The benefits of laughter have been known for some time. Now, in the middle of a pandemic, the message is being constantly relayed through medical information sights that capitalise on the old saying that ‘laughter is the best medicine‘. However, as we know with good advice, the nodding reference to good advice is vastly different from how we act on its wisdom. Essentially, the problem for us is translating it into a way of life.
That’s where culture comes in. The annual Melbourne International Comedy Festival in the city where I live is part of a long, long history of a cultural practice which focuses the mind on … well… laughing. Such comedy festivals have been happening all over the world for millennia.
This course focuses on what it takes to produce laughter into a community. The simple answer is that someone has to devise the event, the occasion and the trigger for releasing laughing out loud while you sit or stand in one place at one time. Now, in an age of digital streaming, as our lockdown experiences have shown us since February/March 2020, we are learning the difference between a viral video of hilarity and the physical experience of laughing together as an audience.
Someone still has to write (wright) the provocation
For the duration of this course at least, I want you to stop thinking of writing as primarily an act of engaging with a writing tool (pen and paper, word processing and computer) and imagine it as ‘wrighting’, from Middle English wrighte, wriȝte, wruhte, wurhte and from Old English wyrhta (“worker; wright; workman; artificer; labourer; craftsman”). This will bring you, I believe, to an interesting view of producing a culture of writing comedy in your community.
English pantomime carried a satirical bite. From its origins in the Italian Commedia Dell’Arte, Grimaldi’s acrobatic and sharp-witted clown, the slapstick talents of Charlie Chaplin to comedians today, all are radical expressions of creativity and inventiveness.
Orientation towards laughter
This orientation course introduces our approach of taking old pantomime scripts, which are out of copyright and applying them to a new treatment. The scripts act as models of successful productions of comic pantomimes which, between 1850 and 1920, dominated the English-speaking world. As such, they played a pivotal role in theatre entrepreneurship which build modern theatre industries globally.
The pantomime writers who are credited for devising comic pantomimes are now mostly forgotten, but in their time they were responsible for thousands of scripts written for theatres in the UK and in British colonies. They include names like E. L. Blanchard, H. B. Byron, Garnet Walch and W. H. Akhurst. The story of how they were recruited from the ranks of journalists and theatre management is a fascinating story in itself. Furthermore, the circulation of scripts referred to as ‘arrangements’ of a particular pantomime theme should be likened more to the strategies of circulating content on the internet than the conventional publication of plays.
Today surviving scripts are held, along with other production materials, in the digital archives, including major public archives such as the Library of Congress, the British Library and the National Library of Australia.
Rich comic texts
Using existing scripts as stimuli, young writers are given the choice to create comic text for their school communities. Most importantly, the outcome need not be comic pantomime itself. The important thing is to see the scripts as adaptable comic ideas, albeit within the pantomime conventions.