An Interview with Elf Lyons
By Zoë Head
She’s a little bit silly, a lot of fun and loves dressing up as old men, parrots, sharks and whatever her kooky imagination can think up. She’s performed all over the world and is adored wherever she goes for her avant-garde, outlandish, style of comedy and now she’s visiting Birmingham briefly to showcase her brand new one-woman show and character-clown-surreal comedy extravaganza, Hilda and the Spectrum 1) Read how lovely she is in this interview and 2) click on the event and book some tickets to see her perform this week! https://www.facebook.com/events/1210205129098833/
What drew you to a career in comedy? Was there a particular moment when you decided it’s what you wanted to do?
I was genuinely thinking about this yesterday because I was trying to work out – because I always get asked what led you to comedy and I’ve always had specific answers but I always couldn’t quite work out if I just imagined that was the answer or if it was actually true – but when I was little I used to be obsessed with watching comedy DVDs and obsessed with all things comedy and slapstick in particular – I loved slapstick and I loved acting and I was always being cast as the boy parts, always the boy parts, the Bottom’s and the Toby Belch’s. I just realised at a very young age, I was never going to be cast as the pretty girl in the plays. When I was at primary school I was never Mary in the nativity but I was always King Herod. I realised the only way I could get star status that I always wanted was by adding in my own lines as King Herod or Pilgrim Number 1. So I guess I was always desperately drawn to being comic and I loved the feeling of people laughing at me and with me, it was just the best feeling in the world. I remember that so vividly when I was little so I think when I was about 15 I made the decision that actually I wanted to be a comedian. I remember going ‘Yep, this is what I want to do now’ and a lot of people said ‘Well, you can’t really do that, it’s not a very good career choice’. Because at that time there wasn’t a huge number of women on television for my age who were doing comedy. A lot of my teachers were baffled by what had led me to get into it. But I was very determined so I’m lucky that I’m doing exactly what I wanted to do into my mid-twenties!
For someone who hasn’t seen you perform, how would you describe your style of comedy?
Um, it’s very weird apparently. I basically just go on stage and I have a lovely fun breakdown and I talk and experiment and I’m silly. It’s just like having a lovely party on stage with my friends. I’ve realised that the less I structure it and the more I just experiment, and the more I’m silly, the more fun the audience and myself have. I’ve been described as being a more structured Eddie Izzard by Chortle which is nice. I’ve been described as being quite Mighty Boosh-y but I’m not entirely sure if I would agree with that…but basically I’m very out there – I move like a giraffe on roller blades on stage. A bit avant-garde? Yeah! Avant-garde is probably the best way to describe it! It’s very theatrical, very theatrical.
What do you think is important or relevant about your particular brand of comedy today – what current ideas does it deal with?
I think it’s interesting this idea about brands and what’s relevant…but being a comic your aim is just to, well my aim is just to be funny and to be stupid, to make the audience laugh and I do a lot of clown and mime on stage and I don’t really over-analyse what the thesis of my comedy is, you know what I mean? I don’t always think about ‘What am I trying to say?’ but I think still…I talk about sex on stage and I talk a lot about my relationship with my body, my relationship with men and women, my sexuality and I think it’s still seen as being slightly shocking – not to talk about sex but to be so comfortable with it and so open about it. And I love being on stage to chat about…in my last show Pelican, I talked a lot about my relationship with an older French man and my relationship with my mum and also issues about fertility and miscarriages. You know, not necessarily comical topics but I thought it’s important. In comedy you can talk about the most tragic and saddest things – saddest? Is that a word saddest? Yeah? Yeah. Yeah? I’m a complete dyslexic – I’ve sometimes got to check myself. So it’s about being honest and vulnerable and being silly in all one. But yeah I think talking about my sexuality and my complete confidence in my sexuality…would be my thing? I’m not sure, is that right? Yeah! You can say that! I’m always worried I sound a bit pretentious to analyse your own comedy you know.
In your show, Pelican, that you toured with last year, a lot of your anecdotes are about your relationship with your mother, why is she such a good source of comedy for you?
