Last weekend I had the pleasure of speaking at the Communication Matters conference in Leicester. For those of you who don’t know, Communication Matters is an organisation committed to supporting people who find communication difficult because they have little or no clear speech. You can find out more at the Communication Matters website.
Not only did I have lots of fun at the conference and met some very nice and interesting people, I also performed a short set and took part in a question and answer session. As promised to those of you who couldn’t make it, a transcript of the Q&A’s is below…..
Tell us a bit about your background?
Well, I’m 31 years old and I’m from Newcastle in the north east. I studied journalism at university and I currently work in the media team at Sunderland City Council. I have also worked for the BBC and for a number of local newspapers in the north east.
In my spare time, I also do stand up comedy. I first started doing that in February of this year and it’s been going really well.
How did you end up not being able to speak?
I was very ill, when I was 6 months old and I developed cerebral palsy as a result. In my case, it meant that I lost my speech, I walk very funny and my right side of my body is weaker than my left.
Isn’t a career in journalism and stand up comedy a bit of a weird choice, for someone who can’t communicate very well?
Yes. Yes it is.
Are you going to elaborate on that?
I guess I just never saw my disability as something that could hold me back. I’ve always loved writing and being a journalist was the only career that I ever wanted to do. I was lucky that I had a great English teacher who taught me to follow my dreams. I’ll never forget how much he pushed me to achieve my best. Obviously I hated him for it at the time, but now I can appreciate what he did for me.
I knew that getting a job in journalism would be harder because of my disability. I didn’t see that as a reason not to try though. I guess I just had my heart set on it.
I was lucky to have very supportive family and friends too. I wouldn’t be here today if it wasn’t for them. They never stopped me from doing what I wanted and were always the first to help out.
Like I said, I never saw my disability as a barrier to doing anything. I was always going to be a journalist, I was always going to go to university, and I was always going to be independent. My disability is a big part of me, but I’ve never let it rule my life.
Some people would say that’s brave or courageous but I don’t believe it is and I hate being called that. There’s plenty of people who deserve to called brave more than me. I’m just a guy trying to get on with his life.
As for why I decided to try stand up comedy, I guess I’m just a bit mental.
What made you decide to do stand up comedy?
I’ve always been a big fan of comedy and I love going to watch stand up comedy myself. I’d always said that, if I could talk, that would probably be my dream job. I never expected to do it though. I just didn’t think it was possible.
Then, some friends said that it might work and that I should try it. I thought they were crazy at first but the idea stuck in the back of my mind. Eventually I decided to give it a try because I knew I’d regret it if I didn’t. It seems like I was right.
Even after agreeing to do it, I was worried that it wouldn’t work. I was scared that people wouldn’t be able to understand me and I’d just be standing there telling jokes to myself. I was worried it wouldn’t work from a technology point of view either.
Once my first gig was out of the way though, I was much more confident about it all.
Obviously it must be harder doing stand up comedy with a communication aid. what problems do you face?
The main problem is trying to get it to say things correctly. For example, it can’t say iPad, so I have to spell it a different way. I also have to put random punctuation in the middle of sentences so that it breaks it up and makes it easier to understand.
So, once I write my material, I usually have to go through it again and check that it sounds OK. There has been times when I have had to change my jokes just because it doesn’t sound right.
The sound can be a bit of a nightmare as well. I have to sound check before every gig. sometimes it is fine, but other times it is not the best. Then I have to mess about with it until it sounds OK. I’ve learnt a lot about how all these wires work in the past couple of months.
Would you say the communication aid affects timing and how do you structure your material to counter this?
Definitely. It was one of my main concerns when I first started doing stand up and it is still something I have to think a lot about. It’s slightly harder for me to stop in the middle of a joke and allow laughter. It’s trial and error really. If I know a laugh is coming, I can get ready to pause it. Every audience is different though. Sometimes I put random punctuation in a joke so that there’s time for people to laugh too. It’s just a case of knowing how to use things to your advantage. I’d like to think I’m getting better at it.
How do you go about preparing and delivering your sets? How much of the material is entered ahead of the performance and to what extent are you able to react and respond to things that the audience might say or do?
I write the material beforehand and copy and paste them into the iPad. Then I just press the jokes I want it to tell during the gig. Obviously this is pretty limited in terms of audience interaction, but I’d like to try to do more of this in the future. It just depends on how fast I can type! I have got some come backs stored just in case I get heckled.
So, are you selective when trying out new material because of how long it takes to get it right?
Not really, no. It may take a bit longer for me, but I don’t think it’s that much more effort than for anyone else. You still have to go through the same process when you are trying out new material. It’s just that I have to do it in a slightly different way. If an idea is good enough, it is worth trying out regardless.
