By Colin Flaherty
For almost a year The Variety Collective have been providing Melbourne with a weekly dose of good old fashioned variety. In the cosy and decorative surrounds of the theatrette in The Brunswick Green, punters are treated to short sets by comedians, jugglers, magicians, balance acts and many more weird and wonderful performers. I spoke to magician, comedian and professional swindler, Nicholas Johnson about this exciting and fun show.
Whose idea was it to come up with The Collective?
The Variety Collective was started by five of us and we were sitting around talking about how hard it was to find places for variety performers to put their stuff on. [It is] myself, Sarah Jones, Tom Davis, Elena Kirschbaum and Michael Connell. We’re all from different types of variety entertainment and wanted a place where we could put on our stuff without being tacked onto the end of a stand up comedy night or put into a circus show.
Have the themes been a part of the shows from the beginning or have they just happened naturally?
It’s because each of the five of us produces a night and we were trying to top each other. We started off without themes and then someone proposed a really ridiculous theme. Then next week the next person tried to top it with a more ridiculous theme. We had an Australia Day theme and an Easter theme that we had in February for some reason. We had a “Matt Special” where all the performers were called Matt just because I thought that it would be funny. It also means that the regulars get rewarded with something a bit special. Like with our Geek Night for people like Noel the Doctor Who fan who comes every week. It’s nice to have something for the regulars.
Have the performers readily embraced the themes?
They just leap at it, it’s amazing. I think it’s because the audiences are so giving and supportive. Basically it’s anything goes and as long as it is professional and entertaining you can do whatever you want. You don’t have to fit some sort of strict criteria so as soon as we give them a theme to work with, they’re prepared to take risks and chances and try out crazy ideas. If they crash, the audience is there to catch them and are forgiving. It’s that kind of crowd.
How do you see yourself in the scheme of things? It is just a place to give these performers stage time or is there a bigger plan?
We chose a venue that was a modest venue which was fairly easy to fill each week. The whole idea was just to make it about the show. Each week we are going to put on a show and then work out ‘What’s something else we can do that’s going to keep people coming back through the door?’ I used to run the Catchpenny Club that got bigger and bigger and then we turned it into a TV show for Channel 31 and it got really stressful. This is fun, easy to do and enjoyable. It’s kind of like a playground for performers to come and have fun.
How do you tackle curating your nights? Do you have people approaching you?
We have a lot of people who contact us and want to perform but we stress that it’s not an open mic night. If they say that they’ve got an act that’s a bit different we will grab them and use them. We’re really supportive of those who are trying something new or might be a new talent. We have a lot of people from NICA (National Institute of Circus Arts) who might not have a lot of stage time but have incredible skills and do the most amazing things but haven’t necessarily performed in front of an audience before. We are happy to support them in that way but it’s not the sort of place to drunkenly tell dick jokes (unless you’re really good at it!).
We had a guy last week that I found on YouTube. He’s a unicyclist who does Extreme Unicycling which is basically skateboard tricks on a unicycle. He’d never performed on stage in his life, so we put on some Blink 182 while he jumped all over packing crates and it was incredible.
You have a lot of circus acts. Is the small stage a restriction?
It totally is, it’s hilariously limiting. When we first started there wasn’t a light hanging over the stage. We didn’t notice it until a ladder act climbed to the top of their ladder and hit their head on the light. If we had a bigger stage we would have a bigger audience which would add to the stress. We can fit jugglers, we’ve had acrobats who’d throw each other around, the unicyclist, stilt walkers and fire acts. Last week we had a stuntman who rode a minibike up onto the stage and did wheelies. It’s limiting but at the same time is a four metre squared box where anything can happen. They may start with their back against the wall and finish with their nose against the wall but they do incredible things between those two moments.
How did you end up here at The Brunswick Green?
We started at a venue that was a really great cafe but there was no stage and we performed next to the front door. We’d have someone balancing an umbrella on their nose about to eat fire and some people would wander in hoping to get some crepes, walking through the middle of the “stage”. So we moved here where we have a nice stage and curtains set up with a nice high ceiling for juggling. Matthew Keneally, who runs Political Asylum here every month, put us on to the venue.
It’s a nice set up here in that the bar is separate to the performance space.
Yeah. We had to make it just theatrical enough so that you could still enjoy a drink with the show but not have people wandering in and out all night. This breaks the performer’s heart: even if someone goes to the bathroom, they think “They don’t love me!”
I also noticed that you didn’t have an interval tonight. That’s unusual.
Sometimes we have an interval and perhaps tonight we could have done with one. Last week we did a “Ten In One” show which is a old vaudeville idea where you see ten acts in twenty minutes. We had ten different acts with only a three minute break to quickly move things around. We don’t want the audience to get bored with an act that goes on too long, we want a quick five minute spot then onto the next performer. If you give the audience an interval it breaks that flow.
The performers heckle each other and some get distracted so sometimes the show goes on a little longer than it was supposed to. The whole idea is to make it feel like an old show that Graham Kennedy had where things were a little bit falling apart at times. A lot of nights are a little too slick and shiny whereas we try to make it so that the audience are involved and they can suggest things.
The Variety Collective have their first birthday coming up at the end of the month. In addition to very special guest acts, Sarah Jones will be providing face painting, Michael Connell will conduct a game of Pass The Parcel while Nicholas will be doing some magic to entertain the punters. And of course there will be cake!
The Variety Collective happens every Wednesday at The Brunswick Green (313 Sydney Road, Brunswick) The show starts at 8pm and entry is $10.
Information can be found at http://www.thevarietycollective.com/
Many thanks to Nicholas for his time.