Pure Research Submission Process
Pure Research Reports:
by Rececca Singh and Nick Carpenter
'Kinesthetic Transference in Performance'
by Erika Batdorf, Kate Digby and Denise
'The Unsuspecting Audience'
by Moynan King & Sherri Hay
by Moynan King & Sherri Hay
by Camellia Koo
by Cathy Nosaty, Laurel MacDonald & Philip Strong
'Voice, Music & Narrative'
by Martin Julien
'Beneath the Poetry: Magic not Meaning'
by Kate Hennig
Sound, Voice and Connection'
by Heather Nicol
'Exploring the Land Between Speaking
by Guillaume Bernardi
by Nick Fraser & Justin Haynes
by Shadowland Theatre
Read Brian's article on Pure Research from the Canadian Theatre
Report - October 2005:
On Comedy by Lois
A Laboratory developed by The White Hags
Nightswimings "Pure Research on Comedy" Laboratory
was held in Toronto in Glen Morris Studio at the University of Toronto
from October 11 to 14, 2005. In attendance at the Pure Research
Comedy Laboratory were The White Hags (WH) comedy team, Lois Brown
and Elizabeth Pickard, from St. Johns, Newfoundland; dramaturg
Brian Quirt of Nightswimming; Nightswimming interns, Andrea Romaldi
and Marie Barlizo. Other participants in the laboratory were Nikki
Payne and Darryl Dinn. The WH would like to thank Nightswimming
and particularly Brian Quirt who was the soul of enlightening calm
and incisive inquiry. The WH would also like to acknowledge the
support and commitment of the interns, Andrea and Marie. They added
invaluable insight and encouragement to the process.
We proposed to use the tools of improvisation, journaling and taping
to experiment with the rules of comedy, specifically with reference
to the structure of the joke. We proposed to experiment with the
rules as derived by The White Hags from such sources as Bergsons
famous essay on comedy, Batesons description of the comic
in his book on his double-bind theory, and the approaches of well-known
comedians like Larry David, and Lenny Bruce. We also involved two
young, up-and-coming comedians living in Toronto.
Some of the comic devices and structures of particular interest
to our investigation were repetition, juxtaposition of opposites,
mocking and sarcasm, swearing, and personalizing the story as in
"this story happened to me."
PART ONE - NARRATIVE REPORT
Liz and I brought a plan and some specific research ideas to the
laboratory; however, we decided to begin with questions uppermost
in our minds. Or maybe Brian asked us what was uppermost in our
Initially, we discussed questions around the following issues:
- internal points of transformation,
- transforming a space
- satisfying a performance
- looking at fear
We stated that we wanted to have spontaneity under our control.
We prepared questions for Nikki Payne, a Toronto-based stand-up
comic, who was attending the laboratory that afternoon.
Nikki said: "Bombing is a part of the process of stand-up comedy."
She described an evening when she bombed. Shawn Majumder offered
the best advice shed heard about the audience: "Listen
to them." She said in terms of the relationship between you
and the audience: "You cant bomb and the audience be
unaware of it. They know youre bombing. You know you are bombing
and so, its pointless to pretend youre not."
We talked about swearing as a default device. We talked about Seinfelds
rule: finding funny bits that are not bolstered by a "swearing
default mechanism." (He appears to have abandoned this rule
in his latest touring show.) In Larry Davids show "Curb
Your Enthusiasm" Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Larry David talk about
how wonderful getting an HBO show would be because they could swear.
Swearing, their contention is, makes everything funnier.
Lizs "Helen" bit, which she performed for the group,
tended to prove Larry and Julia right.
Nikki had great mottos:
- Dont goad the drunk, unless you can take him down
- Your gut will tell you what to do and your gut can be wrong
- Commit to the decision
- Acknowledge what is going on. If youre dying, youre
- For a heckler: "Yes and
- Tape your sets and look at them, perhaps with someone else who
can help you look.
- Emotional fullness: Choose the emotion youre conveying.
