Yay! Recorded live in the stock room of a shop

The thing was, I was fed up with lugging props around the various fringes and festivals. That was the crux of the issue. Each year I would devise a new solo show and each year I’d promise myself that it would be a simple affair, and within weeks I had incorporated so many props, costumes and technical details into the show that it couldn’t possibly be performed without a big box of paraphernalia. Which is not what you need when you have to run for trains or make your way from Devon to the Edinburgh fringe.

          2019 was when things got just too much. That year, I had a show all about tea. The show was called ‘Spout’. ‘Spout’ could only be performed with: a tea pot, a cup, a saucer, a tea caddy, a box of drawstring teabags, a tea cosy, an iPad which had all the various sounds, music and cues stored on it, a Bluetooth speaker, some juggling balls, a large pad of paper with a word search written on it in sharpie, and a tray on to which I had glued another teapot, another cup, another saucer, a milk jug and a sugar bowl, so that I could dance around the stage without them falling off. So once you add luggage for a week in Scotland, merchandise to hopefully sell, and everything else which I normally travel with, you can see that performing the show was more like moving house.

          And then on the way back from Edinburgh, someone stole my luggage. Sure, I had my box of props, but the tea cosy was in the suitcase which got stolen. The tea cosy was actually a proper hat knitted and created by the artist Hazel Hammond, and I think I was more upset about this than the fact I’d lost all my clothing. And that’s when I decided, the next show will have no props!

          No music, either. No complicated cues. No background beats. It would just be me and the audience with no embellishment whatsoever. Something about this felt pure. It felt real. It felt grown up.

          In 2020 I started work on the new show. I decided that it would tie in with my new book, published by Burning Eye. I decided that the show would feature only poems from the new collection. Which I knew would make the writing somewhat limited, but I was determined to get it done. 

          Each one of my shows was inspired by something or someone during the planning process. My first show, Static,  (2014), was heavily influenced by the work of performance artist Laurie Anderson. In the Glare of the Neon Yak (2017) was influenced by storytellers such as Dandy Darkly. And when it came to the Yay show, I was busy looking at the work of singer David Byrne, and storyteller Spalding Gray. Spalding’s only prop was often just a table which he sat behind. And Byrne’s American Utopia stage show concentrated on choreography and movement. These were the two things I was watching or reading about during the creative process.

          I also read a book about creating solo work, and it suggested keeping a diary. Aha, I thought. Now that’s something I can definitely do. I thought I’d forget about the diary, but it actually helped with the creative process because it pushed me to do something which I could then write in the diary as proof that I was making some kind of progress.

Naturally, at the time I had no idea that this period of creativity and rehearsal would coincide with various lockdowns, pandemic mandates, and the whole paranoia and psychological malaise which these brought to the art industry. At some moments I wondered if I would ever get the chance to perform the show. As it is, with a bit of luck and some nifty admin, I managed to perform Yay twice in 2021, as well as perform it to a completely empty theatre for the benefit of a filmmaker, so that people could view the show online during lockdown.

On performing new material

If you go on Netflix you’ll find a comedy documentary called Jerry Seinfeld : Comedian. This film highlights the differences between a comedian just starting to make a name for himself, and an established comedian, Jerry Seinfeld, trying out new material having decided to ditch everything he’d performed, to great success, up to that point.

          It’s a fascinating film because it shows the process Jerry went through of learning new lines, trying them out, occasionally forgetting his words, occasionally having a bad gig, and you can really tell that this was something that he was putting a lot of work into. And it’s also something which I can, to a lesser extent, relate to.

          I’ve been performing comedy poetry now since 2008 and during that time, whenever I’ve been asked to headline or feature somewhere, there have been a certain canon of poems which I utilise, having perfected these over the years and knowing, more or less, what the audience response might be. It’s been something of a comfort, having these poems : Beard Envy, Plop, Badger in the Garden, Little House, Jellyfish, etc. The only times I’ve varied this set has been the addition of a poem or two from whatever hour show I’ve been working on. The Tea Rap, and High Tea, both came from my show Spout and found their way into my usual headline set.

          However, using this method resulted in a strange feeling which I’m sure is not unique to me as a performer and as a writer. I started to become jealous of the version of me who existed when I wrote these poems. I was jealous of the version of me who existed when I started rehearsing these poems. I was jealous of an earlier version of myself. And because of this, I’d tell myself that I couldn’t write or perform this way any more. That the best years were already behind me.

