The Variety Collective

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.

Sam Simmons- About the Weather

By Jayden Edwards

Ok, if you been even the least bit interested in the Melbourne International Comedy Festival over the past 7 or 8 years, you know Sam Simmons is always touted as one of the highlights. With 5 star reviews, a Piece of Wood award and an Edinburgh Best Comedy Show nomination under his belt, there’s no questioning Sam is a powerful comedy force, with a killer moustache to boot.

Sam’s latest theatrical masterpiece About the Weather tells the tale of a man trying to find the courage to talk to his “bus crush”, a task made harder by his fear of small talk. Sam uses this simple premise to drag the audience into his own world of personal struggle, anger, self-loathing, those lucky Chinese waving cat things and impossible IKEA flat pack tables.

Sam’s world is also one in which he is always exploring and questioning his surroundings, like the hidden subtexts in small talk, the stupid information the human brain retains, and the eternal struggle for happiness and purpose.

Powered along by his narrator and audio swiss army knife of tricks and bad 90s music, the audience is bombarded with the experience that is Sam Simmons, full-pelt.

Sam delivers his broad comedy with such whimsy, surrealist energy and expert timing;  his commitment to his art is glorious. Some great prop use and clever lighting also adds depth.

More laughs are extracted from a supporting cast of willing and unwilling audience members, audience members such as myself, who were subjected to a game of “Spin-ception”, which I’m sure would have been hilarious if it wasn’t me! Ok, it was still hilarious and serves me right for sitting in the front row, I guess.

The show is incredibly technical and structured, and it’s a pleasure to watch it all unfold, knowing the amount of commitment and effort that must go into making such a show look so seamless. Sure, there’s a few little tech hiccups, but with so much going on, it’s a minor blip on the radar.

Yes, we can analyse the comedy of Sam Simmons all we want, but to just sit back and take it all in is one of the best experiences you’ll have at the festival. You’ll be back for more year after year.

Sam Simmons- About the Weather in on at Melbourne Town Hall.
For Tickets and more Info, go here http://www.comedyfestival.com.au/2012/season/shows/about-the-weather-sam-simmons/

DeAnne Smith – Livin’ the Sweet Life

By Lisa Clark

 Canadians are so gosh darn adorable, no matter how filthy they are or even when they are insulting the audience and I think we have found the most adorable Canadian of all. Even before DeAnne Smith had officially began her show, she was heckled rudely and her handling of it was breathtaking. Her ability to put him in his place while make the audience laugh and feel at ease suggests years of stage experience and excellent people skills. It also failed to throw her off from performing another ace comedy festival show which confirms why she was nominated for The Barry last year.

The title, Living the Sweet Life is unsurprisingly ironic and to help demonstrate this DeAnne picks an audience member out for special consideration. It may or may not be in your interest to sit in the front row, depending on how shy you are. Her own sweet life includes parent’s who have become too comfortable with her sexuality, her middle class liberal guilt, a date that ends in the emergency department of a major hospital and a disturbing wax incident. Waxing was a bit of a passe subject a few years ago, usually talked about by wide eyed comedians who had not been through it, but DeAnne’s experience is astounding and hilarious. Another highlight for me was her participation in a ten day silent meditation retreat, not unlike the one Judith Lucy went through in her Spiritual Journey.

If you are seriously, easily offended this one might not be for you, DeAnne discusses lesbian oral sex, watching straight porn and she tells some dick jokes, but then maybe you should try a different festival altogether. It’s hard to imagine anyone being offended by DeAnne, she puts on a strong hour of bright, perky comedy which occasionally touches on dark subject matter. The show is bookended by hilarious songs that she plays on the ukulele, surely the cheeriest of instruments. The first is a chirpy tune about death and the last about nerdy pickup lines which really reminds me of Josh Earl, as does her haircut.  A fabulous show for a girls night out at the comedy festival, everyone is bound to have a great time and if you’re lucky, you’ll catch one of her chocolates.

Livin’ the Sweet Life is on at the Meeting Room at Trades Hall

http://www.comedyfestival.com.au/2012/season/shows/livin-the-sweet-life-deanne-smith/

Sarah Quinn – Weird Lonely Strangers

By Annette Slattery

In her festival show, Weird Lonely Strangers, Sarah Quinn performs a composite of unrelated, solo sketches. Interspersed with smoky jazz, Quinn uses voiceovers and simple costume changes to relocate from one scene to the next. Quinn’s array of characters includes a regular, single young woman, a beauty pageant organiser, a private investigator, an English author and a prudish burlesque dancer.

