipedia entry, has some pictures from the Spanish winter up on his blog in Images from Nowhere – here.

The promoter’s idea was basically to have a distraction going on in the bar that would encourage people to hang around before or after the main shows in the tent that included a youthful Emma Thompson and a very angry young comic from New York.

We were a bit sceptical.

Neither of us had had any experience of the Edinburg Festival - summer was a lucrative time for us on our usual pitch in London and it was uncertain that The Hole in the Ground could excavate itself out from a potential financial fiasco.

The deal was that our train travel would be paid, accommodation provided and we would be free to busk in the bar tent.

We decided to go for an initial one week trial with an option to stay for the following two weeks if things worked out for everyone, something that probably also suited the promoter as it gave him the opportunity to cut and run too.

The granite city was exciting and the accommodation was interesting - we shared a flat with an Icelandic actor who performed in a cave (an adapted old railway arch) to an audience of one, charging an increasing ticket price for each subsequent show.

Dave, who luckily was always the business brain in our partnership, wisely chose to see the premier of the show.

I decided, subsequently, to go to something else.

And there was a lot to do.

The Edinburgh Festival as a name is misleading as there are, in fact, several running simultaneously through the first three weeks of August.

The Main Festival, something classical (I think), the Jazz Festival (if you have to ask you won’t understand), the Film Festival (I saw the European premier of The Kiss of the Spiderwoman and it was SO exciting – the organiser walked onto the stage with a hot reel of film under his arm and said; “Phew, this just arrived at the airport from the editing suite in Brazil, I didn’t think it would be here on time!” He loaded it onto the projectors and the lights dimmed) and the Fringe Festival – the biggest (where we were).

In fact the accommodation was unnecessary – there was no time to sleep - and at the time, maybe still, Henderson’s was THE best vegetarian restaurant ANYWHERE.

When we arrived at the Hole in the Ground we were disappointed. It was hidden away, relatively far from the main action and……….a hole in the ground. There seemed no way that punters would find the place or want to stay if they did.

The organiser showed us to the bar tent, helped us notice the tiny stage and pointed out the single spot light. We looked around at the empty plastic chairs and the grey gravel floor. We looked at each other.

“Only seven days.”

Then we were left alone with our thoughts, worries and, bizarrely, two silver serving trays to collect money.

That night we returned, changed into costume in a dingy toilet and walked into the first of three planned shows that evening.

Try to imagine Christians walking into the arena in ancient Rome, two lambs entering a Bear Pit or perhaps, Mad Max at the Thunderdome.

I think Dave climbed on a stool and hit the spotlight with his drumstick in an attempt to focus it. All around, the level of noise from the drunk and jubilant crowd was in complete contrast to the universal absence of interest anyone showed toward us.

But, hey, we were professional.

We had stopped half of London as it turned away from the riverbank at the end of the annual Oxford/Cambridge boat race and turned them into an audience, we had (with a lot of help from the people of Barcelona) turned away the Policeman who tried to stop our show in Ciutadella Park and we had tried, and spectacularly failed, to stop the crowd that roared from the bars on Pier 39 the night San Francisco defeated Phoenix in the Super Bowl Final. A night that ended in drunken riots.

At the end our third show –sweaty, horse and tired - we sat and looked at the pile of money on our two plates.

At the end of the week we signed up for two more, at the end of August we took a month off to recover and we returned every summer for the next three, only eventual divorce preventing us from being there still.

We got our first review (the Stage magazine – I hope Dave still has it), our first Television Contract (in a show with Emma Thompson), an invitation to the Freiburg tent Festival in Germany the same week as Stan Getz, our first Contract in Australia, our first Fan, our first joint bank account, a new van and a few ideas about Icelandic performance art.

We had such a good time that I think we busked on the Mound during the day as well and ended up with more money and future work than we had ever imagined to be possible.

More than i have ever had since now i come to think of it.

Anyway - I warned you this was a long post – it was at The Hole in the Ground that I first saw the Omelette Improvisation team in performance.

We knew two of them already, as a student I had taken part in a clown workshop with them but they were a league or two, or three, above us and had a residency in one of the three tents.

During the three weeks it became a habit to sneak in at the back and watch them work, minion learning from the masters.

The format of the show was simple – four people on stage, a full tent audience and a big box in which to put suggestions for sketches, with pencil and paper as you came in.

Total improvisation.

Brilliantly funny and entertaining, every night.

When you see someone do this, who masters the medium, well, it’s inspiring.

And tonight I remembered all this; probably because of a question in the comments of fellow blogger Anne and I thought two things.

