By name this is a ‘drama’ festival – but in typical NSDF fashion, definitions are loose. We often see definitions as unimportant, and ambitions exceed them. There is a history of diverse projects here at NSDF. Over the last five years I’ve been in attendance we’ve seen dance-based work, movement pieces, techno-clown-verbatim, a carbon-neutral show powered entirely by a bike on stage, immersive promenade queer thrillers with Drag – the list goes on. We’ve even seen ‘stand-up tragedy’.
But not stand-up comedy. Stand-up has been felt – in the shows that adopt its tropes for certain segments of work, or works like Pub Corner Poets’ Sad Little Man from 2017, in a tragic but powerful interpretation of the format. But stand-up in its purest, rawest form has been absent here for many years. Why? It’s just as alive – just as electric, emotive, evocative, engaging and entertaining – as the other live art forms I mentioned. It is theatre.
But different. And that is everything that NSDF represents, which is why it’s certainly found its place here. The chorus of laughter and joy heard across the Curve tell you this.
Performing at the festival this year are two shows cut from the comedic cloth. Dian Cathal is bringing his humorous assessment of a generation flying at breakneck speed through unprocessed modern horrors in his piece Generation Why. On opening night I spoke to performer/stand-up comic Bróccán Tyzack-Carlin, who certainly demonstrated a theatrical sensibility and understanding with his work Turtle. After quizzing him about how he felt being a stand-up comedy show in this festival he quipped "I don’t know if there’s been one before…I almost didn’t apply because I thought 'it’s not straight-up theatre’".
It made me question whether stand-up comedy is the bastard child of the performing arts, devoid of ‘real’ substance, neglected and full of ‘basic’ and ‘indulgently surface-level’ comics all called ‘Russell’. I think, 'is it because it’s often dominated by white cis-het men?' Then I remember the theatre industry shares similar concerns. I think, 'is it because it is a form of live entertainment more popular among the working-class, and being a working-class product makes it harder to break through the glass ceiling of the arts?' Then I remember the theatre industry has its own uncomfortable relationship with class and work that engages with it, and would rather keep it under the ceiling where it can be seen but not heard.
I realise that stand-up and theatre are similar. They are from the same family of live performance. They both depend upon a relationship with an audience. They share some of the same problems and are working to fix them. They have a symbiotic relationship in the way they impact our culture and our lives, encouraging us to look at the little things and the big things. Stand-up just teaches us to have a laugh along the way.
I see two live art forms that exist to make a difference in some way. I see two live art forms that reflect the world we live in, the people we are, and the future we want to build for ourselves and those who follow us into it. I see two live art forms. Just like I have seen a dozen different live art forms in the past five years here.
Stand-up comedy is the class clown of live performance. It’s the kid at the back of the class with a pen up their nose and a half-chewed rubber in their hand. The loud, disruptive, amusing and unconventionally intelligent pupil. The one that even at their most disruptive, the teacher can’t help but to share a wry smile.
It belongs here.