Sarah Kendall on story-telling and the Fringe

Australian comic and wordsmith Sarah Kendall on why we tell stories

Feature by Jenni Ajderian | 31 Jul 2017
  • Sarah Kendall

As the Fringe programme has ballooned over recent years, so too has the number of discrete categories that shows fall into. “Look at the breadth of shows that have been successful at the Edinburgh Festival,” points out Sarah Kendall. “Fifteen years ago, the people on the shortlist would be a bunch of stand-ups. The last couple of years, there’s been lots of character stuff, theatre stuff: it’s a real hybrid, which is really exciting.”

After over a decade in the comedy scene, Kendall has opted to move towards a kind of comedy-slash-storytelling hybrid that you won’t see much of elsewhere. More than anything, this change came from a desire to challenge herself. “I needed to keep doing what I was doing, but in a way that interests me again. And this interests me. It’s always a bit of a puzzle at the beginning.”

For the last few years, Kendall’s shows have been based around a chosen moment in her life that she then fleshes out and presents as something between a diary entry and a John Hughes movie. This kind of storytelling relies on drawing an audience in and getting them invested in the narrative. “It’s a collaborative experience: for me, everything is about working with an audience, sensing what they’re feeling, and playing off that. It’s part of the writing process. It shows everything that’s wrong with the story, just by doing it live.

“I think if the first few previews are great you should hang your head in shame.” Kendall laughs, “The only way you’re going to do and learn something new is by making a mess and trying to make that into something cohesive. If it goes great you’re probably replicating whatever you’ve done in the past.”

And replication is not what the Fringe is about. “It’s so exhausting and expensive, you might as well frighten the shit out of yourself and do something difficult.”

We talk for a while about the delicate balance between tragedy and comedy: getting her audience involved in the writing process helps Kendall strike that balance in her stories, as does being in the right place during the writing process.

“I think my shows would be really depressing if I didn’t do them in stand-up clubs. As soon as it’s been quiet for too long, your mind goes into panic, and you just say funny things and the show takes on a different tone.”

Like many comics who tell stories from their own lives, Kendall has been followed by the ever-lingering question ‘But how much of it is true?’ The answer is one she describes as frustrating.

“There is no definitive version of any event; anyone can walk away from the same event and retell it completely differently. The gist is always true.” Added to this, she’s aware of her position as an entertainer. “I’ve got to bring some craft to it. I can’t just tell a bunch of pointless things that happened and go ‘Oh well, you guys figure that out’.”

This year, One Seventeen takes moments from throughout Kendall’s life and weaves them together into a collection of short stories. Writing disparate narratives that are thematically linked is another challenge that Kendall has set herself, and one she likens to a therapy exercise.

“You can write totally different stories, and then you stand back and go ‘Thematically, they’re really similar. My brain is obviously trying to figure something out.’”

By organising the events of a day, or of a life, into a story, we can try to make sense of it.

“Our brain seeks out patterns and order, and the reality of life is that it’s chaos: good things don’t happen for a reason and bad things don’t happen for a reason. We have all these templates of stories in our head because we’re so bombarded, everything happens so quickly, and all at once. Stories try to put some pattern and some order in it, because it is such complete and utter chaos.”

Sarah Kendall: One-Seventeen, Assembly George Square (Studio 2), 2-27 Aug, 7.00pm, £9.50-12.50