Maximising the Comedy

Comedy is a serious business – but it’s bliss when it all takes off – so here are the pointers I always follow to maximise the chances of serious laughter!

SPEED AND PACE

Speed and pace are really important. An awful lot of comedy depends upon rhythm, so beware slow cueing and slow thinking.

Lines need to be learnt and cues need to be picked up much more quickly than initially feels comfortable. Think of the actors you admire – they come bang in on the cues unless there is a very good reason.

Slow cueing is often compounded by slow thinking. We all think more quickly than we speak – but actors face an enormous temptation to slow their thinking down! And if they do, that means the Audience are ahead of the action.

Get your actors to speed run a scene. Make them go much faster than they want to. (They may well need to keep hold of their scripts!) You will be astonished at how often an injection of speed is all that is needed to liberate the comedy. Speed is the ether in which comedy can flourish.

ATTACK

Your actors can’t play panto without attack. This doesn’t mean frenzied, unfocused energy, but it does mean a heightened, controlled energy which keeps the ball in the air.

Try getting some of your under-energised actors to use treble the amount of attack they think is appropriate. Do this in short bursts. Maybe repeat the exercise a few times and your actors will start to feel the results for themselves.

FOCUS

A good panto script often has a lot of comedy within the stage directions – and comedy relies on the Audience looking in the right place at the right time. But how do you get them to do this?

Often, it’s simply a case of getting the other people on stage to look in the direction you want the Audience to look in. Similarly, make sure that the energy at the end of a character’s line is going in the direction of the intended recipient.

Be prepared to rehearse big set pieces by numbers. Break them up in to little chunks so that you are in control of each piece of the picture. Ask yourself which bit of the action the Audience needs to see at each precise moment.

There are no hard and fast rules, but all comedy requires logic and if you are continually aware of the need to control the focus, you will help the Audience to follow that logic – and make the whole thing much funnier!

BEWARE OF “COMEDY” ACTING

When some actors know there’s an obligation to be funny, they feel the need to give their “comedy performance”. Unfortunately, all this “comedy” can blur everything you want to achieve.

Good comedy always involves some level of truth – even in pantomime! So again, think of the comedy actors you admire and ask yourself what they are doing. Do they suddenly start leering, pulling faces and using funny voices? Unless the situation calls for it, I’m almost certain the answer is no!

Encourage your actors to dispense with the armour of their “comedy performance”. Keep nudging them towards playing what their characters actually want and to using much more of themselves. Yes, a heightened, energised and selective version of themselves – with false eyelashes, a padded bra and stripy tights – but themselves none the less!

LISTEN

Listening is central to good acting. I’ll say that again. LISTENING IS CENTRAL TO GOOD ACTING. Remember back at the read through, when it all seemed so funny? Everyone was listening! But as actors become more and more familiar with the script they forget to listen. Remind them and keep reminding them. It’s the glue which holds everything together, making it more immediate, more alive – and funnier!

IF AT FIRST YOU DON’T SUCCEED

Directing comedy is not easy. It’s like riding a very large bike without holding on to the handlebars! Be satisfied with incremental gains and praise your actors. But remember, everyone will tend to go back to their comfort zones, so be prepared to keep on giving the same actors the same notes, over and over again.

And take heart – this isn’t just you – directors all over the world, from church halls to major theatres are all giving the same notes – over and over again.

“Try making it a bit faster.”

“Give it a bit more attack.”

“Make sure you look at her.”

“Just give it a bash without the accent, the leering and the funny walk.”

“Remember to listen.”

Oh, and -

“That’s excellent! Really, really funny! Let’s just try it once more – and maybe this time, just a little bit faster…”

Ben Crocker.

"The wittiest and most original writer working in pantomime today."
AS Magazine

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