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The Comedy of Errors

Nottingham Comedy Festival

9 September 11 interview: Adrian Bhagat

The Nottingham Comedy Festival returns for its third year this September, offering a chance to see some of the greats perform their post-Edinburgh shows - as well as workshops and try-out gigs for aspiring performers. So we collared festival directors Helen Stead and Elliott Bower and asked...

Where did the idea for the festival come from?
That was me. I started the festival with Rachel Greensmith in 2009. We used to go to the Comedy Store in London and wondered why there was nothing like it in Nottingham. There’s a huge comedy scene here, and somebody needed to come along and bring it all together. We talked to a few comedians and promoters and it happened from there.

How has it grown over the last couple of years?
We’re starting to get our name known in the business. We’ve got to know all the clubs and promoters and local comedians. We have our own regular gigs through the year with a show every month and we’re attracting more established acts. We had fifteen venues of various sizes last year, maybe more this year. As well as clubs like Glee, Funhouse and Jongleurs, we have both small pubs and the big theatres taking part. Just The Tonic aren’t involved at the moment, but we hope they will be in the future.

What can we expect to see at the festival?
You’ll get to see a wide variety of comedy at cheap prices. There will be types of comedy you may not have seen before, like musical comedy, sketch comedy and improvisation which isn’t well known. So there’s a chance to explore something new. The festival is just after Edinburgh so if a show goes well, comedians will maybe perform their shows for one more time or they can start work on their next show, which is what Patrick Monahan did last year.

Elliott: We try to cater for everyone. At last year’s festival we had How To Survive A Zombie Apocalypse which was a comedy seminar. It was very different and very entertaining. It completely sold out and most of the audience seemed to be rock music types. Then again, we also had Stand Up Shakespeare with comic characters and scenes from Shakespeare’s plays and that attracted an audience of over-50s.

What’s new at the festival this year?
Helen: We’re hoping to take comedy into the schools and bring children to gigs in theatres. We’re also trying to find funding or sponsorship to give children with learning difficulties a chance to try out comedy because we think it will be great for their confidence and give them a laugh. We’re in talks with a school who are interested.

How can someone get started in comedy?
Elliott: Doing a competition first is good because you only have to do two or three minutes to dip your toe in. I’ve seen people do their first ever gig with completely untried material for ten minutes, and they really struggle. If you’re at a gong show and you’re off in two minutes, it won’t hurt. If I see someone with potential I’ll offer them a slot at one of our small shows.

Those things can be brutal.
The scary thing about gong shows is that it puts the audience in control. I did the Comedy Store a couple of years ago and I lasted ten seconds. All I said was ‘Hello’. But it was a good laugh; you get a free pint and you get to go on the Comedy Store stage.

Helen: There is so much talent out there, but many people are scared to give it a go - so we give them the opportunity to try it in a friendly atmosphere in a small club. You can enter our comedy competition which is open to anyone who has done no more than five gigs.  If you like it, we will help you develop your skills with workshops in aspects of comedy such as writing, improv and stand-up. The community is a big part of the festival.

Which local comedians do you think have potential?
We saw a guy called Adam Lausi do his first gig in May and he went on to do a Gong Show at the Glee Club. I think he’s got the potential to go a long way. He’s already got around a thousand views on YouTube and he could be playing Live At The Apollo in five years time. Scott Bennett is doing well and getting regular paid work. Also a friend of mine, Dominic Eliot Spencer, is getting regular gig work on the circuit and he’s really going places.

Helen: Dom’s fantastic. He’s doing storming gigs all the time. We organise a comedy competition which is sponsored by Castle Rock. The first one was last year and was won by Carl Jones who had only started that June. He is now a regular on the comedy circuit and he’s won quite a few awards already.

The comedy scene in Nottingham seems to have grown enormously - there are a lot of venues at the moment…
All the venues have got their own audiences and their own style. Jongleurs has got the stag and hen audience, while Just The Tonic is more cabaret. There are smaller intimate venues too. For example, we put on events at the Canalhouse which has a perfect comedy room and acts love it there. A lot of comedians really like to come to Nottingham now - it’s a really vibrant and growing scene here. We’re not far from London or Manchester, so it’s easy for acts to get here.

Elliott: It is starting to get a bit saturated, though. I don’t know whether they are losing money, but I don’t think there will be any more new venues in the city centre. The Bell were interesting in us running an event there on Tuesday nights, but that’s when Just The Tonic have their free nights, so it was never going to work

Tell us a little about the comedy you do yourselves.
We’re both members of the MissImp improvisation group. I joined in September 2008 and started doing workshops and playing games like they do in Whose Line Is It Anyway? and I really caught the bug. Now we do regular improvisation shows at the Glee Club and it’s going from strength to strength.

Elliott: I’ve been on the circuit for a few years, I’m a bit of a failed stand-up. You get a lot of ‘typical’ students who think they’re funny, and I was just the same. I think to hit the big time you’ve got to write and write and write and try out stuff all the time, and after a few years of stand-up I found I couldn’t really laugh at anything any more. Once I stopped I got to laugh again, so now I’m more of a fan than a performer. When I got bored of stand-up I created a character called Harmonica Monocle Man. The first gong show I did as him I won and I thought I was onto a winner, but it just died everywhere else. I tried him out at Britain’s Got Talent and got roundly booed off the stage.

Do you have big plans for the future?
Yes! It would be fantastic to get to the size of Leicester Comedy Festival, so that people know about us and come to spend a weekend in the city to see the festival. I’m happy for it to grow slowly and gradually include more people. We’re also hoping to get some acts together and take them up to Edinburgh next year. We love what we do, and that makes the whole thing more fun.

The Nottingham Comedy Festival, various locations around the city, Friday 23 September - Saturday 1 October

Nottingham Comedy Festival website

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