Some right characters
My four days at Mick Barnfather's Character and Comedic Play course
So why did I do the course? Well, one sunny afternoon, I'd been strolling round the park with the fantastically talented Dan Lees, the pair of us looking like a pale imitation of Withnail and I, with our two-day stubble (me) and the bitter taste of overpriced coffee in our mouths, and I confessed to feeling stuck. Stuck in a comedy black hole. Having trained as an actress, I often write fairly rambling monologues which I then learn every single word of, and though I enjoy doing this, I felt like I wanted a bit more freedom. Dan suggested doing a clowning type course and mentioned he was doing a workshop with Mick Barnfather. Bingo!
So I signed up to the four-day Character and Comedy Play course – not full clowning, but a step in a direction that I hoped would give me some new tools. Every morning started off with games and playful exercises to develop how we could communicate with each other physically – even just a tiny evil look or supercilious nod can tell a story – and then we built on our physical choices using sounds and phrases. So you could end up being a hunch-backed, smiling whistler taking only the teeniest steps to get around, or a stern growling stomper who harrumphed into everyone. We also did more structured exercises to develop characters. One involved Mick giving us old newspaper photos to build a character from an expression, mine turned out to be a very angry man indeed whose catchphrase was, 'I'm not convinced' and who shouted at Mick when challenged about his stress-levels. Exhausting!
Mick also instructed us in maskwork – I don't think I've ever laughed so much as I did at two guys who insisted they were from 'Stupid Land' and kept shrugging their shoulders when further questioned by Mick, 'I know, but I don't know, if you know what I mean,' replied a character named 'Jones' to pretty much everything Mick asked, all the while sticking his tongue out and smiling like a fool. And the thing is – we did know what he meant – if you know what I mean. Finally, after trying all these different exercises, we moved on to developing a character using the costumes we had brought in. I had a blonde wig, a truly terrible oversize dress and some awful plastic shoes from a charity shop – 'absolutely disgusting' was just one of the many compliments I received on the shoes. After a few exercises, my character ended up being a psycho old lady from Kent called Margaret, obsessed with deadheading roses and spying on her neighbours. A reassuring vision of my future.
I laughed every day doing the course and I learnt so much from watching other people doing the tasks Mick set. Mick was really good at suggesting ways to move forward when performing, encouraging us to exaggerate everything we did, and pointing out where we could have gone further. It was the complete opposite to drama training where the goal is naturalism, and, realising that as a comedy performer it's better to go too far, was really helpful for me.
Did I get what I was looking for? Yes. Definitely. That week, I performed two characters at the Laugh & a half comedy night I co-run, both without a script! Mick had given me the tools to develop a character through finding face, physicality and voice, rather than my usual method of writing an essay and trying to whittle it down to the funny bits. It felt like real freedom to me. I even rapped as one of the characters – and I have no idea what I said, but I'm sure it was almost genius.
The other joy of doing a course and learning is the massive energy boost to your brain that gets you back in to a positive mindset of creating and performing – vital if you have a day job, which can leave you feeling that at times, those dreams of making it are far, far away. The other plus is meeting talented performers and crying with laughter at their antics. I was very lucky with the group of people who were on the course, but I also think a lot of the fun, positive atmosphere was down to Mick's enthusiasm and skill. I left the course feeling ready to get back on stage and with a dozen new friends who are just as into scouring charity shops for manky shoes for their characters as I am. Oi! I saw that spotted plastic wedged boot first
Photograph courtesy of Marny Godden of super talented comedy trio The Grandees