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

What I learned at the Edinburgh Fringe

The best time to philosophise about the pros and cons of travel to an international festival, or specifically Edinburgh Fringe Festival, is when you are in extended transit on your way home. Hungry, smelly, tired, and still yet to buy enough duty free alcohol to kill a Jersey Cow, now is the perfect time to reflect on the whirlwind of the Ed Fringe.

Our show, SNAFU Theatre’s Murder at Warrabah House, ran for approximately sixteen nights from the start of the festival. The beginning was when crowds were still getting into gear and there was a freshness to the whole event. As time wears on, audiences, as well as critics, tend to dig their heels in more. Trends appear. Doors to amazing and innovative ideas open. People get very, very drunk, all day long.

The final weeks of Edinburgh Fringe tend towards the more prestigious acts that have received a lot of buzz from previous success in the Fringe or from critical buzz generated from festivals in other cities, such as London or the Brighton Fringe. An example of this was the Belarus Free Theatre, a company whose leader lives in the UK in political exile and whose members suffer constant threats from the country’s dictatorship. From the outset this was a must-see show, developed in London and premiering only in the final week of the Fringe with heaps of publicity to back it up. The buzz was well deserved and left me needing a quiet sit down afterwards.

But we are already about to delve into the Edinburgh Fringe’s mess of contradictions. The real hit of the festival (or arguably one of them?) was a little show by a bunch of kids vaguely associated with the Bristol Old Vic graduate program called the Wardrobe Ensemble. Their devised musical called Riot! was about a riot that occurred at the opening of an Ikea store six years ago in London. The ensemble of eight talented and annoyingly youthful artists incorporated a thoughtful story with belly laughs, physical theatre, dance, music and simple yet incredibly effective art direction (including a canny use of Ikea lamps as their sole lighting gear) to make a great piece of theatre. The reason I went? Because a friend saw it and told me to. How many people did I tell to see it? Three. How many people did they tell to see it? Who knows. But Riot! got its consistently large audiences from enthusiastic word of mouth, as well as from excellent reviews that they seemed genuinely surprised and delighted to receive. And you know what? I saw them out flyering on the street as well.

Both of these shows ran in the early afternoon. A trend that we did not know about before, but have learned now, is that theatre is generally on from the early afternoon until around 6pm, after which the stand up comedy kicks in. The rationale in many audiences’ minds is that they can see theatre and bawl their eyes out during the day, and then cheer themselves up and get drunk at stand up that night.

For us Australians living a 26 hour flight then a five hour train ride away from the excitement and fun of an Edinburgh Fringe it’s easy to forget that there are a lot of people who choose the Edinburgh Fringe as the vehicle to mount their production simply because they live two hours away. Not everyone is sinking thousands of dollars and jet lag into appearing there. As well as the companies like Belarus and Wardrobe, there are also high school groups bringing up their plays, lots and lots and lots of sketch comedy; there’s buskers and puppeteers participating in the free fringe, and so many other types of performer. The quality and verve with which participants are involving themselves varies massively.

I will definitely participate in the Edinburgh Fringe again. However, thought needs to be given, perhaps, to the merits of Australian artists continuing to participate, or seeing the pinnacle of exposure within the confines of the Edinburgh Festival.

One of the things I found surprising during my time in Scotland was that those that ran the Fringe, as well as the audiences hitting the streets, were genuinely pleased and enthusiastic that anyone had turned up at all. Then there was the receptiveness and curiousity of the audiences. People bought tickets to whatever tickled their fancy, whether they knew the performers or not. There were certainly ‘hot tickets’, but the overriding idea was that everyone has their own tastes, their own ideas of what they would like to see. People saw shows because they could, not because they should; a motivation that I sometimes feel the Australian arts scene needs to work on.

The Edinburgh Fringe, like so many other Fringe and art festivals reflects that old phrase: If you don’t like the news, go out and make some of your own; that refreshing new hit, or special discovery is out there, you just have to take the chance and go out and find it.

Link to the original article http://www.artshub.com.au/au/news-article/opinions/arts/what-i-learned-at-the-edinburgh-fringe-185610

How to put on an Edinburgh Fringe Show

Firstly I have a few questions: are you into the arts? Do you have a sense of adventure? Are you relatively unafraid of ending up massively in debt? Do you like Sixteenth century architecture? Then the Edinburgh Fringe festival is for you.

The brief for this article was to tell the story of SNAFU Theatre’s journey to the warm rainy cockles of the Scottish heart of the Fringe, in the hope of encouraging and advising others to follow suit. But the only thing I know from running a theatre company with my friend May Jasper, who acts as our producer and playwright, and the many talented and dedicated theatre nerds we have met on our way, is that each person’s purpose and experiences behind upping sticks and getting a show on the road, whether it be to Edinburgh or Northcote, is different. And well it should be too.