What are the main things that inform your material, in terms of subject matter and specific topics? How would you describe the humour of a typical Lost Voice Guy show?
My humour is very dark and twisted I would say. I am influenced a lot by comedians such as Ross Noble and The League Of Gentlemen, which explains a lot.
I mostly concentrate on my disability and the funny side of it. I enjoy taking the piss out of myself. I realise that this may make some people feel awkward, but I think that helps me. Because I base it on myself, I think I get away with it more. When people realise this they tend to come on side.
How do audiences react when they realise you use a communication aid?
I think it varies really. A bit like it does in real life. Sometimes you can hear the gasp come from the audience when I walk on to the stage. I think that helps though, because they don’t know what to expect. So when I hopefully make them laugh, I think they enjoy it more.
It can’t get any worse than in real life, when people think I’m deaf as well, and insist on writing everything down. Or just start shouting at me for no reason.
By getting up on stage, I’d like to think that I’m educating people that disabled people are just the same as everyone else. I honestly believe that some people think that disabled people aren’t allowed a sense of humour. Obviously I don’t really care what they think, but if it helps change someone’s view then it must be a good thing.
Have you given much thought to having a custom made voice to do various tones or emphasis on words to enhance your act?
I’d love to have a voice that isn’t as posh as this one. Although I think it makes it funnier. I’ve thought about having a Geordie accent, but I’m not sure if I would like it or not. I’ve sounded similar to this all my life, so it would sound weird I think. I’m also not sure if it’s even possible at the moment.
I definitely want to use different tones and stuff in the future. I just think I can’t express myself properly by only using this voice. It’s very hard to sound excited or sarcastic, for example. I guess it all depends on what the technology has in store for us.
Have you got a back up plan for when the technology fails?
I currently have my material stored on two iPads and my iPhone. If Apple would like to give me a shiny new iPad though, they’re welcome to get in touch! I also have my material stored online in case I ever lose it. I also have some emergency jokes just in case my iPad ever decides to play up while I’m on stage. This has happened a few times. It’s awkward at first but I think the jokes help break the tension when I finally get it to work again.
How does the iPad compare to your very first communication aid?
It’s certainly a lot smaller for a start. I think I got my first communication aid when I was about eight. Before that, I just used sign language. Obviously, this was a very limited way of communicating though.
I think my first communication aid was called a touch talker and it was pretty massive. I also remember being reluctant to use it. I can’t quite remember why. I just remember always giving my speech therapist a hard time. I apologise to you all now. All I can remember is having to carry this suit case around with me and then having to try to use it as well.
I appreciated my speech therapist in the end. I think I only saw the benefits when I finally had a reason to use it. Such as in social situations when I couldn’t just rely on sign language.
Thankfully, technology has moved on since then. Now I use a Lightwriter for day to day communication. It’s a brilliant device and it’s made me so much more independent. I especially like the fact that it has two screens, so that other people can read it if they need to.
The voices have got better as well. I dread to think what the voice on the touch talker was like. if I’m honest, I didn’t really like this voice at first. I think I had got used to the old voice on the Lightwriter. I think I’m getting more used to it now though.
What do you look for in a communication device?
If I’m honest, the Lightwriter has just about everything I need, and I’m not just saying that because I am here. I’m not looking for anything fancy. As long as I can communicate effectively then I am happy.
I especially like the fact that it has two screens, that makes it a lot easier in certain situations. I like how portable it is too. Although, I am still using quite an old carry case because I haven’t found anything better recently.
The speech on it is good too. It is pretty clear and understandable. It would be nice to make it more personal, but maybe one day that will happen. It also seems to survive all the times I have dropped it by accident, which is handy as well!
What feature would you like to see in a communication device?
As I have said, I’d love it if I could be able to express myself more. At the moment, it’s pretty hard to try to sound excited or sarcastic with the current range of voices. I’d like to be able to explore tone of voice more. This would be especially useful in my comedy routine.
I’d also like to have something a bit smaller so that I could carry it around easier. As I don’t want to compromise on the quality of the speech though, I realise that this is probably a bit unrealistic.
Would you have still done stand up comedy if you hadn’t lost your voice?
I like to think that I would have tried it, yes. I think not being able to speak, has given me an advantage because I’m a pretty unique act. So, I don’t think I would have done as well as quickly. My disability has certainly got me more coverage than I would have. Let’s hope they never find a cure for me!
Was there any aspect of the recent Olympics in which more people like you could have been involved?
Well, I wouldn’t have minded Stephen Hawking’s job at the Opening Ceremony. Seriously though, that’s quite a tough one to answer. I think that I would have liked to have seen more of a presence on television in general. but I’m not sure how they could have fitted in with the actual Olympics.