You wrote these jokes because you feel something about what youre
saying. Feel passionately.
- Joyful communication: This is your party. The audience members
are the guests.
- Spontaneity arises because you are emotionally there. (Think about
why youre here. You want to do it.)
- Be a part of the show its all your show.
- The audience wants to connect and its different from theatre,
the wall is down.
Nikki said she starts with her funniest material and then arcs down
to her stories.
She talked about the risk, persona, spontaneity and the magic space.
Nikki said that the comic, faking it or not, is the leader. She
leads us through the magic space. She uses visualization to see
her performance and own it. If possible, she checks out the venue
for the same reason. She discussed her preparation. She talked about
the fact that some audiences are not going to get certain material.
She discussed shaping material to help audiences have a context
for her material.
Brian told us to go see the recently released film "The Aristocrats."
Day Two included an interview with Darryl Dinn, an improvisational
comedian who works with sketch comedy. We invited Darryl because
of his Newfoundland background. He is often in St. Johns and
we plan to invite to perform in a future WH burlesque.
His maxims were:
- Start big and leave big.
- Pleasure the beast.
- Enjoy yourself.
Darryl talked about some of the problems that he saw in his recent
work. He seemed to be in a sort of malaise, because his most recent
sketch work seemed too massaged for his taste and he felt it had
lost its connection to what excited him. It was too safe. It had
lost its essential truth. (Although he didnt say what that
truth was.) We discussed charm, speaking the truth, and not working
hard. He said his process was: "Improvise, remember the funny
bits, and do it again."
In the afternoon, Liz and I continued to talk about a range of topics.
This parallels our creative process but for the first time (perhaps
in my life) I wondered how valuable our off-topic discussion is.
I think that its very valuable for writing in the sense of
creating, but a hindrance to refining what we have created, and
developing a nuanced performance. Talking seems either to be a discovery
(i.e. we can take something one of us said or a story one of us
told and use it pretty much verbatim), or to mask a discovery.
From here on in, the laboratory was very intense and full. As I
reflect on it I find, not surprisingly, that what I remember best
is my experience of the laboratory rather than the events themselves.
My report from here on in focuses on my experiences as I recall
them and Lizs experiences as she has recalled them to me.
If it is in any chronological order, it is completely by accident.
Liz is developing a puppet made from a pink bra named Pinky
and is searching for a voice for her. Pinky is an alcoholic,
torch-song singing, sexually-driven, smoker.
During the laboratory, it became obvious through my improvisations
with Pinky that we had an adversarial relationship of which I was
previously unaware. While writing about the laboratory and thinking
about it, I realized that the characters of Pinky and myself were
a juxtaposition of opposites, but not a juxtaposition I had set
out to explore. Perhaps because I was fairly unconscious of how
I was approaching Pinky, the improvisations with her were painful;
however, I think this adversarial relationship has a lot of comic
Equally as interesting and weird is this idea. I think Pinky might
be the externalizing of one of my alter-egos. For instance, I seem
to be more like Pinky when Pinky is not around and more up-tight
and moralistic when she is. Maybe, the alter-ego itself (whether
internalized or externalized) can be a juxtaposition of opposites,
and in this sense area for comic exploration. (I think of Peter
Liz showed a videotaped performance of my stand-up material, including
"The Bagel" routine. It was a performance at The Ship
Inn in St. Johns in which the audience was very small and
I felt over-rehearsed and unexcited two signs of potential,
on-stage bombing. After we watched this performance on Lizs
camera, I got on the stage in the Glen Morris Studio and did "The
Bagel." Liz and I decided we would tape this. Strangely I found
the video camera so intimidating, that I was almost unable to perform
due to anxiety. The uncomfortable elements were fortuitous in a
sense, because some of the basic roots of my issues were undeniably
apparent. (Obviously, not every performance is this bad or I would
have given-up long ago.) These are sticking points (I am literally
stuck at these points when I encounter them): I had no joy of communication,
I was not "on" when I got to the mic, and my emotional
fullness was covered or hidden. First, there was my discomfort with
the space that I talked about as "arriving late." "When
I get to the microphone, Im still warming up gauging
where I am." From the moment I arrived CS, the joy of communication
became less and less joyful. Partly, its a result of how difficult
it is to get back to a level playing field when youve lost
it. The sense of failure is hard to drop and the longer you take
to drop it the longer you fail/flop/bomb. Every performer
knows this, and we all try to develop methods to deal with it. One
of the things that I notice, as I reflect on the laboratory, is
that this was one of the first times and may even have been the
first time that Liz and I have watched a WH show together.
