With the Edinburgh Fringe drawing ever closer, TVO has been speaking to some of the familiar faces you can see at this year’s festival.
Fresh from a round of intensive previews, we caught up with the 2015 Edinburgh Comedy Award nominated Sarah Kendall for an in-depth natter about her incredible new show, Shaken, which is at Assembly George Studios from August 3rd-28th.
Here are the results…
Comedy can be a fickle business. One minute, the critics love you, audiences flock to see your shows, and the next, you can be a has-been before you ever felt like a ‘be’. Yet after taking time out to start a family, things have kept on getting better for Sarah Kendall.
Her 2014 show Touchdown prompted rave reviews and sell-out runs in Edinburgh, London and her native Australia. The follow up, A Day in October, was nominated for the Edinburgh Comedy Award in 2015, over a decade after Kendall’s first nomination, and has since led to a commission for BBC Radio 4. Now she’s back with a brand new hour, once more telling an over-exaggerated tale from her misfit youth, and even in early, early, preview stages, the show was shaping up to be another classic.
“This is the third part of a trilogy of stories about growing up as a teenager in Australia,” she tells TVO as we grab a few minutes over the phone in the middle of Sarah’s final stretch of previews. “But it’s totally self-contained. You don’t have to have seen the others to get it. Though if you have seen them, there are little extra treats for you.” She pauses, then adds: “This one really plays with how much I blur fact and fiction.”
She’s not kidding. To say a lot about the latest tale from this masterful stand-up turned powerhouse raconteur would potentially ruin the fun, not least because the show – in typical Kendall style – will have changed dramatically by the time the show hits the Fringe. But what we can say is this: the focus is on a morning like any other, until young Sarah – a chubby, awkward teen in small-town Australia – missed the school bus, and decided she could take a short-cut and run to catch it.
What happens next is a delicious romp through a series of unfortunate events that really chime with anyone who ever felt like they didn’t really fit in: either as a teen or an adult. Sarah’s efforts to catch and then beat the bus to school have disastrous consequences, until she discovers that she’s capable of doing something she never expected, all in an attempt to feel accepted, wanted and maybe even loved.
“There are so many awful acts that are very understandable when they’re done by a teenager,” she explains. “I think it’s such a confusing time of life. You’re kind of out there in the world, having to do stuff, but you’re not playing with a full deck. There are so many appalling things that I said and did. Those teenage years are when everyone does that. It’s totally fitting for that time of life.”
It’s also given Sarah a final part in a trilogy of shows which she is currently adapting for BBC Radio 4. “We got a radio show commissioned,” Kendall exclaims, joyfully. “We had two parts, and it felt like I wasn’t done with it. I thought I could get another story out of this general area, and tie up a lot of the loose ends. It felt like a really natural three-parter. It’s like: I’d built all the sets, I had all the characters in place, so I thought: ‘Might as well’, yer know?”
Not that it was necessarily easy to write, spurred on by the pressure of following up genuine success with last year’s show. “When I started,” Sarah reveals, “I wrote a show that was so over-complicated. I didn’t realise what it was. I’d just created this beast, and I thought: ‘Why is this? What have I done wrong with this show?’ I think I felt that pressure, and then I thought: go back to basics, ignore the pressure, and put in the ground work.”
“There’s a process that never seems to get faster,” Sarah continues. “I tend to make all the same mistakes every single time. But I kind of enjoy that Rubix Cube element to it. This story stuff is like a never ending head-fuck that I love. I had a breakthrough for writing this show, and I rang my producer, cos we’d been agonising over the end for ages. And I told him my ending, and he said: ‘How did we not figure this out earlier? How did we not see that a month ago?’ I think if you’re trying to do something a bit different, you have to take it in the neck when it goes a bit pear shaped. Some of my previews were so bad, and I had to accept it just wasn’t working.”
TVO can’t help but point out that the preview we saw Kendall perform in Manchester a few weeks ago may have been rough around the edges, but it was in strong shape, filled with laughs, and felt like a great show was forming.
“That’s really sweet of you,” she says, perhaps slightly taken aback that someone could have possibly enjoyed her self-described ‘blacmange of about fifteen different ideas’. “I think maybe you saw its second outing? I’ve really played down the sci-fi element since then,” she half-jokes. “I think I was trying to live out some of my Kurt Vonnegut fantasies, but it really clouded the story quite a bit. I’ll have to live those out at a later date.”
“I really kind of stripped it back,” she continues, “and thought about the strength of the last two shows was that they were just really good stories. I think often it’s erring on the side of simplicity. It’s almost like the more you complicate it, the more you get diminishing returns. If you stick to a strong and powerful story, don’t try to get fancy, don’t try to blow their minds with a big fancy ending… it works. Once I got rid of that panic, it was just the basics of the work. I think the show works really well now, and I’m really happy with it.”
It can be hard to preview any form of comedy show, but the feeling is particularly intensified when you’re not doing plain stand-up or a variety of quickfire sketches. When all you’ve got to offer is one big, in-depth concept that audiences can swallow or spit back at you, it’s got to be one that really works. Sarah is quick to agree.
