The Secrets Of Storytelling With Comedian Sarah Kendall

By Ben Venables Last edited 22 months ago
The Secrets Of Storytelling With Comedian Sarah Kendall
Storyteller and standup Sarah Kendall.

If we are to take comedian Sarah Kendall at her own word, she must be an exceptional liar.

“If someone is a good storyteller,” she says, “then by definition they are a good liar. As everything they tell you is in aid of the story.”

And where stories are concerned, Kendall can sure spin a fine yarn.

She has twice been nominated for the main Edinburgh award, first in 2004 and then last August for A Day in October, the show she now brings to Soho Theatre.

Over these years Kendall has shifted from stand-up towards storytelling. And while it's storytelling told through the prism of a comedic performance, it's also story in its most ancient form: “For me, telling stories is about sitting round a cave and in this era of, say, CGI, when storytelling is this hugely expensive endeavour, I love the simplicity of just holding a microphone.”

During a Kendall show it's interesting to look at her audience lost in rapt concentration, and within the hour she elicits shocked gasps, along with laughs, as her story twists and turns:. “What I love about it is that people instantly lean forward and listen.”

Australian teenagers

A Day in October takes us to small-town life in Newcastle, New South Wales. It's the early 90s, the economy is bust and an adolescent Kendall is slicing gherkins in McDonald's. This town of “teenage politics and teenage dramas” is a far cry from the soap operas of Australian life we were enjoying back in the UK around the same time. Kendall's shows have a darker tone. She is well aware of this perception gap when she writes: “In a way, it's undermining the Neighbours and Home and Away stereotype of Australian teenagers, these happy-go-lucky, outdoorsy types.”

Kendall wasn't the kind of teenager from Erinsborough or Summer Bay; she was almost as unpopular as her friend George Peach. Mercilessly bullied, the day in October of the title centres around Peach and a near fatal accident on a school trip which changes the playground hierarchy.

Sarah Kendall at the Edinburgh awards.

But is A Day in October a story then, or straight autobiography?

“I always find it interesting how many people ask after the show, 'is that bit true?'. I think it's a natural human compulsion that after we're told a story we want to pick through the parts that are real and those that aren't real.”

Kendall's shows are like novels encased into an hour, and we chat a little about Jane Austen. It brings us back to this same point about truth and fiction, and how a narrator can play with audience expectations: “I love to undermine the authority of the storyteller,” she says.

Kendall cites Margaret Atwood, Kurt Vonnegut and David Mitchell as “the novelists I get really excited about,” but adds, “although I never feel I could do what they do.”

There's modesty there, but Kendall does tell us her stories come to her “more like film”, and how she is complimented by how often she is compared to comedy filmmaker John Hughes's movies on adolescent themes.

Why we tell stories

Kendall has lived in London for years now, but despite the unflinching picture she paints of her home town, it is the place, and her adolescence is the time, her stories seem to return too. Is she homesick?

“Yes, but in time and emotion rather than a geographical sense. When I think back to 20 years ago, I find it a really rich theme when I'm revisiting events.”

But this is no sepia tinted nostalgia, it's because she knows she can't go back to the place her stories revisit, that with time that place no longer exists: “What I feel when I'm writing is how long ago that chapter in my life was.

"Stories are like a piece of a puzzle. Life is very bombarding. We use stories to make sense of life.”

Sarah Kendall: A Day In October runs at Soho Theatre, 21 Dean Street W1D 3NE, 22-27 February. Tickets £11-£19.25.

Last Updated 22 February 2016