A Likely Story
This woman rushed to see her doctor, looking very much worried and all strung out. A man and a friend are playing golf one day at their local golf course. A woman gets on a bus with her baby. Two hunters are out in the woods when one of them collapses.
These intriguing, action-packed sentences are all great ways to start a story. They’re also the opening lines of jokes. In 2001, the University of Hertfordshire conducted a research project called LaughLab to determine the funniest joke in the world, and the sentences you just read were, in order: the funniest joke to Australians; to Americans; to Britons; and the overall funniest joke.
Storytelling is clearly a keystone of even the most punchline-laden stand-up set. And, as the Melbourne International Comedy Festival (MICF) kicks off today, many of its shows aren’t just strings of pearlers but foreground the imaginative practice of storytelling. Whether they’re drawing on personal experiences, creating characters with back stories or even sketching completely imaginary worlds, comedians are also expert spinners of tales. At last year’s festival – but, sadly, not this one – the London comedy room Storytellers Club set up shop at Trades Hall, where a mixed bunch of comedians from around the world flexed their narrative muscles.
But even when it’s not festival time, performance storytelling flourishes in Melbourne. An Evening With David Sedaris sold out in January as audiences flocked to hear the American anecdotist. The same month, master storyteller Daniel Kitson played the Arts Centre with 66A Church Road, an elegy to the house he rented for six years. The Wheeler Centre for Books, Writing and Ideas opened in February with a gala night of storytelling and, inspired by popular storytelling events overseas, Melburnians are discovering the pleasure of a good old-fashioned yarn.
Chris Flynn publishes the literary journal Torpedo and, with his next-door neighbour, writer Josephine Rowe, recently began curating the St Kilda Storytelling night at the Dog’s Bar. “We’d both been fans of The Moth in New York and seemed to know a lot of people who were comfortable on stage yet weren’t necessarily comedians or spoken word artists,” Flynn tells The Enthusiast. “Every kid in the world loves storytime, and I suspect every adult does too,” says Flynn. “We just forget that, even though we tell each other stories every day.”
Each St Kilda Storytelling night features two Melbourne writers and commentators – an established and an emerging voice – plus two open mic spots for audience members. “Eventually we’d like to have people from all walks of life,” Flynn says – “musicians, comedians, bricklayers…”
At last week’s opener, Ronnie Scott revealed his obsession with Alanis Morissette, then Michaela McGuire shared the anal sex and Liberal party references that hadn’t made it into her recent book, Apply Within. The atmosphere was “very interactive and funny,” Flynn says. “We had two great readings from the open mic people too, so it was a lot of fun.”
Tomorrow’s event stars Lisa Dempster and Kalinda Ashton. Dempster was introduced to the art of storytelling while publicising her book Neon Pilgrim, and it took a few goes for her to get into the swing of it. “The first time I did it was at Ashfield Library in Sydney, and one of the oldies in the audience fell asleep!” she laughs. “Which wasn’t great for my ego.”
Dempster believes that everyone has their own way of telling a killer story. “What really works for me is using the a traditional hero narrative, telling a story about a journey and beating the odds. But for someone else it might be sharing something really intimate, and being able to get a crowd hanging off every word by having a very quiet delivery.”
Jon Bennett has come a long way from his deeply religious upbringing in rural South Australia to his show in this year’s MICF, Pretending Things Are A Cock. Part storytelling event, part art exhibition, it takes audiences around the world in Bennett’s quest to take strategically phallic photos.
While Bennett has been a writer and comedian for a decade, he’s one of Melbourne storytelling’s most passionate advocates. While in New York in 2009 he performed to a sold-out room at The Moth, and with Dan Lee he hosted a night called Northcote Storytellers – now continuing as Willow Tales under the stewardship of Simon Godfrey and Dan Alleman.
“Our rationale was the idea that everyone has stories to tell but they don’t always have the opportunity to share them with an audience,” Bennett tells The Enthusiast. Like St Kilda Storytelling, Northcote Storytellers aimed to attract non-professional narrators and to include audience members. On themed nights such as Love, Sex, Drugs or Travel, people could send stories to Bennett for him to read out on the night, “as they were often too shy.”
Often, the best storytellers were “characters” of Bennett’s and Lee’s acquaintance. “My most memorable was a lady I knew named Pinky, the daughter of a wealthy chocolate factory owner,” Bennett recalls. “She grew up in the ’60s in San Francisco, going to all of the major festivals. She spent her teen years pretending to be a hippie in an attempt to fit in and see all of the music she loved. She also lived across from a studio where Jefferson Airplane would rehearse.”
Kirsten Law, who’ll be appearing in Bennett’s MICF show as well as her own show Prolifia, has performed at Willow Tales and runs her own work-in-progress performance night, Self-Cultivation. She’s inspired by New York’s proliferation of storytelling nights – “the most compelling of which I saw whilst there being Kevin Allison’s Risk Show” – and the podcasts that make them available to an international audience.
“In New York, though, the lines between storytelling and comedy are a bit more blurred, as are the lines between stand-up and improv, cabaret and storytelling and comedy and burlesque,” Law explains. “It’s a bit more synergistic – that would be nice to see here.”
With an unsettling sound design by Rob Mayson, formerly of Grey Daturas, and video art by Catherine Dwyer, Prolifia is one of the more conceptual offerings in this year’s MICF. “I enjoy comedy that might challenge established formats,” Law says. The show unites a collection of characters who seem a bit like losers, “so I decided to base the show on this idea – questioning the purpose of futile activities, but also celebrating the fact that something that is seemingly futile can have a larger purpose and function in people’s lives.”
