With her new show Pelican out on the road to brighten up the otherwise gloomy months of January, February and March, and a new-new show kicking off straight after that, Elf Lyons isn’t one for hanging ‘round.
After high-tailing it from Bristol Uni to London in 2012, Elf has spent the past four years building a reputation for her fresh, playful, brilliantly scripted and often downright weird live shows. She’s picked up a string of 5 star reviews and a growing crowd of fans along the way.
Elf took a late night quiet moment to talk to us about Pelican, writing and why eating sausages in the morning is weird.
Hi, Elf. How are you?
Great. At the time of writing this it is 1am, I’ve just eaten a bar of Green & Blacks Mint chocolate in the bath, and I’ve got a new lava lamp.
Describe a typical day in the Life of Elf.
Typically, each day is typically very different to the one before - but usually each one is very sexy, full of fun, including ten parts coffee, one ‘Oh Fuck Moment’, at least five costume changes, twenty cuddles and human interactions, Magic FM on full and one moment of wobbly cellulite nudity. Either accidental or on purpose.
This last week alone I did a new magic comedy striptease in French, a tax return, my drag night The Matron Presents, some awful gym activities involving squats - causing me to walk like Clint Eastwood with an erection, attended a ball for the Inspired4Life charity, taught a comedy workshop for teenagers, re-edited Pelican, rewrote a short script and came fourth in a film pub quiz. So overall, busy.
You’ve done a load of shows at The Etcetera Theatre, regularly compère at Camden Comedy Club and host an LGBT comedy night at Her Upstairs; you’re a bit of a Camden legend. Which has been your favourite role so far and why?
I couldn’t pick a favourite role - they all congeal together to make this huge big bulbous colourful globule of memories which encapsulates my whole weird experience of Camden.
There is a growing idea that Camden is past it, that it’s relevancy and culture died with indie and Amy Winehouse. Do you think that’s fair? Does Camden have more to offer than tat for tourists and unaffordable rent, particularly for young people?
Camden is about the alternative, trying new things out and taking a risk. Sure it is a tourist attraction, and there are many other developing areas of London with their own cool creative hubs which are blossoming - Peckham, Brixton, Shoreditch to name a few. But like so many other bits of London, you just need to look past the high street and you’ll see that there is a thriving creative community that isn’t difficult to get involved in. There are music gigs, poetry gigs, queer gigs, political stand up gigs, lots of new theatre and community projects going on.
To make one person, like Amy Winehouse, the emblem of the culture of a town undercuts the other creative aspects of the area. Comedy in particular has always been vibrant - since I first started doing comedy and still now. Yes - Camden is so much more expensive, but still hosts some of the only affordable central performance spaces for artists to showcase their work. If it wasn’t for festivals like the Camden Fringe it would be far harder for artists to get their work seen.
It may not be perfect but is it part of the patchwork quilt of London’s creative scene.
Now that you’re back home, what was the highlight of your time at L'Ecole Philipe Gaulier?
Gaulier was all my favourite coming of age films in one. Like Dirty Dancing except based in a tiny little cramped run down part of Paris, with only one bar and 50 of the weirdest people you’ve ever met. And Patrick Swayze was replaced by a love-hate frenchman who resembled a bowling ball. Rumplestiltskin - if he had discovered crocs, fine millinery and whisky. It was fantastic!
One highlight was meeting my comedy soul mate Ryan Lane.
Ryan and I learnt the Parent Trap handshake on our first week together of Le Jeu and that birthed a relationship akin to step-siblings. We write well together and since our success in creating characters we have teamed up and are developing our play Hilda & The Spectrum - which we are previewing around the UK from March and then the Edinburgh Festival.
The great thing about Gaulier was that it helped birth so many surreal and stupid ideas that I would have felt too ridiculous to consider developing back in London. It taught me to be free and to feel less reserved about looking an idiot. You learn that as long as you are performing with complete joy - nothing matters but that moment - no matter how stupid it is.
London or Paris?
Tough. London has the dress sense and the quirks, the better coffee (I will fight any french barista on this point) and unlike Paris we are allowed to sit on the grass in our parks. But, Paris has the attitude and there is nothing more beautiful than Bautes Chaumont. Their queer scene is great and there’s something just fantastic about the way Parisians host things. There is a real artistry to it.
Also - the bread… my god… the bread.
Croissant and coffee or full English?
Croissant and coffee. Always. I think eating sausages in the morning is really weird.
What does your writing process involve and where do you look for inspiration?
