Becky Webb is a clown about town (sorry, we’ve just always really wanted to say that). As a solo performer, compere or as part of theatrical duo Jilted Pig, Becky combines elements of clown with improv, storytelling, comedy and generally joyful larking about. Compere of the utterly jubliant Embryo, Liverpool’s artistic safe space and scratch night, Becky also performs as a solo act, and will be part of the launch of our very own Matchbox Comedy Club tomorrow. We caught up with her ahead of the night to chat about Embryo, being ridiculous and genderless clowns.
How would you describe your act?
When I describe what I do, I always say clowning. It’s not what some would call strictly traditional clown, even contemporary clown – it’s more elements of clown and trying to bring those clowning bits into all the work I do. The way I usually describe myself is dicking about! I’m quite low status, it’s quite silent with a little bit of dialogue. It’s not too dark, my clown, it’s more ridiculous. And hopefully funny!
With clowning, there’s an opportunity to create more of a theatrical piece. Do you see clowning as part of comedy? Do you set out to be funny as a priority?
Yes, I always set out to be funny because that’s what I love to do. You go to drama school and you think I can play any role ever, and you can’t, but that’s not a bad thing. I could never play Ophelia or Lady Macbeth because I’d come on stage and people would just go, why is the goon playing Lady Macbeth? It’s a kind of natural affinity with being ridiculous and being silly and having that connection with the audience. I think it’s always been about the comedy – and about finding the ridiculous in everything because I think life is ridiculous.
How do you think your act fits in to a traditional comedy line up?
It’s interesting because I can say it’s a cabaret act but I’d be happy to do a stand up comedy night as well. I think on a comedy night people would see me almost as a character comedian. Whereas on a cabaret night they might see it more as clowning. I suppose it is more cabaret because that’s how I was trained and what I was pushed towards – and because a stand up night is terrifying. Absolutely terrifying.
How did you get into performing?
I first got into drama when I was sixteen, I did it at college and then went to University. I’d always wanted a theatre company, I’d always wanted to make my own work. I have a theory that if I can’t get work, I can make work and that seems to have proven quite true! I’m crap at auditions! It was always plays, being an act-y actor, and then I got into physical theatre and I thought, actually, I really like this different way of telling stories. It’s always been about storytelling. I did clowning workshops and had an interest in it, and then I went to Circomedia.
Circomedia is a circus and physical theatre school in Bristol – I went specifically to be taught by Bim Mason who is the director, and a brilliant clown and performer. It was about trying to integrate clowning, acrobatics and aerial into theatre and finding different ways to tell stories. I’d never really done solo stuff, it was always with two or three people. It was Alastair Clark who said, “Do you want a gig?” and Lorna (who I normally work with) couldn’t do it. I kind of reworked my audition piece for Circomedia. It’s made me realise I can do solo stuff, and it’s been terrifying but nice and it’s helping me find a bit more about me and my clown. I have a style that I employ in the shows I do with Alice in Jilted Pig, but it’s being able to bring that into just me as a performer, rather than as a duo when your bouncing off someone.
Do you find it easier or more difficult to work with the time constraints of a comedy slot vs a theatre show?
When I did Shiny New I was supposed to do ten minutes and I had ten minutes. I did twenty. I think that’s the difficulty, because you’re so with the audience, you can’t ignore stuff. If something happens, it’s a gift, that’s what keeps it real and there and alive. The tricky thing is that you’re always finding the game – as soon as I came out I thought there’s a game here and it was great, and people were responding to it. On the other hand, people might not respond to it, you get the flop, you’re booked to do twenty minutes and you end up doing ten. The tricky thing is not preparing too much, it becomes about what’s important to the piece – is the importance that I’m there with the audience, or is it that I get all the daft, tricksy moves out, the pieces of business? The answer is to have both to fall back on – because if they’re not interested, just keep it to the business!
Who influences your performance?
Fraser Hooper is amazing. Angela de Castro, Bim Mason, Peta Lily. I suppose with a lot of stuff I’ve done, French and Saunders, and I can’t get away from Victoria Wood. A lot of male comedians, which is weird, with the whole thing about women in comedy. I hate that phrase because I do comedy, I just happen to be a woman, but it’s interesting that I’ve had a lot of male influences. Obviously Chaplin, Keaton, Harold Lloyd, The Young Ones, Blackadder, Rowan Atkinson and Rik Mayall, all those kind of guys. I suppose Lee Evans to a point. Anyone that’s physical and anyone whose daft. I mean the two soup sketch to this day… I love it.
It’s interesting what you’ve said about male influences. Do you feel like as a woman, you have to cite female influences to allow people to draw comparisons?
I guess if you don’t say them you feel like your belying your feminist comedy roots. For me it’s more about just the performance. I mean the stuff that Alice and I do is pretty androgynous. We’ve always tried to go away from gender when we’re doing stuff because it just doesn’t appeal to me.
Do you think clowning as a style lends itself to being genderless on stage?
The clown is more free. The idea of the clown is that the clown has no memory, the clown doesn’t have that social awareness – it’s just there. It’s a very asexual being, traditionally speaking. But the thing is with clown, it’s always referred to as an old man’s game – a lot of the European traditional ones say you’ve got to be a man, you’ve got to be old. Great. I suppose an old man has got the right amount of bitterness to bring. I can see why they say older, because life experience that you bring to it does really effect it.
Peta Lily is amazing because she’s a female clown, she does dark clown which is her own style of clowning and she’s great. She’s a real influence. There’s a lot of tradition, that’s the thing. It’s changing – I think Bim Mason is really good for that as well, pushing female clowns – Circomedia was really good for me and Alice, for pushing us towards that area of theatre.
Tell me a bit about Embryo, the scratch night you run out of 81 Renshaw?
I think it’s great to see what other people are doing, to give people a platform. It’s a team thing and it’s great to be part of keeping that going and to try and develop it. That’s what Liverpool needs more of, places where people can show each other work – I want that to be a thing people feel like they can do. We try and keep it broad so anyone can have a go at any kind of thing. But there is an element of dicking about as well – I get to dress up in a stupid outfit for no other reason then I have decided that. Let’s have a theme! I feel that the more ridiculous we are, the more comfortable people are. The idea is for a safe space with no pressure, so if we look a bit silly, people will be less worried about how they look. And we get to play the crap raffle and daft games. We’re changing the format slightly so that rather than anonymous written feedback, the performers will ask the audience questions – it’s a way of getting very specific feedback – you can just ask people rather than hoping they’ve noticed something.
Embryo is performed on the 1st Sunday of every other month at 81, Renshaw. More information on how to get involved can be found here.
Catch Becky at Matchbox Comedy Club’s launch night, tomorrow, which is the Wednesday 11th February, 8pm at The Lantern Theatre. Tickets will available for £4 on the door, or you can still buy them here for just £3.