Returning for a season at the Basement Theatre in September, Eamonn Marra’s Respite finds laughter and sadness through literary influence.
Eamonn Marra’s comedic monologue Respite is superb. Charting the dark story of his time in respite care in a hilarious and self-effacing way, Marra has real skill in shifting tone, capturing the ridiculous in the dark, and the dark in the ridiculous. His show has a literary quality to it: allusions, repetitions, and homages are key structuring parts of the narrative. But it’s his use of empathy to garner real laughs with a real emotional hit that marks him as one of New Zealand’s most exciting comedians.
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BRANNAVAN GNANALINGAM: Why comedy?
EAMONN MARRA: I never really wanted to. I never made a decision to do comedy. Years ago I used to do poetry slams and write a lot of poetry. One of them was organised by the Humorous Arts Trust, who do the Raw Meat Mondays shows as well. From that I decided I’d give comedy a go; I did a couple of open mics and got asked to do a couple of shows. That’s how it started. For the first year and a half doing comedy, I insisted I didn’t really want to do comedy—it was just something I was doing at the moment. But since it went well, I’ve enjoyed it and it’s therapeutic in a way. I’ve kept doing it and doing it more seriously.
BG: Would you say you’ve been more influenced by literary influences than comedy?
EM: Yeah, I’m such a bad comedian because I don’t actually watch heaps of comedy. So many comedians got excited when Bill Burr came and I had no idea who he was. Of course, I know the big names, but I think I’m more influenced by reading than seeing live comedy.
BG: Respite feels more like a literary piece.
EM: Respite was originally a short story that I wrote for an IIML writing course. It has been workshopped as a short story and was workshopped as a comedy piece after that.
BG: Was there much of a difference from how it reads to how it has been performed?
EM: The whole beginning was just for the comedy show. The short story started in the respite centre. The comedy show had the earthquake stuff. It was quite different. The first time I did Respite at last year’s Fringe Festival, I didn’t do any theatrical stuff. I just read out what I had written down.
BG: In your mind, had it changed at all with the addition of the extra stories?
EM: I think it’s quite different to what it was. It’s a lot more performed than it was last time. I think that element added something.
BG: It still comes together.
EM: It’s still a pretty good story. But often what happens with my stories, I end up picking out parts of them and turning them into comedy. I steal my own work because I don’t have enough creative energy to do both of these things.
BG: Your comedy plays on empathy, far more so than most traditional, macho stand-up comedy.
EM: I’m not really into blokey comedy stuff. There are a whole bunch of tropes in comedy that I don’t care about. I think I’ve become more open to them since doing comedy. I was probably much more anti-them a couple of years ago. I’m not interested in doing that myself.
BG: Given the personal nature of your work, do you worry that your audience won’t go with you, as opposed to the comedian whose things are broad enough to embrace. Do you view it as a challenge to get the audience on your side?
EM: It isn’t so much as a challenge, it’s a necessity. With my comedy—even my show from last year, which is more of a stand-up show—if the audience aren’t on-side with me it just wouldn’t work at all. I never set out to do it like that. It’s just the stuff I’ve written ends up having to do that. I need to be likeable for my comedy to work at all.
BG: The thing that’s great about your comedy is the tonal shifts—you go from a really open outpouring, and then you undercut it with a humorous aside. You’re constantly shifting between the two.
EM: I like silly throwaway humour as well as deep stuff. I try to work in a poo joke into every comedy show I’ve done. Some of these things are normally really dark. But when you go through them, it’s not just dark. You do find funny things, and things that are ridiculous.
BG: Some of the best dark political matter can be very funny.
EM: I also find things funny that most audiences wouldn’t find funny. I was talking the other day about two books that are really, really funny—The Bell-Jar and Revolutionary Road. Both of them are dark, but also have funny moments in them. It doesn’t take away that they’re dark and serious. It’s nice to remember that they’re pretty funny as well.
BG: I suppose in your shows it can lead to moments when people laugh when no one else is laughing.
EM: Yeah, that definitely seemed to happen throughout the show. Someone would laugh two or three beats before where I thought the joke was, and laughter would spread. It’s not the same in more traditional comedy when you’ve got a joke and the audience would laugh at the same time. It can be off-putting, not that people are laughing, but that you don’t get the same rip-roaring laughs that you do at other times. I’ve never been an actor, and laughing is how I know the show is going well. And if people aren’t laughing for a period, I often think that I have to rush through the bits that aren’t really funny. Bits that are really important to the story. When rehearsing, I had to slow down.
