Blind Faith, Fringe Hits and The Workshop
‘Blind Faith’ was a parody of my experiences on the stand-up circuit, which I wrote as a stage play, during the summer of 1993.
Essentially, it was a play about a terrible comedian, who finally finds his comic persona in the pit of his own despair, after years of horrible stage deaths in every comedy club in London.
The main character, ‘Jackson Jackson’, was based upon a man who had reputedly died on stage more than three hundred times, at just about every comedy club in London which hosted new comic nights.
The Comedian Who Couldn’t Make People Laugh
On the occasion I saw him die a painful death, I was performing on the same bill at the Comedy Cafe on Rivington Street. Before the gig, he seemed like the most confident and self-assured new comic I had ever met.
However, from the moment he took the stage and started rattling off a series of terrible jokes, with a comic persona that was about as funny as a death at a birthday party, I was praying that the compere would make a humanitarian intervention.
Afterwards, he was more distraught than any comic I have ever seen have such a terrible gig. When I approached him to offer him some advice, we ended up having a remarkable conversation.
It turned out that when he dropped the crap jokes and the persona that just didn’t work, he was utterly hilarious. Especially when he ranted about the myriad of truly abominable gigs he’d been cursed with.
This not only inspired me to write ‘Blind Faith’, it also compelled me to base the main character upon perhaps the most woeful new comic in the English-speaking world.
If only he’d been able to transpose more of his character and tragicomic life to the stage, he would have been a force to be reckoned with.
Hometown Theatrical Success
If I’d been able to, I would have headed straight back to London after I broke up with CC, just before my twenty fifth birthday.
However, I had already committed myself to producing, directing and starring in ‘Blind Faith’, at the Newcastle People’s and Playhouse theatres.
The play featured graduates from the course I taught at Newcastle College in the other leading roles. The rest of the cast was made up of sixty teenage children from various local schools.
Each of the children had auditioned for the play at one of several drama workshops I ran from Autumn 1993 till May 2004, when we started rehearsing twice a week for the summer shows.
The dates had been booked after a much publicized opening night at the Tyne Theatre on Westgate Road, right next door to Cheekie Chappies Comedy Club, in front of almost seven hundred paying punters.
When Tyne Tees Television, The Journal and Evening Chronicle got behind the play, we were pretty much guaranteed sell-out audiences at each theatre.
I am happy to say that the vast majority of the sixty strong cast and the audiences who saw the ‘Blind Faith’ at the Tyne, Playhouse and Peoples theatres, thoroughly enjoyed the experience.
Back To London
By the time I moved back into my Thamesmead bolt-hole in August 1994, I was already trampling round Soho and Piccadilly, searching for an agent to represent me for acting work.
Having sent out dozens of new professional photos and CV’s to theatre and television companies, offering my services, I was getting extremely frustrated with the lack of response.
However, within a few weeks, I was offered a role in an alternative Christmas show about the Grimm Fairy Tales, with another six young actors, most of whom were fresh off a drama course of some description.
We performed the show at the Beckenham Studio in Kent that December, to enthusiastic festive audiences. Nothing much to write home about, if truth be told.
However, two very significant things transpired as a result of taking the unpaid job at The Studio.
Firstly, the other actors and I agreed to form a new fringe theatre company, with a view to producing two new plays which I agreed to write, over the first three months of the new year.
We called the new venture Screaming Skull Theatre Company.
I instinctively knew that by pushing my creative abilities to such extremes, the extent of them would inevitably be revealed, one way or another.
Secondly, at the end of the run, I was asked by The Studio’s artistic director, Karen, to run a regular stand-up comedy workshop at the venue, which also hosted gigs for Pete Harris and Screaming Blue Murder.
This meant that I would return to stand-up comedy, as compere of the public showcases we had at the end of every six week workshop.
The Truth Game
During February 1995, I wrote a play called ‘The Truth Game’. It was about three twenty-something couples living in London and the difficulty they had in being honest about sex, love and relationships.
TTG was developed through improvisation, based upon pre-conceived characters and a plot I had already devised, which culminated in the three couples drunkenly playing The Truth Game on New Year’s Eve.
We videoed the improvisations during the day and in the evening I would go home and write as many pages as I could manage.
The whole production was workshopped, written, rehearsed and performed in ten days.
London Fringe Theatre Success
As the first week-long run at The Birdsnest Theatre in South London came to an end, a buzz had gone around fringe theatre circles about ‘The Truth Game’. This resulted in a box-office record for the week.
On the last night, I was introduced to Ray Brady and Chris Read, director and producer of Kino-Eye Films. They loved the play and asked me if I was interested in developing the script into a film.
Indubitably, I didn’t need asking twice.
The curators for the Bird’s Nest were so happy with the play that they immediately booked a three-week run, later that summer.
We had some great reviews for ‘The Truth Game’, which continued to break box office records, wherever we performed it.
Rosemary Furber from The Guide called it:
‘Hilarious. A beautifully constructed, unexpected treasure.’
In addition, Time Out minimalistically declared that the play was:
We obviously appropriated these reviews for the purposes of our publicity campaign, as the play went on to sell-out for another six weeks, in three other London theatres.
Only fringe theatre I know, but a full house is a full house and everybody left the show with a smile on their face.
A middle-aged couple from Greenwich saw the play on consecutive nights at the Bird’s Nest, during our first three week run in the summer of 1995.
They told us that they thought it was one of the best plays they had seen in twenty years of theatre-going, despite causing a blazing row after the first viewing.
