Behind the Scenes of an Edinburgh Fringe Comedy Show: Part III of XXV

Backstage on the night, with an absolutely smashing line-up performing alongside me, and 300 friendly fringe-goers waiting in the tent, I was still passing the lines from the page to my brain.


The story so far - The proto-jokes have been found, and now need a story to sit in. But first, number one of two storytelling nights, a year apart.

Chris at the 2014 Barefaced Stories Gala.

Andrea Gibbs and Kerry O'Sullivan, Barefaced Stories' founders and hosts, described it to me as such:

Barefaced Stories is true stories, told by real people, live without notes. Each performer has 6-8mins each to regale the audience with an 'honest to god' truthful tale about something that has happened to them. If you haven't heard of this style of storytelling, we recommend that you download The Moth podcast.

For my first visit to Perth FringeWorld, my friend, producer, and maverick cabaret monster Tomás Ford had booked me a spot on the annual BS gala. In 4 years of performing comedy, I had never told anything on stage that took more than a minute or so, and was much more comfortable with short jokes grounded in concept rather than fact. It wasn't something I had ever tried, not that it didn't interest me, but because I didn't think I had any stories worth telling. Despite a puzzlingly good memory for facts and trite tidbits, I retain very little of the stuff that old men reminisce over. Things might flicker into life if I see a photo of me in a place, or with a person, but there's always a nagging doubt that I'm just constructing the memory as I go, nodding in agreement and saying 'Barcelona? Yeah, those streets really were very wide'.

I can't immediately remember whether I was worried about the night, or how I figured out what I'd fill my stage time with, but looking back through my email/facebook exchanges and notebooks, I've pieced together some of the salient details.

I took a long hot bath (with Radox salts) to have a think about what story to tell, and have plumped for what can best be summed up as: The time my girlfriend and I went to Paris for our anniversary, and she was run over by a bike. I'll be talking about Braces, Paris, our relationship and Hospitals amongst that.

She didn't die, so don't worry about that, and I'll keep it lightly humorous.

Regarding help with stories, if you have some key tips from your experience, I'd be extremely grateful for them, as I'm much more used to lone jokes/concision/lying.

I sent that to Andrea so that she could, in her own words, "program the running order to ensure we don't have two stories about poo back-to-back". They love BS like a child. The notebook I was using over the first half of 2014 is an A6 paper booklet with a lesser known Edward Hopper painting on the cover. The story of Paris is jotted out in rough bullet points, and expands over the next few pages, before being trimmed into an exact line-by-line version of what I wanted to say, written in tiny handwriting.

Friday 7th February 2014

Backstage on the night, with an absolutely smashing line-up performing alongside me, and 300 friendly fringe-goers waiting in the tent, I was still passing the lines from the page to my brain. Andrea and Kerry wanted me to close the show with a freestyle, which, as a storytelling virgin, I gratefully accepted as my safety net. I doubt that if Alice Munro ever read out a piece that disappointed an audience, she won them round by whipping out an improvised ditty.

Listening to the other acts open up to the crowd, I felt encouraged - the audience were engaging with everyone, listening attentively, laughing in some places, gasping in others, and applauding rapturously at beginning, middle (if the middle was a particularly well constructed phrase or rug-pulling joke) and end. Over the interval I loosened up, enjoyed a beer, and could feel that story snug within my skull. It's an odd experience to be forbidden from using notes - obviously, an audience don't want to see a comedian produce a sheaf of paper, but starting out, many will have a notebook on their person, for those rare, awkward moments of blankness. You may see comics with scribbles on the back of their hand - they serve the same purpose, an aide memoire for a longer set or new material, perhaps.

A stand-up gala performance, usually 5-10 minutes, will tend towards a tightly constructed, joke-packed routine or a gag-heavy story. Despite knowing that as an audience member, I felt thoroughly absorbed and entertained when the others told their stories, it was hard to shake the feeling that I was bombing with unheard of severity for the duration of my own 8 minutes. To step on stage with material that has never before crossed the gap from mouth to ears; to inhabit a space where one is so used to cracking wise and instead speak truthfully; to be honest with an audience who you've only just met...this was alien to me.

(The sound quality is rather ropey, apologies)

After it was done, I felt great. In retrospect, it's slipshod, but the huge jump from being a 'one-liner' type comic to telling my first story meant I thought I'd conquered storytelling. I wanted to get out and tell the story again, to craft it, to hone it, to fill it with jokes while keeping the truth, the emotion and the connection I felt with those listening. Sarah Bennetto kindly allowed me aboard the Popeye Ferry in Adelaide, for her Storytellers' Club the month after, and I told the tale for a second time.

It was during the Perth and Adelaide festivals that I was previewing my 2014 Edinburgh Fringe debut show, Pretty Fly, and come Edinburgh, the story had grown to almost 15 minutes in length, and was now a big part of the show - you can hear the full version here, on tracks 6, 7 & 8 of my album. It jarred with the shorter jokes somewhat, being a more recent addition, but it was a wonderful part of the hour that I looked forward to each day, and I began delivering it off-mic, closing the distance between the audience and myself, and bringing the memory of the events into my mind as I spoke. The feeling of freedom that ditching a mic brings was surprising, and for this year's previews of XXV, I did the whole show unamplified, and will continue to do so in Edinburgh. The story feels better for it. A story, incidentally, that premiered for my second appearance at BS, a year on from my first...

Next time...Chris' return to Barefaced, untangling a narrative and why comedians should study the short story.

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