In just over a week, Tom and I will brave the volcano and fly to Manchester, and then take a train to beautiful Muncaster Castle to do walkaround performance for the Festival of Fools 2010. I won't be competing this time around, and that pressure being off, the run-up is a breathless whirl of packing, last-minute motley-making, and other minute launch preparations.
But we haven't even finished the story of the last trip I made to Muncaster, my first visit, in 2007, when I competed in the International Jester Tournament.
To save you anxiety, I'll cut to the punchline: I didn't win. No, not even close! Martin Soan told me I should say I won 2nd place, and I grinned and followed his advice. But if you believed me when I told you that, you've been Phooled. There were no places -- just a winner, Paul Garbanzo, and, as Martin said to us after the prize had been awarded, "The rest of us? We're LOOOOOOSERS!"
The competition is really for acts with big physical spectacle and audience involvement. MoOnIe the Magnif'cent, a.k.a. the brilliant and amazing Philip Earl, would be a shoo-in for the tournament -- the judges sought acts on his zesty scale. Something talky? Not so much. And even before the day, once all of the competitors had arrived, I knew I was doomed.
Jiggins had the right idea -- she went off for insane adventures around the castle grounds with Etienne, while I stayed behind at the lounge with the other competitors and their families. On the one hand, the night before the competition was brilliantly memorable -- I was in a room with some of the funniest people I'd ever met. They were all just calmly, deeply hilarious. Usually, in a room full of people, I eventually feel that pull to be the funny person -- not that night. My services were not required. And that terrified me deeply.
Soon I was on the phone to poor patient Tom for at least an hour. "I have to come home. This is insane. I can't do this. These people are too funny. No, I mean everyone. In the entire country. It's presumptuous of me to pretend to be qualified to compete." Tom reassured me the way he always does, reminding me of the devoted people who Got Behind the Phoole to get me to the UK in the first place, reminding me of the love and generosity of the people who would come to be known as Phooligans, reminding me that I'd gotten laughs and encouragement the rest of the trip, from the too-kind Penningtons and their charming guests. I'd gotten that far, farther than any other jester I'd known. I had to try.
I had originally planned a ten-minute act of story-joking and self-effacery, and in hindsight, I should probably have stayed with it, not that it would have mattered; I was up against five acts that were all bold physical spectacle. I panicked the night before, and feared that what was funny to Americans wouldn't be funny at all to Brits, and tried to rewrite at the last minute, going instead for jokes I'd learned from the Brits themselves. I could hardly get to sleep, dreading the morning like a date with a firing squad.
And, indeed, when my performance began and I faced the crowd, I did in fact die. I bombed. I bombed worse than I have ever bombed in my life, and I mean ever. The first story-joke fell absolutely flat, with no response, and I felt myself drowning in the crowd's uncomfortable silence at a minute in; at two minutes in, lacking even one laugh, I cut and ran. I got out of there. I bowed with a flourish and bolted, polite and confused applause propelling me through the castle doors and into the depths of a kitchen in the middle of the house.
I know Americans traveling abroad have a reputation for being over-emotional, particularly as considered from the British perspective, so I knew I had to make this quick -- I found a place to hide, and I cried for exactly one minute, very, very quietly. I had anticipated failure, but I hadn't anticipated it being so very painful! I'd stuffed my bag with the brightly-colored tissues for which I'm oddly famous, the ones that seem to come in colors to match every motley I make, and I soaked two of them efficiently, with hot tears of shame.
I don't know how, but Etienne found me first. He tried to be encouraging: "Well, at least you're done!" The totally-not-helpful substance of that remark made me bark with unexpected laughter, and I wondered how I was going to put my face back together sufficiently to get back out there and get back to the thing I do well, Walking Around Talking to People. Just then, Jiggins found me too -- with my makeup in hand, ready to help repair the Phoole visage. So thoughtful, Jiggins, the Phoole Guard Extraordinaire.
As I put my eyes back together, Jiggins quietly and calmly said, "Now, there's something I have to ask you, and I do not want this to make you anxious. But did you contact David Tennant's agency about you coming to the UK?"
Indeed, I had done so. In fact, in the months running up to the Festival, I'd cheekily pinged the agents of all of my favorite British celebrities, saying, "Hi! I'm a silly American who loves your work. If you'd like to see me goof around in 16th-century motley with a fake British dialect, I'll be up North soon." I stared with saucer eyes at Jiggins as she rotated her camera so I could see the screen on the back.
"It's just that there's this guy out there, and it probably isn't him, but he just watched your performance, and, well..." And I cringed and peeked, and on that little screen, it looked exactly like him:
I died inside, even more than I'd already just died inside. Had I just given the worst performance of my entire career, with David Tennant in the house? I couldn't let that potential hang in the air -- I had to know. I whooshed out of the castle to find this guy.
I found him right away -- he'd sat down to wait through the brief intermission for the next act. As I swept toward him, all of the tiny children who had just sat through my awful cringefest swarmed around me: "Jane the Phoole! I liked your stories, Jane! I enjoyed you!"
I stopped and grinned warmly at them all. "Ah. You did, did you?" I gritted my teeth slightly. "You all must have been laughing on the inside, where it counts!" But their ebullience boiled over, and they took my hands and pulled me down for what must have been congratulatory hugs.
The Guy With the Unmistakable Hair was still in his seat. I steeled myself and tapped him on the shoulder. "Excuse me, begging your extreme pardon, Sir, but has anyone ever told you you look exactly like David Tennant before?"
The man turned around. "Who?"
My heart started beating again. The lovely young woman next to him, whom in that second I realized was his wife, prompted, "The bloke who plays Doctor Who on telly."
"Oh," he replied, not Scottish in the least. "No. Afraid not."
I turned to the pile of children. "Don't you think this man looks like The Doctor, though?"
They exploded. "It's The Doctor! Are you The Doctor? You look like The Doctor, though!" And so on.
I'm afraid I must have embarrassed the poor fellow unduly, but I couldn't just go on thinking that the bottom of my career might have been witnessed by one of the most amazing performers ever. Relieved, I laughed my head off, and, begging the gentleman's pardon, I excused myself and drew my new entourage along with me.
Phooligans know how I love to goof with kids, and I like to speak to them as if they're adults, taking their ideas very seriously and engaging them as people, not as any kind of subordinate or in-progress person. Well, these children actually ARE adults. They're incredibly articulate, well-spoken, considerate individuals, and I delight in their insistings and assertions. I passed the rest of the afternoon trying to forget my abysmal belly-flop of a show, immersing myself in nonsense conversations with the very young.
I ended up getting my picture taken with hundreds of people, and before long, each TV station crew had put me in front of their cameras. I heard a producer say, "Get her. She has good clothes, and she can talk. Get her on camera." Jiggins overheard other producers saying the same thing. So I flexed some "thee"s and "thou"s on various BBC channels. That goes a long way toward helping one forget that one's just bombed onstage -- very cheering! One crew had me juggle with Joel Dickinson; another had me do an interlude in a tour of the castle.
I barked with laughter through Martin Soan's hysterical show, and when Etienne and Paul Garbanzo made the crowds roar, I felt perhaps I should just draw off my little crowd of followers and hunker down until the whole awards thing had blown over. But it was not to be.
Soon: the rest of the tale!