WHEN OPPORTUNITY KNOCK’S – LET IT IN
Kicking off our Bold Moves Find Balance series is the seriously talented Vix Leyton, head of PR for Carwow, stand up comic and podcaster.
For the first part of my life my parents would have told you, sometimes proudly and sometimes through gritted teeth, I was a born performer destined for the stage.
From applying (unsuccessfully) for Pop Stars as a teenager, to getting an A in drama. Somewhere along the line I lost my nerve, and over time, like Japanese Knotweed, the nervousness twisted itself around my mind and into a full blown phobia. Over time, I quietly downgraded any dreams I might have had on that level to a more manageable, micro way of working in performance, a career in PR. As time passed the fear continued to get worse, and the speaking didn’t even have to be particularly public; despite being the ‘face’ of household name companies in senior roles, I would worry so much about presenting at a meeting that I could make myself sick the night before. I’d endure it but I didn’t enjoy it and this frustrated me. I was the first person to complain at conferences where panels were ‘male, pale and stale’ WHERE ARE ALL THE WOMEN?
I’d storm, but deep down I was a fraud – whenever I was invited to do panels or speaking opportunities, I would quietly decline and this shamed me. New Year 2018, I drunkenly pledged my resolution to get over the fear and start being the change I wanted to see in the world.
I signed up for a half day Stand Up Skills course with the Not For Profit, ‘Funny Women’ run by former PR and now comedy powerhouse, Lynne Parker. Up until the moment I had to leave for the session, it was touch and go whether I was going to attend and Twitter, which has been the surprising source of many life changes, came to my rescue – I tweeted my nerves about it and found another Cardiff girl – Jen Smith – who was travelling up to London to attend, I had a friend! Knowing someone was looking out for me to arrive was just enough incentive to brave it. The session was terrifying in parts, but quietly revolutionary – I could feel my mind shifting, and new little pathways opening, and, through the nerves and stress, I really enjoyed the performance element – there was a question forming, tickling the edge of life as I knew it; ‘What if…’
I decided to ask the Universe (okay, it was Twitter again) I threw out that I had done a comedy course, and wanted to give it a try so I appealed for any information on how to get started. Then I waited. Nothing came of it… or at least, that’s what I thought. A few weeks later my favourite Comedian Mark Watson announced a 26 hour marathon show and appealed to volunteers to take on a challenge for charity – we’d been tweeting back and forth about something else and he remembered me mentioning stand up. ‘Did you say you were doing comedy now…?’ No, no I didn’t. Nonetheless the challenge was issued – come and learn stand up, on stage at The Pleasance London. It was terrifying, and exciting, and I was hooked. I did my first five minute set at the amazing Alternative Comedy Memorial Society a month later (where I would, poetically do my 100th gig in a year just before lockdown) and something started.
Alongside my day job I was committing to 2 – 3 open mic gigs a week to try to build a credible set, and the quality of the night varied from bustling full audiences of people who loved comedy and valued being there at the start of a comic’s journey, to pubs that I had previously only seen at the start of procedural crime dramas to an audience exclusively consisting of the other comics on that night. Women were relatively scarce on the bills despite often putting on the strongest sets of the nights; as with the conferences, it started to itch… I enjoyed doing my five and occasionally ten minute spots but I was proficient in events from my time in PR, why didn’t I just put on my own show?
As a lot of my moments of extreme bravery tend to start, this thought manifested into reality whilst tipsy on the May Bank Holiday weekend in my local pub – I’d spotted a function room upstairs and boldly asserted to the landlady that they needed a comedy night and I was the person to put it on. I tweeted Jen Brister, one of my comedy idols, told her I was setting up a night and asked her to headline for me – she gave me a date. It was on. The first one was undoubtedly just friends and family – but I booked a selection of my favourite women I had met on the open mic circuit and it was a joyous occasion. I didn’t mention in the marketing that it was an ‘all female’ line up, as far as I was concerned it wasn’t relevant. The one-off charity night became monthly, attracting some brilliant Pro women comics who had heard about it and wanted to support it. Side note: women in comedy are incredible – I have never seen such enthusiasm to roll the ladder down for those trying to climb up, and the support I got from day one really spurred me on – I wanted to be a part of the scene, and become one more hand down for people newly getting started, providing a night that was safe, fun and female run felt like one way of doing it. To placate my friends back home in Cardiff, I took the format of my night home – again appealing to Twitter to find a venue and acts around my hometown. It was a hit. That too became a monthly event. It was a gruelling often 5 night a week schedule, alongside the full time job, but I had never had so much energy and focus.
