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What’s in a name?

Gein's Family Giftshop performing at Sketchfest
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In a world where artistic genres are constantly morphing and crossing-over, the issue of how to describe and categorise shows for the benefit of an audience becomes ever thornier.

This is certainly the case for comedy where experimentation with the form has seen every kind of show placed under the heading. For example, it was to distinguish between subdivisions that listings mags and festival guides started to devote sections to cabaret and burlesque and so on.

Of course it doesn’t stop there. Does storytelling deserve a category of its own, along with sketch and improv?

[pullquote]Art is all about getting out of boxes, but the beholder will always need a label handy[/pullquote]

The marketing of any show should say what it does on the tin, but often a judgement is made without reading the small print, and so the headline category is all that is heeded. Sometimes this leads to confusion and disappointment. But then, where do you stop on the subdividing?

A label is not just something for the punter, it can be decisive for the industry professionals too. I can recall a rather tricky conversation as an awards judge as to whether a show was a series of sketches or a comedy play.

Comedy plays are not represented by awards, and neither are they really covered by the press. This does seem like an oversight. Sure, loads of comedy plays in Edinburgh, for example, tend to be quite whacky student productions, but surely there are enough of them to play the odds and make some discoveries?

Improv is another neglected discipline. With long-form prospering and it’s protagonists getting better and better, the case for it to lumped in with its scripted brethren as deserving of awards and reviews surely grows?

The difference here is perhaps that while comedy plays would benefit from a separate category to highlight their existence, improv needs to come in from the cold and almost conceal itself within the mainstream. Ventures such as improvised stand up show Set List may help facilitate this.

Comedy categorisation in an industry setting came up recently when two solo acts were entered into Sketchfest, London’s now annual sketch comedy showcase. To me one was an exquisite character comedian and not a sketch act, and the other was a breathless ‘quadologue’ (at least), and an act that demonstrated how difficult it was for one man, or one woman, to cross that particular genre boundary. The closest genre for the latter was probably ‘comedy play’!

We like our boxes. Art is all about getting out of boxes, it’s true, but the beholder will always need a label handy.

Just sit back, silly

Participating in the second Sketchfest last week as a judge, I was reminded of the state-of-mind that is best to achieve when watching troupes go through their tropes.

For stand up I want a hook, riff or quote I can get my teeth into, a headline that I can take away to sum up the gig. For sketch, there may be some similar stand-out moments, but quite often the lasting impression is more of a general feeling of high spirits and bonhomie, and that is best experienced if you can sit, back, relax and accept the silly.

Gein’s Family Giftshop, eventual winners of the competition, had various moments that built this feeling up. One involved an abortive attempt to  dance and sing to The Knack’s My Sharona.

It’s true, you had to be there, but if you were you would be surprised how effective it was.

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