Dale's comedy Mr Fixit keeps the laughs coming
Comedy promoter Peter Dixon has lived in Teesdale for most of his 65 years. After a career in construction which saw him become the IT director of Taylor Woodrow, his love of both radio and the Teesdale community brought him to Radio Teesdale as well as roles as a director of The Bowes Museum, chairman of the Castle Players and a member of the board of Barnard Castle Vision.
Why comedy and not, say, music or theatre?
I’ve always loved all forms of performing arts and on a weekly basis, throughout my adult life, have attended live theatre, musical theatre, variety and comedy shows. I’ve been to the Edinburgh Festival almost every year since the late 70s. Comedy has always been my favourite. For several years I was the UK editor of a Marx Brothers magazine which led me into all sorts of places as I researched the times they performed in the UK.
How did the comedy club come about?
I knew several comedians having attended live shows and particularly through interviewing them for Radio Teesdale. The Witham was looking to raise money before their redevelopment, so it was a means to help them. Although there had been a few attempts at doing some shows prior to this nobody had been able to sustain it, and it was generally thought there wouldn’t be enough interest. As I loved comedy I thought it was worth giving it a go.
The club is named after my favourite comedy book of all time – Funny Way To Be A Hero by John Fisher. I even keep a few copies of the book spare to give to acts who are interested in comedy history and come to do a show.
When the club first started, was there any difficulty attracting performers to Barnard Castle?
The first show featured Jason Cook and it was partly his idea as he was looking for somewhere to try out a new show. In the beginning it was easier to book the North East comedians, as the bigger agencies were a little sceptical. We had no track record and in the early days the maximum capacity at The Witham and Parish Hall was just 140.
I’ve always found that if you do things professionally and treat everyone well, the word does get around the circuit that Funny Way To Be shows are a good place to go. We also try very hard to look after the audience members and make sure the shows run slickly so that ultimately everyone has a good time. The artists can very much sense a happy crowd, and it has a real effect on them having a good time too.
At the end of the day though the agencies would not let me book their acts unless we could keep generating a high enough audience level. It genuinely is a case of use it or lose it.
And how does it compare now – is the club now part of the comedy circuit?
With the Witham redevelopment, the capacity rose to 250 which gave us access to some bigger names although that is still considered small for many of the acts we’ve managed to attract to the town.
Funny Way To Be Comedy is responsible for the full promotion and management of the stand-up comedy shows in Barnard Castle, but I have now effectively created a mini north east circuit as I also programme the comedy for five or six other theatres, all generally bigger the Witham.
It means that I can book acts into Barnard Castle and places like Hexham, Northallerton, Alnwick and Sunderland during the same week. The other venues do their own marketing so in those places, after it’s booked, I just generally have to go along on show day.
How does it work - do you choose the performers you would like to see; do they or their agents come to you; a mixture of both?
It’s a mixture of both. I’ve a good relationship with the top 20 or so agencies as well as several acts I book directly. They let me know of tours they are organising, but I keep my eyes peeled for things happening in the industry and get in touch if I think someone I’d like to book might be looking to do some performances. Meeting up with people at festivals and the like, and general networking, is also an important part of what I need to do. At the end of the day though it’s my responsibility to book acts that I think will fit into the programme, will go down well with the audience and we can sell enough tickets to make it all work for those involved.
It’s then quite a juggling exercise to match the venues’ availability with artists availability, particularly when we are booking them into several venues in the same week.
Do you always go and see the performers before booking them. What do you look for? Is there a certain type that you think will go down well here or do you aim to bring a mix?
It’s very rare for me to book someone that I’ve not seen before.
There is nothing like seeing them perform in front of a live audience. In order to develop a balanced programme over the year I definitely have to book a mix of acts as over a period of time at least one show a season really has to appeal to everyone who is likely to come to a live show or we’d never get the audience numbers we need.
What’s the difference between organising a show for an established artist and someone who is just at the start of the comedy career?
On a personal level it’s very similar. We always treat everyone equally, we hope well, whoever they are. Obviously, on a big show there are a few additional things to think about in terms of managing the crowds, but we go about putting the live shows on in the same way. The production values are always the same.
The biggest difference is during the marketing stage. One of the most frustrating things is when we know how brilliant an act is and people don’t come along “because they’ve not heard of them”.
What's the secret to a good show from a promoter's point of view?
I guess most promoters would say, one that sells tickets, but I genuinely do this simply because I love live comedy and want others to see the best of it too. So, the best shows are perhaps those that exceed expectation and make everyone laugh a lot.
It takes a huge amount of work for a comedian to create a full evening’s show. Great, well written material is a key factor of course, but it’s much more than that.
Some of the best live shows I’ve seen have been with acts just starting to develop new material.
It sounds like a cliché, but the fact is that the best acts can understand and read the audience and make things relatable to them.
Where do your audiences come from?
It varies from show to show but there is no doubt the Teesdale shows would be impossible to sustain from just local audience members alone. A rough average is that only 15 per cent of the audience members live in Barnard Castle, 15 per cent from other parts of Teesdale and the remaining 70 per cent from outside the immediate area. More local people tend to come to the bigger names though.
In light of Covid-19, how are you planning for future shows in such uncertain times?
It’s obviously a difficult time for anyone working on live shows now. The type of shows we do aren’t viable unless we operate at near capacity and even with one metre social distancing the audience levels would have to drop to about 30 or 40 per cent of full capacity.
The safety of the performers, venue staff and volunteers and audience is the primary concern of course.
Up to now we have managed to rearrange almost all the 60 or shows I’m currently involved in and I’ve not lost any of the Barnard Castle shows so far. The good news is we’ve not gone away and hope to bring back live comedy as soon as it’s safe to do so.
Where can people find out more about Funny Way to Be?
Full details and tickets for all the Teesdale shows can be found at our website www.funnywaytobe.com. We’re also active on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram at @funnywaytobe. The best way to find out about the latest news about new shows, ticket offers and return tickets is to register for our regular newsletter which can be done at our website.