Thursday, September 25, 2008

Comedy, Persona and Teaching

We had to present our own material to the class this week. It was based around situations we find ourselves in again and again. Trying to write material that's funny over a three-minute period is very hard work.

It's easy to tell a joke now and then, but sustaining it and giving it a narrative structure so that the jokes are carried is fiercesomely difficult. One of the tricks is to write the narrative then say it out loud. Does it flow? Does it sound funny? Was that meant to be a joke? You're kidding. Then rewrite and say it out loud again. It's remorseless.

I know all good academic writing is in truth a process of continuous rewriting, but with that I know I am working within accepted paradigms that essentially cosset and comfort me.

Comedy has exactly none of that. It exposes all of you to the awful truth. Are you any good or not? How do you know?

We analyzed a sketch by Jack Dee and we were all surprised to discover that we had identified between 15 and 20 different techniques being he deployed.




(This sketch does have a nice legal element by the way!)

Besides writing the material, one of the most difficult processes is identifying one's persona and being prepared to develop it. Now persona isn't just something you pluck out of the air and say that's me. No, it comes from within.

Through the process of writing and speaking, it emerges. It almost unfolds like a new flower. At first the colors are light and unformed, then it matures and takes on its true form. With persona you don't know quite what you are going to get. I am finding that mine is not quite what I thought it would be.

I naturally thought mine would be sophisticated with an urbane touch, but it isn't. It's different. One clue: it's rougher than that. In order for the persona to develop it has to be authentic, which is why you can't merely create it out of thin air. Peter Cook really was like his character in Derek & Clive, at times.

Your persona can surprise you.

I mentioned teaching because despite all the training that's around these days, most of it ignores these aspects. We hardly ever think about how we present ourselves to our students. Are we conscious of our persona in class? I doubt it. Or what's our persona when presenting a paper to your faculty? Again I have doubts.

Let me wrap up with an email I received from a former student who heard I was doing this class: "Are you seriously taking a comedy class? You used to scare us in class. I suppose that's an improvement." I leave you to deconstruct that as you like.
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Thursday, September 18, 2008

Comedy Class

I've just attended my first comedy class. It is truly fantastic! I wish I had done this long before now.

I mentioned earlier that I was to start this class. Up to now it has always been comfortably in the future so that if anyone asked about it, I could say, "Oh, it's a long way away..." Last night was my comeuppance. My moment of truth.

Appropriately, the class is held in a room above a pub. That's how it should be. And what better way of dealing with nerves than to pop downstairs for a quick one. Our tutor is Chris Head. He's already given me tips in my teaching. Chris is patient, explains well, and tells it like it is.

Our class runs over 10 sessions with the last one being a live show before a live audience (now I'm getting really nervous) appropriately in a pub. We will have to perform for 5 long minutes. (Another quick one, please.) We will learn about writing, using the microphone (a very versatile tool, by the way), and developing routines.

The most interesting features include what happens in the first 10 seconds from when the MC announces you. Apparently it can make or kill you. Others are the use of persona and status. To understand these is to take journey of self-discovery. One has to be honest about what kind of person one is because that is what the audience is going to get. Try faking it and they will tell and you will die...

Our class has 12 members including only one woman. (Chris says it's usually more balanced.) Some of them have performed before, but the majority of us are complete novices. We warmed up by discussing our favourite comics and then it was on to the hard stuff.

Chris showed us how to use the microphone, how to handle it, where to put it and how to make it work for you. One way was to get comfortable leaving it on the stand so that you could use your hands and the other was to remove it so that you can walk around the stage. But don't forget to move the stand out of the way or you'll trip. The mike must become our friend; it's our sole means of communication with the audience, so it's important.

Then Chris had us list topics--work, accents, family, music, sex, etc--so that we could each pick one and walk to the mike and talk about it for 3 minutes to our audience. We were introduced, applause, performed, applause, sit down, critique--ouch! It was our first feeling of what it would be like. Chris told us not to forget that feeling. It would be our guide.

Now we've got homework. We're learning how to write our script and it will be something from our lives. And we will be presenting it next week. Nerves again.

And I can't wait. I love it. There's something liberating about doing this which is so different from anything I've done before. I now keep my little book with me at all times so I can jot down eavesdrops, scenes, memories and the rest. Apparently it's a ratio of 10:1 rubbish to good. Sounds typical.
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Thursday, September 11, 2008

Direct Access by Clients to the Bar

I and my colleague, Avis Whyte, have been commissioned by the Bar Council to examine the issues surrounding direct access to barristers by clients. The Bar Council would like to see more such work being done. This is the background to the ongoing research.

In the past several years the Bar has moved towards becoming a direct access profession as well as traditionally being a referral access one. It has achieved this via two routes.

One is to license certain groups and institutions as capable of instructing barristers directly. This is where the consumer/client is sanctioned. The second is to certify barristers as being able to deal with clients direct rather than through the mediation of a solicitor. This entails the producer being sanctioned as capable.

Since the 19th century the Bar and the solicitors' profession have agreed on certain divisions of labour. Among them is that the Bar would normally receive its business from solicitors rather than lay clients directly. These arrangements meant the Bar could hold to specific values such as the cab-rank rule and being a sole practitioner. The result being that a small number of barristers could actually service a wide range of clients without coming into conflict.

For barristers there was always a tension in the lawyer-client relationship because it was essentially a three-way relationship not the normal dyadic one. To whom, then, is the barrister beholden? Solicitor or lay client? There are formal answers and less formal ones. But the issues are not clear. Moreover, as a referral profession it would be difficult to build up extensive, long-term, repeat player relationships in the way solicitors do.

With the changes making their way through the legal profession, especially those stimulated by the Clementi Report, all lawyers are having to revisit time-honoured conventions. For the Bar, a key one is how it should relate to clients.

Direct access is a way into the future for the Bar. Of course it raises a slew of questions about how it should be transacted, under what conditions, within what ethical constraints, and with an awareness that it would affect the Bar's relationship with solicitors.

For the Bar to remain strong and vibrant in the 21st century, it will need to face these issues directly. There is little room for compromise.
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