Comedy and The Velvet Glove

Iain Christie, Marketing Manager at Liverpool’s Royal Court, makes the case for comedy as one of the best ways to make social and political comment.

Last Friday 3.5 million people watched the ten o’clock news. Just an hour earlier 5.2 million watched Have I Got News For You.

I was one of the 1.7 million who switched off between the two as I’d had my fill of news from Paul Merton and Ian Hislop so I didn’t need to stick around to get the more straight-laced version.

The biggest problem that news has is that it’s boring. It doesn’t make you smile, it doesn’t make you sing. It’s just not entertaining.

More and more people are turning to comedy and satire to find out what is going on in the world. In America The Daily Show and Last Week Tonight With John Oliver highlight serious issues every week while the news channels fill the hours with bluster and opinion.

Many Americans watch Comedy Central for news and Fox News for entertainment.

As I was growing up, the vast majority of my news and current affairs came from television shows like Spitting Image and HIGNFY as well as radio such as The Now Show and Dead Ringers. Private Eye was always lying around at home and I started off reading the cartoons before graduating to the articles for further political insight.

Spitting Image was particularly good at creating a shorthand for politicians. You knew who held each cabinet post because you could see them being lampooned on a Sunday Night, which in turn helped wider political debate around the country. The caricatures were merciless and David Steel’s portrayal as a tiny man who lived in David Owen’s pocket was so damaging that he believed it ended his political career.

Much laughter comes from shared experiences. The comedian or actor puts forward a situation and the audience show their understanding and affinity through laughter. That laughter in a group situation shows the audience member that they are not alone and that can lead to discussion and debate.

The point of all of this worthy waffle is that comedy can be very, very effective for getting a point across. Whether it is a political one or a social one comedy can reach people in way that speeches and lectures can’t.

The judges for the Liverpool Hope Playwriting Prize are looking for something to make them laugh. This could be silly or witty, clever or stupid but don’t be put off by the idea that comedy is less worthwhile than drama.

Recently we produced Alan Bleasdale’s Down The Dock Road and we saw how powerful drama can contain great moments of comedy. Audiences remember Alan’s Boys From The Blackstuff and talk about it with great fondness. Their memories are of a very funny programme that kept them entertained on a Sunday night in spite of the fact that it was a hard hitting political drama with some elements of comedy.

Down The Dock Road was the same. Audiences were visibly taken aback by the political nature of the show but there was enough humour in there to keep them listening. The message came through much more clearly as the audience was more receptive.

Many playwrights want to change the world but, at the moment especially, the world is full of comedians calling for change. If you are looking to enter the Liverpool Hope Playwriting Prize then you don’t need to abandon serious ideas or messages, just make them funny!

Liverpool’s Royal Court

Find out how last year’s winner Katie is preparing her play for the stage

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YEAH YEAH YEAH

Liverpool Hope Playwriting Prize judge Frank Cottrell-Boyce, who is returning to our panel for the second year,  explains what we can learn from the Beatles when it comes to constructing a play.  

All the current handbooks say a piece of drama has to have three acts – even if those “acts” are not marked formally.

That’s really useful – after all it only means you need a beginning, a middle and an end.

But there’s another – less architectural, more dynamic – way to think about structure.

I’m talking about suspense.

Suspense is the gap between the question and the answer,

between the glance and the kiss,

between the threat and the bullet,

the promise and the homecoming.

A current of energy passes between those two points.

Think of that current as the spine that holds your piece together – and try to make the spine tingle.

Think of it as a string that you can pluck from time to time, to sound a note of warning or promise.

The tighter the wire is the more the intervening scenes will feel important and necessary.

The three great commands are – make ‘em laugh, make ‘em cry and make ‘em wait.

Make ‘em wait is the hardest.

But it’s also the one that really delivers the most in the end.

Here’s an example.

When the Beatles played She Loves You (Yeah Yeah Yeah)  to George Martin he thought it was an OK song with a killer chorus.

His genius was to suggest that instead of going verse-chorus-verse-chorus the way pop songs do,  that the song should open with that blistering chorus and THEN have no chorus after the first verse. So that just when people think they’re going to hear it again,  you snatch it away.

You make them wait.

By thinking about structure in this way he turned what was an ordinary song with a ploddy verse into a joyful racket that stormed the world.

