Tuesday, 19 February 2019

The Aspie Hour - Melbourne International Comedy Festival preview

At last year's Melbourne International Comedy Festival, a joyous little cabaret was performed at The Butterfly Club. Initially with little fanfare, word of mouth soon spread making it one of the most sought after tickets at the festival. The show was The Aspie Hour and it returns for an encore season at this year's Melbourne International Comedy Festival.

Written and performed by Ryan Smedley and Sophie Smyth, they share two 30 minute stories on their experiences of living with Asperger's Syndrome through their mutual love of musical theatre. The two met while studying a Bachelor of Arts (Music Theatre) at the University of Ballarat. While they were a year apart, in their respective final years they each had to create a ten-minute cabaret that ended up being very similar. "Both were about music theatre and about our experiences with Asperger’s. They were focussed so specifically on the same issues that it just made sense when our director, Fiona Scott-Norman, suggested expanding and combining the two," they tell me.

From there The Aspie Hour was born, resulting in an extended sell out season at the comedy festival and most recently picking up two Green Room Award nominations for Best Writing and Best Ensemble for cabaret. "We certainly felt very lucky to receive so much interest, particularly as the season progressed. Sometimes when creating a show, it can take until the end of its development before the most potent themes emerge. I eventually realised the show is summed up in a lyric at the end of one of our duets: "Everyone is different, yet the same," Smedley says.
 
"The show is about our individual unique experiences shaped by our Spectrum diagnosis, yet the purpose of the show is to relate ourselves to the audience and say, “hey, have you had an experience like this? We’re not all that different”. So I think its message of inclusivity may have something to do with its resonance, because we’re not only aiming the show towards fans of musical theatre or people on the spectrum; it’s far more universal that that," he adds.

Smyth also shares these sentiments in that its celebration of an us rather than a them is what has drawn people into the show. "We’ve been really lucky to have the show received so well, particularly in the autistic community. I think it’s worked because we’re not taking ourselves too seriously. Asperger's gets a bit of a bad rap in the media, so it’s nice to share the comedic side of our stories about some of the funny faux pas we have experienced," she explains. "But ultimately, as Ryan said, it’s really about how we’re not that different from everyone else. Essentially, we’re trying to change the equation from “us” vs. “them” into a more inclusive space. 

The Aspire Hour is littered with musical theatre references and while I am sure many went over my head, their expertise and passion on the topic is unquestionable, and part of the fun for the audience is recognising them as they occur. Of course, this meant that the two had to be quite ruthless in deciding what would make the final cut.

"I’ve tried to jam as many musical references as possible in my half of the show, but some had to go," Smyth says. "In my 10-minute version I loved a little section of “A Musical” from Something Rotten! (one of my all-time favourite show tunes and was lucky enough to see live on Broadway from the 6th row on December 14th, 2016!). It was always a fun sing but eventually wasn’t useful anymore as we didn’t need a whole song to explain what a musical was. There’s also a few more classic numbers I wanted to get into the dance break, but it was definitely long enough already."

"Unfortunately our show is called The Aspie Hour, not The Aspie Sixty-Seven Minutes, so some things had to go in the rehearsal phase," Smedley adds. "My favourite casualty was in the original 10-minute version of the show called "Expositional Song", which ran about 20 seconds near the top of the show and finished abruptly when I realised that the song was pointless. It was a throw-away gag that nailed the absurdist humour that I admire in comedians like Shaun Micallef and the late John Clarke. But it held things up unnecessarily so it had to go."

Despite their candidness talking about Asperger's, the two have not always been that open about it and have previously questioned its impact on their performance careers. "It’s hard to say what role Asperger’s has had on my performance career, although since the performing arts is a very social business, it has made it more difficult to forge the connections needed to succeed in the industry," Smedley explains. "I’m very observant of people, which has occurred naturally from my necessity to pick up social cues, which could be seen as a strength when it comes to portraying a character. But I never had any prior intention of writing an autobiographical work or opening myself up in this way. It’s just that when the cabaret project at Uni happened, there was clearly nothing else that I was going to write about. It HAD to be about this."