An Alexander Technique teacher, who studied at Lee Strasberg’s Studio in New York with Gene Hackman and Al Paccino, said that the world needs more writers like me.
Whilst former artistic director of the Royal Court, Mike Jelliot, said that I had an ear for dialogue that was far beyond my years.
Actors from all over the capital flocked to see the play, including the entire cast of ‘Soldier Soldier’, when we performed at the packed Brixton Shaw Theatre, on Valentine’s Night in 1996.
Their verdict was emphatic and unanimous – ‘The Truth Game’ was the best contemporary play they had ever seen.
I’d only been back in London eighteen months and my writing career was already starting to flourish. However, nothing excited me more than turning the play into a hit indie film.
Less than a month after we premiered ‘The Truth Game’ at the Bird’s Nest, Screaming Skull performed my second London play in the space of six weeks.
‘Night Lights’ was about a late night radio phone-in host, who was suffering from chronic delusions of grandeur. It was loosely based upon a well known North East radio presenter.
The lead character, ‘Len Robinson’, was played by myself, with each of the other five actors playing two roles each. Matthew Warburton was the director.
Another Hit Play
The play ran for three weeks at the Bird’s Nest, before playing for another two weeks at The Studio in Beckenham and the Churchill Theatre in Bromley.
Time Out dubbed ‘Night Lights’:
“A skillful light satire.”
The play wasn’t as big a hit as TTG, but we all enjoyed performing it to generally appreciative audiences, who loved the ensemble performances and the satirical look at Talk Radio.
Ironically enough, to publicize the show I was a special guest on Talk Radio [before it became Talk Sport]. During my four hour slot, I talked about the play, before taking calls as the character I was playing in it.
Needless to say, the vast majority of the calls I took on air were from people who genuinely believed that I was ‘Len Robinson’, as I handed them the most narcissistic advice and commentary imaginable.
In the summer of 1995, my stand-up comedy workshop at The Studio, Beckenham, began.
For two hours each week, over the six week courses, I taught the basic mechanics of the craft to people from all walks of life, who all had at least one thing in common:
They were all desperate to make a room full of strangers laugh.
In simple terms, I taught my students what I had learned through my own experiences on the professional comedy circuit.
To avoid dying a horrible death, every new comic must start out with the knowledge that perfecting the art of making strangers laugh breaks down as:
The starting point for every workshop was always asking my students to write five jokes that they would make them laugh. After an hour or so, I would then ask them to perform the jokes in front of the class.
Once each student summoned enough courage to perform their raw material, we would see the birth of their comic personae, as soon as they started performing it.
From that point onward, I would help everybody develop the potential of their material and more importantly, the persona through which they expressed their sense of humour.
However, nobody performed their new set in front of a live audience, unless they were fully equipped to do so. This led to many students remaining on the course indefinitely.
When both material, courage and persona were all firmly in place, each student would appear in a public showcase at The Studio, which I would compere.
This was an entirely different experience to performing my set, on the basis that my job, as I had learned from skillful comperes such as Jeff Green and Ian Cognito, was to warm the crowd up, not blow the roof off with laughter.
Nevertheless, I hugely enjoyed compering the showcases and naturally started developing new material live on stage, with a view to doing a few gigs in the future, just to keep the buzz fresh in my memory.
One of the first wave of graduates was Jon Reed, who blew the roof off at his first Beckenham showcase.
His material was very surreal, somewhat reminiscent of early Vic and Bob, complete with costume and props.
After initially lacking confidence that an audience would appreciate his undeniably unusual sense of humour, I reassured Jon that everybody’s is unique to them alone.
In other words, stand-up comedy at its best is nothing but a celebration of the comic’s sense of humour, framed by the persona and delivered in the form of material.
As soon as Jon fully understood this to be the case, it became abundantly clear that his act was going places where most comedians fear to tread.
Made To Make Your Mouth Water
As long as I live, I will never forget how long and hard I laughed, the first time I saw Jon deliver his brilliant opening gag at the workshop.
This was only eclipsed by the first time I saw him deliver it to an audience at The Studio.
While the crowd was still cheering and applauding after I introduced him, Jon walked on stage with a very strange expression on his face.
When he got to the mic and opened his mouth to greet the audience, a gob full of water came pouring out.
He then looked up with child-like sincerity, took a well-known and famously advertised sweet from his mouth and said:
An Award-Winning Act
Over the course of the next eighteen months, I assisted Jon by directing his act, so that it had all the necessary components to win one of the big new act competitions.
This he did with some style, in front of an audience of almost a thousand, when Jon won the Hackney Empire New Act of the Year in 1997, with a storming routine.
After he accepted the award and the cheers and applause died down, he said the following heartfelt words:
“There is only one person to thank and that’s Michael Knighton. I wouldn’t be standing here if it weren’t for him.”
Jon went on to a professional career and was nominated for Best Newcomer at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 1998, where The Guardian proclaimed him “a genius”, in a show which I directed.
From henceforth, whenever I ran my stand-up workshop at The Studio and at other venues in London, Time Out Comedy editor, Malcolm Hay, would always describe it as:
“Michael Knighton’s much-praised stand-up comedy workshop.”
My workshops at Beckenham, Hemel Hempstead, the Cosmic Comedy Club and the Tut ‘n’ Shive in Islington sustained me financially over the next few years.
More importantly, three to five times a week, I had the pleasure and privilege of nurturing fledgling comics, from the genesis of their routine to their first public performance.
Mere words cannot adequately express how profoundly satisfying it was to see so many of them establish themselves on the professional comedy circuit.
I also met some great people teaching stand-up comedy, who remain dear to this very day.