My First Ever Stand-Up Comedy Gig

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Two Manchester-based curators, Laura Mansfield and Swen Steinhauser (Seven Sites), invited Internet to work site-specifically in a public space in Manchester. Sian and Diego chose the open-mic night, Comedy Balloon, for which they wrote a ten-minute stand-up set to be performed by Siân. Seven Sites advertised the time and place of this event with no further details. This meant that there were two audiences present on the night: those who attended the Comedy Balloon with no knowledge of Seven Sites and those who attended a Seven Sites event at the Comedy Balloon with no idea how Seven Sites would reveal itself.

Siân used the pseudonym "Sarah Rews" in order to avoid being spotted as a performance artist.

Performed by Siân Robinson Davis (Sarah Rews)
Written by Diego Chamy and Siân Robinson Davies
Seven Sites at Comedy Balloon, Ape and Apple Pub, Manchester, UK
November 23, 2011

Text about the performance, by Siân Robinson Davies:

Seven Sites, run by Laura Mansfield and Swen Steinhauser, put on seven events over seven months in public spaces across Manchester. They invited me and a collaborator, Diego Chamy, to do something in a place of our choice. We chose the Comedy Balloon, a stand-up night at the Ape and Apple, which offers 10-minute slots to anyone interested, no experienced required. When arranging the gig with them I didn’t mention Seven Sites. Seven Sites then advertised the time and place of the event with no further details about who would be performing or what would be taking place. On the night I used a fake name and sat separately from Laura and Swen to avoid being recognised.

This meant that there were two audiences present on the night: those there for the Comedy Balloon with no knowledge of Seven Sites and those there for Seven Sites at the Comedy Balloon with no idea how Seven Sites would reveal itself.

A win-win situation created by the infiltration was that the Comedy Balloon has a great infrastructure, but not big audiences, whereas Seven Sites has an audience, but no real infrastructure. Merging the two had the nice effect of providing the comedians with a bigger audience, which had a positive effect on the atmosphere, in turn benefiting their acts, while the Comedy Balloon, unknowingly, provided Seven Sites with its venue. (The hosts of the Comedy Balloon seemed a little confused, though pleased, about the number of people in the crowd, putting it down to the Christmas market.)

Having two sets of marketing material for one event meant that the audience was divided. While I would not assume that the audience members of Seven Sites were not comedy regulars, nor that those there for Comedy Balloon were not art enthusiasts, the separate advertising meant that the expectations of the two groups were different.

Speaking only from my own perspective of trying to second guess the thought processes of the audience, one way the two groups may have been divided was by the fact that the Seven Sites audience was not necessarily expecting comedy. They may have been expecting some disruption to or deviation from the usual formula of a comedy night due to the lack of information on the flyer they had received. With this in mind, perhaps the experience of the comedy night was altered by their suspicion of what was going on in their search for the appearance of the allusive Seven Sites.

This way of thinking on my part drew my attention to the many performative strategies used by the other comedians in their acts. One in particular, Tony Basnett, pulled four people from the audience up on stage before explaining that he had always wanted to be in a band. He then assigned the volunteers different musical roles, left the stage and cued the track ‘I Believe In A Thing Called Love’ by The Darkness. We watched this ad-hoc group of four mime air guitar and air drums as the lead singer gyrated against the mic stand and screamed passionately into the microphone. And so my expectations of standing out as different amongst the other comedians were proved pretty far off the mark.

While the first half of our set was clearly comedy, playing with classic joke formulas and traditions, the second half comprised a story about being part of a group of people who get together and talk about religious beliefs, and then about the benefits that experience had on my life. This second half didn't contain any jokes or punch lines. In trying to predict how this would go down, I had imagined people might have found it agitating or at the least, confusing. However the audience laughed, particularly at the end. I think that they laughed because they were expecting a punch line, which I didn’t deliver. It was the fact that I took them in an unexpected direction which they found funny, ultimately subsuming the story comfortably into comedy.

During our preparation for this event, I had assumed the interesting part would be performing the material that we were writing, but perhaps even more interesting was inviting a group of people to a comedy context and asking them to spot the artist, which turned out to be a great practical experiment in thinking about how we distinguish between art and comedy, and where the overlaps fall.

With thanks to Spider and Red from Comedy Balloon and Laura Mansfield and Swen Steinhauser from Seven Sites.