Interview: Aisling Bea on making her solo comedy debut at 2013 Edinburgh Festival Fringe
Irish stand-up on finding her own voice, keeping the comedy muscle flexed and collecting prizes
This article is from 2013.
Ahead of a highly anticipated Fringe debut, Aisling Bea tells Brian Donaldson that finding her own voice and keeping the comedy muscle flexed is more important than collecting prizes
In common with many people who win a comedy competition, Aisling Bea has a sanely detached view of the award she scooped. Nabbing the prestigious So You Think You’re Funny? crown in Edinburgh last August would be enough to have many heads full of bravado, but not Bea, whose feet remained firmly planted on terra firma. ‘I like the more community element of comedy,’ she says. ‘And I hate people pitting other people against each other. Audiences are always judging you, but when you’re being judged for a competition, it just takes away the joy of the job. But it did push me to work harder straight away, and I suppose it will be good for publicity. Generally, I don’t do well in a competitive environment and my family couldn’t understand that I had actually won something.’
Since she’s an Irish stand-up, the weight of comedy history (and a wealth of award winners) could weigh down on her young shoulders, but Bea is respectful rather than fearful of that glorious past. ‘It’s less about the business of comedy, and it’s just all about the storytelling,’ she states. ‘You can see that tradition with the likes of Tommy Tiernan and Dylan Moran, and I can’t imagine that there isn’t anyone in that pool of successful Irish comedians who isn’t doing a version of what they were doing at the age of 12 or 15 with their friends at school, or at 21 trying to get the girls.’
For Bea, it’s all about finding your own way through the busy stand-up maze and discovering what you need to say as a comedian. ‘Everyone has material about cats and everyone has material about family, and what they think about their government or childhood. If it’s not your own then it’s probably someone else’s, but the emphasis will always come from your own particular voice. Every singer has a song about heartbreak, so what makes it stand out over yet another 4/4 CGD chord change? It’s a difficult thing to be in fashion or popular − it’s all so fickle. But it all comes down to the work itself.’
Bea studied French and philosophy at Trinity College, Dublin, and then acting at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Arts (LAMDA). Although she performed in a sketch group at Trinity, comedy wasn’t necessarily the field she believed her career would move into. Bea isn’t the first wannabe actor to experience such a fate, but on leaving LAMDA, work wasn’t especially easy to come by. ‘I assumed it would be a lot easier,’ she recalls. ‘But in this job you are not owed a single thing − it’s all hard work and hope. I realised that if you can be funny, it’s like being able to sing. You can’t fake comedy. You can’t make it look beautiful or put an interesting bit of music on in the background: funny can only be funny if you’re funny.’
Her student days firmly behind her, Bea started to write more. That gave her some satisfaction, but she was nagged by a feeling that if she didn’t attempt to perform her own ideas on stage,
she would regret it forever. ‘I’ve always been someone who would stand up and tell people a story, but the pressure is to make a business out of your personality. During the quiet period, I wrote more and did some open-mic gigs, which then felt more like a hobby.’
That leisure pursuit escalated and Bea realised that if she wanted to improve as a stand-up, she would really have to put the hours in. She recalls working with Holly Walsh on the set of BBC Three prison comedy Dead Boss, and being both amazed and admiring of Walsh’s commitment to her stagecraft. ‘She would leave the set to go out and gig, and said that if she didn’t perform live through the week then she would lose that muscle. And now I know exactly what she meant. I try and gig a few times a week and it just makes you sharper. I have quite a high turnover of new material, though when you’re being paid for gigs you have to go with some tried and tested material. In my head when I do stand-up, I’m a big fat man, and I’m really shocked to see that I’m actually a small girl.’
For her debut solo Fringe hour, C’est La Bea, this not fat man has a fairly simple but perfectly understandable goal. ‘I really hope that I enjoy it and that the people who come have a really good time,’ she insists. ‘I want people of all sexes, races, religions and creeds to come and have a laugh and see something that they relate to but also that they haven’t seen before. I will have certainly worked hard on it, but that’s no good if it’s not funny. I don’t think the political dictatorships across the world will be shivering in their boots, but hopefully, for those who come, their own boots will feel a little bit lighter afterwards.’
Aisling Bea: C’est La Bea, Gilded Balloon Teviot, 622 6552, 3–26 Aug (not 13), 6.30pm, £9.50–£10.50 (£8.50–£9.50). Previews 31 Jul–2 Aug, £5.