With his latest offering, Planet Mirth, Alan Committie steps onto the Theatre on the Bay stage with his 20th one-man comedy show. Although it is his quick witted one-man performances audiences ultimately enjoy as the final show product, behind the scenes, Committie is assisted by Director, Chris Weare, and Stage Manager, Progress Mphande. So, who better than the men who creatively support him in the staging of his shows to give one more insight into how the comedy of Committie has evolved, as he celebrates this milestone.
Mphande, as the Resident Stage Manager of Theatre on the Bay, has certainly paid his theatre dues to become a much-adored member of the industry. In Committie’s own words, “He is trademark THE BEST STAGE MANAGER EVER!”
This coming January sees Mphande celebrating 18 years as part of the Theatre on the Bay family. He started off as front of house, helping wherever he could, and then naturally progressed to the backstage, trying (and some would argue perfecting) his hand at setting up on stage. “At that time I worked under two stage managers (first Karen Faurer and then Theo Wallis)”, Mphande shares, “and after they left the Boss [Pieter Toerien] asked me if I could take over. So, I said, ‘Ok, I’ll give it a try, and I have been trying ever since’.” And how lucky for theatre lovers that he did, because that set him on the path to join forces with Committie.
Mphande reflects on the first time he met Committie, “It was November 2000 and Alan was rehearsing a farce called Bedside Manners, which was directed by Rex Garner. At the time, I just thought he’s one of the actors. Was he going to be successful or not? Well, he was funny in the farce, but I wasn’t sure if it was because of the part that he played or because he’s a funny guy naturally. Then a few months later he did The Clown Jewels, of which he first performed a smaller version upstairs [in the then Cabaret Café at Theatre on the Bay] before it came downstairs to the main theatre. That was the first one-man show I did with Alan. In that show, he did different characters and one of them was Mr Bean. I was a big fan of Mr Bean – I had a full Mr Bean collection on VHS and friends used to call me a weirdo. I was impressed and I thought, ‘Here is a comic who’s going to go far’, and ever since I’ve never been disappointed with Alan’s humour.”
Given that Mphande has since then been Committie’s stage manager on every one of his shows, it is also no surprise that they have formed quite a bond and mutual understanding of their approach to theatre.
“We have definitely grown together over the years. I know him and I know where he is going to go when he is on stage. With Alan, most of the time, you don’t follow the script – if you follow the script you are going to get lost. We have grown together in that sense that I know where he is and I know where the cue is going to go. There were times when we used to mark cues on an actual word, but it just never happened that way. So now, I go with a gut feeling, because we have that kind of relationship. I can read him and know, ‘Ok, now I have to go on this cue, he wants it now’.”
Maybe exactly because of that understanding, Mphande has – to the great delight of regular Theatre on the Bay patrons – found himself a part of some of Committie’s shows, while he is actually teching it. Surely, such fun and silliness must be part of the script or is that just part of the natural evolution of any Committie one-man show? “No, it is never planned”, Mphande explains, “he always makes it up as we go along and as we are doing the show in the teching time or preview week. Then he’ll just come up with this idea, ‘Oh, Progress, I want you to do this’. We’ll try it and if it works, it works. Funny enough, everything has worked so far.”
From lighting to sound cues, Mphande is a natural theatre man. He learnt everything on the job, and in fact has grown into his job, which is then also the reason he sees the tech booth as his sacred space. “I mean I have spent almost 16 years in the tech booth. Day in, and day out I am in there.” Though he jokingly admits that sometimes, only sometimes, he will allow the odd sound engineer in there with him for the sake of a show.
It is from that tech booth that he witnesses the magic of Alan Committie shows – shows that have audiences keeling over with laughter more often than not. Mphande honestly admits, “I am a human being, and sometimes Alan’s shows are just so funny I forget I’m running tech. I get so caught up in the moment to the extent that he will actually jokingly ask me for a cue, because for that moment I become an audience member.”
From that audience perspective, Mphande says his all-time favourite Committie show has to be Love Factually, although he also shares that, “even though Planet Mirth is technically quite tricky, apart from The Play That Goes Wrong where Alan was the director, the most challenging one was also Love Factually. I had to do the cues for the projector, I had to do lighting cues, I had to do sound cues, let alone control his microphone.”
