Making a pole dancing comedy show has felt like the scene in Wallace & Gromit: The Wrong Trousers where Gromit is frantically laying down train tracks just as the train is about to run on them. The pole dancing industry is very new, and combining it with stand-up is even newer, so I’ve been figuring out every practical step in real time. That’s a whole job in itself, alongside actually writing, rehearsing and gigging the material. I can’t overemphasise how much of my time is spent working out the logistics of getting 100kg of stage pole equipment to e.g. a comedy festival in Wales or, in a moment of madness, to the Museum of Comedy to do a five.
One day I’ll write you a thrilling, sexy memoir about the exact ceiling height of every venue in the UK. In the meantime, here’s some thoughts on my two year pole dancing comedy experiment – from the original Work In Pole-Gress at Camden People’s Theatre’s Festival of Feminism to my show Pole Yourself Together! at the Edinburgh Fringe.
I’m really happy with how Pole Yourself Together! went in Edinburgh – both as a show, and an ongoing existential mission to improve my life with pole dancing. I chose the title Pole Yourself Together! in the same way the musician Rebecca Lucy Taylor rebranded herself as Self Esteem: it’s an internal, transformative process as well as an art project. Like I say truthfully in the show introduction, I’ve been making a sincere attempt to get better at managing my debilitating mental, emotional and existential dread by learning to pole dance. Pole was a safehaven that calmed me down and built me back up when other parts of my life toppled down around me, so I decided to see if I could expand that by putting pole at the centre of my work as a writer-performer. And the results have been:
It’s always a risk to take something you love and expose it to the brutal rejections, financial considerations and sheer grind of making it into your work. Inevitably there’s points where it becomes another chore, which has happened to every writer and/or performer I know – whether their medium is stand-up, literature, music, cartoons or whatever. Especially while you’re working other jobs to pay bills and pouring what’s left of yourself into making art. But I’m glad I’ve tried, because the point of an experiment is you find lots of things that don’t work, as well as the things that do.
The overall aim has been to combine the best of comedy with the best of pole dancing, for the practicalities as well as the actual material. I think comedy could benefit from the financial transparency, collaborative ethos and sustainable business practices of pole world; conversely, the rigid structures of e.g. pole competitions could loosen up by employing the stagecraft, general clown vibes and not-taking-everything-so-seriously attitude of comedy. But over the last two years I’ve definitely smashed many times into the worst of both pole dancing and stand-up: I kept getting stuck in a clash between the expensive overheads and physical difficulty of pole dancing, plus the bad pay, high creep factor and Wild West organisation of live comedy.
I got to talk about this in a podcast with the brilliant Alice Fraser where I explained I think there’s an underlying gender factor to the clash of these admin headaches. Pole dancing comes from stripping so, the DNA of this medium is women with dependents: which creates a different financial, practical and social environment to comedy which, for a long time, has been shaped by chaotic men with a wife at home to do all their life admin. Have a listen – I love all of Alice’s stand-up shows which are available for free, and really enjoyed getting her hot take on how you navigate all these things to build a sustainable creative career.
Another good thing I’ve found out this year is: it’s not just me doing this, and everyone’s doing it differently. I met the Scottish stand-up comic Jay Lafferty in Edinburgh this year who decided to learn pole dancing after turning forty, and wrote a great show about it. Jay reminded me of so many things I love about pole dancing, especially how it flips social norms around ageism and misogyny.
Even though my rose-tinted glasses are flying off the deeper I get into the actual pole industry, I honestly still think pole dancing is so radical and transformative. I’m in awe of what pole artists are doing with this to make ripples of social change: e.g. Cutie Whippingham who’s shaken up the industry by putting Global Majority artists at the centre with her project Blackstage and successfully demanded well-paid work for everyone; my friend Arlene Caffrey who built a business around helping people get past their self-limiting beliefs; and the powerhouse Keri Gold who started pole dancing aged 47, and now at 54 has a brand new career performing, choreographing and teaching pole dance internationally.
While on my soapbox I would happily go off on one about about how pole brings to life many of the things that would transform society to put women’s joy at the heart of it, namely: financial freedom, better sex, and more fun! But in the meantime, I’ve made a podcast.
So, that’s where I’m at. I’m not completely finished with Pole Yourself Together! and I’ve really enjoyed putting pole back into the “hobbies” box of my life for a bit while I focus more on writing. But the next thing I’d really like to make is a pole dancing show about capitalism. Pole dancing is I think the best way to tell the story of capitalism because it comes from sex work, and sex work exposes where capitalism fails – it shows very clearly how the history of capitalism is the history of making women do loads of stuff for free.
Practically this would take at least two or three years to develop, and I’d need to figure out a way to finance it (yes I can see the irony of needing money to make a show about why capitalism is bad. Art!) So don’t expect it anytime soon but please as always keep an eye on my socials, and especially on my Patreon for how to help me make it.
That’s it, I hope you’re all having a nice Autumn. Highlights of the last few weeks for me have all been time spent enjoying nice hot things, veggie cooking and depressing live music with my friends and loves. If you’re going to the ceasefire demos I hope you all stay safe out there. Big love!