Well, she’s just weird, she’s just really bizarre and weird and she’s a nightmare but a brilliant nightmare. I think it’s like asking about your relationship with your parents, like there’s all sorts of problems and issues with our parents and there’s always comedy. There’s always something. Because you know them so well and they know you so well, so all the flaws and all the darkness…it’s great great material to draw comedy from and it’s so relatable. But my mum is a very artistic woman. I would describe her as the love child between Godzilla and Annie Lennox. So she’s got amazing cheekbones but is absolutely terrifying.
Last week we went on a health retreat just for the two of us, for one week sharing a bedroom and it was intense because we were doing about 7-9 hours of exercise everyday with specific monitored meals because the whole aim was about getting us healthy. Everybody’s assumption was that I evidentially must’ve had a drug problem and my mum was there to support me through my rehabilitation. Which wasn’t what I denied because I just thought best to go along with whatever story people imagine… But we did that and we were in bed watching a film, we watched so many films together and then one she just turned to me and went ‘You know what, I think I’m a lesbian’…and that was partly because I talked about some stuff on stage and she just…suddenly started thinking about it! I was like ‘Cool…fair play…alright Mum. I mean, I’m pretty sure you’re not because you and Dad have been happily married for 26 years but yeah if you want to experiment…go for it! It’s totally within your right to do so’.
You often make great use of eccentric costumes on stage, what is your favourite costume/prop you’ve ever worn/used?
So an amazing designer called Hayley, she is a student at St Martins, almost just graduated but she made my costumes for Pelican and Being Barbarella. So she used to come over to mine and we’d drink a lot of coffee and we’d sort of work out some weird design so it’s hard to pick the favourite ones but when I did Barbarella my dream was to come out and use a big smoke machine because at the beginning I’m dressed as an astronaut like Barbarella, like Jane Fonda in the film. But I couldn’t…*sound of crash* – sorry while I’m talking I’m also trying to sort out some lentils for my lunch so if you hear any banging that is what I’m doing – I couldn’t afford a smoke machine so what I ended up getting was a huge load of talcum powder and so when I came out to the audience, and at Vault Festival it worked particularly well because I had these really cool pink strobe lights – I love I love I love a good lighting effect!! OoOh makes me so happy! So we had covered the place in talcum powder, just a complete mist and then I came out in slow motion and moonwalked across the floor and took all my clothes off and it was great fun. I did it in Australia for the Adelaide Fringe but in a smaller space, it didn’t have as near as cool lighting effects as Vault did which made it look slightly crappier but, because of that, even more fun. I have to say the talcum powder was one of my favourite props.
You’re a recent graduate from L’ecole Phillipe Gaulier, how was that experience? What sort of things did you learn and how has it impacted you as a performer?
Well, I learnt that I was pretty much horrible most of the time. Phillipe would watch you and he’d say something like *adopts French accent* ‘Before I watched this woman I was a classic heterosexual male, now I am not so sure’. And he’ll make you do lots of various challenges on stage. So once, I had to do this bit for Greek tragedy and I was so bad and he made me…he got loads of my fellow classmates on stage and goes ‘Right, you are the brothel, you are the brothel keeper and I want you to sing, you are sad because your lover has gone and I want you to say f**k you Phillipe and I want you to slap Megan across the face’ And I had to do all this stuff when everyone’s watching. ‘Now you are beautiful’, and follow all these weird directions. He wants you to just imagine and play and be silly so that was pretty cool. And there was one day where, on Good Friday, I dressed as Jesus on a crucifix, um, and it was a spoof – we played a game of Grandmother’s footsteps but with someone dressed as God and God had a chocolate egg and every time he wasn’t looking Jesus had to try get off the crucifix and try and get the chocolate egg. I mean, my Irish Catholic Grandmother would be absolutely shocked if she heard me say that but it was very very funny. So yeah, it was a bizarre…it’s a really intense, I would say cult…but I mean that in a really loving way, because you’ve got everyone from all walks of life, from all around the world, from all different trades, all coming together to just try to find something new and different about themselves and about their styles on stage. It was cool.
So at the Old Joint Stock Theatre in Birmingham this week you’re previewing your new one-woman show on Thursday and then on Friday performing your comedy play Hildra and the Spectrum with Ryan Lane. Tell us a bit about both!
