Posted on Fri 8 Mar 2019
Blog Number Two - Professional Stranger
Hello my name is Victoria Melody. I’m an artist, theatre-maker and I’m like an anthropologist I immerse myself into Britain’s tribe’s and shine a light from the inside by taking part in their rituals and behaviors. In…
Hello my name is Victoria Melody. I’m an artist, theatre-maker and I’m like an anthropologist I immerse myself into Britain’s tribe’s and shine a light from the inside by taking part in their rituals and behaviors. In the past I’ve become a pigeon fancier, northern soul dancer, beauty queen, championship dog handler and a funeral director. I use the material I generate through my research to make theatre shows, I usually show film in my shows because fact is weirder than fiction and nobody would believe that I really got my dog into Crufts and that I walked down a catwalk in a bikini.
I don’t choose projects I stumble across them by accident. I discovered northern soul on my hen-do when my friends and I were staying in a caravan’s in Cleepthorpes and we stumbled across a northern soul all-nighter. I came across my most recent subculture because I was pissed off with theatre. Yup, I was in a mood with a whole genre. I thought sod this I’m going to become a stand-up comedian. Because that’s going to be easy! Mum finds me funny, audiences laugh at me, critics call me hilarious, a newspaper called me a funny, theatrical Louis Theroux, how difficult will stand up be?
The first amateur gig I went to I performed at, I died (It’s called dying when you do badly, you've killed it when you’ve done excellently). At the first gig I went to there was a man who died on stage but afterwards when he was talking just to us, he was hilarious. There is the way we present ourselves but then there is also what makes us spontaneously and uniquely funny, if only he knew and could take that on stage. I quickly became fascinated by the scene.
The amateur stand up scene is happening all around you every night in function rooms and the basements of pubs. There is usually a bill of 15 acts all doing 5 to 10 minutes each, there is a compere who keeps a strict time watch as nights can last from 7.30pm until the following Wednesday. Anybody can have a go, there is no talent bar. Two thirds of the scene are made up of men in their 20’s who like talking about their penises. Stand up’s don’t get paid in fact they finance it themselves by traveling to the venue, buying drinks and paying into a bucket at the end. All so that they can have 5 minutes on stage in front of mainly other comedians.
I’ve been gigging properly for a year now, I go to gigs 3/4 times a week. I pries myself off the sofa leaving my husband, a warm fire and a puppy to get on my bike in the rain to mainly routinely embarrass myself on stage 70% of the time. Why? Because it’s the only way to learn and get better. It’s not like other activities where you can’t practice at home, embarrassingly you need to practice in front of people, you only get 5 minute a few times a week to try out your stuff to learn if it works or not. The audience are the judge. You are vulnerable. Like my previous shows I’m in it to win it. I believe that to authentically belong to a community you must really want to succeed at the community’s activity. When I became a beauty queen I took it seriously, I really wanted to win, it didn’t matter that I’m a feminist. And although I have seemingly little talent at stand up, I am desperate to get good, I’m working my arse off at it and I’m even competing in competitions this summer.
Acts mainly turn up on their own, do their 5’s, watch the other comedians and leave. We hardly talk to one another, we’re in competition yet the environment is supportive. You can turn up anywhere in the country to an amateur comedy night and be part of a tribe. I’ve also turned up and done stand up in Tokyo and Texas. Most comedians won’t make it, but they persist, driven by something I’m starting to understand.
Whilst I’ve been here on the residency, The Bristol open mic scene has welcomed me in. I’ve done pretty much every open mic night with a 23% success rate. Last night after a gig a woman came over to me and said "well I think you look great" which I could only take as that - everyone else thought otherwise.
I got into stand up by signing up to a course, I found out that to be a great stand up you have to be articulate and economical with words, which I am not. In my theatre shows, I seem articulate, but I’m working from a script! In everyday situations I can barely string a sentence together. I can’t remember words, I get them mixed up, I gesticulate wildly forcing people into a game of charades trying to get across what I want to say. In shows my ad-libs are never as good as what I had in my mind.
I went to see a speech and language therapist partly driven by wanting to be better at comedy but also I just wanted to get it sorted. The speech therapist sent me off to a NHS specialist and at the ripe old age of 40 years old I was diagnosed with ADHD. A disorder that I thought was only reserved for naughty 8 year old boys.
I’m excellent at ADHD I’m in the top 5%. That’s the best score I’ve ever got for anything.
