Saturday 27 May 2017

Seeing the funny side... at comedy workshops for children

Comedy workshops for children are about building skills and boosting confidence, through the creative arts

That's entertainment: Comic Steve Commons with Fiona Lee (5), Claire Lee (4) and Steve Bennett, comedian, taking part in Punchlion kid's show at last weekend's Five Lamps Arts Festival in Dublin. Photo: Maxwells
That's entertainment: Comic Steve Commons with Fiona Lee (5), Claire Lee (4) and Steve Bennett, comedian, taking part in Punchlion kid's show at last weekend's Five Lamps Arts Festival in Dublin. Photo: Maxwells
Steve on the ukulele
Comic Sharon Mannion from Dublin taking part in a stand up comedy workshop as part of FunnyFest

We all know kids say the funniest things - there's even a TV programme by that exact name.

In the past we've had School Around the Corner, where the nation's little darlings spilled the beans on their parents and teachers, and I know I'm not the only one who enjoys the annual Late Late Toy Show, not for the stage school acts, but for the unaffected stars of the night who regale us with tales of daddy's tractor or how mammy went shopping once in her slippers.

Kids are natural comedians, but now Ireland's young people are trying their hand at stand-up routines, writing scripts and even doing comedy workshops.

The idea for an Irish youth and kids' comedy club came from Mark Stanley, founder of Punchlion and brother of Comedy Cellar host, Andrew Stanley.

Comic Sharon Mannion from Dublin taking part in a stand up comedy workshop as part of FunnyFest
Comic Sharon Mannion from Dublin taking part in a stand up comedy workshop as part of FunnyFest

"Being involved in comedy for years I became aware that there was a kids' comedy club in London and one in New York and I thought, why not Ireland?

"We do two things; run workshops around Ireland for young children up to teens where they can learn different skills from slapstick to script writing, and we have 15 adult comedians who perform comedy suitable for kids which adults also find enjoyable," he says.

Punchlion also hosts the free Family Comedy Weekend in Dublin. Last summer the event attracted a record 19,000 people and the company is planning its third summer festival for August.

Kids' comedy has come a long way since Punchlion first showcased at the children's cultural centre, the Ark, Dublin, in the summer of 2014.

"It was synchronicity," says Maria Fleming, theatre programmer for the Ark.

"I was at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2013 when I first spotted stand-up for kids. It was a much 'cleaner' performance in terms of language and getting kids to tell jokes at the end.

Steve on the ukulele
Steve on the ukulele

"Around the same time Punchlion made contact with me and it made sense working with Mark as he knew lots of Irish comedians.

"We wrote up guidelines for our first Funny Fest at the Ark and we invited comedians like Kevin Gildea, Reuben, Paul Tylak and Al Porter to perform and had a section in the show where kids told jokes. We also ran kids' comedy workshops that summer. We feel we introduced a lot of comedians and families to kids' comedy through those events and people tell us that their kids still utilise the skills they learnt."

To date the youth workshops tend to be one-day events, but Mark says he's thinking of developing them into a week-long experience suitable for a summer or Easter camp.

"At the beginning I thought the workshops would just be about comedy and techniques but I gradually realised it was also about creativity and confidence building and what's age appropriate.

"Little children expect to be entertained, eight- to 12-year-olds are ready to work and have fun, and adolescents sometimes put up barriers. The workshops are never about trying to make young people funny, it's more about giving them a space to learn and build skills," he explains.

Actor and comedian Sharon Mannion, well known as Concepta from TV's Bridget and Eamon, has worked as a performer at kids' comedy events; she's also run comedy workshops for young people, both with Punchlion and through the Gaiety School of Acting.

"Comedy suits kids, even when you do improv with adults it's about being genuine and not being self-conscious, something young people do naturally. When comedians do a kids' performance sometimes it will happen organically that the MC will bring up a young person (on stage) to tell a joke or, with the Ark, they did a performance at the end," she says.

"Kids' comedy is great for comedians too as it's another source of income, it's during the day, which can be more convenient, and it's great training. With a kids' gig you cannot risk losing your vibe, they are so in the moment, they are so right there."

Sharon says over the years she's realised that the comedy workshops will always have a different dynamic depending on the group.

"I've worked with all ages. A four-year-old is going to be limited in what they can do, the eight to 12 year olds are full of imagination, not too old to be self-conscious but ready to work as a team. Teenagers can be a challenge but you can get great stuff out of them.

"Stand-up has been around all these young people's lives, they all have their favourite comedians and have a detailed knowledge of what stand up is. Workshops are as much about building confidence, team playing and respecting personalities as about timing, sketches or writing scripts."

Sharon has spotted a number of rising stars from the workshops and says there's plenty of talent.

"You can definitely see potential out there and I do encourage young people to keep writing, but it'll probably be a few years before we see if any of them end up as actual comedians, I'm just encouraging them to be creative and to come out of themselves more and keep on growing and exploring."

So with all this young talent blossoming around Ireland, is there anything else adults and organisations should be doing to nurture skills and confidence?

Maria thinks the next thing could be a dedicated kids' comedy venue like in London, where young comics do regular stand up and progress to doing the 'warm up' act for adult comedians at family-friendly performances. "It could be fantastic. If we can't get a regular venue perhaps such a club could be part of something like an existing youth theatre? I think a lot of young performers can actually be quite shy but when they get on that stage that's when they discover a whole different side," she says.

"Comedy gives young people confidence and by providing them with a few useful tools we can bring out of them what's already there naturally."

Irish Independent

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