Fringe fave Rob Auton on poetry, comedy and magic

Feature by John Stansfield | 16 Feb 2016

Walking the line between comedy and spoken word, Rob Auton is a unique performer who’s won our hearts with his capacious and emotive shows. As he prepares to tour The Water Show, he talks to The Skinny about writing, and finding the good in humanity.

Known for intense, non-sequitous, beautiful and almost indescribable Edinburgh Fringe shows, as universal in theme as they could possibly be – The Yellow Show, The Sky Show, The Face Show, The Water Show and, soon forthcoming, The Sleep Show – it’s hard to know what to expect when interviewing Rob Auton. Not on the list was being the subject of the interview myself: “What’s your local supermarket?” “What do you prefer, Co-op or Asda?” “Where’s your accent from?” He asks them all with care and an intrigue that makes me realise I’m pretty bad at my job, and that Rob Auton is an absolute delight.

After he’s given me a light grilling (and worried about my past Edinburgh workload – “Flipping heck, that’s a shift isn’t it?”), Auton, like any interviewer worth his salt, turns the conversation to the subject at hand – his new (and first) touring show, The Water Show; a show about water and what we use and/or abuse it for.

“I've done it quite a lot since the Fringe and I’ve tried to make it a bit more inclusive, so it’s not just me talking,” he says. “You’ve got to leave a few gaps for the magic to happen, haven’t you?”

The kind of magic Auton creates comes through his innate sense of wonder. All of his shows concern things we take for granted but which fascinate him, taking us into his world, a world that he sometimes finds overwhelming. “It’s a miracle that people aren’t fainting over the fact that they’ve got a tongue. Do you know what I mean?”

And somehow, you do know what he means – although looking at everything with an outsider’s eye isn’t for everyone. On Auton’s website, where you might usually find the critical acclaim there are also a number of criticisms, almost to make you aware this might not be the act for you. For every Cerys Matthews quote (“I could talk to you forever”) there is an equal and opposite force of Vanessa Feltz, remarking, "That’s just sad.” Auton also includes bad reviews from publications that weren’t quite buying what he had to sell, though many more are in awe of what he has to offer, including The Guardian and The Independent, and whimsical kingmaker Daniel Kitson.

“There’s no point in worrying what people think of [my comedy],” Auton says. “I’m going to do it because this is what my instinct tells me to do and it makes me feel alive. And if it doesn’t make you feel alive then I’m sorry.”

Rather than performing at mainstream comedy nights (“They don’t get it. Which is fine. But to them, there’s nothing to get. It’s completely void of all worth”), Auton honed his trade at poetry and spoken word events in and around London while working in advertising as an art director/copywriter – something that didn’t give him quite the creative freedom he was looking for. “Advertising is so nearly a perfect job for someone who likes having ideas but it’s not a place for someone to say how they feel about the world or be an artist or whatever, because it’s a business,” he says.

As the poetry nights were more welcoming of his free-flowing, ideas-based comedy, he kept going back and has since inadvertently become known as a poet. “I’d like to think of some of it as being poetic. I did poetry gigs but it’s always been just writing some stuff down, and then saying it so I don’t have to say it anymore.” (Another glance at the criticism on his site shows a review from Poetry Monthly that simply says, ‘I wish there’d been more poetry.’)

People not quite knowing where to place Auton suits him just fine. He is his own man creating what he finds interesting; sometimes it’s a poem, sometimes it’s a prop joke. He is also known to be a crafter of some fine one-liners, as evidenced by his award-winning joke from Fringe 2013 about an oriental chocolate bar (look it up), which won plaudits followed almost immediately by scorn and caused Vanessa Feltz to say what she said earlier.

“People at gigs liked that joke but, once it won… people don’t like being told what’s funny,” Auton says. “People want to make their own minds up. So if it’s in a poll and it’s like, ‘this is what’s funny,’ people will be like ‘no’.”

Unperturbed by such accolades, Auton will continue to be his own performer. “Standing up on stage is such a temperamental thing,” he says. “I don’t know what’s going to happen. People are going to be going there and hoping it’ll be good – 'I hope it’ll be funny, I hope I have a laugh.' And that’s exactly how I feel; we’re coming at it from the same angle, it’s just that sometimes that doesn’t match up.”

(Continues below)

More from The Skinny on Comedy:

 25 Years of Reeves and Mortimer: an appreciation

 Tony Law talks candidly about comedy and mental health

There’s a greater theme at the heart of Auton’s comedy, in which he is basically trying to tell us that we all share so many attributes and even flaws – why can’t we all just get along? “If an alien came down he’d be like, ‘Well, you guys all look like you should all get on because you’ve all got faces and you’ve got so much in common,’ and then he’d see someone shooting someone else and he’d be like, ‘Oh, hold on a minute, what are you doing?’”

It’s a lofty premise, and one that he’s aware has not quite managed to fly before. “John Lennon tried to do it with give peace a chance and he was one of the most famous men on the planet and people thought he was stupid. If he can’t do it, what chance has anyone else got?”

At a show before Christmas at London’s Union Chapel, Auton read a new piece, a letter to him from Father Christmas telling him not to worry and that it’s OK to be overwhelmed sometimes – essentially playing out what is a constant struggle in his own mind. “The devil makes work for idle hands; I get very, very down if I have too much time to think about stuff… [my comedy is] a distraction, basically,” he says. Auton’s aim is to keep moving and improving; to get better at both being a human and a comedian. “The stuff in the news is just all so hard-hitting and melancholic. It’s difficult to cope, so maybe [my comedy is] a coping mechanism, I don’t know. But I know that I love laughing and people trying to make me think in a different way. And there isn’t much of that on the news.”

With all the horrific news and outrages we are inundated with on a daily basis, sometimes having a laugh is all we can hope for – and if it’s through the innocent eyes of a poetic manchild that we remember what’s beautiful about the world, then so be it.

“I just want to learn and get better and make the next thing be the best thing. And see how good I can get. You’ve got to keep trying and moving forward,” Auton says. “And yeah, that’s it really... Is that OK?”

Rob Auton: The Water Show is at Soho Theatre, London, 15-17 Feb; Bristol Pear, Birmingham, 27 Feb; Ashcroft Arts Centre, Fareham, 17 Mar; Georgian Theatre Royal, Richmond, 18 Mar; The Lowry Studio, Salford, 23 Mar; The Art House, Southampton, 1 Apr; Bridport Arts Centre, 15 Apr; Gala Theatre Studio, Durham, 20 Apr; Hull Truck Theatre, 27 Apr; Cornerstone Arts Centre, Didcot, 29 Apr; Warwick Arts Centre, 6 May; The Dukes, Lancaster, 28 May

The Sleep Show is at Edinburgh Fringe 2016 throughout August at Banshee Labyrinth, Niddry Street, 4pm

For full dates and Sleep Show previews, check Auton's website