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Interview: Laughing Matters

2 January 15 interview: Alison Emm
photos: Joe Dixey

Taking the old adage that laughter is the best medicine, Kirstie MacDonald and Mark Christian set up Laughing Matters, a social enterprise project that aims to help people who’re having a hard time by getting them to learn a few tricks from the people who make a crust from chuckles…

While studying for her MBA in Corporate Social Responsibility, Kirstie looked a little closer to home than the large-scale companies who normally spring to mind when considering this subject. “The course was all about corporations, business ethics, sustainability and how large organisations impact the world. I wanted to think about how small businesses could positively impact on the societies in which they live and work by using their skills and expertise.”

With Mark, Kirstie found that youth unemployment, poverty, mental health and addiction were all social issues prevalent in Nottingham. Mark’s background was in dealing with recovering addicts, so they focussed on exactly that. Kirstie explained, “We looked at the process people in recovery go through and noticed that a lot were returning to traditional pathways. They would go through a recovery programme, then come out at the end and go, ‘Oh... what do we do now?’ We thought of using comedy as an aftercare solution. It would provide a group and support setting, but they could also learn skills of stand-up comedians, such as taking a bad life experience and turning it into a funny story, as well as more practical tips such as presentation and and developing a stage persona. Standing up in front of people can really develop your confidence and help in everyday situations.”

But why comedy? Social problems and getting up on stage to be funny aren’t necessarily two things you’d consider pairing up. Kirstie isn’t the only one to think they’re good bedfellows, though. “A lot of comedians would say they’ve been on parallel paths to people who haven’t found an out, and believe they could’ve ended up in dire straits if they shadn’t found comedy. People have used comedy for courses in the past but not with people in recovery, that’s what was new about our course.”

Kirstie didn’t have to look too far for the support because her husband, Darrell Martin, owns and runs local comedy club Just The Tonic. “I thought, ‘What can they do to help?’ They don’t have the deep pockets of a large corporation, but they have contacts and knowledge about the comedy world to provide back-up.”

Delivering the courses is stand-up comedian Sam Avery who, as well as doing the circuit with other funny folk, has run comedy-based courses with kids in Liverpool. “Going forward, it would be good if we could get more trainers and branch out a bit. It’s by no means a ‘We thought of it, it’s ours’ situation.”, says Kirstie.

Although the project was initially implemented with people in recovery, pretty much anyone can benefit from it. “It can be people with mental health issues, young people who’ve just left school, long-term unemployed and, more recently, organisations have put managers forward, using it as a team building tool and for development of the younger managers. It can benefit everyone.” There’s another plus side to them branching out, as Kirstie explains. “Part of the reason for contacting businesses to run commercial courses is that it subsidises the social side of things. We don’t want to get in to the position of being dependent on funding because it’s soon gone.”

The Institute of Mental Health, based at the University of Nottingham, carried out studies and have found the course’s benefits surround self confidence, social support in the group, and feeling more confident after developing relationships. We spoke to Georgia, who was part of one of the first groups, about how she came across the course. “I was in recovery and one of the staff at Double Impact mentioned it. I had done open mic poetry, but never thought about stand-up. It was mentioned a couple of times so I went along.” A bright and naturally funny woman, it’s easy to see why she’d been encouraged to take part, but how did she feel the course had benefitted her? “In a funny way, it was very much who I was when I was up there - it gave me confidence in who I am. I didn’t used to see it as a quality to laugh at myself, I thought I was being self critical. But it means taking the core of who you are and loving the real person. It helped me to totally accept myself.”

Was it difficult to laugh at something with such a dark side, though? “Some of my poetry was interlinked with the addiction stuff, and was me looking at the serious element in order to never lose sight of that. But you’ve got to have the balance. It’s not so much the addiction I would laugh at, but my behaviour. It’s nonsensical, it’s ego, you’re trying to uphold an image that isn’t real. Deep down, ego’s about getting approval and you can get into a state where you take yourself too seriously. I pushed people away - on the outside it looked quite arrogant but on the inside it was because I felt rejected. In the end I had no one around me, I’d become unhappy and the addiction would start again to get out of all that pain I was putting myself through. Comedy made me realise the twisted irony that the person you really are – the person you’re trying to hide – is what people accept the most. On stage I’m grassing up my ego. I’ll point the finger at myself and make myself the joke, knowing that people relate to it but don’t feel personally exposed or mocked.”

Chatting with this confident and downright funny woman confirms the course’s benefits. “I would recommend it [Laughing Matters], but I think it takes a certain character. With recovery, you have to be ready for it. Early on, you’re like an open wound - vulnerable. Nevertheless, a year down the line, those people would be great because they’ve seen so much that they’ve got a bizarre sense of humour.”

Kirstie stresses that although the participants perform, they’re not trying to change anyone’s careers and it’s the core skills that are the key successes of Laughing Matters. “It creates a really supportive environment where people feel confident to actually be themselves and go a bit beyond what they might normally do. It’s unique in that respect. It’s not a course to create stand-up comedians: the aim is to give people the tools to try and get beyond certain limitations. That being said, some people are natural performers...”

Since Georgia finished she’s been accepted on a university degree course and performed live on stage as the warm-up act for Phil Jupitus. “In February, Darrell and Kirstie took me to do this comedy thing, a mini Laughing Matters fundraiser at the Leicester Comedy Festival. And it was right before Phil Jupitus – imagine how I felt! It was like this big, round light was on me. BOOF! And I found myself up there. That was nerve-wracking, but I loved it. I would like to carry it on because it’s such a positive thing. I took life too seriously for far too long - so long as you’ve always got your feet on the ground and your eyes open with addiction stuff, it’s about learning to laugh at life and enjoy it.”

Laughing Matters will be running courses throughout 2015, check the website for details and get in touch if you want further details about participating, or if you or your company would like to sponsor a social course.

Laughing Matters website

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