Liz avidly tapes them, but almost never watches them. I never watch
them and obviously, we never watch them together. Lizs diligence
has not been mined for all the help it could provide. It could help
me with my issues. It could allow us to look at our material with
some objective distance (or enlightened distance), and talk about
it. Through talking we can discover and develop mutual theories
about what the WH theatre really is and what it can be. And if we
watched the play-back together, there would be a reason to try to
put some money into better equipment or into taping sound off the
board on occasion so we had more accurate records of our performances.
THE COMIC PREPARES
In the laboratory, while performing "The Bagel," it became
clear that there are some simple methods for "pissing out the
space." Basically stand-ups make do with the resources they
encounter at a given venue, and find alternate (from actors) ways
of preparing. This was my first block uncovered.
Upon reflection (necessitated by this report), I see the laboratory
as essentially Brians presence in the room.
The Watcher: His watching. When Brian is in the room, we know exactly
what is true and what is not true. The watcher is a catalyst. Without
the watcher there is no experiment. Without the watcher, there is
exploration, but we are not trying anything out to see if it works
as in an experiment. We cant, without at least one
But we can invoke the watcher.
For example, I can use the watcher as a technique for determining
how to prepare. I can think about the process, visualize it like
Nikki does as if Brian is there. I can pretend a watcher
is there. I invoke/become the watcher myself. I can think about
the context of my preparation by seeing (in my mind) a kitchen,
for example, in the Ship Inn in St. Johns. I can think about
my preparation in a bar with no privacy and acknowledge that. In
this way, I can begin to see what I can do in those kinds of venues
Nikki talked about standing at the back of the venue and visualizing
her entire performance. Other performers have employed this technique;
in fact I know this to be a tried and true tool. How did I forget
REPETITION IS A COMIC DEVICE AND PINOCHIO
Repetition. I did an improvisation on "repetition is a comic
device." Exploring this notion was a part of the WH original
proposal to Nightswimming for Pure Research. This idea comes from
Bergsons famous essay on comedy. Brian, Andrea and Marie acted
as audience members. They situated themselves in the back of the
room, far from the stage area. While performing my bit, I chose
to get off the stage and walk down to where they were seated so
that I could speak to them directly. I think this walking down would
have worked even better if I had recognized walking down was acknowledging
my audience and being honest about the situation.
At the time, I hadnt broken down (analyzed) the nagging idea
that I should stay on the stage; this nagging idea prevented me
from committing to coming off the stage. An audience knows a performer
is disappointed with a small audience. I was not acknowledging this,
as Nikki advised us we should. If I acknowledged this and let it
motivate me to come off the stage, then coming off the stage could
be an honest and necessary event. It could be a threat. It could
intimidate. Or it could be intimate: "its you and me,
baby and were gonna see this joke-telling through to the end."
It could be something. Doing it helped me see that theres
nothing wrong with getting closer to your audience. (I do wonder
how to keep focus in a room where the audience is spread-around
if I leave the lit areas. But thats a good question for us
WH works with small audiences. Our audiences are usually small.
We could use this as an opportunity to develop material for small
audiences. How do you get seven people in a 150-seat venue to laugh?
At the beginning of the night? What is the personality of the tiny
audience. And so on. Things for us to consider.