          In 2020 I started work on a new show, Yay : The Search for Happiness, which was all new material, though I’d been working on some of these poems since around 2016. The new show was the perfect vehicle for some of the poems which had never made their way into a headline set before, such as Sideburns, or Instructions for my Funeral.  For me, there were two ‘stand out’ poems from the show, Shakka Lakka Boom, and Seaside Soul. Both can be performed with gusto and Shakka Lakka Boom has a catchy refrain that people can join in with. Hooray!, I thought. Two new ‘bangers’ which might make their way into hypothetical headline sets.

          At the same time as writing Yay, I was also working on a project with the fishermen of Brixham, which eventually became a sequence of poems called Squidbox. Most of these poems were earnest and dealt with serious subjects such as wartime refugees, family history or the rigours of deep sea trawling, but I did include one poem ‘just for myself’, a very silly performance piece called Seagrasses. I performed this a couple of times at events to publicise Squidbox organised by Torbay Culture or Brixham Museum, and this too became another ‘potential banger’.

          Once the pandemic quietened down a bit and normal life began, so too did gigs and offers of paid slots, and that’s when the idea came that possibly, just possibly, I might try and start performing only new material whenever the chance arose. This idea seemed both foolish and a little scary, because I’d held on to some of the old poems for so long that people told me they could recite them almost word for word. The trouble with this was that I didn’t have nearly enough potential material to fill a paid slot.

          My philosophy when putting a set together has always been variety. A poem with singing, some dancing, a poem with music, a slam poem, a rhyming poem . .  I always wanted to vary things up so that audiences did not become too bored, and doing away with what had become a carefully honed and varied set seemed a huge risk.

          I sat down last year and started work on new poems. Yet this was fraught. There’s nothing worse, when writing, of having a preconceived idea of what the poem should sound like. The process should be organic, and some of these early poems suffered through trying to force a particular style or method of delivery. Yet even so, I kept the underlying ideas and put them to the rear of my mind.

          I’ve always said that when you’re writing, the best performance pieces come where two ideas suddenly collide head on. It was a case of thinking, sometimes, ‘Hmm, what else can I throw at this poem?’ An early example was Do Wacka Do, which had a very pleasing rhythm. I then thought, actually, wouldn’t it be great to drive a truck straight through that rhythm, and completely change the direction and beat of the poem halfway through? I was very happy with this, but it still needed . .  Something. One day I was mucking around with some choreography when I remembered a Scouts disco I went to in the early 1980s, where one of the Venture Scouts was disco dancing and every now and then he would flick imaginary insects from his arms. And that’s when I thought, well, what about if I did that during the Do Wacka Do poem? Along with a strange forwards pointing motion that a friend of mine does. So all of these combined to create a new performance piece, which only takes about a minute to perform, but I was really happy with it.

          Another poem was called Dreamscraper. I was fairly happy with this but it didn’t seem to be going anywhere, until I began to experiment with my voice during the poem, starting off at a high tone at the beginning of every stanza, and lowering my voice until the last line of each stanza where, inevitably, the punchline of that verse might be. And I don’t know why, but this sounded both exasperated, and funny, like it was really paining me to perform the poem. I performed this once at an open mic in Exeter and it went down really well.

          I’d been working on a short poem called My Friend Cliff is a Zombie, too. Again, mucking around during rehearsing this poem, I discovered that I could sing the refrain, which became more of a chorus. I then developed more choreography, which relied on the use of jazz hands and a manic straight ahead stare, but even this didn’t seem enough, until I realised that I could just start the poem with the melodica, echoing the tune of the refrain. Almost done . . Until I thought, wouldn’t it be funny to end the poem with a line which changes the whole focus of it? I wont say what this change is, but boom! My Friend Cliff is a Zombie was ready to be performed.

          There are other experimental poems I’ve been playing with, which I don’t want to give away. ‘Gom’ is a sound poem, which I have a lot of fun performing. ‘The Nature Reserve’ is a new poem which starts out sounding deeply serious, but then slowly becomes more and more silly with lots of quirky noises. Again, I don’t want to spoil the surprise, but I was rehearsing this poem just a couple of days ago and I ended up having to stop because I was laughing so much.

