From a Czech bicycle repair shop to a muddy farmyard in Devon, Matt Roper’s never been too proud to gig in unexpected places and if he’s learned one thing about saying yes to the unexpected it’s that often, these are the places where the real magic happens.
I overheard a fellow performer saying recently that he refuses to play a gig unless there’s an actual stage for him to perform on. I was shocked by this strange facade of grandiosity. I mean, he’s brilliant and all but he’s a comic – he’s definitely not Maggie Smith. Then I looked at myself and realised that had I adopted a similar policy, it would have allowed me to miss out on so much.
House parties can sometimes be great gigs to play and they usually come without a stage to perform on. The one I played in California a couple of years ago was a dream. It was a birthday party out on a bit of decking where the tops of two old oak trees soared above us whilst we gigged under the stars. There were a few dozen people in attendance, who’d all brought blankets and cushions with them to sit on while we performed. It was in the middle of one of California’s epic droughts, and it had been a windy night. But by the time it came to playing, the air suddenly became absolutely still: One of those joyful nights when everything comes together – making all the anxiety and hard work completely worthwhile. Magic.
Years ago I was asked to do a gig in a barn in Devon and I said yes immediately. Packed the wellies, started the car and and worked my way past the livestock. What an audience they turned out to be. Wet, muddy and completely unrestrained. I'll do a gig for a bunch of farmers and their villagers anytime if the hospitality is as good as it was that night. Salmon and salad buffet, real ales and home-made Devon cider. Then I was handed a brown mud-flecked envelope stuffed full of cash, plus a promise of a full English breakfast ("cooked by the wife") if I came back the next morning. You wouldn’t get that at Carnegie Hall.
Sometimes saying yes to a booking which sounds exciting can have you sliding into the cold jaws of vulnerability, like that Speakeasy-style bar just outside London where all the staff wore bullet-proof vests. I shouldn’t give the town its actual name but for the sake of calling it something we’ll call it Croydon, which is where it was. I know they were wearing bullet-proof vests because I saw the spare ones hanging up in the staff cloakroom which they gave us to prepare for the gig. Not easy, letting that sink in, just before going on stage – or in this case, on linoleum – but you’ve said yes so you have to get on with it (happily, I escaped without injury and it wasn’t a bad crowd at all).
Then there was a cabaret night in one of those rooms above a pub where the landlord gave me a private room and told me not to worry about the guard dog in the room adjacent to mine who "shouldn't be a problem". They’d named him Darling. I like dogs but I have a bit of a problem with ones which are trained to attack which I think is a perfectly reasonable fear – especially when you happen to be in their home at the time. Thankfully, I stayed safely out of reach but Darling kept charging at the door that connected my room to his and I’d only just read in the news that week of an abandoned Rottweiler in Liverpool who managed to crash through a garden fence and eat the old man who was living next door. I couldn't take my mind off that story while I changed, with the sound of Darling’s blood-curdling growls coming from beneath the door, just a few feet away.
On a comedy tour of several cities in Central Europe – all of it by train – there was no such luxury of a stage in any of the places we played. In the Czech city of Brno we played a place which was a bicycle repair shop by day and in the evening transformed into a bar (why not?), whilst in Hradec Králové the gig was in the foyer of a communist-era cinema, scheduled between the screenings of two Monty Python films. Strange, but beautiful. We were sort of dreading that tour, expecting to play exclusively to binge-drinking expats – but actually what we got was roomfuls of Czechs, Hungarians, Slovaks, French, Irish, Italians, Romanians, Ukrainians and in Bratislava, one guy from Kansas City (don't ask).
Love and laughter are universal things.
On my bucket list of things to do is to stage a gig in a launderette. I’ve had to spend time in those things, and I believe they’d be the perfect place to stage a gig, promote community and pass the time in a healthy way. Advertise a bill of acts, get people to bring a ton of coins and their dirty washing. Once everybody loads their machines – they all hit the start button at the same time – the host opens with warm-up routine before introducing the first guest act. By the time the wash cycle, rinse and spin finishes, you’re 40 minutes in and they’re ready for an intermission – which gives them all a chance to stuff their loads into the dryers. Then hey presto, the headline act performs while the laundry gets fluffy and dry. I just don’t see why comedy or variety can’t be performed in unusual places – and I like to see how audiences behave in those places.
It’s a mad life but it’s one that I wouldn’t change for all the world – with or without a stage to perform on.
Matt Roper is a British comedian based in New York City. His relationship with Lush began back in 2011 when he appeared before the muddy festival-goers of Lushfest, returning the following year to curate the line-up of the comedy stage. As he travels around the world, he shares his musings with us here in a series of writings — a sifting of thought from a restless but always seeking imagination.
Follow Matt on social media: