Apt613: Describe your performance in five words.
“FrenetickinetictouretticBritishJewishstorytellingstandupmonologueofabouttriumphsoffailureandselfschadenfreude.” I think it’s German.
For those of us now intrigued… What’s Attention Seeker about, briefly?
It’s supposed to be about what happened when I finally got pushed into actually pursuing my lifelong secret ambition to be a comedian, despite crippling shyness, anxiety and 3rd rate jokes, after getting tired of watching the guy I wrote 1st rate jokes for become a big star in the UK and then everywhere else. The rest is history, as they say, except history is normally written by winners. In this sense, it’s a comedy about a tragedy about Comedy.
Except it’s really about something else entirely. I’d rather not say what that is because I want people to know as little as possible when they come into the room, however the clue is in the title, the performance, the structure and substance of every story in the show, so it should be obvious enough.
In this sense, it’s a comedy about a tragedy about Comedy.
I saw you perform A Tension To Detail at the 2016 Ottawa Fringe Festival. I thought the show was a fantastic conundrum… Your words, “never trust the teller, trust the tale,” are ringing in my ears.
To this day, I can’t tell if the stories you tell are at all true – yet you’re a perfectly believable storyteller. Gerard, would you describe yourself as a trustworthy fellow?
Thank you, that’s quite a compliment, as well as the perfect sweetener for such a very difficult question. That show was written as an answer to the question I often have when people tell me stories: “Is that really true?” Briefly, my conclusion is that humans are confabulators. We choose what aspects of reality to acknowledge and what bits to ignore on a moment by moment basis, most often to fit the sets of personal or shared, self-constructed or inherited narratives in our heads. They may not accord with reality but they have just enough internal logic to keep us protected from our deepest fear: we might be making it all up. So the stories I tell are true in so far as I did experience what I say I did and I’m reporting back as faithfully as I can, but since it’s impossible to tell a true story, which is to say the full story, I want people to know that they’re made up too. Attention Seeker takes this a step further by telling one big story (and a bunch of smaller ones) in which I certainly thought I knew what was going on, until one day…
I hope I am trustworthy. I’m very good at keeping other people’s secrets although I’m incapable of holding onto my own, which is why I do this stupid job. I grew up in a family and culture where everyone was more interested in winning an argument than ever actually being right, so I have been on a transparency kick for a long time as a necessary corrective to those patterns of behaviour. In my youth I spent far too much energy avoiding ever being proven wrong about anything but now I like it because then I’ve learned something.
I hope I am trustworthy. I’m very good at keeping other people’s secrets although I’m incapable of holding onto my own, which is why I do this stupid job.
It’s your second consecutive year performing at the Ottawa Fringe Festival – which for a touring artist is remarkable, seeing as the Fringe lineup gets pulled from a hat. What’s the luckiest thing that’s ever happened to you?
Being born. The odds are about 1 in 102,685,000. That said, it’s also the unluckiest thing that’s ever happened to me (see Attention Seeker for more details).
In 2016 you were one lucky winner of the Fringe lottery, and got to perform in a brand new venue, La Nouvelle Scène. However, this year you’re performing at a BYOV. (Which, for the uninitiated, is a bit like an unofficial DIY venue.) What’s drawing you to Ottawa? Does something about the festival or our city appeal to you?
Ottawa was very good to me last year. I still don’t know why, it’s not like I’m a big name on the Fringe circuit or anywhere else but people responded and I’m very grateful for it. Maybe it’s because this is the seat of government, so everyone is tired of the ‘official story’ and the gulf between public and private personae, so they like it when they hear someone say “I don’t know” and “I was wrong”. I also think much credit goes to Patrick [Gauthier] and the whole team – particularly the publicity department last year – who were very supportive throughout the festival.
How different was your life a year ago?
I had more savings.
What lie do you tell most often?
Who is the best Canadian storyteller on the Fringe circuit?
What’s your idea of a dream venue?
Any room that’s located in the middle of the middle of the middle of the action. It’s a sad fact that a lot of audiences in a lot of cities aren’t willing to leave the hub for a venue that’s a bit of a walk or a bus ride away. It hurts financially and in other ways when you work so hard to promote your show and nobody comes because it’s a bit of a schlep. By the way, LIVE! On Elgin is up by City Hall, a 9 minute bus ride on the 5 or the 14 from Arts Court.
I don’t know the technical terms but I like the amphitheatre style where I’m down on the floor beneath an audience who are surrounding me on 3 sides. There’s more chance for me to make a connection with people when I’m on the same level or below them – make of that what you will. I mean it’s almost as if I feel like a permanent outsider who needs to prove my worth to the mass of insiders, sitting there ready to cast a Caesarean thumbs-down at any moment. Again, see Attention Seeker to understand just how deep this goes. So in answer to your question, my ideal venue is a cross between the Colosseum in Rome and Bentham’s Panopticon, except with a Green Room and a bar rather than a dungeon and bars.
— apt613 (@apt613) June 9, 2017
What types of audience reactions or post-show conversations are you hoping to get after Attention Seeker?
I love chatting with audiences after the show and it’s always gratifying when people come up afterwards and say “I got a story like that.” With Attention Seeker the main story is so unusual that nobody is likely to have had a similar experience – but regarding what the show’s really about, the number one response I get is “Do you think…maybe…am I…?” What I’m really hoping for is “You look like you are struggling with organisation / finances / marketing / life skills / mental health / physical pain. I’m an expert in that. How can I help?”
Anything else you want audiences to know about the show?
The second luckiest thing that’s ever happened to me is someone in the US liking the show so much that he’s booked me to do an Off-Broadway run in December, so see it now before nobody in New York sees it.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Gerard Harris: Attention Seeker plays at Live! On Elgin (220 Elgin St) until Sunday June 18, 2017. Tickets cost $12 online and at the door. Visit ottawafringe.com for the show schedule and box office info. Read reviews at apt613.ca/fringe.