The end of an extraordinary year.
It feels very strange to be at home on New Year's Eve, and not to be working as Ada Campe tonight. I miss it.
I reach the end of 2020 with what is now a familiar sense of worry and loss - as well as a deep gratitude for the way that technology has made communication with friends, colleagues, and loved ones possible over the festive period.
Grateful to have moved house this year and had DIY as a practical distraction. Grateful to have had a relatively mild and short bout of what probably was COVID back in March. Grateful to those who reached out with freelance opportunities when so much of my work had been cancelled and income slashed. Grateful that my wife - a full-time teacher - has remained well despite the risks she has faced daily at work. Grateful for the support of colleagues and Ada Campe's wonderful agents Gag Reflex. Grateful that family and friends have been adhering to the various changing rules and restrictions. Grateful for the NHS and the hard work and dedication of all key workers.
2020 has forced me to push the boundaries of my work into new spaces. This has been a challenge, but also a good way to experiment, learn new skills and reach new audiences.
Some particular highlights include hosting Museums Showoff online, speaking at an Indonesian puppet festival about my research into Suffrage Punch and Judy shows, and being part of the British Academy Virtual Summer Showcase. It was great to be involved in the Being Human Festival again to share the amazing creative work of the Greenham Women Everywhere project, and to make new connections through online events, seminars, festivals and workshops. It's been very interesting to be part of the IPEN network and learn more about parliamentary engagement strategies around the world. My monograph came out in paperback, making it much more affordable, and it's been wonderful to be invited to speak about my research on the radio and on podcasts. I joined The Magic Circle and have also done online comedy shows and festivals as Ada Campe - feel very lucky to have had some live in person gigs too over the summer and performed two solo Ada shows despite the social distancing restrictions. Shoutout to all the producers, comics, variety and cabaret performers who have worked so hard to be creative and share work since the March shutdown and in very economically precarious circumstances.
One major highlight of 2020 has been organising suffrage play readings online. This has been a real treat and successful in ways I couldn't have imagined when setting up the first reading in August. Four months later and we've done fifteen play reading sessions, read twenty-two plays, and had forty-one performers involved so far - and the group is not only growing but keen to do more! More blog posts to follow about these readings...
Of course there has been much to be frustrated, angry and unhappy about - but I don't want to focus on that tonight. That has seemed uppermost almost every day for months - and as we all adjust to this new way of being I have to focus on the positive to move forward.
However. Whilst creating online content has meant we can reach people who wouldn't have been able to attend physical events for a variety of reasons - it's also excluded others who don't have access to the technology required. This is an ongoing concern and challenge going forward for those of us with a public engagement focus and for those who work in participatory, community based and applied contexts. 2021 will bring new ideas and technologies as well as opportunities to think about engagement and access. I hope we keep the attitude of openness that has been a welcome part of this year - and keep searching for ways to extend reach without exploiting the labour of those involved in the creative process.
Here's hoping the coming year brings a successful vaccination programme that means community spaces and the arts and performance industries can come back to life. They are much needed.
Wishing you all a safe, healthy and happy New Year and 2021!
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:
Part of the joy of research is finding surprises in archives, newspapers, autobiographies and ephemera.
Often these stories don't fit the narrative of whatever writing task is at hand at that moment and so get forgotten, but since 2017 I've been thrilled to give many of them a wider audience on BBC Radio 3's Time Traveller series - broadcast every morning just after 10am as part of the live Essential Classics programme on Radio 3 and then subsequently collated into themes for the Time Traveller podcast. Through this series I've been able to tell over twenty stories from the past about magic, art, sport, theatre, music, dance, and of course the suffrage campaign.
This article was published in the Observer newspaper on 24th August 2014 - it was originally published by the same paper on 24th August 1986 and is about the vote of the Magic Circle, the International Brotherhood of Magicians, in that year on whether to allow female magicians to become members of the organisation.
The past fortnight has been very exciting!
I've found myself doing fortune telling gigs as Ada Campe quite a lot recently and it's been really fun researching and even more fun creating my own methods!
I did a lot of research on cold reading and traditional methods of fortune telling - all fascinating stuff. Having also learnt to do and perform a bit of Mentalism in my magic shows helped too. In Glasgow at the Britannia Panoptican - a fabulous old music hall that I heartily recommend you visit - I had my first encounter with a tarot card reader and found it very interesting watching her and seeing how she worked the whole encounter.
As it's intended for amusement purposes only I don't use tarot cards or do palmistry or anything that people have heard of and therefore might believe.
I've created my own cards and methods which are intended to be so blatantly silly that hopefully no one will take them to heart - although as I've discovered this means that people think I'm double bluffing them and am in fact psychic. I'm not. I'm just interested in people, want to amuse them and have discovered that with enough ambiguity, you can make anything seem relevant.
Feedback from events so far includes:
"Spookily accurate", " What a fun idea!" "You are a little bit psychic, aren't you?", "Spot on!", "That's amazing!" and
"They really are chickens, aren't they!"
Basically it involves me telling lots of strangers how lovely they are and to have confidence in themselves... an asset at any event, surely?
Thoughts, reflections, bits of research