Profile: Stephen Carlin’s view from the road

MANWATCHING, presented by The Royal Court and house on tour during spring 2018, explores an anonymous woman’s view of her heterosexual relationships and female sexuality. Each performance of the play is delivered by a different male comedian, none of whom has ever seen or read the play before the moment of stepping on stage.

On 09 February 2018, at the Farnham Maltings, comedian Stephen Carlin was the brave volunteer…

Stephen, why did you agree to take on the MANWATCHING challenge?
It was something I hadn’t done before and I always think it is important to get out of your comfort zone. There is also the “dare yourself to do something scary” element. Probably what got me into stand-up comedy in the first place.

What had you heard – if anything – about the piece?
All I knew was that I would be reading the part of a woman talking about her sexual fantasies. And I knew the names of some of the performers who had already taken part in it.  Apart from that I had very little idea about the format or the content of the work and I wanted to keep myself in a state of ignorance. I thought the worst thing would be to half know about it and then try and anticipate how to play it. I felt a blank sheet in my head was far better than half knowledge.

What preparation did you do for the day?
I deliberately didn’t make any. I didn’t think there were any practical preparations I could make, so I decide to keep myself busy with other things. I met up with friends in the morning and I spent the afternoon working on some writing projects. If I didn’t distract myself I would have fretted away the day.

How did you feel in the moment of stepping up on stage; and then halfway through?
I have learned over the years to marshal my adrenaline with care. There is no point getting too nervous for an unknown quantity. And this was definitely an unknown quantity. So at the moment of stepping onto stage I was in a no man’s land. I felt uneasy but I wouldn’t say nervous exactly as I couldn’t quantify the challenge ahead. But at this moment I felt a certain freedom, like a condemned man! By halfway through I had a far greater idea of what was required so at that stage I felt the full weight of responsibility and I was also aware of concentrating very hard to try and land every line.

What quality does a stand-up comedian lend to the performance?
A certain resilience and nerve under fire. Over the years in stand-up comedy you get into some pretty tight scrapes and full-on confrontations on occasions. I didn’t think anything in MANWATCHING would get that heated so I assumed that I would be able to cope with whatever was thrown at me.

How did your relationship to the audience differ from your usual shows?
Well I wasn’t in control of the script for starters. In stand-up I am trying to achieve a certain kind of effect and I will select material, vary the performance and ad-lib to try and achieve the desired effect. In stand-up I always have a destination in mind and I am prepared to change routes to get there. MANWATCHING turned all that on its head. I was committed to the route, ie the script, but not the destination. I had no idea where I was heading and also it wasn’t really any of my business. So there was a definite surrender of control which for a stand-up is unusual and uncomfortable.

What are your thoughts on the anonymity of the writer?
It certainly stopped me Googling her (I assume it is a ‘her’!) and finding out about her other work. On the one hand the anonymity of the writer added to the overall mystery of the project. But it also strips away preconceptions about age, race, class etc, and you are just left with the words to focus on. So I think the anonymity of the writer lent the words a very powerful impact.

Without giving away too much, what advice would you pass on to the next comedian?
Throw yourself into it, commit to it, enjoy it, don’t worry.

How did you feel in the hours after the performance?
I felt a real mix of emotions. It was a very unique experience. As a performer you are at the centre of the maelstrom. But there is another part of you enjoying the play as an audience hearing it for the first time. There is a strong sense of wanting to do it again. Because inevitably you screw certain bits up and you want another go to do the script justice. The script moves you emotionally particularly as you have never heard it before. Also because you are a man speaking from the point of view of a woman, you realise the negative impact men can have on the lives of women, and that you as a man have been part of that. So it brings into focus the consequences of your own actions in a pretty powerful way. There is also being part of a one-off shared experience with everyone else in the room that will never be repeated. A sense of pride at being involved in a great project. A feeling that, after reading the script, as a fellow writer I need to up my game. A wanting to do it again to remember more of the detail. And simultaneously not being able to quite put into words when people ask you how it was!

February 2018 © Stephen Carlin/house/Farnham Maltings
Photos courtesy of Stephen Carlin

MANWATCHING, presented by the Royal Court and house is on tour from 08 to 24 February 2018