“What’s great about previews,” she explains, “is that I tend to write a 25 page show in isolation, and then I have to stand up on stage without having tested any of it, and tell a 25 page story. Invariably the first five or six shows are just fucking appalling. You just have to put a big red line through about 70% of it. About 70% is just wrong. It just doesn’t work. But when you’re at your computer, you can’t figure that out on your own. You have to write down everything, so you can see how far you’ve gone wrong. You really have to stand up and say it in front of human beings to realise how far you’ve disappeared up your own arse.”
TVO wonders if this process has gotten easier as Kendall has grown in experience. “Oh, no,” she laughs. “I always hurts. It’s a horrible feeling standing in front of a room full of people, and realising you’ve lost them. And you know why. Even as you’re standing there doing it, even as you’re saying it, and doing it, you’re thinking: ‘Aw, shit. I know what’s gone wrong, here.’ But it’s too late. You’ve gotta fucking do it. I don’t dread anything as much as I dread the first half a dozen previews.”
“But I’ll tell you what it is,” she adds. “By the time you’ve finished your previous show, you’ve done it 40 or 50 times, and you think: ‘Fuck, this show’s good.’ And every time you’ve gone on stage you’ve tightened it up, you’ve gotten rid of all the bad bits, and the show’s as good as it can be. And then you get the illusion you’re a really good performer, so when you do the very first performance of the new show, all you remember is the 40 performance of the last one. And you go: ‘This is shit! This is fucking… this show sucks!’”
TVO can’t help but laugh, knowingly. “You compare it to something you’ve done 40 or 50 times,” Sarah continues, “and you’ve got it into really good shape. Now you’re back to the first performance. That loss of cabin pressure is always a shock to the system.”
Of course, that last show was the hugely acclaimed A Day in October, which saw Kendall receive a much deserved Edinburgh Comedy nomination, sadly losing out to the admittedly brilliant Sam Simmons. The last time she was nominated it was 2004, for a very different kind of show, and given her time out of the limelight, TVO can’t help but note it’s a glorious comeback, though Sarah is typically more realistic about the whole experience.
“It was just lovely,” she says. “No matter what my thoughts and feelings are about awards, and that sort of scene, it’s undeniably pleasant at the end of such a long slog of a festival, to get that sort of attention. It feels great, and it’s incredibly flattering, and it’s a really lovely experience. For me to have gone away and had kids, and then come back and struggle to find my place again… not only had I come back after having been away for a while, but my style had totally changed. For that to be recognised was incredibly special for me.”
Surely it felt like some sort of validation that what she was doing is what people wanted to see, particularly when the majority of previous nominees are in the early days of their careers? Sarah agrees, and thinks for a moment.
“I’ve been to Edinburgh enough times to have practically every experience of the festival,” she states. “I’ve done shows that are duds that no-one’s turned up to see. I’ve had shows that were really good that no-one’s turned up to see. I’ve done really good shows that have been very well attended…” She trails off.
“I feel like I’ve done the entire gamut of the Edinburgh Festival. At this stage of my career to show up with a show like that, to me, felt very risky, given the nature of Edinburgh’s offerings, and for that to be recognised felt like a really big gamble that paid off.”
Indeed it did. Advance tickets for her Edinburgh run are selling well, the buzz is building, and the forthcoming Radio 4 series is just the beginning of a new phase in Kendall’s career. And somehow, she’s managing to keep her head screwed on.
“There’s a couple of things that are on the table at the moment,” she hints, “that are looking really positive. I’d never count my chickens, cos these things can go fairly pair-shaped quickly in my experience. But if those go ahead, I’ll be looking at much bigger narratives. And if that doesn’t happen, I have another story in mind for a stand-up show, that’s set in the 1960s.”
“Thing is,” she adds, “if it comes as a consequence of these shows, that’d be terrific and I’d be really happy about it. But if it didn’t come, I wouldn’t mind either, because I love doing these shows. In a way, I feel like I’ve really sorted my head out. I get it. I don’t think I’m really seen so much as a stand-up now. I got to the point with stand-up where I was kind of sleepwalking. And I’ve done the party phase of my life. I miss it terribly, but I’m an older performer now. I’m a bloody parent. You’re never gonna see me in the bar at 11:30, going: ‘I should have been in my taxi ages ago!’”
So while Sarah may be spending most of her time in Edinburgh cramming in kids shows and, in her own words, letting her son ‘fuck around in a park’, she’s finally worked out where she belongs, and the success of her previous shows has only made her more determined to reach the top of her game, her way.
“All you should really be doing,” she sums up, “is what you enjoy doing night in, night out. It took me a long time to figure that out, but I feel like I’ve found my scene. All I really have the emotional energy to do is try and make the best show that I can make. The only thing I can control is how good I can make it.”
We can’t wait to find out how good that is, but if we were taking bets, the smart money’s on a corker.
Sarah Kendall: Shaken is at Assembly George Square Studios, Edinburgh from August 3rd-28th.