Never mind Brecht and Stanislavski, it was The Muppet Show which instilled in me my love of theatre. Theatre is where all the misfits fit. It’s a place where a pig can be a sex siren, a frog can be MC and a drummer with massive anger issues can play in the band just as long as his chain is fastened to something secure.
I have never been able to perform in any traditional theatre without glancing up at the boxes and sending up a little smile to Statler and Waldorf, those two merciless, cantankerous muppets who taught me that hecklers are a hazard of the trade. The reality that I’ve discovered during my 25-year stand-up comedy career is that no real-life heckler was ever as funny as the latex foam.
These days, “muppet” has become a derogatory term which, frankly, should be considered a hate crime. A muppet is the most noble of creatures. A muppet is dedicated to the noble art of theatre (and firing Gonzo out of a cannon) and should be treated at all times with deep respect.
The 2011 film The Muppets was about the tragedy that the Muppet Theatre had been closed and the arduous, joyous journey of reopening it and putting on a SHOW. Never did I imagine that would become the reality of all theatres, and it is with Muppet-like joy that I’m looking forward to them reopening again.
Covid is giving theatre a proper battering. The Nuffield Theatre in Southampton has closed. I’ve been a touring comedian for over 10 years and the Nuffield was one of the first ever venues I played on tour. Caroline, the front of house manager, was brilliant. Her hospitality and warmth towards me was typical of the staff who work and volunteer in these theatres scattered around the country. They work in theatre not because it makes them rich or because they hate having weekend evenings free, but because they love it. They understand that there is no better place in the world to be. They are, and I mean this as a huge compliment, Muppets.
Winchester Theatre Royal too is in dire trouble. The ancient capital of England cannot lose its wonderful theatre. Winchester has that special place in my heart the way only your old uni town can. A couple of years ago I performed at the Theatre Royal on my birthday to a packed house, a whole row filled with friends from student days. Almost 30 years ago, we’d scrape together money to buy tickets to see shows there, now it’s the theatre itself that’s digging its hand deep down the back of the sofa to find the funds it needs to survive.
Now “Covid-secure” performances will start and audience numbers significantly lowered with no opportunity to buy food or drinks. I’m on the board of directors at the Soho Theatre and know how many tickets we have to sell and how many drinks people have to guzzle at the bar (loads of both) so we break even. Reduced capacity might still not be a viable survival option for many theatres.
I’ve got the go-ahead for my rescheduled tour shows in September. At least I won’t fret too much about ticket sales. I can pretend I sold out but could only let a quarter of the audience in. The way the theatres I’m playing are making it work is by doing two shows each night. It’s exhausting doing two full-length shows back-to-back but nothing an Edinburgh festival veteran can’t handle.
I cannot wait. I need live gigs like a vampire needs blood. Or like a Muppet needs a talking vegetable. I was lucky enough to be on the bill for a few drive-in comedy gigs. Performing to parked cars is a skill I never imagined I’d have to learn, but by show three I was getting the hang of it.
For those of us who perform live, the lockdown feels like we have been spat out of Narnia. Now we are daring to peer out from behind the wardrobe door again.
It won’t be the same, of course. Part of the thrill of theatre is the close proximity you have with other members of the audience. Few things are more exciting to me than cramming into a room at the Edinburgh festival with strangers all palpably excited to have bagged a ticket for a show everyone is talking about.
So, make presents of theatre tickets for those you love, and support theatres like the Royal Winchester. I very much hope this tiny bit of hope is the start of saving as many theatres as we can. It’s time to play the music, it’s time to light the lights...
Tickets for Shappi Khorsandi’s tour, Skittish Warrior… Confessions of a Club Comic, can be booked at https://www.shappi.co.uk/