Quinn’s performances are strong, however the writing is weak. There is one piece about a “reformed” lesbian which is very clever and funny, and which has the potential to be developed into something more substantial, but apart from that there is little to recommend here in terms of content. A lot of the ideas are weak, unoriginal or over done and the better jokes within the script are often camouflaged by some confusion in the writing.

Some of the sections of the show are presented simply as a pre-recorded voice over, with Quinn behind the curtain and the polite, but clearly unamused audience left staring at the empty stage. This only further sapped the remaining energy in the room.

That said, Quinn, as I mentioned, is a strong performer and those skills alone make this show watchable. However Quinn does not have the comedy chops to pull this off as a festival show.

Sarah Quinn – Weird Lonely Strangers is on at Tuxedo Cat, Flinders Lane.

http://www.comedyfestival.com.au/2012/season/shows/weird-lonely-strangers-sarah-quinn/

Tom Ballard – Doing Stuff

By Jayden Edwards

In his debut comedy festival show in 2009, Tom Ballard proclaimed he is what he is. After winning the Melbourne Airport Best Newcomer award that year, and continuing to go from strength to strength on Triple J’s breakfast show, I think it’s safe to say that what Tom Ballard is, is bloody funny.

Returning with his new show “Doing Stuff”, Tom has moved on from the introductions and tackles some hard hitting, in ya face political truth bombs… and of course, dick jokes. He explores, with great compassion and intellect, many of the big political issues from the last 12 months, and questions what makes people give a shit, and why we should, and of course lampoons the big wigs making stupid decisions. He also dissects issues directly affecting himself, such as gay marriage (or “Fag-age”) and vegetarianism. He finds the funnies and sprinkles them with wisdom like a comedian twice his age.

But it’s not all politics. Tom channels the crude stylings of Mike Wilmot throughout the show, especially at the end with probably the most disgusting thing you’ll hear at the festival this year, disgusting and absolutely hilarious! The crude ending, made all the better by the contrasting political material,  is not for the prudish.

Yeah, Tom is young and opinionated, but never preachy. His quick wit, stage confidence and self-depreciating delivery is really engaging, and whether you agree with him or not, you’ll be laughing, and listening all the same. Self analysing his comedy throughout the show piles on more laughs after the fact.

Tom is the future of comedy in this country, and tearing the present to shreds. A must see.

Tom Ballard is on at the Swiss House
More info and tickets here http://www.comedyfestival.com.au/2012/season/shows/doing-stuff-tom-ballard/ 

Ronny Chieng – The Ron Way

By Colin Flaherty

One of the cardinal rules of stand up is that you never blame the audience for not laughing but Ronny Chieng has come up with method of doing so while keeping the crowd on side. This is the magic of The Ron Effect. In his festival debut, Ronny presents a hour of polished stand up that ensures that energy levels are kept near eleven.

Ronny has devised a fascinating stage persona that is equal parts aggressive, naïve, over confident and possessing few social boundaries. All those elements are presented in a hilariously heightened manner that is a sharp contrast to the mild mannered guy he initially appears to be. Paired with a tight script, this results in a show full of laughs, twists and turns.

The material itself covers many standard observational themes, but when filtered through his character it is something special. The naivety produces some amusing literal interpretations while the aggressiveness produces some surprising left turns. He goes to some taboo areas that cause the audience to be torn between laughing at the ridiculous natural of it and stifling guilty titters after recognising that these extreme ideas have some warped merit. There is some truth embedded in the jokes (for example, his story about Rottnest Island and his real scar) but they reach some dizzying heights of absurdity through the telling.

Audience interactions take on a gladiatorial feel when tackled this way. Most questions posed to the crowd are merely there to confirm his viewpoint and the startled reactions from the punters aid this. When people eventually figure out how to respond to him and feedback starts to flow, it allows Ronny to deviate from the script and venture into unknown territory. Ronny even surprises himself at to where it leads and comes close to breaking character.

It was interesting to see that Ronny has devised some merchandise that is heavily related to material within the show. It makes for an amusing segment during the in-show spiel but ensures that the products will make absolutely no sense to anyone who haven’t seen the show. Perhaps it’s an inside joke only for those in the know, who will hopefully be in the majority by the end of the festival, as this is a brilliant show.

The Ron Way is on at the Evatt Room at Trades Hall

http://www.comedyfestival.com.au/2012/season/shows/the-ron-way-ronny-chieng/