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.

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The judging panel

 

Ian Salmon (right) with Liverpool's Royal Court Chief Executive Kevin Fearon at the inaugural award ceremony.

“My business card says playwright and nobody can argue with that.”

Ian Salmon discusses how being Highly Commended for his play The Comeback Special has impacted on his career, and why he’ll always keep that unread winner’s speech close at hand.  

I’m not going to lie to you, I had a winner’s speech printed out and folded neatly in the inside left pocket of my suit jacket. I could claim that it was there ‘just in case’; a safety net in case I was lucky enough to need it. In case I was lucky enough to be the one of the ten finalists at the presentation that won the prize itself. It wasn’t there as a fallback. It was there because I felt that I was going to win. Take that as egotistical if you wish, it’s not, it’s belief.

I entered the inaugural Liverpool Hope Playwriting Prize with my play ‘The Comeback Special’ because I wanted to win it. I had no idea whether I could write comedy, no idea whether I could be funny; still wanted to win it though. Wanted to be good enough to win it.

Why? Well….prestige, acclaim, production, money obviously but mostly the prestige, the acclaim and the Royal Court. Always the Royal Court. I’m not sure how many of the final ten were Liverpool born; I know of another two at least. I’ve no idea how many of the two hundred that entered the competition were Liverpool born but those that were know that the Royal Court is special. Really special. I entered because I wanted to win, because I wanted to have my work at the Royal Court.

I grew up in the Court. Every great gig that I saw in my teens and twenties, I saw in the Court. Before it was an amazing theatrical venue, it was an amazing gig venue. The Bunnymen so many times, the Teardtops, OMD, Big Country, The Icicle Works, Kraftwerk, REM twice, U2 twice on the same tour, Bowie. Saw Bowie at the Royal Court. More special now than it was then. I played the downstairs bar with my band, always wanted to graduate upstairs.

The Liverpool Hope Playwriting Prize is a way to graduate upstairs. The Prize is vital because it’s for comedy, because comedy is so much of what Liverpool has always been, it’s a prize that represents the city, that represents the people, that partnered with a theatre that’s for the people before everything else. It’s a prize that can recognise the work that appeals to the people that need to be at the theatre but aren’t sure it’s for them.

That’s the work that I want to do, that’s why I wanted to win it.

The night flowed. Food was excellent, wine was ignored – I had a speech to hopefully deliver, company at the table was wonderful, the other writers – dotted around the room and bumping into each other occasionally – became a loose and supportive community for the evening. The ten plays were announced, brief details given. The brief synopsis for mine (‘Robbie would prefer not to speak to the dead and definitely not to this bloke who thinks he’s Elvis’) drew a laugh from the room. A hearty laugh, a big laugh and I thought ‘this could be happening’. The awards edged toward announcement, starting with the Highly Commended writers. The first name appeared on screen and it wasn’t mine. And again, I won’t lie to you; I sat at the table thinking “don’t let my name be next, don’t let my name be next”.

My name was next. My wife squeezed my hand and looked delighted. She told me when I sat down again that she wanted to jump up and scream because she was so happy, so proud. And then she’d seen my face. And I was doing the ‘Oscar nominee’ face. I was doing the ‘Joey from Friends’ award night’ face. Was I delighted? Of course I was but I wanted to win. So much. The first year of a theatrical award that sits second in size only to the Bruntwood? Obviously I wanted to win.

The speech stayed in my pocket. I mumbled a carefully rehearsed ad-lib about how ‘my wife spends every lunch hour with this man’ gesturing at the host, Radio Merseyside’s Roger Phillips ‘but I’m fine with that’ and thanked everybody that needed thanking. Lost in the feedback created by my leaning in too close to the microphone.

No Royal Court then. Yet. It will happen. They don’t know it yet but it will happen. Writing is a form of magic; put the words down, create your world and make your world real. Writing an acceptance speech? It’s practically a spell to create success.

So, a year on, am I delighted at receiving one of the two Highly Commended Awards at the first ever Liverpool Hope Playwriting Prize? Of course I am. There were three prize winners from two hundred entrants; I was one of those three. For my first full length play? Come on, that’s incredible. That’s success. The framed award is on my wall, in front of my desk. It’s there every time I write. It reminds me. Want to know what that award has given me? It’s given me prestige. You put scripts in front of people and you have the fact that you achieved this as your calling card. You can call yourself a writer and nobody can contradict you; that piece of paper in the silver frame proves it. People take you seriously. You’re not a guy working in a shop who has a script, you’re a playwright. My business card says playwright and nobody can argue with that.

What have I done since then? My second play, Venus Rising, written after The Comeback Special but produced before the awards were announced, played in the 2014 Page To Stage Festival and will tour this year. My third, Half The Sky, was nominated for ‘Excellence In New Writing’ at Buxton Fringe festival 2015 where I also won the best short film competition for my film Slip Away (a thousand views on YouTube in four days, watched and retweeted by some very interesting and famous people).

Play number four premieres in September, as does The Comeback Special whose initial production is planned to come from the Hope University alumni drama society in the marvelous Capstone Theatre. Play number five is with a local theatre, I signed a contract on my first non-fiction book, and I’m nearing completion of my first novel.

What does the Liverpool Hope Playwriting Prize Competition give you? The belief that you can do it. The belief that you can do anything that you want, the belief, the knowledge that people will take you seriously. And when the moment comes that you decide to take an absolute leap of faith and put your scripts in front of a major Hollywood agent, the fact that you can say ‘I am the recipient of the Highly Commended Award at the Liverpool Hope Playwriting Prize 2015’ helps you receive the reply ‘happy to read them’. Yeah, I did that.

Write the story you believe in and then believe in it. It’s amazing what happens. And write your acceptance speech in the belief that you’ll need it.

Picture: Ian Salmon (right) with Kevin Fearon, Chief Executive of Liverpool’s Royal Court at the Liverpool Hope Playwriting Prize award ceremony.

Follow Ian @IanRSalmon

Ian Salmon – The Comeback Special – Liverpool Hope Playwriting Prize 2015

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