          So these are the new poems I’m working on, and there are others. I’m keeping with my philosophy of having as much variety as possible. My tribute to Dame Edith Sitwell, ‘Coffee Shop Coffee Shop’, has been performed at a couple of places and is possibly the fastest paced poem I’ve ever learned. It’s not exactly a comedy piece, though it’s experimental and uses voice and rhythm in an interesting way. ‘Bill’ is a very Ivor Cutler-esque piece which I was really happy with, detailing a man thinking about a hypothetical conversation and then getting upset with the replies that the person he was having the hypothetical conversation was coming out with, but the audience seemed to think that the hypothetical conversation was actually taking place, so this poem may need to be retooled.

So on the whole, I’m rather happy with the new poems I’ve been working on, and the work I’ve been doing during rehearsals. It’s true that none of them are exactly ‘bangers’ just yet, because I’m not sure what parts of them an audience might like until I’ve performed them live a few times. But it really does feel like I’ve turned a corner and that the old poems can be rested for a bit. In fact, it really does feel like I’m just starting out again as a performer! And that’s no bad thing. There are other poems I’m still working on and playing with, and I really can’t wait to see which way they end up going!

Everything

Everything 

The tiny single-engine aircraft was just a dot at first, hovering on the horizon above the fir trees.
‘You got everything?’, Justin asked.
‘Everything’, I replied.
I meant it, too. Condensed into a silver canister which shone in the low sunset.
We watched the aircraft land, kicking up dust from the unmade runway surrounded by deep forest. It came to a rest in front of us.
The pilot hopped down.
‘You boys ready?’, she asked.
‘Yup’.
‘You got everything?’
I held up the silver canister.
‘Ah’, she said. ‘You’re one of those modern sorts . . .’.
We climbed up, Justin and I. There wasn’t much room inside, just as well I had the silver canister. If you didn’t know any better you’d have thought that I was carrying someone’s ashes. Our pilot walked a long way from the aircraft and had a cigarette next to the periphery of the makeshift airfield.
‘I hope she doesn’t set the forest alight with her cigarette butt’, Justin pointed out. ‘The undergrowth is tinder dry . .’.
I’d let him sit up front, in the co-pilot’s seat. I was strapped in, the silver canister on the seat next to me, with our bags and backpacks. Of course, we could have easily left our equipment indoors, in the living room just next to the front door, before condensing them. But there were certain things that we might need on the four hour flight.
Our pilot walked around the aircraft and checked all of the flaps and the rudder and the wings, and then she hopped on board and started the engine. The old craft shook and throbbed.
‘You got everything?’ she asked.
‘Canister!’, I yelled.
She turned us around and we took off with a kick of acceleration, up over the tops of the trees and into the low setting sun. She put on a pair of sunglasses.
‘Dark matter compression?’ she asked.
‘Yes!’ I yelled.
I’d forgotten how noisy aircraft can be.
‘So what do you do with it, just plug it in?’
‘I know it sounds silly’, I yelled, ‘but you add cold water’.
‘It’s amazing what they can do these days’.
‘What?’
‘I said, it’s amazing what they can do these days!’
‘Certainly beats camping’, I shouted, as we banked over a winding blue river. ‘It’s great, too, you know? Sleeping in your own bed every night, even if you’re thousands of miles from home’.
‘Sure’, she said.
She was silent for a bit.
‘The canister . . .’, she said, ‘its watertight, isn’t it? Wouldn’t want it to . . You know . . pop open up here’.
Justin changed the subject.
‘Do you know if there’s a florist near the airport?’ he asked. ‘I have to get a bunch of flowers for my mother. It’s something I always do. I promised her, as soon as we landed I would get her some flowers’.
‘Birthday?’
‘No, just a regular gift’.
‘What a thoughtful son you are’.
‘Got to keep her happy’.
The little aircraft’s engine let out a reassuring constant tone. I reached down and rummaged in my rucksack for a plastic bottle of water. Some of it leaked the moment that I took the cap off.
‘For goodness sake!’, our pilot yelled, ‘be careful back there!’