Well, the new show is still…I’m falling in love with it, we’re still getting to know each other, me and the show. So every day I find out something new about them and I’m like ‘Oh! That’s quite interesting! Oh that’s cool! Oh I don’t like that bit. Oh I’ll take that bit out’. So on Thursday I know about 75% of what is going to be in it. So it’s going to be very exciting, very kinetic experience. The idea essentially is that I’m trying to do Swan Lake in an hour…maybe in French…we’ll see. I like giving myself challenges onstage, I think if you ever get into writer’s block the best thing you can do is go ‘Right! Talk about what I know and give myself a challenge’. So whether it’s ‘I’m going to do the whole thing in mime’ or ‘I want to do a show dedicated to the London Underground’ or dedicated to a weird sci-fi film that no-ones watched. I think it’s a good place to start. So can you speak French? No, I can’t. I’ve written it all in French but don’t worry if you don’t speak French, you’ll understand the whole thing still. It’s in Frunglish! And there is stuff in English as well. It’s very clowny, sexy and silly and I’m dressed as a parrot.
The other show with Ryan is something that we developed at Gaulier together in characters…so you have to turn up as a character which is completely unrecognisable. It’s about Hilda and this mysterious old man called Mr X who meet on an allotment in Cricklewood. Ryan is dressed as Hilda, she is a tour guide on the London literary walking tour experience and she is from east Berlin and she has a very mysterious past. Mr X is a very old man who is 93 and is made out of wood who I play…and it’s a bit, it’s very Mighty Boosh-y. It’s really camp, it’s got so many 90s pop culture references in it, we managed to get the Parent Trap handshake into it. There’s lots of Bowie, lots of Bowie songs in it. It’s a good insight into really…if anyone is intrigued by what Gaulier teaches you, Hilda and the Spectrum is quite a good insight into it because we did it together Ryan and I, and Phillipe watched it and went *adopts French accent again* ‘Ah! 10 out of 10! You are good when you are dressed as a man, Elf!’
You’ve got your own theatre company, RaRaRa Theatre – great name by the way! Tell us three things that are of central importance to your company or that summarise it.
It’s all about, first of all, gender – with all the plays that we put on and are developing for the next year, gender doesn’t come into it. We’ve gotten rid of, you know, boys can play girl parts, girls can play boy parts, who, they, whatever pronoun, we just change the parts to fit whoever is playing them.
Multi-rolling – it’s all about games and keeping things fun and light and silly. That’s what we need. Yeah! You know, there’s no serious one-man plays in RaRaRa. We take something, we take a farce or we take a Shakespeare and we re-create it to make it into something playful and wonderful for a modern audience. So one thing I’m developing is Twelfth Night but with four people and we’re going to create the play based on the props that people give us on the day. So that’s something for next year, not for the moment as otherwise I’ll have too many things on my plate!
Are you quite confident with improvisation, as you mentioned there, or do you prefer to have an unchanging script to work from?
Yeah, I will admit that I get really nervous about improvisation but it’s because I overthink it. I didn’t really enjoy improv groups when I was at university. But all comedy totally relies on improvisation because if the audience don’t like it, you’ve got to change, got to do something else. If you’re doing clown and the audience don’t like it, if you’re in the flop, you’ve got to come up with a brand new idea, even if it’s the most stupid idea in the world, you’ve got to do something different. Ryan and I had to do something at ACMS and we were running out of time, so we had to completely improvise and do something else just to get an ending in. I think when you’ve got good trust with someone, you’ve got good complicité, you can improvise anything but it really depends on who you’re improvising with.
What creative process do you go through when it comes to writing content for a new show?
So, for example, with Barbarella, when I watched the film I thought ‘Right! I want to do a show about Barbarella, okay, so what do I need to do? I need to know everything about Barbarella. It’s kind of like writing, and I’m sure loads of other comics disagree with how they do it but, mine’s a bit like how I would write an essay. A dream essay. I do all the research around the subject until I know it inside out and then I start grabbing at different theories and ideas, you know, so I was watching a lot about Barbarella and it’s very sexy and I thought, ‘Aw!’ and it made me relate and in the news there was something to do with porn laws and censorship laws so I mixed, I connected those in. One of the characters in it is called Duran Duran and he’s really evil and reminded me of Putin. So I suddenly got loads of Putin stuff in there. There was space sharks in Barbarella so I talked a lot about sharks…
In Pelican, because it was all anecdotal, to do with my mum, the structure was actually relatively simple because I had all the material there from past experience.
