Interview: Birthday Girls

Birthday Girls are soon to head to Edinburgh with their latest show Sh!t Hot Party Legends. This morning I met up with two thirds of the trio: Rose Johnson and Camille Ucan (minus Beattie Edmondson, the third Birthday Girl) to find out more about making comedy, their show and the Fringe. So if you’re up in Edinburgh, be sure to get your party started by Birthday Girls one evening at 9.45pm, The Pleasance.

Interview by Amie Taylor (@AmieAmieTay)

AT: Hello, thanks so much for speaking with Female Arts today. So, Birthday Girls started some years ago, but was originally known as Lady Garden. Tell us about the journey so far...

CU: So Lady Garden started when we were still at University in Manchester, myself and Eleanor, who was in Lady Garden, set it up, and handpicked people we wanted to be in it.

RJ: And we obviously all said yes.

CU: And we took our first show with six women to Edinburgh in 2008. We weren’t planning on carrying on, but it was quite successful and we enjoyed it, so we decided to leave our aspirations of becoming marketing people working in offices behind, and pursued that instead.

AT: Did you study drama at Manchester?

RJ: We studied variations on drama - drama and English or Screen studies, but we all knew each other from the drama society. Before Lady Garden got together Camille and Eleanor used to run comedy nights as fundraisers.

CU: We ran a really big night at a venue called the Underground and loads of people came. That was before Lady Garden,

RJ: I was in a double act with Beattie.

CU: After that we formed Lady Garden. We did four Lady Garden shows.

RJ: Yeah, we must have written our first Lady Garden show in about two months.

CU: We had no idea there was this huge process.

RJ: We just used to go and rehearse in a park and say ‘shall we make a sketch about this?’ and did it. We were quite young and naieve…

CU: If we did that show now, it wouldn’t go well, would it?

RJ: Noooo!

CU: There’s this weird thing in Edinburgh when you’re new -

RJ: You get away with a hell of a lot -

CU: Not that it was bad, but to think that was the show that made us say ‘Yeah, we’re going to give up everything else and just do this.’

RJ: But there was something about it, the quality of the material wasn’t great -

AT: But it more than just that, isn’t it? It’s about the dynamic between you and the energy?

RJ: Yes, and that was there, people enjoyed coming to watch for that reason I expect. So for the first few years of Lady Garden we kept getting told to find ‘our voice’, but we didn’t know what that was. So we began to work with different people, and hone what we did -

CU: Then the Sugar Babes phase happened, except no one new came, people just left.

RJ: Then there were just the three three of us. That was in January and we were preparing to do Edinburgh in the summer. After they left, we decided to change our name to Birthday Girls as it felt like what we were making was very different to when we'd been Lady Garden.

AT: So you became a three in the January, and went to Edinburgh that Summer, how did you go about making the show? How often did you meet, rehearse and so on?

RJ: Devising a sketch show is very different to devising a theatre show. What we did was meet a couple of times a week to write individual sketches then try them out a comedy nights as part of a 10 / 15 minute set.

CU: And structuring a sketch show is the hardest thing.

RJ:Yeah, we once tried to set a show in the future and have a high concept narrative… PROBLEMS!

CU: That was our first and only attempt at trying to do a really high concept narrative.

RJ: That not our strength.

CU: We thought maybe it might be…

AT: But that’s great, cause you’ve discovered it’s not, which has helped you to learn more about who you are.

RJ: And now we know, and that’s a test for us when we’re making work, if it feels like there’s too much artifice we know it’s probably not going to work. We need to be in the room, with the people as ourselves.

CU: Obviously in the sketches we’re characters, but when we’re weaving it together and when the audience come in to the space, there’s no fourth wall, we’re ourselves with slightly heightened personas. We always start our shows in the audience chatting and dancing, being there with the audience. Which is the difference between us and Lady Garden.

RJ: And I much prefer that, cause when it’s all ‘fourth wall’ and you don’t bring yourselves in to the room, the stakes are so much higher, because if the audience don’t go for it you have no way of connecting or bringing them back in to it.

AT: And the title of your show -

RJ: Sh!t Hot Party Legends [everyone laughs]

CU: The ‘I’ is an exclamation mark.

RJ: It’s tricky coming up with a show title for Edinburgh, because unless it’s really clever and the title explains what the show’s all about, then I think the best thing is make them funny. I think it’s wise to call it something more generic that reflects the vibe of the show. Which is what we were going for.

AT: What is the vibe of the show?

RJ: We want people to feel like it’s a night out. A kind of ‘clubby’ atmosphere.

CU: At the end of the show, we want people to feel like they want to go out and carry on the party. Our sketches are very silly, and quite odd in someways - in that they have quite odd ideas.

AT: Can you describe one for us?

CU: There’s a sketch where a woman falls in love with her hair, and marries her hair. We always want to have fun in our show too, so we have a lot of pumping music and dance routines.

AT: Favourite song in your show.

RJ: Beyonce. You? [To Camille]

CU: Pussy Sweet.

RJ: We just want to make them laugh. We need silliness at the moment, the news is so depressing. We want to offer some escapism. And I think that will be the outcome after everything that’s happened recently, there will be a strand of political, satirical comedy, which is not our strength, we’ve failed at that in the past. The second strand will be the reaction against it, which is silly and distracting, which is the angle we’re taking. But also, as our director said, this is a feminist show, by the nature that we are women doing something bold and silly, not necessarily being restricted by our gender.

AT: Yes, and I don’t know much about the comedy scene, but do you feel you’ve ever experienced gender discrimination or anything similar in comedy?

CU: I think we have encountered people being patronising. Especially when we were starting out. And we have encountered both men and women being surprised that they enjoyed us, and have said things like ‘I didn’t think it was going to be that good’ -

RJ: Which they say as though it’s a compliment. Which I think is part of a wider problem, which is that it is more difficult, as women, to get exposure on TV and radio. There aren’t as many opportunities. You have to justify your uniqueness from other women in a way that men don’t have to do. I don’t think men are often asked ‘how are you different to this man’, where as women are often asked that question. And until that changes, people are still going to hold that opinion that women aren’t as funny, because they’re not seeing as many women, they’ll come to the conclusion that they’re not as bankable - not as reliably funny as men, which is simply not true.

AT: Of course not.

RJ: I think there’s a thing with women you have to win the audience around more; when a man walks on stage to be funny he has an implicit trust from the audience, where as a woman has to earn it. In my experience. I feel with us though, especially being ourselves on stage and being a lot more confident, it’s easier for us to get them on side.

AT: Thanks so much for meeting today. Wishing Birthday Girls the absolute best of luck with their Edinburgh shows. Catch them if you can!

Book to see them in Edinburgh:

Author's review: