A Festival Of Fools

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The last time I performed at the Festival Of Fools in Belfast was in 2007. Back, then, by popular demand.

The magical thing about street performing, as I've mentioned before, is the way it unifies people. Nobody buys a ticket to see a street show ahead of time. It doesn't rely on booking celebrities, or how much your PR budget is. It's much simpler and more pure than that. For 45 minutes, there's someone doing something fun and exciting in the middle of town, and if you want to watch - no matter who you are, how much you're worth, what your opinions, religion, ethnicity, gender identity, sexuality or hat size is – you can. For a little while, everyone can be unified in watching an idiot like me do cool tricks and make dumb jokes. I love it for that, and of course, for a city like Belfast, with a history of pain built on the shaky foundations of clashing beliefs, something as simple as a busking festival that is for everyone, becomes all the more beautiful, profound and powerful. And fun.

The first morning's hotel buffet breakfast is spent catching up with old friends and making new ones. Fellow members of the secret society, whom I last spent time with in a selection of green rooms scattered across the world. Grizzled vets and keen young upstarts. Friendly ribbing and genuine hugs. Like an extended family coming together for a wedding, but with marginally less arguments and secret resentment.

We take a walk around the town to scout out the pitches. After a while, buskers develop the 6th sense of being able to walk down any high street and be able to see – matrix-like – where the pitch should go, where the people will walk, where they'll stop, any potential problems, street furniture that might be fun to play with etc.. As we wander around making mental notes, I realise that, perhaps, when I was here last, I didn't really appreciate how gorgeous this city is. Huge piles of handsome smooth stone from a dozen or so decades back sit dominating the corners of wide streets, spilling their weather-beaten sets of sharp steps out onto the pavement. The architectural equivalent of a stocky old geezer in a tweed suit who could still handle himself in a pub fight.

And of the less handsome buildings – every other one is tattooed with enormous, beautiful murals. Some subtly corporate sponsored, others perhaps less legal, but no less wonderful. Too many to catalogue. Look down a side street in the cathedral quarter and glimpse four-story high faces staring back at you. It's all rather splendid.

The first day of shows start. It was windy when I was here ten years ago, and its still bloody windy. And just like when I get booked to perform in a venue with a low ceiling, I love the challenge. The gusts blow my tablecloth almost off my table several times, and sends me vase of flowers clattering to the cobblestones so often I have to enlist a tiny little girl to pick it up and put it back whenever it happens. I also ask her to go get me a large latte with just a touch of cinnamon, and to get a receipt, but no dice. I love working in conditions like this, although I'd never let the audience know it. Finding yourself in a battle with the elements, shaking your fist at the sky in anger never fails to be funny. Problems, as they saying goes, are, to a clown, gifts. The art is in overcoming them just at the point when the audience think you never will.

Kids crowd me after each show, their flat and beautiful Belfast accents professing “You were really funny” with just a hint of considered surprise – because – to be fair – they've never heard of me, and TV has told them that if I was good, surely they would have. They thrust the festival guide into my hand, turned to my page, along with their mums pen, for me to sign. “Can you put that its your birthday?” one little ginger headed moppet requests. “How did you know it's my birthday?”, I ask. “My friend told me...”, and apparently everyone knows, and the guide-signing turns into an odd kind of reverse birthday card ritual. It's hilarious and lovely. More so, when, during my last show of that day, one of my fellow bukserados crashes my show and leads the audience in singing happy birthday to me. Dawwwww, you guys.

The thing about a three-day festival is that it's over to quick. The first day, you're finding your feet, warming up, getting the lay of the pitches and crowd. The second day, you're off and running, and then by the third day, it's all over and you're packing to go on to the next thing. But at least there's an end of festival party. Conversations with a wild-eyed and fantastic clown who talks of transmutation of energy and not being at all scared of death. Chats with variety legends about the difference between inspiration and theft, over the single malt that he bought you, drank from plastic hotel room tumblers. Overcaffeinated profundities and manifestos agreed upon. Anxieties shared. Love reaffirmed.

I'm at the point in my life now where I'm adjusted enough to know, and value, these times without becoming as doom-laden about the reality of them being finite, as I used to. I'm a lucky boy, and as I get older, I start to be better at enjoying the lucky work life I lead, rather than being obsessed with its temporary fragility. I'm learning, slowly, to “be here now”. And what a delightful now that was.

 

QUICK PLUG: MAT RICARDO'S LONDON VARIETIES SEASON THREE RETURNS IN SEPTEMBER FOR A RUN OF (STRICTLY) THREE MONTHLY SHOWS.

No guests will be announced ahead of time, but if you've been before, you know the kind of treats you're in for! They're going to be really fun, intimate, special shows, with surprises, and lots of new material from me, and they WILL sell out - so BOOK NOW BY CLICKING HERE!

My latest chortle column is about performing for people you don't like

This months column for Chortle has just gone live. it's about the puzzling phenomena of having to perform for people you don't like. Something, I'd guess, every performer has questioned themselves about at one time or another. Are we just being whingey creatives, and should we just shut up and do our job, or is there something more complicated going on here?

hope you enjoy it - if you do, Chortle lets you leave cmoments, so that'd be peachy :)

You can read it here

Maria's

I washed up at Covent Garden on a Wednesday, in the late 80's. It was, at the same time, the last resort of my illogical and feverish performing fantasies, and the absolute best possible thing I could have done.

My first show – the “try out”, as they used to call it – was at 11am, and somehow, probably due to the brute force that youthful enthusiasm fuels in someone who doesn't know any better, I got a small crowd and made £16. And that was it. The day before I was a directionless teenager, but now I was a street performer, and I always would be. I'd found the thing that I could do just well enough to know that I could get a lot better if I put in the hours. And months. And years.

The buskers would arrive early each morning and divvy up the shows, and then most of us would go to Maria's cafe, just around the corner in Henrietta street, for long carb-loaded breakfasts. For the next couple of decades, I always looked forward to those breakfasts, even when I wasn't looking forward to anything else about my work day. For two hours every morning, in that cosy, poky little unofficial buskers green room, I received my lessons. Oh sure, the field tests were carried out around the corner, on the cobblestones, in front of strangers, but the theory study was held in Maria's, with friends, over eggs, chips and beans.

I had arrived at Covent Garden a shy, fairly reclusive teenager, full of pretended piss and vinegar and with a skin tissue-thin, who still lived with his parents. But breakfast by breakfast, I learned about my new found job, and learned how to live my new found life.

Sat in clattery chairs around formica tables, surrounded by my peers, strangers and heroes, I learned how to make a joke, and – eventually - how to take one. I learned how to be in a group – that was new for me. I took criticism, ridicule, encouragement and praise. By the time I stopped being a regular I had, in every sense, grown up. Its no exaggeration to say that I gained much of my social and artistic education in that quarter mile of central London, and Maria's cafe, along with the Piazza itself, was at the centre of my world.

For years, it hadn't even been called Maria's. She sold up and moved away a while ago, and the new owners changed the name to “Masters Diner”, but for me and my gang from that era, it'll always be Maria's. Every greasy spoon needs a mama-san, and Maria was perfect. Welcoming you in from the cold with a cheery, and heavily Italian-accented “'Allo darlin', sit down sit down!”, knowing your usual, and asking when you're going to bring back that nice red-head girl you've been hanging out with.

These places are vanishing, and it feels like an authentic version of London is vanishing with them. All my favourite London cafes, slowly fading away, one by one, as rents increase to the oligarch-only level, and whole blocks get forcefully redeveloped out of their souls, thanks to some crooked backhander in another postcode. The beautiful, exciting, higgeldy-piggeldy texture of city streets gets painted over with a dull tessellation of franchise logos. The spectacular Piccadilly Cafe in Soho. Diana's Diner in Covent Garden. The Stockpot. The Court Cafe in SE1. And now Maria's. All gone.

What I'd give for one more long breakfast with the buskers in the toasty warm Maria's on a chilly morning. Two hours or so of teasing, bragging, laughing and bullshitting. Paddy and Adrian half-reading the papers and telling us facts and opinions. Rob losing his temper half for comedy and half genuinely. Dave and me arguing over the ingredients of the perfect fried breakfast. Shandy talking about retiring next year. Vinny zinging people, loudly, and effectively. Alex really not enjoying having to be up so early, even though he's been doing it longer than any of us. A secret society.

The people sat around those tables have gone their separate ways. Some still busk, some work elsewhere, some found other callings, and more than a couple are no longer with us. Many, though, I'll be friends with for life. Bonded through busking and breakfast. We sometimes meet to catch up, and occasionally find a cafe to go to.