The main thing about ‘getting yourself in’ to the Edinburgh Fringe, or to any Fringe festival for that matter, is that the big papery programmes that are printed each year are not releasing the names of the artists most meritorious of putting themselves under the banner of the festival. Every act, every show of the Edinburgh, of the Melbourne and Adelaide Fringe festivals, simply pays a registration fee and are therefore in the programme. From Simon Callow to North Carolina High, the initial registration fee, in relation to the rest of the costs you incur later in the show, is really a blip on the horizon.

Which leads to the advantage of launching your new piece in a Fringe environment; an idyll in the seemingly competitive field of the performing arts (competing for funding, reviewers, and often, as an afterthought, audiences).

Most audiences who ‘do’ the fringe see at least two shows a day, more often four or five, so by day three they consider themselves to be festival connoisseurs. To put it another way, punters may walk out of your show after five seconds if it doesn’t take their fancy, but it won’t be down to bitchiness or hard feelings, rather the incessant need for every footpath-hitting show-goer to see as much as humanly possible within the confines of August. Not that anyone has walked out of our show – that would be terrible.

May puts it much better than I, so I’ll paraphrase: If you have a show, an idea of a show, and you’re willing to do the work, and you have some semblance of an ability at fundraising (you’d be surprised how far selling boxes of Freddo Frogs goes), then there is nothing stopping you from putting on your own Fringe show. On top of that, the only way that you’re going to learn how to edit, produce, direct and act in a show well is by doing the work and being crap at the start. To paraphrase May again: making art is like making pancakes. The first one is always going to be soggy and inedible but when you get into the rhythm of it, you’re making a whole stack of perfect pancakes with bacon and maple syrup on the side.

To be slightly more practical
To be slightly more practical with this article, and to deal specifically with Edinburgh:

– Book accommodation early because it will fall through and by the time you find somewhere else to stay you’ll be so desperate you won’t mind paying to live in a closet for a thousand pounds a month.

– Don’t rehearse in your living room because it’s distracting and you’ll end up having to do twice the work for the same result.

– Look for a venue for a show early; those that run them will think you’re well organised and much more responsible than you really are, and in terms of Edinburgh’s geography with its winding stairways and bridges, the two points on the map that look close to each other may not be as close as you think.

– And finally when it comes to marketing, listen to everyone and no one’s advice, because there is no winning formula.

Don’t forget to delegate
Also, there is a lot of work on the producing side of the show, so don’t be a megalomaniac and think ‘the piece will speak for itself’. Delegate tasks as much as humanly possible, and respect the people who are putting together marketing and publicity materials. They are the ones who may well just find the right audience for you.

My follow up article might have a more philosophical wrap up once our Fringe run is over and I’ve had some sleep, but right now I’ve got to go to this show that’s starting soon and then I’ve got to go to this site specific thing that this random person told me was awesome. It’s at this vault and….

Murder at Warrabah House
SNAFU Theatre
TheSpaces @ Surgeons Hall (Venue 53)
Time: 22.35 (55m), until 20th August (except 14th).
www.snafutheatre.com/

Read the article where it was originally published here:

http://www.artshub.com.au/au/news-article/opinions/arts/how-to-put-on-an-edinburgh-fringe-show-185180?sc=1

Melbourne Fringe: Girls@Work

Theatreworks in St. Kilda have taken their opportunity at the Fringe festival this year to showcase the wild and wonderful women of Melbourne theatre, covering straight performance to Cabaret, from serious subjects to do with immigration and feminism, to the dissection of the female orgasm. Entitled Girls @ Work, and encompassing five separate performances, as well as two workshop-based events working with women in the business, it’s a large and diverse undertaking for the venue. I spoke to Angela Pamic.

“We’re celebrating our thirtieth anniversary and were going through the archives for the venue. It became apparent that the company itself had a strong female presence right throughout its history. The founding company members had some really strong women amongst them, one woman in particular, Kaz Howard who has since passed away.  She was, by all accounts, an amazingly fiery, energetic, charismatic, woman who kind of pulled the company together and created these amazing works and an ensemble… And so when we realised that we thought it would be nice to celebrate our thirtieth birthday about women and actually to celebrate the artists in the industry today, to give them a platform to show their work.”

 
Of the five works being shown, two are physical/dance pieces (PaPer Man & The 499th Day, The She Sessions), two are straight theatre (I Could Be You, Instability Strip), and one is cabaret (Le Petit Mort – The Orgasm). All of the shows are on most nights, which means that if you go, you might not end up seeing just one type of live theatre.

 
“We wanted a broad cross range of performances, not just theatre or dance.  An audience member could come to the venue and see three different things in one night, broadening their arts experience. This way they get to see things they might not normally see.”
 
GIRLS @ WORK
VENUE: Theatreworks
DATE: Various
TICKETS: See website

See the original article here: http://www.beat.com.au/festivals/2010/09/23/melbourne-fringe-girlswork/arts-australian-comedy-festival-film-fringe-fringe-festival-gig-girlswork-show-t