It is hard to convey the process of making a solo show. It is an introverted and chaotic affair. Comedy is created in a collage of onstage improvising, off stage writing, existential crisis and late night comfort eating. It is not as sexy as I assume you think it is.
Making ChiffChaff, my comedy musical about economics, was a bloody faff. As a show, I love her, but woah she was a diva to make. Time was of the essence and in the months I had to build her I was still touring another show alongside creating a multiple array of one off pieces of commissioned work.
Usually, I make my shows in the safety of a dingy rehearsal studio in south east London, surrounded by a cacophony of building works and traffic jams. Instead, due to the challenges of this show, I sought outside help. I contacted a comedic hero of mine who I knew would be both the support I needed and the inspiration I needed to make a new show in a style i had not done before.
This is the first key to making work in a healthy way – collaboration. Finding a collective of like minded creatives is integral to getting inspired, keeping yourself and your indulgent ideas in check. Loneliness is the worst enemy of making solo work, especially when you go into that inevitable ‘crisis’ point of devising, when you think everything you make is shit. You need someone to ring who understands what you are going through.
Secondly, getting yourself in the right head space. The week before I start building a show I recommend the following: 1)Make a playlist of songs that you love – that get you jiggy – that make you feel alive and inspired. This is now your soundtrack for the rehearsal room. 2) Make a pinterest board of everything that leaps out to you and gets you excited about this potential project. You’ll get a better idea of what it is you are subconsciously trying to make. 3) Sleep lots. 4) Stretch. 5) eat as many vegetables as you can.
Third, the DEVISING process.
In April of 2018 I flew out to Bilbao to work one on one with Aitor Basauri from Spymonkey. He is akin to a nutty professor with a love of colorful flat caps and getting his bottom out (in shows, not rehearsals). He is a phenomenal clown. I admire his work ethic and his honesty. He is able to say “That was BAD!” one minute and “That was FUNNY” the next with the same intonation and without out malicious intent. Exactly the person you need when you are throwing ideas at the wall. There is no shame.
In the rehearsal room itself, it is crucial to have an infinite supply of biscuits at all times readily available to you, the artist. The majority of the week with Aitor involved Aitor having to hide the biscuits. Alongside that, he would sit there, dapper and suave like a spanish mafia boss giving me tasks to do.
This is what would happen in our rehearsals: He would say “Teach me about Fiscal policy. Through mime”. I would hide behind a curtain, pop out, mime. Aitor would look confused. He would ask me If I knew what Fiscal policy was. I’d admit I had forgotten. I’d ask for a biscuit. He’d say ‘No.’. We’d spend an hour working out what fiscal policy was. I would get up, do the mime again. It would not work. I would eat a biscuit. We would then have a break and eat omelette in a cafe which was owned by a very aggressive recently divorced couple. We would return. I would try again. The mime would work. We’d write it down. Another biscuit. Aitor would make me eat a salad. He would then tell me to pretend to be planet earth. I would improvise a monologue about climate change. I would choreograph a dance. After finishing all the biscuits we would run through what we had created. Go for a walk. Return. Repeat. The rule was, once we hit a wall, we would go for a walk and look at the trees. Chances are, I was overthinking.
We’d finish rehearsals in the evening, I would collapse into bed. In the morning we would start the whole process again. By the end of the week I had the skeleton of the show and I had gained about 10 pounds. Building the muscles and protein of the show, came afterwards, on stage, in front of living breathing audiences.
When generating ideas , either on the page or in the rehearsal space, you must ask yourself the following:
– Is it boring? If it is. Start again. It doesn’t matter how holy the point you are trying to make is – if your audience are asleep or they are looking at their watches you are doing a bad job.
– Is this show for the audience? Or just for you? Focussing on one of these alone is not good. The show has to be for BOTH of you. Like lovemaking, performing is a TEAM SPORT.
– Does the idea make you giggle with excitement? Does it make your director look bit scared? If so, you are on the right track.
– If it didn’t work today, it might still work tomorrow. Like a good bottle of wine, sometimes it just needs to breath.
– Not all the work you will create WILL be suitable for the show. You may create something masterful, but unless it is RELEVANT to the show you are making, you CANNOT put it in. Use it for something else. For ChiffChaff there were lots of beautiful set pieces and vignettes which Aitor and I loved, and which audiences loved, but they did not fit with the rest of the show. These pieces are now safe and alive in the comforts of my head, ready to be brought out again, when the time comes.
– No matter what your theatre teacher at Drama school or college said to you, it is not always appropriate to get naked.
– If it frightens your agent, production manager, stage team or the lighting designer, it is probably a very good idea and you must continue with it.
Don’t worry about whether the show is ‘finished’. Each show is the sibling to the show you did before. They are not twins. In my opinion, the show is ‘finished’ by the final time you perform her. The last show is THE show. Then you put her to bed and you move on.
Elf Lyons will be at Omnibus Theatre with her show ChiffChaff from 20-25 Mar – get tickets HERE→