1. Could it work to do something like that in a blog format?
2. Why don’t I try?

A few posts back I asked - “any questions” – and that didn’t work but here’s the idea this time.

The next seven posts will be improvised around any idea (any format) suggested by any (of the few) readers that visit.

Leave your suggestion in the comments and I’ll pick one at random.

Is it worth a go?


Vicki said...

Oh absolutely! Improv on a blog is a gobsmackingly intriguing idea. How the heck you can do it? Goodness knows, but this should be tried.

Presumably this needs to be about 'Yes..., and...' rather than 'Yes, but...'? Maybe the 'ands' would need to be fed in by your loyal readers?

Might we suggest a time, a place, a human dilemma for you to respond to?

Janet Bianchini said...

What a brilliant idea! Doing things "ad hoc" can be great fun....

How about doing a post on any topic of your chice with the title "A Brave New World"?

Are you up for the challenge?

Good luck!

vicki said...

And here's another one:
-The first sentence should begin with A, the second with B, the third with C and so on.
-Oh and every third sentence needs to be an interrogative.

Vicki Hollett said...

Have you come across a book called 'Laugh and Learn'? It's by a stand up comic who was employed by a traffic violation school in California - so a place full of students who had to attend but didn't want to learn. It seems someone had the brainwave of (or insanity to?) employing improv comedians as instructors. You can click inside and read bits here:
I've speed read it, and I am looking forward to my next long plane ride for an in depth re-read because I have the feeling there could be some profound insights and observations here beneath the surface.
Another stray thought - I've sometimes wondered if a course book's role in class might be to play the straight man – so deliver the lines to draw on the students to play the comics.
Any thoughts?

Dave said...

Good idea I'll think of something in a minute....Improvise!

popps said...

He He He, you should go on the stage Dave - you are a natural.
By the way, a bit slow on the Mendezie alert this time?

popps said...

Vicki, i haven't read that book but will do now. Thanks

Dave said...


Ok my challenge again. In public sir.

I've been thinking if I could find a challenge that would be worthy of your considerable skills. I remembered that my brother Mike had once published a poem on his web site that he wrote after a creative writing course.

It seemed like an incredible challenge to me. Maybe that it is just harder to explain the rules than to do it it. Either way I think it may fill some time for you which you seem to have plenty of at the moment.

Feel free to complete it in either French or German but preferably in English.

Your mission should you choose to accept it:

Write a Ghazal.*

Good luck my friend

Love Dave

(in a manly (and long time divorced) kind of way, of course) :-)

PS - You are welcome to try to find his attempt, which is where I got this explanation from. Should not be hard.

PPS - I know this is not really an impro but in a way it is, within a very constrained structure. If you want a direction from me; I would like the poem to be self referential as you can.

So, in other words, the content can refer to the poem, the form, yourself, writing it, me setting the challenge etc.


* In case you had forgotten for a second: 'The Ghazal is an ancient verse-form originating in Persia. It has more or less strict rules of composition. It should consist of between five and fifteen couplets, called sher. The couplets, and the lines within them, should be of uniform meter. In English this is usually taken to mean that the number of "feet" or stressed syllables should be uniform, although in the traditional Persian ghazal it is the number of syllables in each line that should be the same.

Sentences should not be split across couplets. In fact each couplet should stand on its own.

The last part (one or more words) of the second line of each couplet or sher should be the same. This is called the radif. The radif should also be "announced" as the last part of the first line (or the first sher). It then becomes a sort of leitmotiv or unifying theme for the whole ghazal. In my ghazal the radif is the phrase No need for words.

The last word before the first radif sets a rhyme called the qaafiyaa. So the last word before the radif in each second line should rhyme with this initial qaafiyaa. My qaafiyaa are the rhymes found, sound, around, etc.

Traditionally a ghazal does not have a title and the poet's name is not mentioned explicitly. Instead the poet "signs" the ghazal by a more or less cryptic reference to himself or herself in the last couplet of the ghazal.

There is guidance too about content. While each sher should stand as a separate poem, there can be a unifying theme across the whole ghazal. Lorna Crosier has written, "By the tenth century when ghazals became conventionalized, along with the common themes of love and wine, the Persian courts called for the appearance of stock images such as roses, nightingales, deserts and departing caravans."

(From: Bones in their Wings by Lorna Crozier, pub. Regina, Hagios Press, 2003).

But i'm sure you knew that....

Dave said...

Maybe avoid the roses, nightingales, deserts and departing caravans but that's up to you...