Performance What's On

Spotlight On… Tom Allen Less Stress on Stage

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“Audiences are very good at working out if someone is not being genuine.”

I am the same person [when performing and off stage] in that it’s always me who is in the room. Part of being a stand up is working hard to relax so you can be yourself on stage. I’d say I’m slightly heightened on stage; people don’t want to watch me behave as I might when in the Post Office. There’s a stage presence there but hopefully underpinning that is the same person. Audiences are quite sophisticated. We’re very good at sussing out if someone is not being genuine. Even surreal performances that take you on a flight of fancy with no grounding in the real world should be underpinned by something; a person or a character that we can connect with.

“Sometimes thinking is the enemy.”

I have lots of thoughts and feelings [before performing on stage] and I work on pushing away those unhelpful thoughts. Sometimes thinking is the enemy. In my early career I found myself drifting to a place where I worried too much about my audience who’ve come out to see me; are they ok? Are they going to have a good time? Will I let them down? These things aren’t necessarily things in your control. All you can actually focus on is doing the best job and that requires a literal focus on that and ignoring some of the slightly more distracting things. The busier you are, the less space you have for worrying about those unreal thoughts around things you can’t manage; one of the reasons I like being busy.

“I have a theory that comedy makes people feel less alone”.

The role of a standup is to connect with people. Give them a performance where they feel happy and that they have connected with you. People say: “Oh, I thought I was the only who thought, felt or did that!” Comedy replies: “Oh no, I do that too!”  It can be a cathartic experience where we see we are in this all together and alive in the moment as human beings. That’s when comedy is at its best.

“Standup comedy is a tennis match between the performance and the audience”

All audiences are different and you cannot second guess them, you have to be open to them being whoever they are. Phelim McDermott of Improbable Theatre said something like: the people that come are the right people who came; the things that happened were the right things to have happened. I relax into the evening, go with its moments and allow it to be what it wants to be. I like talking to people in the audience because it draws them in as part of the evening; comedy relies on the audience being engaged. Comedy, and standup in particular, is a tennis match between the performance and the audience; it feels exciting and vital to be a performer in that interplay. As a performer you have to make sure you’re concentrating, acting in the moment and giving lots of energy. To be so focused for the entirety of your set onstage requires all the energy you have.

“Being sad is not the opposite of comedy; if anything it can be a door in.”

Feeling down or sad, if anything would spur me on in my performance. For me, comedy is about connecting in those moments of difficulty, darkness or sadness when we don’t feel up to it. The point of comedy can be in admitting that we all have difficult lives sometimes, but yet we are all here. That in itself can renew our energy.

The benefit of being a comic is that any negative experience you have does feel bad, but then you go, “Oh, that’s material”. The funniest things can come out when life seems most bleak. Bad situations usually yield something flawed and human that makes people laugh because they are funny but also in relief that someone else has days like that too. It’s a different sort of energy; being sad is not the opposite of comedy, if anything it can be a door in.

“I’ll get home at around midnight and won’t go straight to bed.”

I can feel quite tired but also buzzing after a performance because it is so energetic. I’ll finish a show at around ten, ten-thirty and I’ll get home, or wherever I am staying at around midnight and won’t go straight to bed. My hours are skewed because my job means I expend energy later in the day; I will go to sleep at around two am and wake up at around ten am.

I acknowledge the nice feelings that come out of my performances but do recognise that I will have to do it repeatedly. A show feels great when I’m pleased with how things went, or that people enjoyed themselves, but then I have to think about how I will create it all again tomorrow. It’s a cycle, but you have to go with it and enjoy those feelings and be stimulated by the energy that comes about to propel you through, especially when on tour.

“You have to get good at having a relationship with yourself.”

I’ve had over 13 years doing standup and this is my first solo tour. One of the big things I’ve learnt in the early years is you have to get good at having a relationship with yourself. You can’t beat yourself up overthinking the little logistical things that might go wrong when touring.

I find it’s better to be kinder to myself and allow myself to be upbeat and energetic instead. It might be annoying and worthy to say, but exercise is really important; the gym helps me feel better. I do try to keep it up on tour, including swimming and stuff, but I have phases when I am better at it than at other times. It doesn’t matter what one does for exercise, go out dancing even. It’s good to do things that take your mind out of itself so you can be your own person.

“Find your outlet. Being creative is open to all of us.”

I suppose [my greatest professional fear] is that the work won’t be there anymore. In the years I’ve spent honing my craft ‘in the wilderness’ I’ve learnt to just keep doing stuff.  I write a diary, a newsletter I still send out, anything. Find your outlet. Being creative is open to all of us and I feel lucky that I can earn a living from the thing I really enjoy. If that changed I hope that I would find something else as another creative path. My greatest fear is probably ‘not being busy’. When I’m not busy I might start over thinking and that can be argh, terrifying!

I love story telling that validates ordinary life and the drama and beauty within the seemingly mundane”

Victoria Wood was definitely a comic influence. I would also reference people who weren’t known as standup comics per se; Alan Bennett, Kenneth Williams, and Frankie Howerd. People who told stories have always interested me, people who just stand up and say stuff. Those who tell us how they see the world through their imaginings.

I think Eddie Izzard (also a big influence and hero of mine) said that standup is nothing new; it’s a tradition of storytelling which has existed in human culture for millennia. Standup is the distilled version of a whole story into a moment, a detail or just a thought.

I was struck by Maria Bamford while performing with her at the Montreal Comedy Festival early on in my career. Maria was interesting, quiet and vulnerable and the opposite of a lot of the louder comics I was aware of at the time. I felt so excited to watch her doing her thing and seeing the world from her different perspective. I love story telling that validates ordinary life and the drama and beauty within the seemingly quite mundane; that’s where real humour lies.

“If I left, I would miss London, even the cynicism of the place.”

I grew up in Bromley, have lived in Kentish Town, and also in Sommers Town in Camden. I loved living there, it’s friendly, understated and people actually talked to each other; I was accepted as ‘a Sommers boy’. I’ve also lived in Brixton. I’ve never lived out West, (though I have friends who do) or in East London, perhaps I’m not trendy enough!

People can be very wary about areas of London they don’t know, but I think as soon as you find out where you can do your normal supermarket shop you’re home. I’m starting to appreciate suburban London more as I get older too; there’s only so many new places you need to go out for poached eggs or to buy a turtle neck jumper.

I really love living here in London. Though like a lot of Londoners I have my moments of love and hate with the city. It can be stressful and expensive to live here, and at times we can be closed and knotted up in our worlds. I always come back to the love; it is huge and sprawling with so much to get lost in, you could do a different thing every night if you wanted to. It’s being around the people, the excitement. If I left, I would miss London, even the cynicism of the place.

Tom’s 2018 Tour Dates 

Words: Anne Edwards

Photography:  Adam Tiernan Thomas

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