The hippest comedy act of the year… Julia Masli, whose show was at the Park Theater in January.Photo: Graeme Robertson/The Guardian
Caryl Churchill. Sarah Kane. Chris Ramsey? Heads turned late last year when London’s Royal Court announced a stand-up season programmed by major comedy producers Avalon, including the co-host of marital banter podcast Shagged. Married. Bored. At one of the most respected theaters in Britain, and indeed the world, known for the purity of its commitment to radical new drama, “it’s grim to see the box looking so bare” one critic tweeted. Grim perhaps. Unique? Far from it. Park Theater in London recently added a new comedy section to its programme. It will be the latest of many theaters responding to tough times by searching for the nearest comedian.
That happens for a variety of reasons, says executive director Catherine McKinney, although “there’s no point in pretending there aren’t financial undertones, because there are.” Let’s be clear: theater is skint. Costs are rising, subsidies are falling, old sources of financing are evaporating. This week a report suggested that the Royal Court’s literary department, responsible for producing new plays, was under threat. In such a climate, McKinney says, why should not you’re turning to stand-up comedy? “Expenses are lower than for theatre. There is no need for a period of rehearsal, for complicated sets, all those things that go into creating a full theater production. You can arrange it quickly and easily.”
And because attendance at many locations has not yet returned to pre-Covid-19 levels, standup is also bringing a new audience to the theater – including many from a sought-after target group. The Park programmed previews of the hottest comedy show of the year, Julia Masli’s ha ha ha ha ha ha ha, last month (before the Soho theatrical run), and “we now know,” says McKinney, “that 52% of that audience was new with us. We welcome them with open arms.”
McKinney worked at Soho before the Park and recognizes her ex-employer (as do others I speak to) as a pioneer in the space where comedy and theater meet. But what she learned most from them is that “if a room is ever empty, everyone thinks: why? For God’s sake, put something in it!’ So I’ve come here and there: we have these beautiful spaces, let’s use them more. For McKinney, theater can save itself not only by programming comedy, but also by programming more activity. The comedy programming is not at the expense of theater, she emphasizes: “Theater remains of the utmost importance to us.” Comedy will take place in the gaps between, as will more family performances, community uses and other ways to make the most of a building that has been underutilized thus far.
Jon Thoday has been trying to get comedy into mainstream theaters for years. He’s the head of Avalon and the man responsible – long ago – for introducing standup to arenas. (That was with David Baddiel and Rob Newman; 30 years later, Baddiel is now part of Avalon’s Royal Court lineup.) “I remember seeing Robin Williams at the Met once,” says Thoday, “and there was Something exciting about seeing him play the Opera House.” Is that an anti-establishment stir? “A little bit of that, yes. I contacted the Royal Opera House in London many years ago to see if I could get that for a price [standup] show. And they were very, very disinterested.”
That was always the Royal Court – until new artistic director David Byrne took over. Having previously worked with Avalon on the West End-turned Operation Mincemeat, Byrne, according to Thoday, understands that stand-up is a subdivision of, and not a threat to, the ‘new script’ the Court wants to champion.
For Thoday, the argument is simple. Many theaters – including the prominent London Palladium – were built for variety, not exclusively for dramatic performances. It’s a great experience for comedians to perform in them. And it’s a simple case of supply and demand. “TV is less interested in comedy now than ever before,” he says, so he needs different ways to build an audience for his mid-range acts: your John Kearns, your Pierre Novellies, your Ahir Shahs. ‘The Royal Court will have a mailing list, but it might not have people on it who you would expect to see standup. But some of them will want to get out of that list. This also brings our artists to a wider audience.”
So is this a win-win for cash-strapped theaters and emerging comedy acts? Or is this the thin end of a wedge that could take theater out of theaters – or at least squeeze space for the kind of theater that needs big sets, longer running times and a quality of attention that you arguably don’t get at locations that feel and function like the outskirts of Edinburgh?
The only concession Park Theater has made to accommodate standup, McKinney says, is that in its Park90 space, “we say to theater companies, ‘Can you make sure your set can move back to the back wall so we can have a performance space? [for standups]?’” It’s a small thing that everyone is happy to take into account – not least because most Park90 companies are already doing work in an ecology shaped by Edinburgh, work that needs to be short, sharp and light-hearted.
Related: Nanny review – light comedy about the dreams and daily tasks of a double act
Thoday remembers in the 1990s “when Edinburgh was exploding, and there was a whole story about comedy murder theater on the fringes. But I think the opposite has now been completely proven.” He points to the current West End, where Operation Mincemeat rivals the musical Six and The Play That Goes Wrong, and sees a theater world in the image of the fringe, where theatrical and comedic influences and talents come together and intertwine.
“The boundaries between the different arts are less difficult than people think,” he says. “It’s an old-fashioned view that there will be stand-up comedy at the Royal Court at the end of time. I think this is the beginning of days. It would be nice if the Court received more subsidy. But it is also nice that there is an art form that can help other art forms survive in difficult times.”