Reflections on my 2022 Edinburgh Fringe

Reflections on my 2022 Edinburgh Fringe

Looking back on my Edinburgh Fringe this year, I’m astounded at how little went wrong this time. It’s weird, but every one of my visits to Edinburgh can be recalled through what went disastrously wrong. For example, in 2015, I lost my passport during the flight up to Edinburgh, and I would need it again a month later for a trip to New York. In 2016, I arrived in Edinburgh but my luggage went to Honolulu, so I had to do the first two days with the same clothes I’d worn on the plane, and none of my props. In 2017, things actually went quite well but I’d accidentally booked not enough days at my accommodation and had to find two more nights to stay somewhere in the city. In 2019, my train only got as far as Preston and had to turn back because the line was flooded, and then when I arrived in Auld Reekie I discovered that my show wasn’t listed in the PBH brochure. (My fault, I should have checked). And then on the train home, someone stole my luggage!

So I suppose all of these were damn good learning experiences, and this year I had flights sorted, accommodation booked, I’d double checked the PBH brochures, I had my favourite venue, (Banshee Labyrinth), and I had a show without any props, so if something happened to my luggage, then the show could still go on.

There were other things I did differently this year which seemed to work. For a start, I listed the show in the main Fringe brochure under comedy rather than spoken word. This was the first time I’d done this, (mainly because I knew I had a show which had a fair amount of comedy in it, unlike 2015’s Static, or 2017’s In the Glare of the Neon Yak). And I think this did lead to a slightly higher number of audience members. The idea of this came from a little research I did where it transcribed that a lot of people who get the Fringe brochure only ever look at the sections which interest them. Theatre, for example, or comedy. My own interest is comedy, for example.

The other thing I did was to include my name in the show title. For a long time the show was called ‘Yay! The Search for Happiness’, but I decided that this sounded too much like a motivational speech, and the title itself hinted that it ought to come with some kind of trigger warning. I decided on ‘Robert Garnham, Yay!’, which I think really worked.

Another thing which was different this year was my whole attitude. In years past I’d take a show to Edinburgh and feel as if all of my eggs were in one basket. If this failed, then I was a failure too by extension. And also, it has to be admitted, I was never as sure as my shows in the past, never one hundred percent convinced that I was writing or performing to the maximum of my (possibly limited) abilities. This year, with a show which had no props or music to hide behind, I had made sure that I knew the show inside out. I’d been rehearsing the thing since early 2020 and I felt that I knew every nuance of it. As a result, I felt much more relaxed while talking to people about my show. If an audience came, well, then it came. If it didn’t, then at least I knew I’d done my maximum.

And also, I had my writing, now. I wasn’t just a comedy performance poet. By the time I got back to Edinburgh in 2022, several things had changed in my career. I was now a published writer, humorist, newspaper columnist as well as a comedy performance poet. This helped me to see what I was doing the context of someone who wasn’t putting all of his hopes and dreams into one show. If the show was a flop, (a show I;d given everything to), then at least I had short stories in magazines, and people reading my newspaper columns. All would not be lost!

This all helped me be incredibly more relaxed in Edinburgh. It’s only taken about ten years, but I felt I was negotiating the fringe with some degree of knowledge which I could fall back on. I even started to enjoy flyering.

Yes, you read that right. Traditionally, I hate flyering. Dyslexia manifests itself with me with an inability to speak to strangers or say things on the spur of the moment. I cannot improvise to save my life and a witty comeback is a three hour process. I find engaging with other human beings to be absolutely exhausting, yet this year, I had something I could describe very easily. ‘A search for happiness on the high seas. Poet in residence on a fish factory ship!’ My eye-catching flyers helped tremendously, too.

And finally, I decided that this would all be an adventure. If it all went tits up, then it would be something to write about. After the last two years where nothing much happened, it really did feel like the most daring thing in the world to go to another city, another country, and bring a show with me. I knew that in the dark days of winter, I’d sit back and ponder on the people I met, the places I went, the lovely audiences I had.

Will I be back next year? In all likelihood, yes. And here are my highlights:

1. The young Scottish couple who came to my show and chatted afterwards about seaside towns. I’d pulled them in to the show at the last minute and worried that they wouldn’t like it. They did, and they bought a book. They told me the name of the Scottish town where they lived. I had to ask three times because I didn’t understand the answer. Abercernichnie? Aberlakichnee?

2. The lady who came to my show and flung her arms around me at the end, and then, much to my surprise, so did her husband!