"I’ve always hoped that my Aspergers is an asset to my performance career," Smyth says. "Obviously, like Ryan, I find it difficult sometimes to forge social connections, but I know I have other skills. I have a huge attention to detail, I’m exceptionally thorough in my research practices, and my photographic memory makes it easier to remember scripts — all of which I think are advantages. Likewise, when the project happened at Uni I knew it had to be about my Asperger's."

"I saw Ryan’s original 10 minutes the year prior to doing my own, and at the time my diagnosis was something I had kept hidden. Seeing Ryan be so beautifully open about his diagnosis gave me the courage to finally share mine. I went into the subject knowing that it was really important in my self-development that I stop keeping this secret, so writing a show was the perfect (albeit terrifying) solution. In a way, the show has turned us into advocates for autism representation on theatrical stages, which is something I’m really passionate about."

When asked which musical theatre character would be their dream to perform, their responses are just as impassioned as when they are performing The Aspire Hour. "Charley Kringas from Merrily We Roll Along. The nerdy, best friend of the main character Frank. And he gets two of the best songs in the show all to himself, "Franklin Shepard Inc" and "Good Thing Going". It’s not performed often so I think I’ll need to keep an eye on the amateur companies for me to really give myself a shot!" Smedley says.

"There’s SO. MANY. I can’t choose just one," Smyth tells me. "Including but not limited to, Penny in Hairspray, Audrey in Little Shop of Horrors, Jo March in Little Women, literally anyone in Wicked, literally anyone in Hamilton, or literally anyone in any musical. I just love musicals, they are the best."


FIVE QUICKIES
 

1. Comedy is…
Ryan: That’s a tough one to start. And you want a quick answer? It’s different things to different people. To me, it’s wit. It’s an examination of the quirks of life, in my life, in someone else’s life. To someone else it’s watching a guy slipping on a banana peel.
Sophie: Funny.
2. If you had to name your child after a vegetable what would it be? 

Ryan: Pumpkin. That seems like the closest name to something vaguely humanistic. And it could work out really well, since he or she might inherit my tinge of the ginge.
Sophie: Rudy (short for Rutabaga)
.
3. Which reality TV show would you most like to appear/compete on?
Ryan: Survivor. I’d probably regret it by the time we got up to the immunity challenges and I’d be forced to use my twig of a body to compete with fit attractive people, but the social politics of the game really intrigue me. I’d love to have a crack at it.
Sophie: Gogglebox but it’s just me watching musicals. 

4. How long would you survive in a zombie apocalypse?
Ryan: I think if I was well prepared with a stockpile of meals, some kind of weapon, first-aid kits, and a house barricaded from every conceivable angle, I reckon I’d be able to survive for at least half an hour.
Sophie: I have thought A LOT about this. As much as I’d like to think I’d be an epic chainsaw-wielding super zombie killer, my usual response to emergency situations is to run, cry, then laugh (in that order), so I guess an hour, maybe two tops.
5. I will stay sane during MICF by…
Ryan: Drinking water, and keeping my pre-show pump-up playlist on repeat. And also lowering my usual amount of social contact with others to offset the fact I’m baring my soul to a brand new group of strangers every evening.
Sophie: Seeing lots of shows, drinking lots of water, getting eyelash extensions so I don’t have to glue on damn falsies every day, and taking time to recharge when my body asks for it. 


SHOW DETAILS 

Venue: Trades Hall, 54 Victoria Street, Melbourne
Season: 28 March - 7 April | Thurs - Sat, Mon- Tues 8:15pm, Sun 7:15pm 
Length: 60 minutes 
Tickets: $35 Full | $30 Conc | $25 Tightarse Tuesday | $28 Previews 
Bookings: MICF website 

My review of the 2018 MICF season of The Aspie Hour can be found here.

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