Mark Thomas: 'Coolness is the enemy of comedy'

Mark Thomas: 'Coolness is the enemy of comedy'

credit: Lesley Martin

The comedian talks about his experience of the West Bank and how it has influenced his political work

After his life-changing experience of exploring and documenting the West Bank in 2009, Mark Thomas returned to help set up a comedy club in Jenin. He says that his new show is about people with an unbreakable spirit and wicked sense of humour.

When did the idea for Showtime from the Frontline first come about?
It came out of Walking the Wall in 2009 where I walked along the barrier built by Israel, which was fascinating and exciting, but also just eye-opening for me. I couldn't get it out of my head. The idea of what was happening there and the injustice of it all really grabbed me. I was then invited back by the beautiful people who run the Jerusalem Education Bookshop, and I was shocked that a lot of the people who I had walked the wall with had dropped away and weren't involved in the struggle any more or left the country. The mood felt very strange and a bit stuck so I had a day off and went up to Jenin and found the Jenin Freedom Theatre.

What does a theatre in the middle of a refugee camp say to you?
It speaks of our human aspiration and it defies prejudice and defies that Bob Geldof vision that refugees are just sitting around waiting for hand-outs. I spoke to the guy who ran it who was saying that he wanted people to rise up against the occupation but in a non-violent way and to respect human rights. True to his word, their first production was Animal Farm. I was captivated by their energy and commitment and I thought 'we have to do a comedy workshop here'. So after a long time of negotiations, I went out there with my mate Sam Beale who teaches a stand-up course at Middlesex Uni, and spent a month in the West Bank running these workshops to set up this comedy club.

What can you tell us about Faisal Abu Alhayjaa and Alaa Shehada the two performers who are joining you for the show?
The two guys are performers who have done the theatre course at the Jenin Freedom Theatre and they just happened to be the best performers who also had the best control of English. We also worked with people had never stepped on a stage before, but after two and a half weeks, they were up there doing a gig.

What did you teach them?
About writing and being silly, but mainly that it's about attitude and how you approach a subject. We said to people 'we don't want you being cool, we want you to be silly because coolness is the enemy of comedy'. We set up two lists on the wall, one in English and one in Arabic: there was a list of attitudes and a list of activities. The attitudes would be things like 'depressed', 'lustful', 'eager', 'obsequious', and on the other side it would 'milking a goat', 'brain surgery', 'telling a friend his mum's died'. We got them up and said 'take one from each list and show us something' and they lined up and it was like this amazing game. So you'd have a lazy brain surgeon or a lustful arrest or a depressed suicide-bomber milking a goat. It was huge fun.

You're collaborating again with Joe Douglas who directed The Red Shed. What does he bring to your work?
Joe came out to see the shows in Jenin and he's very funny and hugely talented. What he's great at is knowing when to instil order and he's brilliant at asking the right questions at the right time that get you moving and thinking and creating in the right way.

Just before the end of 2017 you had the last performance of Mark Thomas: A Show That Gambles on the Future. How do you feel when a long-running work comes to an end?
It's like Old Yeller, a very good film about a boy and his dog. I finish a show and I look at it and it looks at me and it has tears in its eyes but it knows that it's the end. I then take it outside and quietly find a pillow and a gun and pull the trigger. And then I don't look back.

Mark Thomas: Showtime from the Frontline is on tour until Saturday 21 April.

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