After his first sold-out show at the Guy Butler Theatre, Grahamstown’s most sought-after visitor gave me an exclusive interview about his new show, getting to know South Africa, and the positive side of performance anxiety.
A hearty welcome to Grahamstown, Dylan. Is this more a work trip or a family vacation?
Well, it’s both. We’re all together. Back where we live, I’ll usually get a gig in London or Glasgow; it’s obviously not quite the same thing. But this merits us all being here, and we’re thoroughly enjoying it.
Do you find people kind-of expect you to be Bernard Black when you come to a new place?
There’s a bit of that. I mean, people – you know – most people know it’s a character, but some people go, “Oh, he’s going to be that guy.” But I have to say though that people here, I’ve found them to be thoughtful and responsive and interested. And open, too. I couldn’t have asked to have a better audience, to be honest with you. Everyone’s more than happy to meet you halfway.
It says a lot about globalisation that you can come to a small city on the other side of the world and people are clamouring to see you. I’ve seen some Moran-themed graffiti around town.
I saw someone writing your name on a wall.
I’ll tell you something funny. We were out in the game reserve looking at the lions and I got a text asking if I’d do a gig in Kiev. So, yeah, globalisation is definitely a feature.
Either way, it’s refreshing to see a comedian as prominent as you to come to Festival, and not just bypass Grahamstown for the bigger cities. What was behind the decision?
One part of it is that I had been asked to do shows in Cape Town and Johannesburg before. But my concern was that I didn’t want to end up talking to a single type of people. I wanted to play somewhere I could talk to a wide range of South African society, so it sounded like it was probably more likely to happen at this Festival. You have a big, cosmopolitan student body, and so you have a good chance that – for the first time I’m here at least – I can get some sense of how everything is going here. You have to play catch up once you get to a different place: sucking all the different newspapers and conversations you’re having here; trying to imbibe the vibe and the feel of where you are and what people’s hopes and concerns are for the near future. You have to get a little taste of everything. I want to talk to lots of different kinds of people to be able to do that, and I feel like I now know a good deal more than I did. You have to get that and then go away and think about it for a while. You have to remember that I come in with a lot of European baggage, and I’m keen to get beyond that and get to the next level of understanding life here.
I mean, your concerns are universalist in nature, but were you worried initially that certain things wouldn’t translate well?
No – or, well, you know, you do traffic in universal concerns when you do stand-up comedy. What’s shared humanity? What’s common experience? That’s the glue of the whole thing: what you share. And then, you know, obviously you obsess with the differences when you’re on your way to someplace that’s outside your comfort zone. I don’t know much about South African society. But what I do know is that people are the same in their fundamental concerns everywhere, so you begin with that.
Before Friday night it had been about a month since you last performed Off the Hook?
That’s right, yeah. I’d been up since six-thirty in the morning looking at lines and thinking about South Africa, and I was all over the place. I feel a lot more relaxed today, and I’m looking forward to the show tonight.
I suppose it helps that your style has an improvisational quality.
I don’t know what I’m doing, in short.
But I wonder how much of that is rehearsed? I mean, you’ve been doing stand-up more than half your life. There’s a practiced kind of liberation.
Well, what I hope to do is have a conversation – one where I get to do all the talking. But, you know, it actually is a conversation. If you do stand-up and you lecture people or you just deliver this text, it’s not really a live experience. So what I do is that I submit myself to the experience of being in that particular room at that particular time at that particular place with those particular people. It’s always different, and I don’t know where I’m going to start or end or what I’m going to do in the middle of it. I have this stuff, but I don’t know when it’s going to happen. It means it keeps me sufficiently scared. It also means that I will forget things, come back to things, and that every day is different. And that’s the way it should be.
Anxiety is a great motivating force.
It is, absolutely. It keeps you awake, it keeps you focused. It’s your friend, really.
The new show seems to be a bit more personal than your older material – or more domestic, if you will.
It is more personal. I’m trying to talk about the small worlds we all inhabit. You know, we’re not all thinking about politics and what’s going to happen and dramas and all that stuff. The life you inhabit is actually close to you: your kitchen, your family, your work situation, your mortality, all these things you live with. All the things that are on the go in your head all the time. I’m trying to use that as a key.