The Royal Variety Performance is taking place at the Opera House in Blackpool tonight, and was last there in December 2009. On 14th November 2009 I woke up fully clothed and viciously hungover in a hotel room in Blackpool after an epic party night celebrating the end of another leg of the Vagina Monologues UK tour (I was on the tour understudying the celebs). We'd been guests of honour at Funny Girls and then hit the dancefloor at the Flying Handbag... and I don't remember much after that! However I had a day to waste before being driven back to London and decided to blow away the headache, cobwebs and that end of tour feeling by taking a walk along the seafront. It was out of season, rainy, windy, and forbidding but I just kept walking. Through the grey air and driving rain I saw some twinkling lights from a door and the words 'Palmistry' and 'Fortune Telling' and so headed towards it to escape from the weather.
Despite the fact that I'd been working as a magician's assistant for a few years and should have known better, I decided to go for it. I was now out of work, hungover, at a loose end and the chance to get a bit of personalised positivity in that bleak city seemed worth indulging in. About a minute into the reading I began to regret it - she was pleasant but the Barnum statements kept coming and although it was interesting to watch to a certain extent it felt too impersonal to play along with. And then - she suddenly looked at my hand, and then into my eyes, and said "Are you a performer?" I felt a surge of anticipation - yes, yes! I told her that the tour had just ended and I was heading, jobless, back to London. She looked at me intensely and in that moment I felt a genuine rush of excitement - what was this strange woman in this unpromising place on this sort of nothingish day going to say? What would be the pithy nugget of truth that might change everything? Would I look back on this moment as a turning point?
This is what she said:
"Can you get me tickets to the Royal Variety Show?"
I laughed out loud - at her and at myself - and said that there might be chums working on it and I could certainly ask. Left that little seafront studio with her email address on a scrap of paper and a genuine sense of buoyancy created by my own gullibility and ridiculousness.
So that's what I thought of when I heard the show was happening in Blackpool tonight!
In September I did a show called 'An Afternoon with Ada Campe' at the Phoenix Arts Club in London. It was the longest bit of live performance I'd done since February, and was packed full with new material including a socially distanced magic trick and some songs - the first time Ada had sung on stage. It was great fun - and a second show called 'A Late Afternoon with Ada Campe' happened at Above the Stag Theatre in Vauxhall in November - simultaneously my first and last live appearance that month due to the implementation of the second lockdown in London.
After both shows I had a sort of post-show 'hangover' that lasted for days - the rush and excitement of performing live again and packing in so much new material at once was wonderful, but whereas in pre-COVID times I was used to finishing Ada shows with a great release of tension, for both of these the tension seemed to stay in my body... presumably because the chance to perform live has been so rare during 2020 that I didn't want to let the feeling or memory of it go.
When I first started performing as Ada Campe many years ago, the nerves on a performance day had me hiding under the duvet for hours, somehow pretending there wasn't a show that evening and waiting until the last possible moment before getting my props together and putting make-up on. Once I got to the venue everything would be fine, and over the years and with more experience I learned to change my response to nerves. No more hiding! Allowing your body to express performance nerves is important - and you learn to manage and see them in a positive way.
Performing solo in a comedy or cabaret venue is very different to being part of a double act or ensemble. It's exposing and all the responsibility to entertain falls on your shoulders. While there are many things that will affect the mood and receptiveness of the audience to your act - ultimately when you get on stage it's you and them. Part of the learning curve is learning to deal with it sometimes not going well, but the more experienced you get the more you learn to manage your emotions and expectations before, during and after your set. Before going on stage there's a sense of anticipation - how are they going to receive you, who has already been spoken to in the audience, and how can you make your act seem bespoke to those people, that venue and that moment. I manage pre-show nerves by listening and watching the audience, MC and other acts as much as possible to gather information about the energy and mood of the event.
During the show there's a constantly flowing heightened feedback loop - as a performer I try to suss out the audience, find good light, look for potential pliable volunteers, listen to how the mic sounds, keep an awareness of the tech booth, pay attention to the wider atmosphere of the room and do my set all at the same time. If there are interruptions or unexpected sounds you have to make a split second judgement about whether acknowledging them is necessary and could help build rapport, or whether by singling out individuals you'll derail your set and make the rest of the audience uncomfortable. You get better at this the more you do it, but it's always a judgement call in the moment. For example someone may be shouting out or making noises involuntarily and not with the intention to interrupt your set - and this requires very different handling to a deliberate heckler.
Decisions as to how to respond have to be made very quickly and instinctively. Are people chatting instead of watching the show? You have to work out why as quickly as possible. The main reasons are likely to be:
They are not interested in the show, or in your act.
They are drunk.
They can't see what's happening on stage.
Something has happened that you can't see.
One person is translating or describing the show to another.
Each one of these needs a different response from the performer - perhaps not a verbal one, but an adjustment to either highlight, ignore or downplay what is happening in order not to alienate the rest of the audience. If one act is hostile or loses patience with an audience member that can really make it hard for the MC and other acts to bring the energy back up for the rest of the show. Most situations can be dealt with through confident body language and direct communication where necessary and while wannabe comics often worry disproportionately about being heckled, in my experience it doesn't happen very often.
I was fortunate that both my September and November shows were full of wonderful audience members who were a pleasure to spend time with. It was also a delight to work with a live pianist to bring some different elements to Ada's act, and so good to be able to perform live at all. The 'hangover' part of it surprised and moved me - a sort of post-show nerves based on fear of never doing it again, rather than fear of doing it at all. Like all performance nerves though, it shows just how much I cared, and continue to care about doing a good job.
Here's to the next gig, whenever it is! In the meantime you can see a clip from my September show below:
Thoughts, reflections, bits of research