Have a look …

 

“Write the sort of play you’d camp outside overnight in the freezing cold to get tickets to.”

Michael Ross, shortlisted for the 2015 Liverpool Hope Playwriting Prize for Happy to Help, gives us his honest reflection on life as a playwright, and why the sacrifice may just be worth it. 

Following the Liverpool Hope Prize ceremony last year I managed to scrape my sobbing form from off the floor and I am now pleased to report that whilst my short-listed play Happy To Help lost out on the ten grand prize money (no, really, I’m fine!) and a run at the Royal Court Liverpool, it will instead premiere this June at the Park Theatre, London, for a four week run. A satirical comedy about the supermarket industry, it’s crammed full of love, death, betrayal, revenge, mistaken identity and tinned baked beans; all the classic Shakespearean tropes.

This March, I had my play Protect and Survive at London’s Vault Festival. Taking place in a warren of tunnels deep below Waterloo Station, the Vault Festival is the ideal location for a Cold War drama set in an underground nuclear bunker. I’m frankly useless at describing my own plays. In attempting to summarise the plot during auditions, I got promptly scoffed at by my director (Andrew Pritchard) for making it sound like “Love, Actually in a bunker” because I focused on the love-triangle aspect of the play instead of all the death, violence and nuclear paranoia it’s mostly concerned with. Suffice to say, it definitely isn’t Love, Actually in a bunker.

Anyway, I’ve been asked to share any techniques, tips or tricks for budding writers I may possess. But a spot of housekeeping first; if you wish to know the secret of becoming a truly successful playwright then please cease reading now and direct your enquiries instead to Richard Bean or Sir Tom Stoppard. If, however, you aspire to be a lonely, debt-ridden shop assistant who writes fruitlessly in his free time, then look no further, comrades; for I am your role model!

Here are the 3 steps towards becoming a playwright just like me.

Step 1: Relinquish any semblance of a personal life. Drinks after work? Romance on the weekend? Forget about it! Writing is now your controlling and slightly abusive partner who will only reluctantly unlock the front door to allow you outside for rare forays to the theatre (research purposes only, not entertainment!). Always best to go alone so you can fully focus on the play and correctly identify the relevant ‘inciting incident’ and ‘point of no return’ when they occur, but if you must be accompanied by someone else then for God’s sake make sure it’s another writer! That way the two of you can joylessly dissect the play’s narrative in the bar afterwards (over lemonade!) before you traipse off home (separately!). But then, who knows; if you make it big one day you might get to date sultry screen siren Marilyn Monroe or tempestuous twink Lord Alfred Douglas. In the meantime, get used to your own company.

Step 2: Write a play. Write the sort of play you’d camp outside overnight in the freezing cold to get tickets to. Because if you love it then there’s always the vague glimmer of hope some other freak might like it too. What do you think you are? Some kind of unique and precious snowflake?

Step 3: So you’ve written your first play? Congratulations! Go on, treat yourself to a glass of wine. No, that’s enough now! Ok, now it’s time to pop your script in the post to some of those really posh theatres- because you just never know, you could be the next overnight sensation like Shelagh Delaney or Polly Stenham, you could be interviewed in The Observer and everything! Hang on, what’s that thudding through the letterbox? Oops! Still, you’ve written the damn thing so it’d be tragic to let it go to waste. Why not Google any am-dram societies/youth theatres/satanic covens in your area and see if any are particularly desperate for royalty-free plays to perform? If all else fails, find a room above a pub and put the damn thing on yourself. Then sit at the back and watch the audience. Are they laughing? (Genuinely laughing, not just out of politeness, or because their friend Dolly said the word ‘knickers’?) Any sighs, groans, fidgeting, yawns or walk-outs? Have you found the experience unexpectedly humiliating? Fantastic! This means you’ll write a leaner, sharper, funnier play next time.

Congratulations, you are now a fully qualified playwright!

Oh I’m sorry, were you expecting something more? Your name in lights? A publishing deal with Faber and Faber? Money? (What are you?- some kind of filthy capitalist?) Nope, this is it. Keep going. Year in, year out. Forever. Fail again, fail better.

Michael Ross on twitter: @MichaelAliRoss

Michael Ross – official website