When the pandemic hit, I was running 3 comedy nights across 3 different venues, had completed my 100 shows – that I was told in an offhand manner by a dismissive pro at the very start was the minimum amount of gigs I needed to do before I was allowed any opinion in comedy – and had a brilliant venue lined up for my first Fringe run. For reasons we all know, it was not to be, and the lockdown hit harder because I’d been working solidly for a year towards what felt like an almost cinematic point, scrabbling to get the material and the profile to take a good run at the August comedy institution. Desperate not to lose momentum, I tried all kinds of things to keep people interested, from comedy unboxings to a series of Instagram Live chats that once again relied on the huge generosity of pro comics, from Sarah Keyworth to Seann Walsh, who agreed to let me interview them on a Sunday afternoon about all things comedy in a bid to get better without actually doing any comedy. I was doing as many online Zoom shows as I could, and thought about putting on my own but I didn’t want to contribute more of the same thing, so I decided to try a panel show.
Comedy Roulette, was a live stream format run on Twitch and an effort for me to put out something that fit what I enjoyed doing and thought would be a showcase for my style of comedy – story telling, adlibbing and giving out sass – I didn’t see a lot of panel show formats doing the rounds and as a Dave channel addict and big dreamer, I wanted to see what it was like to be a female host of my own show. It involved picking up an entirely new digital skill set whilst on the job and pushed through all my prior notions that I wasn’t technically minded. Nonetheless, on one of the episodes, the tech really failed on the picture but the audio track was salvaged. I offered it up to the regular viewers so it wasn’t a total loss, the feedback was amazing and, once again, a small thing escalated. I wanted to make it into a podcast.
Over the course of a few months I pulled in favours, expert advice and even a whole brand identity from the most talented people I knew – I have so much respect for people who buy the kit online and just go for it, but that’s never been my style. While I knew I couldn’t make people love it, I could give myself a fighting chance by giving them no immediate reasons to hate it – like a bad listening experience or branding that was less than perfect; the first step to making it a thing was making people believe it was a thing so like a classic PR girl, I took the time, to put a strategy together. The amazing team at Studio 1440, who amazingly agreed to do my brand identity, mooted that Comedy Roulette sounded a little harsh, and pitched a brilliant mood board themed around vintage games arcades. We changed the name to ‘The Comedy Arcade’ booked the one from Gavin and Stacey in Barry Island, packed the car and decamped to Wales for a photoshoot. The next step was booking a Covid safe studio and guests, again it was favours here from the same brilliant comedians that had been supporting me all along. 10 Episodes were made, a live launch – streamed to an audience that reached 10,000 views – happened on 17th October – and a dream became a reality.
Fast forward to now, reviewing a year where nothing went how anyone planned, and I am astonished by what I have built. It’s such a cliche that I’m almost embarrassed to say it, but comedy is probably the hardest I’ve worked but with the biggest amount of joy. I’m constantly putting myself into situations I would never have dreamed of, and ticking off bucket list things – from performing alongside my comedy idols and participating in photo shoots to appearing on podcasts that I love. And it’s also become a business in its own way – I had the thrill of registering Neon Flamingo Ents in May, which is the house that holds the comedy nights we run, the corporate events we host on a regular basis, online and in person, and the production of ‘The Comedy Arcade’ that unbelievably started charting on itunes in its first week out.
One of the best things about doing stand-up is that it has, from the start, facilitated a complete switch off from my day job. My career has always been a hugely defining element of my character, a 24 hour concern, and because of that a lot of my social circle belong in similar roles which narrowed my world and left me stripped of self esteem when things went wrong. This has taken me out of my element, introducing me to new people and challenges and giving the workday a ‘hard stop. I’ve been a huge fan of stand up comedy for my whole life, so getting to be on stage with comedians I have loved for years has been unreal, coming from something that this time last year I would have described as my worst nightmare. I feel incredibly lucky to have found a new vocation that utilises all the skills I have picked up during my career in PR so I haven’t had to choose one path or the other, it’s just that path is now clad in sparkly mirror tiles. If my story leaves you with anything, I would hope it would give you one more reason to believe that it is never too late to change your life, and no dream is too big.