Dr Neal Professor Portenza: Catchy Show Title

Dr Professor Neal Portenza (real name Josh Ladgrove) is in the thick of the Adelaide Fringe when I speak to him. His character, a generous creator of laughs behind a multi-title name, is having its fifth outing at the Melbourne International Comedy Festival. The most important thing for Portenza is that the audience is willing to join in on the comedy. “It’s just an extremely interactive show, I mean the way it was described here in Adelaide the other day was ‘collective comedy’, which is really interesting. So it’s character-based, some people say it was a little bit ‘clowny’, I’m not sure I agree with that but I think that it’s character-based, interactive comedy that’s supposed to be fun, and funny.”

The abstract nature of Catchy Show Title means it’s difficult to pin down what the show is actually about. “The show is never really about anything, which is not a pretentious thing to say, but, you come, some stuff happens, then you leave hopefully smiling. There’s no plot, there’s no story, there’s no arc, it’s just an hour of very different, interactive, fun.”

Interactive can sometimes be a bit of a scary word for audiences, but Portenza is reassuring about his definition of audience interaction. “My number one rule is ‘never make people feel like idiots’, that cheap, crass, kind of interaction does feel awful and does cause a lot of anxiety…one of the comments I get from time to time is ‘I really hate audience interaction but this was great I felt really comfortable’. Really, really early on I try and make the audience feel really, really comfortable.”

Portenza leaves his shows open to the possibilities of the night, but he still turns up with a literal bag of tricks to go with the figurative ones. “I started the Adelaide Fringe with not very much of an idea…but at the end of the festival, and by the time the start of the Melbourne International Comedy Festival comes around, there’s really good structure in place, and so whilst I improvise to get from A to B it’s not like organised improv – it’s certainly not the American style of improv, it’s just very specific to that night’s audience, so no two shows are necessarily the same, how I arrive at those points though varies pretty wildly depending on the audience.”

When listing his influences, it’s good to hear they’re mainly Australian. “I think the main influence is someone like Shaun Micallef and Sam Simmons, but then older things like Graham Kennedy, really was the king of looseness, and that sort of style of just being really with the audience, not just grinding through my material hoping that every audience is going to be the same from night to night, working hard to find what is funny about this specific moment.”

Throwing Lano and Woodley in there as well, Portenza gives big props to American comedian Dr Brown. “Dr Brown has been pretty instrumental in kicking my arse actually.” I ask if that’s personally or on a more metaphysical level. “On a more metaphysical level, letting me have the belief in myself to take the show to places where it couldn’t necessarily get if they were just written sketches.”

MICF is a time to take a bit of a gamble on your comedy, and it’s something that inspires Portenza. “When the audience are up for something a bit different, you can go to some really interesting and special places, and it can be an extremely fun night. It’s for someone who wants to see something a bit different, a bit off the beaten track. It’s a pretty good choice I reckon.”

Venue: Melbourne Town Hall – Backstage Room, Cnr Swanston & Collins St, CBD
Dates: March 26 – April 19 (except Mondays)
Times: 9.30pm (Sundays 8.30pm)
Tickets: $18 – $23

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Jekyll X James: Cactus Blastus

Jekyll x James return to Melbourne with their own unique brand of musical storytelling in Cactus Blastus, a riff on the western genre. I asked Cameron James to fill me in a bit more on the flavour of the show. “Jared and I do music, comedy, sketch comedy and clowning all in one. We play live music – live hip hop and punk songs – and then we loop that music and we do sketches and stupid shit on top of it…last year’s show was horror-themed, this year’s show is cowboy and spaghetti western themed.” They’re covering as much of the genre that they can. “Our show is a live action peyote trip – the audience comes on a psychedelic peyote trip with us through the wild west.”

It’s the perfect excuse to get out the movies that made the genre, to get your teeth into some hardcore research, something that went a little bit awry in Jared and Cameron’s plans. “We’re both movie fans so we’ve seen a whole chunk of westerns in our time. We went to the video shop – I can’t believe they still exist – but we got out 15 westerns, and we started watching one, and then we just sort of stopped watching it and started watching YouTube videos of people being hit in the face or something – we lost interest in the research very quickly, and instead started riffing off the things we already knew, the things we had seen before and whatnot. It’s art.”

