The demonstration of awareness in performance

I once heard an interview with a stand-up comedian who talked about a warning she had been given, early in her career, that her act was too high-brow. “You do sophisticated cabaret,” she had been told, “and there’s no audience for sophisticated cabaret.”

The comedian in question was Victoria Wood, whose death was announced today. Her work encompassed various performing arts, including stand-up comedy, song and acting and writing for theatre and TV. Those who worked closely with her have commented on how precisely she crafted her writing, and how she would select words for comedic effect, often with attention to their rhythm. The guy at the BBC tasked with editing Victoria’s scripts found himself somewhat at a loose end because her material came to him perfectly formed.

I’m sure an understanding of one time-based medium can inform an understanding of another, and that competence in one artform enhances competence in an analogous one. So with Victoria Wood’s songs, the musicality of the language made the jokes funnier. And this allowed her to bring something special to the writing process, something most others didn’t have.

Victoria Wood’s skills with both language and music gave her an edge in performance too. Sitting at a piano, she understood her material both lyrically and musically, and this understanding – expressed with a wink and a grin – was central to the act. It wasn’t just that you were just in safe hands; she showed you that you were in safe hands. Victoria Wood’s performances were, in part, a demonstration of her awareness of form, undercutting her mock innocence toward the content.


Reincarnation Song. The integration of music and lyrics here is designed for comedic effect – and note the use of pause to heighten that effect.

Victoria Wood’s career tracked the pattern of change in British popular entertainment, so that while there may have been a limited market for her act in the clubs of 1970s England, her skills were noticed by the BBC who gave her a platform. Her ability to collaborate with other artists, such as Julie Walters, then brought her opportunities she would never have imagined.

I guess, when you’re at the start of your career, you don’t know what you’ll end up doing. Perhaps that’s especially true if you’re highly skilled, because you’re likely to be presented with more choices about your future.

The guy who told her there was no audience for her act may have thought he was offering solid advice. You’re good at what you do, but there’s no market for it. If you’re at the top of your game though, it doesn’t really matter whether you fit into the current commercial structures, because one of two things might happen: you might *find* an audience for what you do; and those commercial structures might reorganise to fit around you, since they reorganise anyway from time to time. Both of these things happened for Victoria Wood, a woman who was very, very good at what she did.