A lot of it makes sense I’m bored by most things, I’ve got a face that looks like I’m listening, I’m not. My hairdresser has to keep one hand on my head to stop me from fidgeting whilst cutting my hair, a technique she only uses for children. I’m bored easily always looking for stimulation... like a new tribe to join or learning a new skill. On the down side I blurt things out and offend people, I’m impatient, bad tempered and I was a failure in the school system. On the positive side I’m risk taking, creative, stubborn/persistent, obsessed with fairness.
ADHD is a lack of dopamine, a key chemical in the brains reward centre. This lack of dopamine means that people who have ADHD are constantly looking for stimulation. Amphetamines stimulate the release of dopamine so minor distractions don’t cause us to lose focus. The prescribed drugs make me off my head, all I want to do is spreadsheets all day, in the evening I am tired and angry. I get loads of admin done but socially and creatively I’m a zombie. It freaked me out to find out that I was given the same dosage as children.
What I find really interesting is that laughter and telling jokes increases dopamine. My question is, can comedy be an alternative to medication? I don’t want to go around diagnosing people but I have to say there are a lot of similarities between stand-up comedians and the people in my ADHD support group. I think we maybe medicating in different ways?
I’m going to talk about the EEG headset now!
My EEG mobile headset reads the brains electrical activity. It measures emotional states, such as stress, engagement, interest, excitement, focus and relaxation. It’s like a mind reader and you can train your brain, like a Jedi, you can actually fly a drone with your mind.
I have been wearing the headset live on stage at comedy gigs to collect data to see if the reward regions in the brain light up. I have only worn the headset at gigs in Bristol so far. The first gig was a disaster, it was the first time trying out the tech, I was trying out new jokes for the first time, all to a sold out audience in a venue I hadn’t performed at before, and the only people I did know commissioned the project. The data revealed that my stress levels varied between 99 and 100% and my excitement which I interpret as joy flat lined at 0%.
I have been doing lots of experiments, to learn more about my brain. Daily I would wear the headset and record my brains electrical activity whilst participating in everyday activities including exercising, writing emails, eating and drinking and watching funny animal videos. We recorded data whilst on and off the prescribed medication.
The biggest changes in emotions whilst watching funny animal videos were:
- Normal:Engagement 54%, Excitement 11%, Focus 33%, Stress 17%
- On Medication:Engagement 70%, Excitement 78%, Focus 72%, Stress 33%
- Unsurprisingly my engagement, excitement and focus is super high and I’m more stressed.
I am working with Dr Silvana De Pirro a neuroscientist at the Universityof Sussex School of Psychology and Sussex Addiction Research & Intervention Centre (SARIC) toanalyse the data.
Introducing my avatar
Rather than showing data to audiences as a boring chart with waveforms we’ve come up with the idea of an avatar. There is all this technical stuff where we have been working with wekinator and machine learning. I’m not best placed to talk about the technicalities Tarim the creative technologist I have been working with is the brains behind this bit. We have created projected on a wall behind my performance area an avatar of my face that is controlled by my brain through the EEG headset. With this headset people can tell how I’m really thinking. If I tell a joke and I look happy but inside I’m dying because nobody has found it funny. It’s like a truth telling machine. Audiences always want to know what’s real and what’s made up, the person behind the persona. I’m working towards a show that will be combining all of these elements. My shows work best as a double act when the other performer is unpredictable. In the past I have performed alongside a pigeon, my dog, my loose canon dad. This is like performing alongside an uncontrollable and super honest version of me.
The Next Steps are -
- I think I’m going to call this show Professional Stranger thanks to some anthropologists I met whilst I’ve been here.
- Silvana and I will be going to Rome where there is a really deep EEG so we can compare our findings and accuracy of the mobile head device.
- Keep doing stand up gigs
- Develop the avatar and keep training her to be more me.
- Our next showing of this work will be at the V&A performance festival on April 27th at 2pm and 4pm
- Final show will be ready hopefully for 2020.
- But it’s early days and this is the R&D, the playful bit.
I have achieved a huge amount on this residency; I haven’t been able to fit everything into this Blog. Anyway my stuff is always better live, come and see it in action!
I’d like to say a huge thanks to Tarim and David the creative technologists, Silvana the neuroscientist. Jo Kimber, Victoria Tillotson, Hilary O'Shaughnessy and everyone else at Pervasive Media Studio that have generously given their time to this project.
Thanks to Watershed and Pervasive Media Studio for hosting me and the Arts Council England. My producers at Farnham Maltings.