For a storytelling show that has been performed around the world over the last couple of years, Gerard Harris comes across as very unscripted. He sets the scene by telling us that we shouldn’t believe everything we hear, but these are his stories and so are true to him. Harris then takes us on a journey through his……childhood telling his stories with a perfect mix of energy, intellect, and self-deprecation. With excellent use of timing and reveals he has the audience completely engaged, everyone is leaning forward, smiling and laughing along together.
Somewhere near the middle of his set he suddenly takes us somewhere darker, with expert precision he builds the tension, throws in a small diffusion, and then goes dark again – there is no punchline at the end, but there is an acknowledgement of its darkness and the reminder that for all of us “sometimes not everything makes it into your official story”. The jump into the next incredibly ridiculous and lively story makes us forget the dark times, as he for himself forgot them for a time. From there we are kept laughing with his high energy stories finishing with a concession to the nature of storytelling and a reminder that we choose our own facts.
After the show I caught up with Harris and within moments of meeting it becomes clear that he is a natural storyteller and one needs to ask very few questions to keep him talking. He takes me on a remarkable journey through the origins of storytelling as a piece of theatre, through to the more recent popularisation of it across the world and then he tells me about the moment at a fringe show seven or so years ago that began his journey to becoming a storyteller.
“So this guy was telling this story about how he was in a riot in London in the late 80’s or early 90’s, when I remembered that I had a story about that very day and that very incident and I thought that’s fantastic! The story was cool, it wasn’t the greatest story in the world, but it was cool and he told it brilliantly, and I remember thinking that’s what I want to do, I wish I could do that. The funny thing is that I never thought I could because when I was a stand up I only did one liners, I did not do stories, and I didn’t do anything true. But, eventually I went to a storytelling night, just to watch, and I saw six people get up and I thought ‘I’ve got a better story than them’, so I went and did one – it was meant to be seven minutes and I think I did about 20. But it was a good story and the promoter of the night has indulged me for five or six years ever since, everyone else gets 7-10 (minutes) and he’s like ‘ok I’m gonna put you at the end, try and keep it tight’ and then I will try and keep it tight but inevitably I will run over.”
Harris is insightful about both his work and the effect it can have on people. When talking about the part of his current show that involves a story about a narrow escape from childhood sexual abuse and how that story came to be told he says:
“I thought it’s time to tell that story because, as I may have said in the show, it had no identifiable effect on me aside from perhaps a fear of a big man trying to dominate me. The way I tell it is the way I believe it happened, but I felt like it was time to tell it. And I will never forget the atmosphere in the room when I got up and told it, because it was like that cliché – all the air was sucked out of the room, the second I said what I said and I didn’t do any caveat, just ‘this is what happened’ with the entire bulldog thing, because that bit is also true, at which there was some tremendous laughter, which I obviously thought was because it was funny, but it wasn’t, it was relief, a HUGE relief that I had moved off of the topic. I’ve told that story now about 70 times as part of the show and it is definitely one of the stories that people come up to me and go ‘yeah actually a similar thing happened to me’ – and of course, it’s an almost foundational experience. Everyone’s been born, fallen in love, had a broken heart, most have been in an accident, quite a lot of people have had that experience and obviously far worse and I’m lucky and I hope that is understood that my position was such that I get to talk it. I know, and I always knew, that when I’m talking on stage about that particular incident, that a significant portion of the people there are, in their head at least, going ‘yip, I know this, I know what’s coming’ and I have to trust that absolutely everyone in that room is going to be ok with hearing that bit of my story.”
Harris is incredibly open and honest, we talk about his (relatively) recent ADHD diagnosis and how that changed his view of himself (and his past) as well as the affects it has on him now, including as inspiration for the current show (and the next show) – Attention Seeker, which you can catch on May 6th at the Refinery ArtSpace in Nelson. We explore some of the differences (and similarities) between British, Canadian and New Zealand cultures, with the recognition that sometimes “it takes a foreigner to point these things out”. This includes his amazement at just how many cafes and bars that Wellington has and his discovery of and consequent love affair with feijoas (seriously ask him about them sometime – I didn’t think it was possible to love a fruit so much). We end by chatting about life as a creative person who is constantly travelling – he fully acknowledges that he is only ‘half-way suited’ for most of the things that he does. However, he doesn’t like to be called brave for getting on stage, as it is something that is so intrinsic to who he is. He recognises he is a talker, and has “probably talked himself out of more sex than he has had”, yet he follows that statement with how he has learnt to allow the right thing to happen by “just shutting the fuck up and pretending you are supposed to be there”.
In short Gerard Harris is open, honest, intelligent and energetic – and he puts all of that into his storytelling. So go and see his shows, laugh really loudly (he appreciates the feedback), chat to him after (if he is not running off to something else) and perhaps most importantly take him a feijoa.
Originally published at artmurmurs.nz on 29/02/2016