By BRUCE DENNILL
Comedian, actor and director Alan Committie has, for the last several years, staged an annual solo show at Pieter Toerien’s Montecasino Theatre (either prior to or following a run of the same piece at the Theatre On The Bay in Cape Town. That sort of regularity and reliability creates expectations – great for marketing purposes but potentially limiting in creativity terms (should the “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” argument be made on behalf of last year’s appreciative audiences.
“It’s always been both a strength and a weakness of mine that I’m constantly negotiating with the material,” says Committie. “I have various professional personae. If I’m trying something out at a club or have been booked in some capacity for an event, I may just be experimenting; seeing if an idea works. But I feel that if I’m charging R100 to R180 for a ticket, I want people to feel as if what I’m doing has been created for them.
“The issue of having a brand is interesting. There is a trust in and enjoyment of what I do – repeatedly. Though as I’ve grown older and more experienced, I find I do care less about what the audience thinks. As me, I have a number of agendas, but that’s not necessarily what you’re going to see on stage. I might push something a little bit more in one context, but leave it out elsewhere.”
This Johannesburg show, Laughing Matters, has already been seen in Cape Town – last year!
“These are unusual circumstances,” concedes Committie. “Usually, I have back-to-back Cape Town and Joburg runs, but this one is ten months later than the first staging, and I’m now only eight weeks short of writing the new year-end show.
“Laughing Matters was written about 2016 and how bad it was, with all our beloved pop stars passing away and all the rest, and it seemed 2017 just continued in the same vein. It’s set in a padded cell, and I’m still not sure if the idea there was to protect us from the world or the world from us … It’s something that interests me: do people want to hear about that sort of news-based material or do they want to laugh? I love looking at real issues – the terrible drought we’re having in Cape Town – versus how annoyed a group of people is getting at something that doesn’t matter at all, like the trend in skinny jeans. The incongruity is beautiful.
“I also want to confront people with issues they’re not dealing with well – things like the Fees Must Fall movement, for instance – and make them laugh at it.”
It’s not only the material that must change, of course.
“As performers, we have a range of styles we have to have to sustain our careers, some of which people feel they should be able to contribute to. So I have people saying, ‘You’re a kind of Michael McIntyre.’ That’s okay – I just say, ‘You go and try it.’
“Writing once a year serves me and my career. It gives me stuff I can run with throughout the year for corporates. That’s not my first port of call for creativity, but it’s a necessary consideration. And of course, what I write about is different every year – there are only so many lives I can live and so many experiences I can have. I have to have those experiences, though – my director Chris Weare and I know that if we’re going to have an 80-minute-plus show, we need to include a wide range of topics, because not everyone will be interested in every topic.
“For the next show, Planet Mirth, I want to go back to something more like Eddie Izzard’s style; a little more surreal.”
Committie’s experience – and the nature of the niche he occupies, which favours solo performance – suggests that what happens on stage should be pretty much entirely his responsibility. Why, then, the need for a director?
“Chris has done most of my shows,” says Committie, “and though he’s been involved less and less over the years, his cumulative influence has been huge. I’ll often phone him after coming up with something and tell him, ‘You’ve just directed in absentia – I knew what you’d say.’
“He has a much more direct influence in the five or so days leading up to the opening of a show and during the first few performances – he takes them apart afterwards. He will confirm my concerns or bring up his own and suggest how to move gags around for better effect or where my perspective needs to be corrected, saying things like, ‘That might be how you feel, but that’s not how it plays.’ He’ll also pick up certain words that trigger audience emotion, which helps me to map out the journey they’re going on. He’s seen 17 of my shows, so he knows how my audiences work.
“Working with Chris in comedy is different to working with him on theatre projects, where he will always have a strong concept going in. A lot of comics work with other comics as directors, and in some cases there’s not enough extra theatrical thinking for a show like this, where it’s being offered as a theatrical experience, not as a club gig, where you get interrupted all the time and can’t guarantee you’ll get through the material in the way you want to.”
Having a show once a year means gathering a large amount of information over the course of many months, and still somehow trying to make sure that the show still feels current when it’s performed. Does that involve a never-ending list of notes that is continuously edited, with writing and re-writing?
“I keep notes on my phone,” says Committie. “I have loads of ideas and triggers. There’s more than can fit into one show, so I return to those I haven’t used once the current show is up and running. When I’m preparing for a show, I spend two weeks – about three or four hours a day – doing research and writing. Then I work with Chris for another two weeks, including talking the script aloud to see if there’s something there. I also pitch it to a friend of mine who used to be a stage manager. If she laughs, 99% of the audience will laugh as well, and I can ad-lib around the moments she likes. Chris is different – he’ll know if it’s funny, but he won’t laugh,
“Then there’s rehearsal time; figuring out the shape of the show and where all the sections go. To be honest, I don’t have the discipline to write the script earlier. And this is my 20th year of doing this, so I’m more aware of what will work.”
By its nature, shows like Laughing Matters are all or partly satirical and based on what’s in the papers. Writing gags for their own sake, or creating characters like Johan van der Walt: is there a different satisfaction level to noting specific reactions to that sort of input?
“The biggest joy is creating a gag that you know works,” admits Committie. “Sometime it’s a first-time thing; sometimes it only really happens in the 40th performance. That’s often when you know the premise is funny, so you’re sure the gag will be funny, but it might take a mood or an action or a level of volume or vulgarity in the delivery to make it work.”
Committie’s schedule nvolves regular international trips, jumping between cities in South Africa, doing pantomimes in London and MCing awards events and corporates all over the place. Does a solo show pass for downtime in that sort of lifestyle?
“Once it’s up and running, it is a good time,” Committie smiles. “My days are freed up and I do my work in the evening. And it’s cathartic to be on stage, enjoying the energy of people laughing at you. Often, it’s a change of focus that is energy-sapping – switching between shows or from a show to a corporate or something. Then, downtime is turning off my phone and binge-watching TV – being an introverted extrovert.”
Alan Committie’s Laughing Matters runs at Pieter Toerien’s Montecasino Theatre until 19 November. Book at Computicket.