York University’s Tom Wright has one of the most unusual job titles around – he’s a comedy outreach officer. He tells us what that means – along with a joke or two…
You’re a comedy education outreach officer – what does the role entail?
It’s mainly self-fulfilling. I tell people the job title and they laugh at me. Contrary to popular opinion, I’m not here to cheer up my fellow staff, although I did once wear a red nose during an admin meeting.
My real role is to use workshops on the plays of Alan Ayckbourn to encourage young people to consider higher education. Additionally, I publicise that the university houses the Ayckbourn archive, which is an amazing resource since it contains detailed records of his writing process, the history of the Stephen Joseph Theatre, and his career as one of the most successful writers and directors alive today.
As part of publicising the archive, I directed TFTV students in a selection of short plays we found in the archive, some of which had never been performed. I’m now down on Ayckbourn’s official website as directing a world premiere of his work!
What is it about Alan Ayckbourn’s writing which is special?
He does have the Midas touch; his work is incredibly popular around the world. On one level, that’s because he is a fantastic observer of people. He’s been compared to Chekhov, which I don’t think is too strong, as he has a similar eye for creating truthful characters. They are recognisable, sometimes frighteningly so.
Then he combines that understanding with an amazing sense of how to structure his writing to have an effect on the audience. On the large scale that involves carefully setting up the pay off right from the start of the play, on the small scale, it’s evident in the comic timing of the dialogue, and the way he will sacrifice a small laugh in order to get a bigger one thirty seconds later. In short, he knows audiences and how they work like no one else.
How do you use the university’s Ayckbourn archive?
It’s been great fun rummaging through it and finding the hand written first draft of a play I’m working on, or scribbled notes about the set and characters. Then there’s reading all the letters he wrote and received. you could write a pretty good history of the last 50 years of British theatre, just from his letters.
What’s the response from the young people you teach?
It’s been very positive so far (I know because I keep detailed feedback forms) and occasionally bizarre (“We like the session leader man because he smells nice.”) It’s quite a full and varied day for them; they tour the archives (complete with robot shelving that threatens to crush them), see the range of stuff in the Ayckbourn Archive, do a quiz, then come over the theatre to explore how to stage scenes from his plays, using the info we got from the archive. So they tend to be tired but happy by the end!
Do you have a background in performance and writing?
I’m a director by trade (currently I’m juggling this job with being associate director at Freedom Studios) but I’ve always loved working with young people. You can tell immediately if you are boring them and I love being kept on my toes.
How do people react to your job title – do they expect you to tell them a joke?
Yes, or I get a few in return. The other day someone pointed out that the acronym for my job is COO, which led to a lot of pigeon noises.
Who are your comedy heroes, and what makes you laugh?
I was so obsessed with Eddie Izzard when I was growing up that I still sound a bit like him. Now, I laugh at lots of things, Radio 4 comedy, The Thick of It, people in the street running for, and missing, buses.
The best laugh though, is sitting amongst an audience who are laughing at something I’ve directed. I got my favourite ever review when I directed a short guerrilla opera in Selfridges, Manchester. A bystander elbowed me and went, “Eeh, you wouldn’t get this in Primark, would you?”
Can non-university students get involved with your courses?
I’m running an evening class entitled Introduction to Theatre Performance, which will have some funnies in it, for Life Long Learning, this term. If it goes well it might be back in the future!
Tell us a joke.
I’ve been told this one three times now by various people. I’m not saying it’s good, just relevant… Sir Alan Ayckbourn was walking down by the beach at Scarborough and a man came up to him. “Eeh, you’re that Alan Ayckbourn aren’t you?” Sir Alan nods a little sheepishly. “You’re one of the most famous and successful playwrights in the world, aren’t you?” Sir Alan looks suitably embarrassed. “There’s something I’ve always wanted to ask you,” continues the man, and Sir Alan nods his assent. “If you’re so successful, why haven’t you moved to Brid?”
People from Bridlington find this hilarious.
- You can see an overview of Tom’s freelance directing work on his website