Stand up, be dangerous and knock them over

17th August 2001 at 01:00
HOW do you drive a lecturer insane? You tie her to a chair and fold up a road map wrongly in front of her.

Fortified by an overdose of stand-up at the Fringe, I'm back at work relaxed, laid-back and hoping that my new-found ability to see life in a cool, humorous way survives at least three weeks into the new block.

What's the difference between a lecturer and a stand-up comedian? No, that's not a joke waiting for your punchline - it's a serious question.

Think about it. You've got pretty much the same scenario as the stand-up: an audience you have to warm up quickly, keep awake and hopefully entertain. And if they don't like you they won't come back after they've had their pudding.

Stand-up is only funny when it's dangerous - not in the sense of the fabulous Doug Anthony Allstars, the Australian trio who would hang dizzily from balcony rails endangering life and limb and then if that didn't kill them, antagonise their audience to within an inch of being lynched - but dangerous in the sense of working right on the edge, taking risks and refusing to play safe.

When it works, it's magic. I caught a preview of David Benson's gently comic To Be Frank, a one-man show where he worked the audience to try to build up a connection between the ups and downs of his own career and that of Frankie Howerd. "What do you know about Frankie?" he asked the audience, and then built up something from the fragments thrown at him.

It was clear that though he had a sequence, a plan, there was a whole area of the show unscripted, and that he was having to think creatively on his feet. Sounds familiar? Anyone who has done a training session and has stood, marker poised at a virgin flipchart, asking "What do you think are the most important considerations" will empathise.

As the show went on, sweat beaded his forehead, but it was obviously clear to him - and to the audience - that the magic was working. Doris and Agnes, two elderly ladies sitting in front of me, were obviously devoted fans. "Have you ever thought of committing suicide?" Benson asked the audience. Doris and Agnes nodded vigorously. "I know I have . . ." he continued. "Oh no dear, you're far too young to think about things like that," Doris butted in.

He had the audience in the palm of his hand. Yet, a week later, past the preview stage, I read a disappointing review. Apparently the show had not gelled, and he had finished a quarter of an hour early.

Maybe the rawness had disappeared. Maybe the audience didn't give anything. Or maybe it's too scary to live dangerously seven nights a week and Benson resorted to the security of a tighter approach and stepped back from the edge.

As in comedy, the best training sessions are dangerous, where you use the group to explore learning creatively. You resist being a control freak, a neat folder of maps. Of course, you have to have a plan b in case the group simply refuse to do anything but blink back, but if you have the confidence, it usually works. Nobody's denying it would probably be easier to have everything off pat with no deviations from the script. Easier, but hey, where's the excitement in that?

Like the stand-up, you don't need to wait for the reviews to tell you how things have gone. The atmosphere is always palpable. We read our notices on sugar-pink evaluation slips and we're just as hungry for praise. I treasure two comments. The first "the vegetarian sandwiches weren't clearly marked" and the second the enigmatic "the trainer was good and funny".

Funny peculiar or funny ha ha? Well try this one. What do you call 50 lecturers at the bottom of the ocean? A good start.

Dr Carol Gow is a lecturer in media at Dundee College.

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