I pick a subject, anything: from the underground / politics / porn legislation / Barbie etc - research it, play with it, learn about it, then meet someone and talk to them about it, get drunk, argue about it, then after I’ve ruminated on it enough I’ll then improvise around it on stage and see what comes.
I like to give myself challenges - for example: the new show is a one woman production of Swan Lake. I don’t know ballet - so I am going to have to learn. Challenge No 1. Challenge No 2? I want to do the whole thing in french. Because, why not? Problem is I can’t speak french. So I am learning french.
Crucially I read tons (every day in the morning) and that really helps - with language, words, ideas and reference. I recommend reading as much as you can. Everything and anything.
What advice do you have for young, female writers who struggle with confidence and believing in their creative output?
Once you have decided to book yourself a gig / open spot / venue / whatever it is, you need to actually get your act together and showcase to people what is going on in that wonderful head of yours. Accept that you are going to be crap for a while and at random points doing what you want to do. You’ll be great one day, on top of the world, and the next day you will be awful. THAT IS NORMAL. Embrace it and laugh it off.
There is nothing more dignified than trying an idea, it not working and you going “Okay. That sucked. What’s next?”. Don’t beat yourself up about it. You need to be rubbish in order to be good - so lose any pride you have about being bad, lose your ego, get on stage and get ghastly. AND DROP THOSE FRIENDS WHO MAKE YOU FEEL BAD FOR TRYING IDEAS AND TAKING RISKS. If your friends make you feel ashamed, don’t invite them to your gig.
Going on stage and trying out an idea is the equivalent of showing your working out for a difficult equation on a maths paper - people appreciate seeing your process, not just your end result. SO TAKE RISKS AND PLAY WITH DIFFERENT WAYS OF DOING THINGS.
Remember - each time you do whatever it is you want to do, in front of a crowd - it will get easier. You’ll become familiar with how your body reacts to nerves and to audiences and you’ll be able to plan your gigs accordingly - based on how you know you work in order to get ‘in the zone’.
And read lots. Read and read and read. And watch as much live work as you can.
Your blog post on polyamory genuinely made us laugh out loud. Firstly: art gallery or Nando’s?
Art Gallery. Always.
Secondly: have you ever actually had sex in Nando’s?
You’re a queer woman in a very male-heavy field. Have you experienced any difficulties because of it?
I am lucky that I gig with wonderful people on a lovely circuit and have been blessed with not facing any horridness. I know many other people who haven’t been as lucky.
When you aren’t blogging naked or writing hit comedy shows, what are you watching on Netflix?
Recently watched the DIVINE documentary which was fantastic and any film with Diane Keaton in it, as she is a goddess. And Drag Race.
And how excited are you for Stranger Things season 2 on a scale of 1-11, or are you more of an OA girl?
I’ve never seen OA and I’m excited about ST on about a level 5. Give me Daredevil and Jessica Jones any day.
How do you prepare for your live shows?
Rene Bazinet taught us some Feldenkrais techniques at Gaulier and since then I’ve become obsessed. It makes my body feel like a calm loose piece of cotton.
You wear some interesting things on stage. What’s been your favourite outfit so far?
Hayley Cherkas has designed my last two costumes for Pelican and Being Barbarella and I love them both so much. She’s a fantastic young designer. She sees exactly what I see in my head and translates it to paper and to fabric, in such a beautiful way. Her technique and designs are masterful. She has a great eye. Through her choice of materials, silhouette and cut she balances the surreal with the elegant in a way that makes me feel glamorous whilst still capable to move and play the fool on stage. I like that bizarre balance. She makes me feel like a High Fashion Malvolio.
Writing or performing?
Can’t choose. It’s like picking a puppy over a kitten.
After the Pelican mini-tour, what have you got on for 2017?
Hilda & The Spectrum with Ryan Lane at The Old Joint Stock Theatre in Birmingham in March, alongside previews of my new show (like at The Old Joint Stock Birmingham amongst others) from March. Perhaps back to Gaulier. The Matron Presents is back on the penultimate Wednesday every month at Her Upstairs from March, and finally I also have some writing and filming projects under way…
Favourite Simone de Beauvoir quote?
“The body is not a thing, it is a situation: it is our grasp on the world and our sketch of our project”
= I remind myself of this when I start hating on my curves and my bits.
“To be oneself, simply oneself, is so amazing and utterly unique an experience that it’s hard to convince oneself so singular a thing happens to everybody”
= I think about this when people watching on the underground.
And finally, do you really want to kill your mother?
What do you take me for?
Interview by Louisa Austin