BG: Compared to your last show [Man on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, which was more ‘traditional’ comedy] at the Comedy Festival, did you approach them in different ways?
EM: Yeah, this show was a story that turned into a show. Last year was about 75% of what I’d done in various five minute shows, which I pieced together to put a narrative through it. It’s very different putting it together.
BG: Do you prefer one or the other?
EM: Not really. I like the story thing. At the end of last year, I was feeling like my comedy was restricting me from doing this kind of thing. That’s why I put this show in the Comedy Festival and put a few more scenes that were stories. As long as I’ve got a balance, I’m happy.
BG: There’s also real humour in the literary techniques and structure.
EM: I started reading a lot four or five years ago, and have read a lot since then. That’s been a huge influence on my comedy. I think some of my biggest influences in comedy would be Miranda July, Grace Paley, or Sherman Alexie, who do really funny writing, but it’s writing.
BG: What influence did Catcher in the Rye have on Respite?
EM: The original story didn’t have the Catcher in the Rye part, and I didn’t actually read Catcher in the Rye when I was in the respite centre. I read it a year before that. But I wanted to work out which books I’d read that seemed to influence me in terms of my mental health and the ways I thought about the world. Catcher in the Rye wasn’t as big an influence on me as it could have been. I wish I had read it when I was a teenager. It was just one of those things that everyone knows, and everyone knows the idea behind them, and use that to get them to think how I am.
BG: My Bloody Valentine also played an important part.
EM: Music had been such an important influence in my life. That’s where I got into performing and the arts. When I was 15 I started going to all-ages gigs in Christchurch. That’s where I made all of my friends. Especially before I left Christchurch, I was going to gigs four nights a week. Everything that I had was influenced through that. Music will always be the biggest influence on me as a person or as a character.
BG: Was there anything about Loveless [the show opens with Loveless]?
EM: That bit was true. I did listen to Loveless when I was walking home and getting mugged by those people. It’s a typical, well-known album that leads you to alternative music. I first listened to it when I was 16. I saw them in Australia a couple of years ago which was really cool, but they didn’t play that well.
BG: Tonally, like your show, they have something that’s really beautiful but also hidden.
EM: It’s sad and dark, and it’s also a style of music that is such an apt metaphor for anxiety. There’s so much happening, hitting you at once. It’s confusing and swirly and really intense. I don’t think there was anything specific about that album. I could have used any other album, but that was the one I was listening to at the time.
BG: Is it a difficult show to put on. Is it cathartic?
EM: It was. Performing it wasn’t so bad, but there were a few times when I was rehearsing it that I got really emotional. I rehearsed it much more than any other show. I had Alice [May Connolly] directing me and we had to rehearse to get it working. It’s important that we rehearsed it. Otherwise I could have choked up on stage. It was painful, but not in really a bad way… relieving. It has been four years since then so it’s been quite a long time and I think I’ve changed a lot as a person since then. I’m not sure if it’s me narrativising my life, but it seems like a very pivotal moment in my life when I changed direction.
BG: How important was it having a director?
EM: It was really good. Alice paid attention to things I never think about as a performer, things I enjoy when I see a show. How I move on stage. She made decisions and got me to think about things I normally wouldn’t which made the show so much better.
BG: Is that usual in comedy?
EM: I think it’s becoming more common. I think some other people have been working with directors. In the Fringe Festival, James Nokise had a show called Rukahu, which Jo Randerson directed, and she also directed Chris Parker’s No More Dancing in the Good Room. Both of those shows were more directed than my one. The most important thing that Alice did was making me rehearse, and give an eye to what I’m doing and what I’m saying.
BG: What’s your plan next?
EM: I’m not really sure. I’ve got some plans for some shows for next year, but I’m not sure I’m going to do them both. It’s quite a lot of work in such a short space of time. I probably will. One of them is a story type of show like Respite, which is about my early teenage years. and the other one is another comedy show.
BG: With Respite, could you keep doing it?
EM: That was one of the plans for the season where I could I get into a shape that I could take it to other Fringe Festivals or Comedy Festivals. I think it’s a good show and it’s a good thing that it’s set in 2011. That’ll never change. The show I did last year, I don’t know if I could do it again, as it was set in 2015. Some things were specific about that time, but since it’s already not relevant to my life, I can take it around and do it again and it’s not going to change.