The western is a large and varied genre as well, so the pair are trying to stick to the old-school tropes, rather than battle with such groundbreaking films as Wild Wild West. “I’m sure we had a big conversation about [the giant mechanical spider], but we decided that Will Smith already covered it so deftly. We’re more into the spaghetti westerns, the westerns made by Italians and all the westerns made by people who were taking LSD in the ’60s, that’s kind of the stuff that we’re more interested in.”

Jekyll and James circled each other in their own solo stand up careers before finally deciding to join forces, but the process was organic. “Jared would be onstage and I’d be in the audience and I would heckle him, and then it would become a sketch. We’d bomb each other’s sets and hijack each other’s shows from time to time, and then last year we wrote our first actual show…and that’s how we found our actual style…I think, that I haven’t seen anyone else do a combination of music and clowning.”

Although they’ve been compared to The Mighty Boosh and Flight of the Conchords, it’s hard to pin down the pair’s influences, as they prefer to continue working on their style, “It’s really about coming up with the best stupid idea – we put a high premium on stupidity in our writing.”

After Melbourne the pair are continuing to tour, but are also looking to work in another direction. “We haven’t really discussed this in depth, but we’re also thinking of making this the basis of a web series. I see it moving in that direction beyond being a live show, I see it becoming something new online. I haven’t really discussed this much with Jared.”
I point out that if I put it in the article then it will have to become true. “Exactly! There’s no argument with that.”

Venues: Forum Theatre – Carpet Room & Pizza Room, Cnr Flinders & Russell St, CBD
Dates: March 26 – April 19 (except Mondays)
Times: 9.45pm (Sundays 8.45pm)
Tickets: $15 – $18 

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Rebecca De Unamuno: Is Open To Suggestion

Veteran impro performer Rebecca De Unamuno is making her 40th birthday a year-long celebration, and it all begins at the Melbourne International Comedy Festival. “I did Open to Suggestion ten years ago, and it was a Moosehead award-winning show…I turned 30 during that run and in Melbourne on opening night it’s going to be my 40th birthday, so I’ve sort of set up a ‘festival of the 40th’ – for the next 12 months I’m going to do all of the things that I love to do, and I love this show so I’m bringing it back.

Audience suggestions kick off each show, with De Unamuno forming three characters based on offers from the audience. Over the course of the next hour she creates monologues based on her three characters whose lives are somehow intertwined. How that link occurs is different every night. “I never know when that’s going to happen, or when I’m going to think of it or discover it. I had one where one of the characters was a cat owner and the cat had nine lives and had touched all three of their lives. Or somebody was writing a romance novel and then it turns out that one of the male characters that I was playing ended up the lead in the romance novel. It’s just looking for those similar themes or recurring parts of dialogue that end up connecting the characters.”

This way of storytelling relies on a mixture of sources, including her own experiences. “I think audiences can appreciate when a story comes from truth, rather than making it up, and there’s many times in my show when I might be playing a character who has nothing to do with me, but something that’s happened in my day or a song that I’ve heard…might just creep into the show.” This is just one of the ways that De Unamuno’s show differs from those performed by an impro group. “When you’re performing with other people, when you’re improvising, you can rely on them to come up with an offer if you don’t have one, but if you’re on your own you’ve just gotta keep going until something pops up.”

De Unamuno is playing the Adelaide Fringe when I speak to her, and Open for Suggestion is already off to a flying start. “This has been the first chance for me to do the show after ten years and get it back on its feet. You have a love/hate relationship with it until you feel like you’ve hit your stride, I’m loving it again which is great…every show is different, so even if it’s just to prove a point you can come back and see it again. I’ve had a few recurring audience members here in Adelaide, which has been great. I don’t play the same character twice in a run, so that’s the challenge for me as well.”

Although a highlight of De Unamuno’s ‘festival of the 40th’, she’s got some other big plans for the year. “I want to have a party! I’m 40 and I’m single and I figure I’ve been to so many weddings and so many christenings and birthday parties for young people, that I figure that I would like to have a party.”

Why do they get all the fun?! “Yeah! I want to get some presents! And there’s a few places in the world that I’ve never travelled to – I’d love to have a holiday, and just watch all the films that I really enjoy, and read the books I love, that kind of thing!”

Venues: Victoria Hotel – Vic’s Bar, 215 Lt Collins St, CBD & Melbourne Town Hall – Backstage Room, Cnr Swanston & Collins St, CBD (April 13 only)
Dates: March 26 – April 13 (except Mondays, bar April 13)
Times: 7.15pm (Sundays 6.15pm, April 13 6.30pm)
Tickets: $19 – $25

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Jonestown: Guinea Pigs

Nicholas Johnson is one half of Jonestown (the other half is comedian and ventriloquist Sarah Jones), the Moosehead and Golden Gibbo-awarded duo performing at this year’s MICF. Last year’s Pajama Party was a hit, and Johnson is looking forward to their latest installment.  “Guinea Pigs is a narrative-based sketch comedy show about Sarah and I being locked in a box against our will, and forced to perform a series of cruel and unusual psychological experiments. We call it Saw meets RadioLab.”

Although the world of psychological experiments is relatively new to Jonestown, stories heard in podcasts about the old, less-regulated days of scientific research really captured the pair’s imagination. “I’ve always been interested in that sort of podcast, you know that sort of This American Life: ‘Did you hear about that pop psychology thing they did in the ’70s?’ Like the Stamford Prison Experiment where they locked students up and pretended they were in prison, and then they all went slowly insane. Where the ordinary, mundane scientific experiment suddenly just becomes a weird off-the-rails kind of explosion.”

The most outrageous, and memorable of these experiments was too intense to be completely included in the show. “Harry Harlow did the ‘Wire Mother’ experiments on monkeys, where he asked: ‘I wonder what would happen if we put a monkey in a box with no light and no contact with anyone for months.’ And the monkey would go insane, and he would say, ‘Ah! Interesting.’ But now, rather than do it on a monkey, we do it on a pair of middle class comedians.”

Long-time friends, the pair developed their writing partnership by accident. “We’re both anti-social, so we would enjoy sitting in cafés [working and] not talking to each other, which was a very good writing partnership. We would just shoot ideas back and forth across the table at each other, until we realised that we were writing together, and writing sketches and other bits and pieces, and finally we put together our first show, last year, which was Pajama Party…it was a little like we’d made home brew in our basements and then found out that people actually enjoyed drinking it.”

They’ve also come up with an unusual way to market the show, by turning their Twitter account (@jonestowncomedy) into an story reminiscent of the Choose Your Own Adventure series. “It’s an extension of the show. People can go online and play – they can be locked in a room with us and try to escape.”

The first choice for followers is whether you are going to follow Nicholas or Sarah. Who’s getting more hits? “Definitely Sarah, it’s always something to do with her. We find in our shows if any sort of choice is involved people will choose Sarah.” Which he is totally cool with? “Absolutely! We’re both quite antisocial so the idea of not being chosen is pleasant. It’s been really interesting working with someone else, how audiences interact with different performers and how people feel much safer coming up and talking to us after the show, that sort of stuff. It’s interesting.”

The pair are looking at taking the show to all the major festivals, as well as some regional shows. “I think we prefer to take the path less travelled, and we don’t always do the same thing as other people…at the moment Sarah’s doing shows on cruise ships in the South Pacific somewhere. So we always have things going on that are different from what other comedians might do.”

Venue: Portland Hotel – Gold Room, Cnr Russell & Lt Collins St, CBD
Dates: March 26 – April 19 (except Mondays)
Times: 7.15pm (Sundays 6.15pm)
Tickets: $20 – $25

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Dates: March 26 – April 19 (except Mondays)
Times: 7.15pm (Sundays 6.15pm)
Tickets: $20 – $25