But it’s still very funny. “Even in ‘heavier’ themed tales, the audience needs some lightness to balance the dark. Yin and yang!” Law says, pointing to the humorous undercurrent of TV shows such as Six Feet Under. “Sometimes you hear really tragic and beautiful stories of survival or resilience – especially on The Moth and This American Life – but my personal preference is for stories with at least a smattering of humour.”
Part of storytelling’s appeal is its sense of intimacy and spontaneity. “There’s more of a convivial atmosphere, like you’re being let in on a secret,” offers Flynn. “My girlfriend doesn’t like spoken word nights at all, but she loves the storytelling. So I guess it’s about the relaxed delivery and not trying to impress the audience with your ‘performance skills’.”
Dempster rates herself “a much better conversationalist than a storyteller,” and says her stories are rarely spontaneous. “I’ve never sat down in front of an audience unprepared and just started talking – I have the story ready and I know how I’ll tell it.” But Bennett thrives on speaking off-the-cuff.
“Most storytelling is done without notes; to me it feels like a once-only show,” he says. “I have told the same stories to different audiences, and each time the experience and the energy changes… I remember something different and sometimes I add something new.” He adds that storytelling forges connections between audience and narrator, “and a sense of comfort that helps break down the barrier between them.”
Storytelling also favours the personal anecdote – after all, what better narrator than the protagonist? Dempster prefers fictional storytelling, because “spinning a yarn is a great skill and when it’s done well it’s wonderful. I think it’s much harder than simply talking about yourself!” However, this year’s MICF program reveals that confessional comedy is more popular than ever.
Law’s storytelling is all done in character. She portrays a university lecturer who’s unhealthily obsessed with early-’90s ‘positive rap’, a home-schooled herb enthusiast in love with her brother, and former D-grade celebrity Ailsa, telling her life story to an unsuspecting charity door-knocker. “The character was inspired by Bette Davis’s character in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane,” Law reveals.
Then there’s bourgeois mum Marie, her possibly autistic son and her cruel teenage daughter. Marie “is a familiar type to anyone who’s ever worked in a cafe – she must have her caffe latte very weak and very hot,” says Law. “She’s a certain type of outwardly ‘polite’ person who has difficulties concealing her inner rage.”
Lisa-Skye Ioannidis, who told hilarious stories about her Greek grandmother in last year’s Goth V Nerd: Disenchantment Lane, reunites with comedic partner Nick Rasche this MICF for Supermanchild, another show drawing heavily on personal anecdote. Ioannidis credits blogging, the popularity of confessional essayists Sedaris and Augusten Burroughs, and “the rise of bloody raunch culture” for making confessional performances less controversial.
“There have always been showponies and exhibitionists, but it’s all about the degree,” she says. “In the ’70s and ’80s, you’d have comedians like Richard Pryor talking about their families, their sex life, and the honesty was shocking to the audience. Hilarious, but confronting.”
In Supermanchild, she delves further into the antics of her often outrageous family. “Everything I say is true. Not a word of exaggeration or lie,” Ioannidis insists. “And it wasn’t until I performed it that I realised, ‘Wow, this… truly isn’t a normal upbringing, is it?’ Which is just so odd, since I think my childhood was completely conventional. It’s a brick house with fluoro pink nougat mortar: normal, but weird in the gaps.”
Her parents and family friends regularly attend Ioannidis’s shows and have a whale of a time. “They think, ‘Ho, ho, that’s so true. We’re awesome. Now, where’s my drink?’” But, she hastens to add, that’s because she turned out okay in the end. “If I reframed my whole act into a tragic tell-all of how I came to be a junkie doing anal for coins, it might be different.”
For Bennett, storytelling offers comedians a way to create humour and evoke deep emotions without relying on punchlines. “Hearing silence from an audience in a joke means the comedian has failed. Silence in a story means they’re listening,” he explains. “Silence after a story has been told can be just as fulfilling as raucous laughter after a joke.”
Ioannidis agrees. “I think deliberately unfunny stories at a comedy show tend to get a stronger reaction. It’s the shock of the unexpected,” she says. “Also, it’s easy to make someone laugh. It’s harder to make them cry, or reflect.” Ioannidis is full of praise for Daniel Kitson – whom she calls “the world’s greatest working comedian” – and his story shows that “take you through the gamut of emotions. In an hour, he’ll have me laughing, crying, and feeling so intensely that afterwards I’m left in gaping awe of his genius.
“Most of us mere mortals can just get away with telling a story that’s worth a few chuckles, but when you can get to that level of taking your audience on an entirely unexpected and multi-faceted journey, that’s when storytelling is at its best. Also, when there’s some tits in it.”
St Kilda Storytelling is at the Dog’s Bar, 54 Acland Street St Kilda, every Thursday at 8pm.
Supermanchild is at Chloe’s Bar, Young & Jackson’s Hotel, from 25 March – 16 April, Thu-Sat at 6pm.
Pretending Things Are A Cock is at the Grace Darling Hotel, 114 Smith Street Collingwood, from 25 March – 18 April, Thu-Sun at 7pm.
Prolifia is also at the Grace Darling Hotel from 25 March – 18 April, Thu-Sun at 8:30pm.
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