Spoleto 2013 » Comedy

What it's like playing to crickets and competing with V8 Supercars

Tales from the Road

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There can be some pretty low moments when you're a solo performer who's on the road for much of the year. Take, for instance, the time I was performing an hour-long show in a circus tent in Australia as the Clipsal 500 was happening a mere two blocks away. What's the Clipsal 500, you ask? Why, it's the annual motor racing event for V8 Supercars, held on the streets of Adelaide. For someone trying to perform a story in a tent, the race merely seems like a competition to see which car can make the most noise — something they're all trying to find out at once. Needless to say, my show became an exercise in absurdity, as I knew that all anyone could hear, including myself, was the deafening drone of the engines — something that sounded like a million insects that were the size of V8 Supercars. One prays for a quiet place to perform in these moments, and then because fate has an acute sense of humor, that is precisely what I got. A few days later, I did my show to an audience that was comprised of exactly five people and, literally, one million insects. They were crickets, actually, that were swarming through the city on this particular evening. I can tell you: No jokes were made that day about performing to nothing but the sound of crickets, because there was no joke to be made. It was simply and sadly true, and I very much missed the man-made sounds of V8 Supercars.

In any case, there was no one to whom I could've made a joke on either of these nights. I am in every way a solo performer. I write, perform, book, design, and promote all my own shows. For better or worse I'm entirely on my own, which for someone who performs autobiographical stories can be particularly strange. I can be up on stage sharing a personal experience with a room full of people (or crickets), and then afterward have no one with whom to share the personal experience of having just shared that personal experience. Which is why festivals are so wonderful. There are lots of other performers who are also doing their solo thing, and as such, one can find oneself to be part of something wholly unexpected: a community.

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Festivals such as Piccolo Spoleto are the direct descendants of what was once one of the most popular forms of entertainment in North America: vaudeville. A vaudevillian show was comprised of separate, unrelated acts that were all performing together under a single bill. One could see dancers, acrobats, strongmen, magicians, comedians, musicians, and storytellers all performing their short bits within a single show. Though vaudeville and similar forms of entertainment such as traveling circuses all but died out in the early- to mid-20th century with the multiple distractions of WWII, movies, and TV, they have today been reborn in the form of performing arts festivals. The difference now, though, is that each act generally runs for the length of an hour, and the "show," as it were, is the entire festival itself. As such, the show no longer comes to town. Rather, the town and the show are one and the same, and each individual act separately makes its own way to the various festivals. The line-up in each place is unique, both a reflection of that town and the ethos of its festival. But I've found that the community of traveling performers, while ever changing, is constant in its camaraderie.

I've been touring each year since 2009, with 2012 being my most extensive: over seven months, I performed almost non-stop at festivals in Australia, the U.K., the U.S., and all across Canada. As anyone who works for himself can tell you, all it takes is just blindly deciding to do it. There's no one to ask whether you can. But at the same time, there's no one to ask how to do it, either. Literally, it's on-the-job training. To be a solo performer is to try to figure out how to be a graphic designer, travel agent, publicist, accountant, booking agent, web designer, and finally, eventually, way, way down at the bottom of the list, how to be a performer. For this last part, at least, I've always had some help: my dog Lucy. She's patiently watched from the couch in our apartment, the final arbiter of whether the material works or not. Should I ever return to Australia, though, I'll be sure to test the show out on a handful of crickets, as well.

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