By Ethan Andrews
I first attended the National Young Writers’ Festival in 2014, a year that also saw the formation of Newcastle’s first regular open mic. Clown & Anchor Comedy, ran by David Gairdner, became a fortnightly fixture, giving Novocastrian stand ups a space to workshop new material. This was not the only comedy in town at the time – the old guard would run pub gigs and come out of the woodwork for football club dinners – but it did feel like the only place that welcomed alternative material.
By NYWF 2014 I had done about fifty gigs, but the only comics that I had seen come through town were either TV stars at the Civic Theatre or hacky cruise headliners doing bar shows cash in hand. These paths felt intangible and undesirable. Like many of the open micers starting out at the time, I didn’t know where my comedic voice fit in.
That year NYWF produced a panel featuring Claire Sullivan, Gen Fricker, Dave Warneke and Lawrence Leung discussing their writing process for festival shows. Having actually seen Gen and Lawrence’s Melbourne International Comedy Festival shows earlier that year, this conversation was a peek behind the curtain that made a festival hour seem achievable. Perhaps more importantly, the event was the first time that Newcastle (if only for a weekend) had a place for comedians that were (much better than, but nonetheless) like us. Louis CK on the WTF with Marc Maron podcast was a conversation too far removed from the world of Clown & Anchor to be relevant, but this event made the Australian festival circuit seem like a not-so-scary creature. I remember Gen Fricker saying that generally, the longer you wait to do your first solo show, the better comedian you’ll be, and I still think about that every single day.
For the few comics in attendance, the session was their first time even hearing about This is Not Art. As disheartening as it is, the divide between Newcastle and NYWF is probably quite representative of the local comedy scene. Collectively it’s like one big flakey party guest. Sometimes it blabbers on with the same old story everyone’s heard before. Sometimes it just doesn’t turn up.
In an essay for Opus, 2017 NYWF artist Luci Regan laments being just one of the three locals on an eighty-strong lineup. How does New Zealand manage to have greater representation than the festival’s host city?
“Having an event on your doorstep means you don’t pay it quite as much attention as it deserves,” they argue.
In 2015 I made the conscious decision to participate more. The possibility of getting Tom Ballard to drop in at a local show was a big motivation. That never happened, but I did get the chance to perform at a Late Night Reading, which at the time was the biggest gig of my life. I was worried what these big city audience members visiting Newcastle might think of my comedy, but I held my own.
More exciting than the laughter from a full theatre, though, was the feeling that the work I was doing could exist outside a tiny comedy bubble. I began to apply for other festivals, and so did other local comics, experimenting with shows for the Newcastle Fringe, which was staged for the first time at the start of 2016. Keen for more stage time, a bunch of Newcastle stand ups also performed pop up gigs on city streets during that year’s NYWF. Weird stuff was working! Shows were happening! Audiences were coming!
Despite few local artists, this year’s festival involved the largest example yet of cross-pollination, largely attributable to a single event, NYWF Comedy Club. A festival closing party on the Sunday night, this showcase doubled as a gala launching Not Just for Laughs, Newcastle’s first ever comedy festival, which was being staged the next day. I produced the gig and for the first time saw NYWF artists asking locals for spots.
In the weeks since I’ve spoken with multiple stand ups who are now working towards putting an hour together. Between the encouraging conversations that take place at NYWF and the new festival infrastructure of Newcastle Fringe and Not Just for Laughs, a solo show seems like a realistic project. The most exciting thing about these new works are that they are coming from new, diverse voices that weren’t represented in the scene even 12 months ago.
Of course, in the grand scheme of things Newcastle comedy is still an extraordinarily small pond. But having seen what it’s like to come up in the larger ones, there’s nowhere I’d rather be.
Image credits: Scott Limbrick