3. The man who said that my show should be on Radio Four. But it was noisy in the bar and I thought he’d said he was from Radio Four and I got unnecessarily excited!

4. Gecko came to my first show and seemed to really like it, he laughed at all the funny bits and this helped the rest of the audience laugh too.

5. Ditto Alexander Woody Woodward, who it was a thrill to meet in the flesh.

6. The fight which took place during my penultimate show in the audience. Yes, you read that correctly. An audience member took exception to the noise coming from the bar of the Banshee. She went and told them to be quiet, in a very feisty manner. Next thing I know, she was laying into them! I had a great audience that night and it seemed to bind us all together as a shared adventure.

7. The wonderful audience I had at the last show, which included my good friend Elizabeth McGeown and also my regular ‘Robheads’ from Leith, who brought me a lovely present to open on the way home.

8. The tourist who took a selfie with me, and then another tourist who asked for my autograph, I suppose, just assuming that I was famous because I had a show!

9. The taster session I did at St Andrew’s Square during which I had a very big audience, a lot of whom were filming me on their mobile phones.

10. Selling loads of books!

11. Getting home that night and thinking, oh my god, was there really a fight tonight?!

You can read the blog I wrote in Edinburgh this year right here:https://professorofwhimsy.com/2022/08/21/thoughts-from-the-edinburgh-fringe-2022-2/

Thoughts from the Edinburgh Fringe 2022

In a few moments I’m going to be checking out of my student accommodation and my Edinburgh Fringe will be done for another year. This year has already been a little bit special, either because it was my first visit since 2019, or because it was the first year that nothing went wrong. In previous years I’ve had lost luggage, a lost passport, a dodgy venue, and all kinds of minor frustrations not to mention some pretty bizarre accommodation. But this year everything went amazingly well.

The first thing that went amazingly well was that I had an audience every day. And sure, they weren’t the biggest audiences of the fringe, (the week started out with five people and hovered around the seven mark until the weekend, when the numbers shot up), but for me, that was very good indeed.

The second thing that went amazingly well was that I was really, really pleased with my performances. This is a show that I know inside out. It’s also the first show I’ve ever had that has no props, no backing music, it’s just me and the mic for an hour, relying just on words, delivery and the content. And I’m hoping that I pretty much nailed it.

And as a result of this, I felt very relaxed every day about the show. There wasn’t a hint of embarrassment or doubt about the show, which made it easier to tell people about.

The third thing that went amazingly well was my flyering. Now I’ll have to be honest and say that I hate flyering. I find it absolutely exhausting. The act of being alert to who’s around you, looking people in the eye, trying to gauge who might be interested, takes a certain mental strain. And due to various reasons, I’m rubbish at talking to strangers unprompted, but this year I felt that I really did nail the art of flyering. I was chatting to people, telling them about the show and boiling it down to the essentials: a search for happiness on the high seas! Poet in residence on a fish factory ship!

Several audience members stick in the memory: the young couple from Fife and a Scottish seaside town with an unpronounceable name (even though I asked twice), who loved the show and told me about living in this seaside town. The man who just came in and liked it so much he came back again the next day. The man who told me that the show should be on Radio Four, (which I misheard and thought that he said he was actually from Radio Four!). The couple I’d never met who came and both flung their arms around me when the show was done. And the couple who visit me every year, who I love to see and who gave me a lovely present when they came in, which touched me in ways that they couldn’t possibly imagine.

The best thing about doing the show was to make these connections with strangers, so that by the end of the hour, they’re no longer strangers. They’ve sat there and they’ve watched you perform and they know more about me as a person, and they’ve laughed, and this connection has been made which, I think, says something deep and meaningful about the human condition.

And as well as the show, I did a couple of appearances on the EdFringe Stage at St Andrew’s Square, which both went very well and the staff said that I’d been one of their favourite performers of the fringe, which really touched me.

It’s been a horrendous couple of years and through it all, the aim had been to come back to Edinburgh. And I made it! And so did everyone else! And now that my time here is done, I can barely conceive that it’s over. What happens next? Where will the creative muse take me? And what will I have the next time I’m here? These are exciting questions which I cannot wait to answer.

