Louis Harnett O’Meara speaks to Edinburgh local Charlie V. Martin ahead of his debut show ‘Dante’s History of the Banished.’
Can you tell us a little bit about your show, ‘Dante’s History of the Banished’?
The show is a one-woman character comedy hosted by the Italian poet Dante Alighieri, who introduces the audience to three more famous characters of exile: Napoleon, King Lear, and Eve. There’s a fair mix of scripted and improvised material throughout the show, with some character sketches including more improv whilst others are quite tightly written. For instance, Napoleon’s character relies entirely on his responses to the audience, but King Lear is scripted. This said, there are still lots of chaotic elements in the segment, and room for audience interactions – plenty of room for things to go wrong! While the show has a dark and very timely theme, I try to make sure that its never taken too seriously, and I try to make my characters big and loveable so they can bring it to life in their own silly ways.
You’ve been up to the Fringe a few times before to a positive reception with the improv group Blind Mirth, but this is your solo debut. Are you nervous?
I’ve been performing my characters in solo shows down in London for a few months now, so I’ve become more comfortable with it. My first few performances were a bit scary but I suppose it’s like anything, you just have to keep at it. It does require a lot more stamina than group work. When all the focus is just on you you need to give them a lot of energy back. And when there are any difficulties it can only come down to you, so you need to be able to pick yourself up if anything happens. With the improvised side there are always going to be unpredictable aspects but I’ve had plenty of practice by now.
I noticed that you’ve done some puppet work before. Will any puppets be making a feature in this performance?
They will! I’m using puppets of varying levels of sophistication to act out a ten-minute version of King Lear. It should be a lot of fun! Cordelia is a Muppet-style creation, and the most complex. Gloucester and Cornwall also feature, although they’re less than complex, although they usually get a bigger laugh; their puppets are a little more ‘abstract’. I find that puppets help connect an audience with their inner child; they can help them laugh, or help them feel emotions they might find difficult to address with real people. You can throw them about a bit too which always gets a laugh; as Jim Henson once said, ‘always disrespect your puppets!’ Or something along those lines…
A ten-minute King Lear? Tell me more.
Haha, yes it’s a bit of a challenge! It probably has the most preparation needed to organise it. There are loads of props and different features and things happening all at once. Although it’s the most heavily scripted of the different parts that doesn’t necessarily make it any easier – quite the opposite. Fitting it all in is the challenge! I was influenced by the neofuturists when I was putting the segment together. Their goal is to achieve honest performance above all else; you need to make yourself vulnerable to the audience by setting yourself impossible tasks and demonstrating your own limits and weaknesses as a performer. I like the audience to see the failings of the show, and know that they are still enjoying it.
You’ve done a range of work in writing and performing, from live performances to scripts for BBC Scotland How do you manage the creative process?
I’ve been writing and improvising comedy for over eight years now, so using both scripts and improvisation in my production works well for me. I will sometimes write a bunch of jokes or themes that can act as a loose framework to improvise around in front of an audience. This works really well to generate new material; an audience might respond particularly well to something spur of the moment, or else I’ll remember something that I thought I might be able to work into my next show or my next script. It feels like a natural process for me to go through. Painful as it is, sometimes I find recording the shows and watching them back helps me to see what works and what doesn’t. Sometimes it’s hard to remember everything that goes on! I’ve been developing Dante’s History for about two years now, performing on the circuit as a character at a time to try and get a feel for each one. It’s pretty much been lather, rinse, repeat until I’m getting what I want from my performance, and it’s a process that doesn’t ever really stop.
You say you’ve been performing your characters around the London circuit for a while now. How does the Fringe’s audience tend to differ from the usual crowd?
The exciting thing about performing at the Fringe is that there’s a different crowd every day. At university or in London you’ll tend to be performing for the same sort of crowds each time, and the audience will recognise you and learn how to respond to you. At the Fringe you have to gain the audience’s trust again with every performance, and this is a skill that can be too easy to forget. The fresh crowds stop you from becoming complacent with your performances, and hold you to account or reward you differently every night. They keep you on your toes! Besides this, it’s a great way to meet people from all over the world. I’ve learned a lot from chatting to them after the show and discussing how comedy or theatre or improv compares to where they’re from.
The Edinburgh Fringe is celebrating its seventieth birthday this year. As an Edinburgh local, have you seen the Fringe change over the years?
I do worry that the fringe is becoming a bit too commercial. It’s certainly slipping away from its origins; it was meant to be for small acts, outcasts, literally called ‘The Uninvited’. I’ve been saving and planning for years for my solo debut – and I’m from Edinburgh! So of course performers get put off or feel under a lot of pressure once they get here to be a big success. Audiences and performers alike often seem unwilling to step outside of the big venues, and it’s been known for a while that there are a lot of people who only come to see the big names. The Fringe spirit is still alive and well, but I think we need to be careful to not let go of all the smaller and free-ticketed venues. My message for anyone coming to the Edinburgh Fringe is, by all means see your favourites, but don’t be afraid to try something new.
Louis Harnett O’Meara