Not just for budding comedians, open-mic nights can be a way to help theatremakers test their writing and perform in a comfortable environment, while competitions can help with confidence and learning. John Byrne finds out more
The standard formula for most TV talent competitions has remained unchanged for several decades: good cop, bad cop judges, a focus on backstory rather than performing ability and, often, short-lived success for the winners. In the world of live theatre, the picture is far more positive: open-mic events, writing, poetry slams and other creative competitions offer real opportunities for actors and writers to develop their skills and advance their careers.
This was certainly true for Tonia Daley-Campbell when she submitted her work to the Birmingham-based Enter Stage Write competition. “I’ve been in theatre as a professional actor for more than 16 years, but I entered the competition because of the lack of stories being written and told by black women. The main challenge for me was the feeling of fear and dread when sending my entry in. I always have imposter syndrome when it comes to these things. I’m glad I was brave because I won both the audience award and the judge’s award. I learned to feel the fear and do it anyway.”
Since her victory, Daley-Campbell has co-written Wanted, a play that will go on tour in March with Gazebo Theatre and her winning 10-minute play is currently being transformed into a short film. “I will also be directing a new play called Halfway to Memphis by Whit Cook, which will premiere at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. This is fantastic news because I’ve never in my whole 16 years of acting been able to get there before.”
For Birmingham-bred actor and producer Natalie Edwards of Transition Stage Company, success stories such as Daley-Campbell’s are confirmation that Enter Stage Write is delivering on her vision to create opportunities for creatives nationally, but centred on her hometown. “I believe a fair chance of opportunity is something the creative sector is missing terribly. Also, I love a big, bold event. A writing competition that ended with a grand theatrical show, where the pieces were performed by a professional cast, seemed like a good idea. Ultimately, I’d love to engage new audiences by making theatre as popular with them as Love Island.”
A misogynistic comment by a comedy promoter led Lynne Parker to establish Funny Women in 2002. “When asked why he hardly ever booked female acts he said there weren’t any and furthermore that women aren’t funny.” For the best part of two decades, Parker has been proving him wrong, with Funny Women a thriving community delivering comedy workshops, events and conferences including countrywide ‘Time of the Month’ scratch nights where new ideas can be tried out. Talented writers and performers can also compete nationally for five awards each, celebrating different areas of comedy achievement.
The list of winners and finalists is impressive, including Susan Calman, Katherine Ryan and Sarah Millican, but Parker stresses that taking part can be empowering in itself whatever the outcome. “We look for women with real potential. It sometimes takes two or three attempts to find their feet. Our role is to encourage them back into entering again and getting as far as they can. We carry on working with many acts after the competition. Some acts reach their level and do well even if they don’t make the final – bookers, commissioners and producers come to our heats and semi-finals and I’ve seen people get signed along the way.”
“The process of competition can give you a measure of where you are,” agrees Laura Smyth, the 2019 Funny Women award winner for stand-up. “You are forced into an editing process. To deliver your best five or seven minutes and make an impact, you are forced to reflect on what is your strongest material.”
For actor, writer and director Mia Jerome, Poetry Slam events were the key to taking her own material off the page and on to the stage. “Slam events get you used to performing, usually in small intimate venues. That’s very helpful in audition situations. When I eventually auditioned for drama school, I had no acting experience so I lent heavily on what I had learned from the poetry scene. Poetry audiences are the most forgiving ,and learning to fail is part and parcel of an actor’s journey.”
In addition to performance and writing confidence, playwright and acting agent Charlie Platt has found open-mic and scratch-night competitions to be a productive avenue for networking. “It’s also a great way to see what other work is being created and to learn from others. I submitted a 10-minute piece for Sheer Height Theatre’s Women Redressed at London’s Park Theatre in 2017 and met Scott Le Crass who was assigned as the director. That piece evolved into an hour-long script, was granted Arts Council England funding for a week’s research and development last year and now we are both in talks to tour the piece in August. All this from one 10-minute
Platt advises anyone considering dipping a toe in the competition and scratch night waters to do their homework: “Some new writing nights don’t have as strong a following as others so it can be a little bit of trial and error. It’s also a great learning curve to submit both for nights where the company controls the casting of your piece and to other events where you can have an input. You learn lots, both ways.”
Venues too are learning. “Our open mics provide a welcoming space for anyone, whether they are new to getting on stage, trialling new material, or creating a chance for like-minded people to meet and collaborate in the future,” says George Paris, programme manager at St Margaret’s House, a community arts and well-being venue in East London. “We have had musicians, poets, comedians, magicians, theatre groups, storytellers and performances that can’t really be defined. It changes every month and that’s what we love about it. Come and make mistakes, learn how an audience reacts to your performance, what lines don’t land exactly how you thought they would and which parts are better than you thought. These events can be the perfect melting pot to improve