Comedy or theatre, or a combination of both? Daniel Perks catches up with two comedians whose shows straddle both sides of the fence – Ellyn Daniels and Georgie Morrell:
On returning from the Edinburgh Fringe Festival 2017, I discovered a number shows that refused to fit into a single section of the extensive brochure. Comedy, more than any other section, was the big one – is it stand-up, or theatre? Do I banter with the actor, or remain behind a fourth wall? And frankly, does it bloody matter?
Having already spoken to three comedians who had solo shows that aren’t so easily penned in to get their experiences – Helen Duff, Alexander Bennett and Siân Docksey – I caught up with comedians Ellyn Daniels and Georgie Morrell to hear their thoughts. Ellyn’s show, Emotional Terrorism, is currently playing at the Drayton Arms Theatre; Georgie is performing this festive season in a Comedy Christmas Special at Theatre Royal Stratford East with her two works, A Poke In The Eye and The Morrell High Ground:
Tell us about your current shows – they seem to all be very personal observations about your own identities.
Georgie: Absolutely! So personal! Both of my shows pretty much round up my disabled life (for want of a better term). A Poke In The Eye focuses on the year I was blind; The Morrell High Ground focuses on the years before and after that experience – I have been disabled since I was three years old. I pride myself on both shows being completely true and a frank insight into disability.
Ellyn: Emotional Terrorism tells a series of stories from my life based on events and relationships from my childhood as a ballet dancer; through my teens working as a high fashion model; to my experiences in my early twenties where I moved to LA to pursue a career as an actress and comic.
Throughout my life I’ve been thrust into situations I didn’t feel prepared for, so I just developed a series of coping mechanisms, often very self-destructive ones. By dealing with my own demons, I was able to reconnect to the truth and to the person I had never been able to become because I was too busy trying to gain everyone else’s approval.
By dealing with my own demons I was able to reconnect to the truth
Do we talk enough about disability in theatre, or is it a conversation that is yet to make an impact?
Georgie: No, not at all. Firstly, we should definitely be developing more work and shows about disability, offering an insight and education into the realities of what having a disability is. If there is no conversation, then it will be impossible to overcome barriers and misconceptions wider society has on disability. One way to do that, as I have, is through theatre and comedy.
We also need more disabled creative people within mainstream theatre and the entrainment industry as a whole. We need to create a level playing field and be careful not to ‘other’ further. Imagine being someone with a disability and never seeing anyone like you on TV or on stage.
There’s a real crossover between comedy and theatre in both your works. How do your audiences react to a show that bravely refuses to put itself in one box or the other?
Ellyn: I think sometimes an audience will laugh throughout the show and read it as a real comedy. That occurred more while I was performing it in Los Angeles. In London and Edinburgh, audiences tended to be quieter and more contemplative, experiencing the show as something more harrowing and emotionally moving, rather than just darkly funny.
Georgie: You can never predict how an audience will react. At the Edinburgh Fringe, my shows were billed as comedies but have strong theatrical aspects. As a modern society we are conditioned to label, which is a shame because it limits us as performers. It’s important to keep creating work that does not conform, so we are providing a wider perspective to audiences.
Many female performers have felt forced to clarify what category the show falls into, more than their male peers. Like many other performers, I just want to make work that is reactionary, thoughtful and challenging. Come and see the work and make your own mind up.
As a modern society we are conditioned to label, which is a shame because it limits us as performers
There seems to be an increasing number of performance artists, such as yourself, who are moving between comedy and theatre. Are there any difficulties in marketing yourself for what are arguably two separate markets?
Ellyn: I think there are difficulties in marketing yourself when your work weaves different genres together, purely because it’s hard to for people to know what to expect. We have become too comfortable as a society – we want to know how we are going to feel when we watch something, or eat something, or buy something. So, it’s always easier to market yourself if you can you tell people exactly what you are going to give them. It’s more difficult when you are offering up something they might find funny, agitating, disturbing and poignant all at once. My experience is that people love having that, but it isn’t an experience they know they want to have before they have it.
We have become too comfortable as a society
Georgie: The difficulty to begin with, particularly at the Edinburgh Fringe, is that you have to decide way before most shows are written which category you fall into. A show is a piece of art that develops and changes – it might not be the straight comedy you initially applied for, so there are hurdles in place before you even arrive.
The people that I have interviewed in the past about this comedy-theatre crossover have mainly been women – Helen Duff and Siân Docksey are two great examples. Is it still more difficult to be a woman, rather than a man, in a comedy performance discipline?
Georgie: I’m sorry to say that yes, it is. However, it’s a very exciting time to be a woman in comedy – the tide is turning and people are wanting to see more women and more experimental work. Men have dominated comedy for so long; certain people find it hard to believe that women are just as good, if not better, and this challenges a norm that’s been in place for years.
Ellyn: There has long been a prejudice that women are not as funny as men running through the fabric of society. While many women have fiercely broken that stereotype, such as Lucille Ball, Carol Burnett, Joan Rivers and Sarah Silverman, there is still this lingering belief that comedy is really a man’s world.
Remember the article Christopher Hitchens wrote for Vanity Fair in 2007 entitled, ‘Why Women Aren’t Funny’? That was only seven years ago. It takes a long time to break down these antiquated belief systems.
Do people find it hard to believe that your material is based on real experience?
Ellyn: I think some people have been surprised to find out that all the material is true. I think they have been watching thinking I might have made some of it up and combined it with some of my true stories, but in reality, I didn’t make any of this up.
Georgie: Audiences are keen to clarify certain anecdotes and their reactions are sometimes very strong. An audience has never challenged me, but some of the information I am giving them is so foreign that there is a certain amount of disbelief. Often, they have no real experience of disability so are slightly shocked. I think it’s important to start the conversation.
To read more about Ellyn Daniels, whose show Emotional Terrorism is playing the Drayton Arms Theatre until 9 December 2017, follow the comedian on Twitter (@Ellyn_Daniels) or visit the website – www.ellyndaniels.com
To read more about Georgie Morrell, who will be performing next in a Christmas Comedy Special at Theatre Royal Stratford East on 21 December 2017, follow the comedian on Twitter (@GeorgiePokeEye) or visit the website – georgiemorrell.co.uk