Audience

As Alan mentions, back in our school days he and I used to write and perform what even then we called ‘sketch comedy.’ Even looking back it’s hard to tell if we were any good or not; one sketch in particular I know was rubbish, but a couple seemed to go down well and I suspect Alan was a rather charming performer. I’ve always reckoned I’m a bit stiff for comedy, and I’m not sure we’d really grasped the straight guy/funny guy thing back then, so it might have been dire.

I carried on writing through university, but Footlights was a curious thing. Like most Cambridge societies it was rather overburdened with people who were deadly serious about their involvement, which didn’t leave much room for interested dabblers like myself. Cambridge can be a tricky place to be a generalist, since it’s rather assumed that one has an over-riding passion or ambition, and the scaffolding is in place to support nascent careers. If you’re merely interested nobody really knows what to do with you. One is supposed to be bold, not tentative. Oops.

So I wrote some stuff of variable quality, and performed some stuff of mostly terrible standing, and that was that. While I loved the feeling of holding an audience’s attention, I was never sufficiently good at it to make it a career, at least in the comedy context. While the writing continued – and these days I’m mostly a writer, professionally – the performing dropped off.

A few years later, when I was asked to stand in front of an audience of disinterested teachers and talk some nonsense about irrelevant media stuff for the British Association, I was surprised to find myself shaking like a leaf and muttering utter gibberish. Had I not dried and died in front of rabid student audiences already? Had I not survived? Didn’t I know what I was doing? How had I forgotten so much?

Since then I’ve done a few other presentations of various sorts – careers talks, lectures, teaching workshops – and gradually I’ve got back to the stage where I genuinely enjoy it, and would love to do more. I’m not sure I’m explicitly good at it, but the workshop day in particular seemed to be a complete blast and all the right noises have been made about doing it again.

What I find odd about the whole palaver is that performing live doesn’t quite feel like a learned skill in the conventional sense. Sure, you can train yourself or be coached to be better at it, but a significant proportion of the supposed ‘skill’ is sheer bloody-minded self-confidence. Which is why successful TV presenters tend to the irritatingly cocky, since they’re asked to talk at a moment’s notice on a subject they know nothing about. Which by rights should freeze the stomach of a rhino. If you actually know whereof you speak, everything gets somewhat simpler.

So: Alan: it’s going to be weird. You’ll recognise the scene as peoples’ gaze swivels to you, and there’ll be a moment of ‘I remember this! Cool!’ before the dawning realisation hits that you haven’t done it for nigh-on half your life. The trick, I think, is recognising the difference between then and now. Back in school, we had no clue. But now, you really are an expert in your subject. Some people in the room may know more about specific aspects than you, but nobody knows more about what you’ve done. And why wouldn’t the audience hang on every word of the world expert?

It’ll be fun.

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