So this show, it’s a slightly more relaxed format because I am just allowing myself to talk about whatever I want but as long as it stems from…as long as I go back to Ballet then it’s fine. So again, it’s the challenge thing, give yourself a little challenge and a task and then try and complete it but make sure there’s a beginning middle and end and thesis.
So you’re a performer, a writer and a director – but if you had to pick one to choose to do for the rest of your life, which one would you choose?
It would have to be performing! I mean, I have to be performing. I love directing but I would get to jealous, I would really want to get up on stage. It’s so difficult because in the arts there is so many beautiful wonderful things, like lighting design, I love sound design but there’s just something about performing because it all rests on you, especially when you’re doing solo, if it’s rubbish, it’s because you were rubbish, you know, if it was brilliant, if you had a great gig, it’s because suddenly something happened and you were really good or whatever. The pressure is on and it’s so high when it’s just you on stage and that’s what I really like about it. Sink or swim. Go hard or go home. It’s orgasmic, it’s just such a fantastic feeling.
Are you excited to visit Birmingham this week?
I am so excited because the last time I was in Birmingham it was to watch Fulham versus Chelsea in the semi-finals of the FA cup and we scored an own goal and it was terrible when I was about 8 years old and I was devastated. So I’m looking forward to coming back to Birmingham on happier happier ground.
Have you ever been heckled at one of your shows?
I hate heckles and I refuse to accept them being part of the theatrical experience of comedy because it’s just so horrible. I won’t repeat some of the heckles I’ve had, I’ve been very lucky, I haven’t had a huge number of heckles but I did do a comedy show where men where just shouting out the most horrific things and one guy shouted out ‘I’ll f**cking kill you, you posh b***h’ which I thought was a very aggressive reaction to what I believed to be a very funny joke about houmous which I then turned into a joke because afterwards it was the only way I could sort of deal with the horror of just how rude people were. But I’ve had really lovely audience reactions. My favourite gigs to do in terms of audience reactions are things like the Naked Cabaret where everybody is naked and because everyone’s naked, everybody’s so up for whatever you’re doing. You can get really immersive and do some really crazy stuff so at one gig I got everyone to carry me out. We did like a stage dive into an audience of 100 naked nudists.
Do you look up to or admire any other comics?
Oh there are so many comics! So many to choose from! At the moment the people who I get really excited about, really, um, I always want to use the word ‘aroused’ but it’s probably not what I mean. But you know, when I see them I go ‘Aw! That was good’. I really love Helen Duff, she’s quite, the only way I can describe her, she kind of reminds me of ‘I Love D**k’ by Chris Kraus but in stand-up form. She’s a crazy clown and she’s just done a show at Vault Festival and she blows my mind because she’s so bloody weird. She’s wonderful and everything that Spymonkey do gets me really excited, their theatre comedy, clown, I love their physicality. I’ve just done a comedy clown workshop with Aitor from Spymonkey and that was amazing.
I, er…goodness, there is so many to choose! Lots of comics on ACMS, John Luke Roberts is brilliant, he is just doing a show in Adelaide Fringe, he’s amazing. Um, God, there are so many! It’s okay, we can finish it there, otherwise you might get too overwhelmed! We can, I’m sorry, it’s like asking someone ‘What’s your favourite type of food?’ and all I can think is like ‘Bread! Baguettes! Chocolate! Oh, I don’t know I’m so confused!’ All of it, yeah, there is so much, there is so much.
What advice would you give someone wanting to do stand-up as a career?
Give it a go. Stick to 5 minutes and accept you’re going to be really crap at some point, like one day, you’ll be amazing and you’ll go ‘Oh my god, I smashed that gig!’, it might even be your first gig but then you’ll do your second gig and you will be so bad and that is fine. Just accept the block and go through with it. And don’t ever, if anyone of your friends make you feel really bad for doing it, just don’t invite them to your gigs because you don’t need that. And try not to make any jokes about Tinder. Just because we’ve all done it now.
But yeah, just give it a go, just go and have fun and if you’re crap, it’s fine and at least you did it.
Listen to the full interview here: