September has arrived and the madness of the Edinburgh Fringe is over. Some comedians have returned home to their families and day jobs. Others are on holiday, recuperating and catching the last rays of summer, or back on the London circuit, gigging again.
However, like me, many are now taking their show on the road. The French writer Colette called touring “the life of a salaried gypsy.” She was talking about her time playing pantomime in vaudeville, but it applies to the modern comedian too.
Apart from the salaried bit, of course. Unless you are an established act, these days a comedian earns their keep from ticket sales rather than a fee, or even just takes “the bucket” – the age-old practise of asking the audience for donations at the end of the show.
This has come to be known as the “bucket speech.” On comedy social media forums, performers often trade tips on how to make it work. Number one – make it funny. Number two – make it short. Maybe it’s the most important bit of the act. These days performers even take card payments and carry a portable card reader. The “Sorry, got no cash” excuse won’t wash anymore.
Although I have toured as an actor before in theatre, this is the first time with my own show as writer-performer-producer. You could add investor-marketeer-technician-roadie and prop-maker too.
My one-woman sitcom Goddess has (albeit very basic) theatrical elements so to make it easier to tour, I tried to keep things simple. All my costumes and props fit into a single bag – just add performer!
Despite being a confirmed technophobe, I even learnt how to operate the sound cues myself from my iphone. In many ways, it has been very liberating to become a one-man band. Now I can go all Judy Garland and truly say, “Let’s put on the show right here!”
But it has also been a very steep learning curve. The first thing I discovered is that you don’t usually know the full story before you arrive at the venue. Once, the booking system was showing that I had only sold four tickets, so I didn’t bring my radio mic (I jump around so much, I find it too restrictive to use a mic on a lead). When I arrived, I discovered that the 80-seat theatre was full, and I had to project very loudly to make myself heard at the back. I won’t make that mistake again.
Another time, I was told that I would be in a bright gallery space, when in fact it was a dark club where the lights were so blue no one could see the pictures I use in the show. I wondered why that “sure fire” joke wasn’t getting a laugh…
When I booked the tour, I decided that I would go anywhere I was invited. In Portsmouth, I performed in a Tattoo Parlour. In Sheffield, it was a Goddess temple. At Glastonbury festival, I was on a stage dug out of the ground, at three in the morning, to a crowd high on Poitín!
My audience numbers have ranged from five to a hundred. However, sometimes the smallest houses are the most appreciative. By the end of the show, you feel like you’ve made friends for life. They come up afterwards to shake your hand. You even have a drink together afterwards in the bar.
The most demoralising experience is when you have a full room, but they don’t laugh. Maybe they’re just quiet, you hope. Maybe they’re smiling on the inside. You try to carry on unphased, but you feel like a right twat doing the bucket speech on nights like that.
Of course, learning to deal with the uncertainty and roll with the punches is all part of the process. In his fascinating autobiography Born Standing Up, Steve Martin describes how he was touring with very little success for twelve years. He played all kinds of venues, which he identified as a crucial part of his training. It taught him how to perform to just a handful of people or stay focused when doing his act next to the salad bar, while diners were getting their food.
Of course, this showbiz story has a happy ending. Martin eventually broke through and became the first comedian to achieve rock star status and play stadiums. But, ironically, he said this ruined his show. The audience were so far away, they couldn’t catch the nuances of his comic expressions. People were laughing before he even started. He didn’t even have to be funny anymore, the audience loved him. Now, he was just churning out the hits.
There’s no doubt about it, touring a show is like comedy bootcamp. It forces you to toughen up. But the level of admin required is phenomenal. For each different venue that you visit, you have to create a new poster and a new event page on Facebook. You need to know how to use photoshop as much as write a punchline.
You also have to continually post on social media to drum up an audience and send out your press release to try to get in the local press. If you’re lucky, you might be asked to do an email or phone interview. In one place, I was asked why the residents of this small market town would want to see my show about Tantric Massage. I suggested that the locals there might have genitals too. Or would at least know someone that did…
Many comedians have told me that when they got into this game, they had no idea of the level of admin involved. It turns out that writing and performing are (almost) the easy bits.
It’s so much work for possibly very little reward. So why do we do it? Because, when it works, performing comedy is the best feeling in the world. I’m not sure why, but making people laugh is more addictive than crack.