So You Think You Can Make Us Laugh?
That’s the challenge faced by playwrights Brooke Robinson, Katy Warner and Matthew Whittet in the sixth annual Lysicrates Prize, which is, for the first time, an all comedy competition.
The brainchild of arts patrons John and Patricia Azarias, The Lysicrates Prize is loosely based on the ancient Greek Dionysia, the competitive arts festival that brought Athens to a standstill each year.
In it, each writer presents the first act of a new play for the audience who then vote for their favourite by placing tokens in one of three urns. The winner takes home a commission to complete the play.
Griffin Theatre Company artistic director Lee Lewis has been involved with the Lysicrates Prize since its inception in 2015 and was again on the panel of readers for this edition of the competition.
“One thing we’ve seen over the course of the Lysicrates Prize is that it’s very hard for a comedy to win over a drama,” Lewis says. “It seems to be that if you can really land a moment in drama, then people will vote for it over a comedy moment, even though they enjoy that moment enormously.
Audiences vote for drama, in part, because they think they should, Lewis explains. Because drama is more worthy.
“It’s almost like people feel guilty voting for something that made them laugh. So this year, we’ve made it an even playing field.”
No other stipulations regarding subject or content were made.
“Darkness and weirdness”
“Here in Australia, there aren’t many playwrights who write straight forms of comedy,” says Lewis. “Not a lot of people write farces, for example. We’re more about light and shade here. Often there’s a lot of darkness and weirdness in Australian comedy and it’s been our job to identify what is funny when sometimes, it doesn’t look that way on the page.”
Seldom is an artistic director presented with a play that makes them laugh right off the page, Lewis adds.
“When you see a funny play, you’re looking at something that’s been worked on by a lot of funny people. When you first see the script, all you see is the potential for it to be funny.”
And in the end, Lewis says, it’s great comic actors who make great comedy.
“So much comedy lives in an actor’s timing. A good comic actor can make a tragedy funny, if they want to. It’s the writer’s job to create characters for actors that we, as audiences, can connect with and in some way.”
“You need to have a safe space”
This year’s competition drew a lot of political comedy, says Lewis. “That wasn’t a surprise, really. It speaks to how we’re all trying to cope with the political world at the moment. But we also had some plays set in the academic world, which has always been a fertile area for comedy and some work addressing the politics of authenticity and the performance of identity. We even had couple of scripts set in fantasy worlds. It’s been really broad.”
Lewis believes writing comedy is one of the most difficult jobs in theatre. “I tip my hat to anyone who tries it because audiences and critics are incredibly hard on comedies that aren’t working for some reason. It can be brutal for writers to see that happen – absolutely brutal.
“You need to have a safe space in which something can develop and be tested and that’s why I think this Lysicrates Prize will be really valuable. You can only tell if a joke is going to land when you have an audience and in this case, we have a really large audience.”