Pinochio: Telling the well-known Pinochio joke nine times
in a row not only dealt with repetition, but also pulled away a
lot of blinders about what joke-telling is. After awhile the need
to tell that joke honestly, realizing the story and way the people
in that story felt inside the telling was ultimately important to
me. The interesting thing was I think the funniest time I told it
was my second to last time, not the first when the punch line was
fresh and not the last, when you would think that after all that
practice, I might have told it best.
A lot of the content in my original material is not geared towards
laughter; instead I analyze the joke encouraging audience to separate
the laughter from it. During the lab, the realization seemed to
come that I had been sucked-in by my own rhetoric. I had begun to
believe the comic premise of my material. I had forgotten one of
the main ironies of this material is its underlying psychology:
I developed the material to rationalize the fact that people sometimes
dont laugh at my jokes and to distance my self from the fact
that this hurts me. I am having one over on the audience by telling
them not to laugh. As I reflect on telling the Pinochio joke X 4
(Liz X 5), its clear that there is an emotional fullness to
my original material that I miss by playing it in
To me the Pinochio joke X 9 was a revelation because 1) it was fun
to compete with and steal from Liz 2) I was listening to Liz tell
it as I prepared. I would think about what was working for her and
what wasnt. I would plan to change the joke accordingly. I
would review my plan in my head to make sure my plan still supported
her way telling of the joke. 3) The best time I told the joke, I
got a laugh and the laugh came from really, really getting the emotional
liminality in the moment that Jesus says: "Dad." In that
moment Jesus is actually renouncing his heavenly father for his
earthly one. Jesus is reduced to a little needy baby. A lot of adult
people are still searching for their Dads with that same childish
neediness and if you have that kind of family history or you are
empathetic with that experience, you know Jesus is about to sacrifice
his adult self for the needs of his inner child. A rebellious, needy
child. Transactional analysis, psychoanalysis, common sense, and
so on tell us this would be a disastrous decision for Jesus. It
is ironic that the son of God is about to make the wrong choice.
In fact Jesus does make the wrong choice, but is saved from disaster
because he has mistaken Geppettos true identity for that of
Joseph. This man is not his earthly father Joseph, it is Geppetto.
All this makes up the emotional fullness of this joke.
Director Linda Moore calls playing with the emotional fullness of
a monologue "resistance." Resistance to the experience
of this liminality could also create audience engagement.
Should the audience laugh? The answer seems obvious, but I had lost
my way with this one. During the Lab, I did a number of experiments
where I made it a rule not to stop till someone laughed. The important
revelation is not that an audience will, for the most part, laugh
when you want them to, but that ones relationship with the
audience can be very simple, direct and clear. There is an easy
path to the audience. See them, where they are seated, who they
are, what the current situation is and tell them directly what you
have to say. Is this a small audience strategy that the WH should
We worked with "The Aristocrats," each telling the joke
explored in the movie. Liz told the joke straight-up. I, instead,
gave an opinionated synopsis of the movie. Both of us worked with
our separate versions of the joke. The exercise forced us to determine
what essentially the joke was, so that we could simply jump-off
and wing it. Both of us have benefited from this sense of tearing
away the curtain between the teller and the joke and absorbing the
essential joke so that it can be all about the performer
or the performance the connection. I think there is more
directness in both Hags attack of/approach to the content. In fact,
Liz has told me since Pure Research she has no fear when she goes
on stage. I havent seen her perform since Pure Research yet,
but I expect to find her comedy more playful, angrier and more spontaneous.
Less coquettish and more ferocious.
We explored repetition, we wrote new material and performed it,
we explored swearing. Nick Fraser and Justin Haynes came into our
workshop and we went to their improv workshop.
Liz, although a professed hater of improvisation prior to the lab
and although unfamiliar with the history of and approaches to improvisation
by people like Viola Spolin and Keith Johnstone, (both of who were
accessed during the three hours in the evening), is quite talented
at it. She has no problem being spontaneously creative. I have studied
improvisation and done a lot of work with it as an investigative
process and as a form of performance. I stopped performing improv
for the same reasons Liz dismisses it: because of the scene and
state of it in St. Johns. Just as significant to my improvisation
hiatus was the realization that the performance of improvisation
was usually limited by (interestingly) the watcher. The improvisations
I was involved in at that time became more and more shallow until
I gave up. (In this laboratory where we, of course, used improvisation
extensively, the watcher was very important to deepening the investigation,
perhaps because he (Brian) was also a dramaturg.)
What is the WH philosophy beyond our manifesto?
We have written a manifesto. We have a specific and important vision
of what theatre has to be at this time and in this context. Despite
that vision, the questions: "What do the WHs agree on?
Disagree on?" reoccurs. Previous to the lab, I felt we must
agree. Now, I acknowledge that we dont. Our approaches are
different. We have some essential values in common they are
in our manifesto. We have some essential differences. I found Brians
final words very appropriate
That all the successful comedy
duos that he can think of had success based on their differences.
Were probably not that different compared to other humans,
but compared to each other, we are. Theres nothing to fear
in exploring our differences and everything to be gained.
The lab was more personally experimental than classically experimental
at many points. This is in keeping with a case study approach to
experimentation. With case studies or phenomenological investigations
(widely accepted approaches to research at this point), the intersubjectivity
is possibly the most inspiring aspect of the investigation. Someone
reads our report and relates to something we say as true. This intersubjectivity
can then lead this person to investigate this truth themselves.
This happens to the experimenter us as well as the
report-reader. This kind of experiment has the ability to transform
the experimenter. I guess thats why case studies and phenomenological
approaches are the best experimental approaches in the humanities
and arts. I think that when one enters the lab acknowledging that
you and your partner (as we did) are a part of the investigation,
the reflection on what happened is as significant as the outcomes.
It is how we understand the outcomes of our inquiries, how our reflection
on these outcomes inspires us that makes the inquiry worthwhile.
PART TWO OUTCOMES AND CONCLUSIONS
We created a number of new bits:
2) Repetition is a comic device
3) Blah-blah-blah. The universal sound
4) Comedy is evil
5) When you get older you cant see as well as you used to
6) Helen at the airport
7) Helen at the airport with swearing
8) The Widers
9) Blow-up mattress
Liz and I are very different people. In many ways we are opposites.
I often feel compelled to look for our similarities, but now I think
it would be helpful to explore our differences. Our differences
are a gold mine of comic scenarios. I think we should allow our
differences a platform. This is a scary idea, which means its
Liz and I do not have the same background in improvisation, although
we expressed the same attitudes to it. We both thought it could
be a tool for exploring WH relationship, but not during performance.
Lois renewed her commitment to her material as funny.
Lizs commitment to videotaping the WH performances is underused
as a tool for analysis and making the WH funnier, more skillful
and more daring.
Pinky is a part of the WH family.
Analyzing the physical set-up, the gaps in the line-up and the nature
of our audience has more significance for our work, but we have
not given it due attention in the past. We write quickly and prolifically.
We can focus on other issues without any degradation of the WH as
a venue for new material and of our writing habits.
Audiences prefer to laugh when at a comedy show.
A comic must be fearless. Transformation is key to comedy
the transformation starts within. Fear is transformed
in the case of having heard the material before, the audience has
a momentary amnesia if emotionally engaged in joyful communication.
Pinnochio X 9 was evidence of this.
PART THREE New Directions
Laboratories, especially in the social sciences often have outcomes
that demand recommendations. I think there are some recommendations
that come out of my reflection on the WH Pure Research. I am calling
these recommendations, new directions but theyre
not always new sometimes they are more like hitting the refresh
1. Invite Brian to spend a day in workshop with us during the 2006
Magnetic North Festival in St. Johns: we can explore our differences
through improvisation and discussion or small audience strategies.
2. Spend a coffee talking about improv.
3. Develop some good habits for analyzing WH performances, material,
relationship, audience, and venue.
4. Watch the videotapes together as a habit.
5. Develop a program of exploration in areas other than writing
or creating material.
6. Explore the nature of the small audience.
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