Along with the tech challenges, there are also a lot of fond Committie one-man show theatre memories – there has been so many that Mphande can’t just think of one stand-out moment. Twisting his arm just a bit, he eventually shares that his favourite Committie shows as stage manager have been “Stressed to Kill and Bigger! Better! Faster!, those were my highlights when it comes to Alan doing his stand-up thing.” Taking the gap, and with a bit more prodding, why specifically those two?
Mpande instinctively responds, “I think it is because those didn’t even need any build-up, it was just like bang, bang, bang [comedy and laughs] straight away”. Even with that said, Mphande explains that when it comes to comedy, Committie always has great timing, “there is never dead air” in his shows. Not even when it comes to the audience participation parts. In fact, Mphande has never had to bridge an awkward gap with a sound cue in response to an uncooperative audience member. “We’ve just never had that moment. Yes, you’ll get some cases where people refuse and Alan will try to get them on stage. But if they keep refusing, he’ll just move on to the next person. There is always somebody who will oblige him, always.”
In Mpahnde’s very calm and collected manner – the creative tech yin to Committie’s yang – he takes the panic that can surround the get-in and tech running of a comedy show in his stride. Though, with Committie’s fondness to incorporate some tricks into his show, Mphande admits that his much-admired Mr Bean impersonator has done a good job at trying to rattle his legendary coolness.
“Especially with the one he did in Sound of Laughter, I was ‘Oh no Alan, I think you are taking it over the top’, because it was a dangerous act, but he had to do it and he cracked it. Though every time he started with the aerial act, I use to sit there going, ‘please let it just go well, please let nothing happen’, until the end of the run, because it was quite scary. I was praying every night.” However, although Committie always has a trick up his sleeve, whether that be an obvious one or not, with Planet Mirth at least, Mphande jests, he doesn’t need to have ER on speed dial for his own peace of mind.
Making it through stunts and tricks of that nature together then has also strengthen their creative bond. “The thing with Alan is, I respect him, because when he wants to do something, and sets his mind to it, he just does it.”
Elaborating on that respect and trust approach, Mphande shares that he also likes working with Weare as Committie’s director. “We get on well. Especially in preview weeks Chris will sometimes ask me, ‘Progress, what do you think of that?’, and I’ll say what I think works and doesn’t and give my reasons. And he’ll respond, ‘Ok, maybe let’s take it out then’, and Alan will go, ‘You guys were watching, you saw what was happening, so let’s make a decision’. Then we make a decision together. They include me as part of the whole thing and I actually appreciate it.”
From The Clown Jewels to Planet Mirth, Mphande says the growth he has witness in Committie and the difference in his comedy is huge, because he develops with every show. “Basically every stand-up or every show that Alan has done, he has grown and changed as a performer. With every show he does I go, ‘Wow, how did he manage to pull that one off?’ And with Planet Mirth, now again, he has basically just taken his performance level to a whole different place. Alan has done something completely different to what I was expecting. In comparison to all his other stand-up shows, this one is unique in the sense of him now doing a docucomedy.”
Even though this show may be packaged in a new way, taking the Committie comedy evolution even further, Mphande guarantees that supporters of his style of comedy will still find the type of laughs and giggles associated with the Committie-brand as established over the last 20 years. It is still the end of year tonic everyone looks forward to. “As Alan himself says in a lot of his shows, at this time of the year there is a lot of stress and you want to laugh. The best place to get that laugh is to go and see Alan Committie for some comedy. It’s going to make you happy and it’s a great stress relief.”
When prodded some more about what Planet Mirth has to offer, set design or just general comedy-feels wise, the tight-lipped Mphande merely reveals, “It is colourful, but you’ll have to come see for yourself to find out more”. So book your tickets at Computicket to experience Alan Committie as you have not seen him before in Planet Mirth at Theatre on the Bay until 13 January 2018.
In the soon to follow Part 2 of this Spotlight, Chris Weare gives some insight into Alan Committie’s comedy evolution from drama student to established performer, reflecting on their creative journey together.