In each issue, one of our writers sits down with someone doing something inspirational in the city, and talks through what they’re up to. This issue Natalie Beech talks to Dan Nicholas and James Hissett from Commentary: Leicester’s collision of performance and cinema.
Tell me how Commentary began.
Dan Nicholas: Me and Dave McGuckin came up with the concept. There’s a show called Comedians Cinema Club where they re-enact films live, and I had this idea where performers could rescript films as they play on the screen. I realised it would be really exhausting for performers and for an audience to do that for a 90 minute film, so I started thinking about ways it could be different. And that was where Commentary came from.
We approached Phoenix and they offered us a test run, for us to show them we could do it, so me, Dave and some performers – Frank Sparrow, Dan Wallbank, Lindsey Warnes Carrol, Jason Neale and Andrew Lee – we put together this thing for a test run in June 2015. Time, man. Where does it go?
So what was the test run like?
D: The test run was really good. It felt like there was so much promise, it was validation that it would actually work as a thing.
What was the first full show like?
D: We did the proper, full-length one to a paying audience in Screen Two, which is about 100 seats, and it did really well.
James Hissett: Nearly sold it out.
D: We’ve nearly sold out every single one, nearly being the key word. Every time we’re like, this time it’s going to sell out! It’s the classic case of Leicester though, there’s a very good, supportive arts community and a lot of those people come. Leicester’s been described as a hot/cold area; it’s hot and there’s loads of stuff happening and then it’s cold because loads of people have absolutely no idea.
There’s a divide?
D: Yeah, which is why stuff like Great Central is awesome. Hopefully it will help to reach those people.
If someone was a newcomer to Commentary, how would you help them get involved?
J: We generally ask people to submit a submission form where you can say who you are and what you’re about, to get an idea of what they want to do. We also do informal sessions at Phoenix where people can come and talk about their ideas.
D: If you message or email us, we’re more than happy to sit down and chat with people about how they can be involved. We’re very supportive.
J: I think it is quite an exciting pitch for someone. Maybe it’s just the massive film nerd in me, but I see it as really exciting. It’s such a gorgeous space and cinemas never use it for that. Phoenix is unique in letting us use it as that.
How have you found the response to it? Do you have people who come forward after seeing it who want to be involved?
J: Not as much as we would like, we would like more people to be encouraged by it.
Have you noticed certain forms working better in Commentary? From those I have seen, comedy seems to work really well.
J: I would describe Commentary as having a comedy backbone. In that you’re absolutely right, comedy does work really well in that space. It was kind of built as a comedy vehicle, and that is its core and origins. But mixing genres like we do, there are grey areas.
D: Yeah, but there are so many different genres being performed in Commentary. Audiences will come for the comedy and then they’ll see dance, or a poetry audience will come and see film.
J: It’s really good for those performances where they could only really exist at Commentary. There’s a stock of material now that only really fits that space, stuff that is custom made for it.
Have there been any particular highlights for you?
D: Being interviewed by Great Central is right up there.
J: That is the only reason I have done any of this.
Just with the hope of being interviewed by us, even though we didn’t exist a year ago.
D: But we knew it was coming.
J: Other than this interview, my favourite was probably ‘Crap Foley’, which was one of mine. No bragging.
Can you explain what Foley is?
J: When a film is made, sounds occur during the film such as… putting your pint glass on a table. These sound effects are put in later on and recorded using various, interesting techniques by very talented sound technicians. But the idea with ‘Crap Foley’ is that we’re not talented technicians. For instance, we ripped a sheet of A4 to make the sound of curtains opening. The best one was aftershave being slapped on, which was slices of meat slapped against Lewys Holt’s back. A kettle boiling was dunking Lewys’ head in water.
Lewys really took the brunt of it.
J: He did, yeah! What was really nice about ‘Crap Foley’ is that it was a real collaborative effort. So it was Lewys Holt, Lindsey Warnes Carrol, Frank Sparrow and Jack Britton. With Frank being a musician and the others being comedians in their own right, they had a really good way with sound each individually. And it was very prop based, which was something we hadn’t done in Commentary before.
D: I think my highlight was doing the first one and thinking, we can really do this. It was quite a big event, maybe not to some people, but certainly for me. To have such a good audience and good atmosphere and this unique way of collaborating between art forms – I don’t really know anything else like it. Or, just anything by Andrew Lee.
J: He makes his own animations.
D: He’s just an amazing man. Just scrap this feature and do a piece on Andrew Lee.
Commentary is interesting because it reflects the fact that on the Internet we can all be commentators. If you think about memes, or viral videos with subtitles, what you are doing is very relatable to a modern audience.
J: That is actually really interesting, because that is kind of the ethos of it, we try to make things quickly but there is kind of instantaneous element to it.
D: It’s also exploring it as an art form within itself. We’re really looking for people to explore and take further that idea of live performance and film interacting with each other. We want that to be as adventurous and ambitious as it possibly can.
What, ideally, would you like Commentary to become?
J: It would be nice to take it to other cities and get local performers involved in other places. There’s a difficulty with that in that you have to establish yourself over and over again.
D: Cinemas don’t really want to take the risk either.
J: That’s true, it’s tough to get a cinema to take it on. We’re really lucky that Phoenix has taken it. It would also be great to take it to Edinburgh.
So finally, tell me about the Commentary shows coming up.
D: So the 8th December show is the fifth one, which has a Christmas theme. The Comedy Festival one on 9th February will be a Best Of show, so you can see some of the pieces we’ve spoken about there.
Commentary: This Time It’s Christmassy is on 8th December, 8pm at Phoenix and their Best Of show is 9th February, 8pm at Phoenix.