Performing at St Andrew’s Square

Thoughts from the Edinburgh Fringe 2022

In a few moments I’m going to be checking out of my student accommodation and my Edinburgh Fringe will be done for another year. This year has already been a little bit special, either because it was my first visit since 2019, or because it was the first year that nothing went wrong. In previous years I’ve had lost luggage, a lost passport, a dodgy venue, and all kinds of minor frustrations not to mention some pretty bizarre accommodation. But this year everything went amazingly well.

The first thing that went amazingly well was that I had an audience every day. And sure, they weren’t the biggest audiences of the fringe, (the week started out with five people and hovered around the seven mark until the weekend, when the numbers shot up), but for me, that was very good indeed.

The second thing that went amazingly well was that I was really, really pleased with my performances. This is a show that I know inside out. It’s also the first show I’ve ever had that has no props, no backing music, it’s just me and the mic for an hour, relying just on words, delivery and the content. And I’m hoping that I pretty much nailed it.

And as a result of this, I felt very relaxed every day about the show. There wasn’t a hint of embarrassment or doubt about the show, which made it easier to tell people about.

The third thing that went amazingly well was my flyering. Now I’ll have to be honest and say that I hate flyering. I find it absolutely exhausting. The act of being alert to who’s around you, looking people in the eye, trying to gauge who might be interested, takes a certain mental strain. And due to various reasons, I’m rubbish at talking to strangers unprompted, but this year I felt that I really did nail the art of flyering. I was chatting to people, telling them about the show and boiling it down to the essentials: a search for happiness on the high seas! Poet in residence on a fish factory ship!

Several audience members stick in the memory: the young couple from Fife and a Scottish seaside town with an unpronounceable name (even though I asked twice), who loved the show and told me about living in this seaside town. The man who just came in and liked it so much he came back again the next day. The man who told me that the show should be on Radio Four, (which I misheard and thought that he said he was actually from Radio Four!). The couple I’d never met who came and both flung their arms around me when the show was done. And the couple who visit me every year, who I love to see and who gave me a lovely present when they came in, which touched me in ways that they couldn’t possibly imagine.

The best thing about doing the show was to make these connections with strangers, so that by the end of the hour, they’re no longer strangers. They’ve sat there and they’ve watched you perform and they know more about me as a person, and they’ve laughed, and this connection has been made which, I think, says something deep and meaningful about the human condition.

And as well as the show, I did a couple of appearances on the EdFringe Stage at St Andrew’s Square, which both went very well and the staff said that I’d been one of their favourite performers of the fringe, which really touched me.

It’s been a horrendous couple of years and through it all, the aim had been to come back to Edinburgh. And I made it! And so did everyone else! And now that my time here is done, I can barely conceive that it’s over. What happens next? Where will the creative muse take me? And what will I have the next time I’m here? These are exciting questions which I cannot wait to answer.

Performing at St Andrew’s Square

In the Glare of the Neon Yak

In the Glare of the Neon Yak is a rip roaring piece of spoken word storytelling set on a sleeper service in the middle of winter. A train full of circus performers are being stalked by a mysterious entity which seems to mean more than just its eerie manifestation. A portent, an omen, the Neon Yak symbolises dark times. Will our hero find love? Will Jacques, the tightrope walker, get back together again with his ex, the circus clown? Does the secret of the Neon Yak lie in the hands of a randy old lady? Has the buffet car run out of sausage rolls? Will Tony the Train Manager find where they’ve put Carriage F? 

An hour show combining poetry, storytelling and music, In the Glare of the Neon Yak is by turns delightful, magical, disturbing. It’s a veritable modern fairy tale!

Juicy – The Video of the CD!

Over the years I’ve had the pleasure of performing at many venues and entertaining audiences. I’ve been lucky enough to have some of these filmed, either as snippets, or the whole show. Collected here are some of those which I didn’t put on YouTube, fearing that to put my best work on social media would leave me with nothing to perform in public.

So here, for a limited time, are the recordings of some of my favourite poems. The audio from these and others appear on my CD, Juicy, which can be ordered here: https://robertgarnham.bigcartel.com/product/juicy

I’d like to thank those who have filmed me including Laura Jury and Danny Pandolfi

New Year’s Day Whimsy

Well, I did my annual New Year’s Day special yesterday, from the environs of the room at the back of my mothers garage, as I am staying in Brixham for the new year period. Here it is in all its whimsical glory, I hope you enjoy it!

If you like what I’m doing, feel free to support me right here:

https://ko-fi.com/robertgarnham