Chelsea Zeller is embarking on her first solo performance, and her Melbourne International Comedy Festival debut, with High Achievers, written by The Comedy Company’s Tim Smith and Michael Syme. Theatre People spoke to the team about putting the show together ahead of the festival’s kick off next week.
“We met Chelsea when we wrote a sketch show last year at Tuxedo Cat, Melbourne and cast five performers” said Syme.
“We were really impressed with Chelsea’s range and ability. So, after we’d finished the run, we decided we’d like to collaborate with her on something down the track” said Smith.
“Basically, we wanted to do a show that would let Chelsea do a few characters rather than just one. We talked about some different ideas and came up with a night of motivational speakers. We weren’t even thinking about the Comedy Festival specifically, we were just going to give it to Chels, to do whatever she wanted” The Comedy Company duo said.
“In 2016, I was stoked to be learning from two comedy writers who have been in the biz for quite a while. When they suggested we work together on a solo show, I jumped at the chance” said Zeller.
High Achievers claims to hold the secrets of self-betterment, through the portrayal of a number of diverse characters, from an adventurer to a former test cricketer and an Aussie hip hop legend.
For Zeller, this is a ‘double whamming cherry popping”, her first solo show and her first time at MICF.
“ I’m definitely used to performing comedy in ensembles, whether it’s clowning or sketch, but High Achievers is still a real collaboration. I think it’d be a totally different experience if I was devising and performing my own work and with that comes its own unique set of challenges” she said.
“Working with writers Tim and Michael has been a joy, and having a switched on and witty young director like Sam Russo on board adds another voice to the whole work so it’s more than a two-dimensional set of characters talking to a group of people. It’s equal parts exciting and terrifying, but I feel very psyched to be able to bring five very different characters to life in a room of a bunch of strangers and see how it flies. But having a great script is half of the work, so I’m grateful there’s that” said Zeller.
“We loved writing this show together because it’s just making each other laugh”, said Syme.
“This was interesting because we’d actually speak to each other in our version of the character’s voice, so we’d just follow where they took us. And stop to hone a line or joke. We’d say, ‘what’s the wanky pseudo-scientific term that Lyn, the life coach, would use here to describe a human problem?’ And we’d bat ideas back and forward until we found the best” he said.
“Once you work out the character they sort of write themselves. And then, when you give it to Chelsea and Sam, they take it to the next level” said Smith on Zeller and director Sam Russo.
On all of her various characters, Zeller feels like a kid in a candy store, creating and differentiating between each.
“I obviously have a text to stick to but there’s a lot of play and improvisation. We just try a bunch of different offers and see what works best. I have been having a lot of fun researching and watching a lot of Motivational Speakers – Tony Robins, TED talks, inspirational real life stories. The script is hilarious, and its characters are larger than life, but to find the truth in them I’ve been observing a lot of similar personalities (rappers, cricketers to name a few), and drawing from their speech and mannerism. It also helps that the characters are all quite heightened, that makes differentiating them easier” she said.
“The theme of motivational speaking is a goldmine of comic potential. I’m having a ball” she said.
“We feel a little guilty because the self-help market is clearly a wonderful group of not-at-all cynical people who just want to help their fellow man. That’s why they hardly charge anything for it. And now big businesses and corporations have these motivational events as part of their human resources department. Even if you don’t think you need fixing, your employer is telling you that you do” said Smith.
“And the show’s also about celebrity. It just seems accepted that if someone is famous – for whatever reason, like they’re good at sport or something, that they’re worth listening to. That they clearly are doing life right – because they’re successful. So they must know something that we don’t. And I guess if we’re saying anything – it’s ‘are we sure that these are the people with wisdom?’” said Syme.
“I’m learning a lot from working with Tim and Michael, their experience and knack for writing characters (both male and female) that are ridiculous and complex is inspiring me in my own practice as an emerging writer and comedian” she said.
“I also think it’s very exciting that two established male writers are passionate about writing interesting roles for young women. I like being able to tell stories from a range of perspectives and experiences, in this show I play both male and female characters and I love it” said Zeller.
Catch this zany show, which holds the key to unlock the door to open the room that houses the box that contains the pouch that holds your brand-new future. Buying tickets is the first step to changing your life. High Achievers plays at Tasma Terrace from 10 – 22 April. Tickets at: https://www.comedyfestival.com.au/2017/shows/high-achievers#