I've known for a while that those days are inescapably behind me, but the closure of Maria's makes it all the more final. There's no going back, even if I could. That chapter is closed.

Maria's was, for me, where luck lived.

That was where I had the luck to find people who helped shape me, inspire me and remain as close to brothers and sisters as I've ever had.

That was where, between shows, I was lucky enough to get know the red-head girl, who would go on to become my wife.

That was where luck gave me a place I could go when I was scared of the path I'd chosen. A place I could get some toast and a coke, and form my ideas, and gather my nerve before venturing back out to try to gather another crowd and find the rent money in that huge, empty, scary piazza that became my friend.

Maria's was the best cafe in London. I owe it.

15 Months

I nearly didn't do it. Fact is, I'd got myself into such a stress-fuelled whirlpool of self-doubt about it that I had a big long chat with my agent about how I didn't want to do it. We all agreed that if I didn't want to, there's no reason why I should. So I wouldn't. Nice agent.

And then, as soon as we'd all agreed that I shouldn't do it, I felt a heavy cold lump in my guts, and a big loud boomy voice that seemed to be asking me what the hell I was thinking. Of course I had to do it. Oh sure, there are plenty of reasons why not – all the same reasons why you might not do anything – it's going to fail, it might not be as good as things you've done in the past, everyone will think you're rubbish, what's the point in trying? – but there was one big, loud, neon-lit, flashing-in-the-night-sky counterpoint that I couldn't ignore. I'm a maker. When faced with a choice between making something new, and not – you should always make. The success of something shouldn't matter – in the same way that a samurai never thinks about the consequences of a sword thrust – just about the perfection of the form. "Make something for the sake of making something because making things is what you do, and you're damn lucky to be able to, so shut up and do it", was basically my internal monologue.

So, right now I have a notebook with some ideas in. I have a couple of half-learned tricks, and ideas for a couple more. And most of all I have an idea for the show, that I think is quite fun, and that people might enjoy.

And I have about a year and half until I walk out on stage to do it.

I know what you're thinking – a year and a half seems like ample time to write a new show. And yeah, if all that was involved was writing, then you'd be correctamundo, but I'm a juggler, which means that half the show will involve performing new tricks. These tricks will have to work first time, and every time. That doesn't come easy, or quickly. So I'm looking at a strict schedule of writing, practice, prop-sourcing or making, and a bunch of other slightly more secret things, that will stretch over the next year and change. It's a big ol' undertaking, and as I start the preparations for the journey ahead, my emotional state flits between little jitters of nervous fear, and - particularly when a shiny new idea has just made a safe landing in my head - little satisfied giggles, as I imagine how an audience might like it.

The idea for the show I have at the moment might end up being nothing at all like the thing that gets performed next year. The rehearsal and practice process is there to warm the ideas through and make them soft and malleable, so their shape can be changed, as the show itself starts to take on its final form. It's scary and interesting and scary and fun and hard work and did I mention scary?

But I wouldn't have it any other way. My gut told me, as soon as I'd decided not to do a new show, that I'd made the wrong choice. So here I am – I have notebooks, sketches, a laptop, a slowly growing box of new props, and a long road ahead of me. Let's get to work.

Mat Ricardo's London Varieties Season Three! We're back!

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Yes. A couple of years after the last season of my hit London variety show, I couldn't keep away - so we're back for another season! Those of you that came to any of the past shows know what special nights they are - full of thrills, skills, spectacle and silliness - one time only moments, surprise guests and unexpected crazy stuff!

Every show is different, and every show is different from anything you've ever seen.

And if you haven't been before - well, take a look at the video below to get a flavour of what we do...

 

All your favourite things will be back - interviews, a new twist on the torture that is "Make Mat learn a new trick every month", and of course, some of the best variety artists on the planet. This time around we're keeping all the guests secret - but if you've been before, you know the kind of people who turn up - all I'll say at this point is BOOK NOW, either by clicking here, or calling the ticketline on 02077342222

A tenner will get you an hour of variety and comedy on a Saturday night.

Fun times guaranDAMNteed.

Trump Dollar

My latest column for Chortle is about how I got this in my hat at a street performing festival, and what it might mean. You can read it here

Hope you like it, and if you do, sharing is caring! ;)

New home

Hello!

So..this is the new home of my blog. The old one will stay up at its old location, here, but all new posts will be here, so update your bookmarks accordingly!

Hooray, and such.