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 …

 

“Live performance is what’s left to bind us together en masse.”

Paul Allen, writer, theatre critic, and judge for this year’s Liverpool Hope Playwriting Prize, describes the thrill of a first night – for both the writer and the audience.  

Being in a big audience at the first performance of a new play is a bit like a mass blind date.

Everybody’s a bit anxious but hoping for a good time, preferably with a bit of a laugh and possibly with a lasting result.

There’s no other public event quite like it. Having a good time at a football match is only possible if some of the people there have a bad time – and I don’t mean the club owners who’ve just tried to put up ticket prices.

You can have a good time at a party but not everyone’s invited (and you can’t be sure there won’t be a fight or somebody’s mate won’t throw up in the toilets at the end of the evening).

On the first night in the theatre of course the throwing up in the toilets happens earlier, and it’s probably the writer. There’s this huge upside-down pyramid of people; an audience of hundreds at the top, a score or more of theatre workers from the admin staff to the folk who’ve found the props and built the set in the next layer down; the company of actors who are about to go out and do the thing; and the poor man or woman who started the whole process off by having what seemed like a bright idea at the time is at the very bottom, like Atlas supporting the world.

That’s how it can feel anyway. It could be the best night of his or her life or it could be the very worst. All down to how well (or otherwise) he or she has done. Talk about a blind date.

But there’s no better place to be when it works. Now that religion and politics rarely bring large numbers of people together in a rapturously shared experience, live performance is what’s left to bind us together en masse.

Liverpool’s provided a few of those key experiences for me but I’m thinking especially right now of the first night of Willy Russell’s Blood Brothers. I was reviewing it but enjoying it too much to take any notes that I could read afterwards. I know people kept asking me if I thought the show would transfer to London and thinking yes, it probably would, but this was the least exciting thing about it.

I’d been caught up in the songs, the comedy and finally the tragedy of a great popular work which actually said more about the world I lived in than all the message-laden political drama of the time.

A great story, well told, shared in a packed house. And I think I was probably a little in love with Barbara Dickson.

Submit your play now

The judging panel

 

Katie Mulgrew: Workshop Week

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Last month my Liverpool Hope playwriting prize went into workshop. I didn’t really know what to expect. This is the first play I have ever written. A play that I’ve only ever read out loud to myself, often to the confusion of fellow coffee shop customers. It’s the only piece of writing I’ve ever ‘finished’. I say finished, winning the prize has begun another writing process. Except now I’m no longer alone in it. Since winning the prize I’ve been in constant communication with Kevin and Jess from the Royal Court and Matthew from the Unity theatre. Their enthusiasm and support for the play has been unfailing.

We all discussed that the play needed further development and re-writing. We all felt the next natural step in moving forward was to have a workshop week with a director and actors. So last month I found myself in a warehouse, in a part of Liverpool that at least two taxi drivers found difficult to find with a bunch of very talented collaborators.

Our chosen director was also a fellow writer, Bob Farquhar. What was brilliant about Bob was he could approach the week from both of those creative mindsets.

As a writer, he could spot where the strengths and weaknesses lay in the story arc and with the characters. The play is a farce so as a director he wanted to explore the pacing and at what points in the play could the comedy of the situation be really exploited?

Bob rounded up our quite frankly, brilliant actors.

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We all collectively spent a lot of time working through each character. Asking questions relating to each of their actions. Why? What if? How? Is this true to their character? What do they need? How do they change?

We explored different outcomes to these decisions through improvising. Seriously, some of the actors improvisations were way funnier than the stuff I’ve spent years writing. Yeah, I really hated those guys!

What was fascinating to me was how one even small decision about a character could then affect the entire play.

We pretty much spent the week pulling the play to bits so I could then go away and put it back together a far stronger piece. I like to think we  effectively ‘Robocoped’ the play!

Seeing the actors performing the words I had written just how I imagined that they should be said was such a thrilling experience for me as a new writer.

I came away from the week with my mind whirling and excited about re-writing the play.

 

Katie Mulgrew
Katie Mulgrew

Katie Mulgrew
Comedian, Playwright and Winner of the 2015 Liverpool Hope Playwriting Prize

Lancashire comedian Katie Mulgrew won the first Liverpool Hope Playwriting Prize for her play Omnibus, which is due to be staged at Unity Theatre before a possible transfer to Liverpool’s Royal Court in 2017. Katie has taken two solo stand up shows to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. She has been the support act for The Boy With Tape On His Face and Vikki
Stone, written for the The News Quiz and featured on the BBC Radio 2 documentary series, The History of British comedy. She has also been in episodes of the CBBC show, The Dog Ate My Homework. Katie recently launched Mum’s The Word Comedy Club, which hosts monthly parent and baby afternoon comedy in Manchester. She hosts ‘The FunnyGirl Podcast’ and is one third of the ‘Animates’ podcast.