The art of 'going off on one': An interview with Rob Auton



By Anna Trafford, Deputy Arts Editor

Epigram speaks to performer, Rob Auton, about the joy of spoken word, getting into comedy and his show about talking: The Talk Show.

Rob Auton has had the audience in stitches with his stand-up on Russell Howard’s Comedy Hour and commanded the stage with his poetry at Bristol’s spoken word night, Raise the Bar, yet calls himself neither a comic nor a poet. He identifies as ‘just a writer really - a writer and performer of what I do’.

His reluctance to be defined as either comic or poet could seem frustratingly noncommittal, but if you ever have the pleasure of seeing Auton perform, you’ll see that neither term does his unpredictable blend of poetry and stand-up justice. Undefined segues between the two modes, delivered with characteristic deadpan irreverence and in his booming Yorkshire accent, keep the audience on their toes.

"with a spoken word event I would say you never know what’s going to happen"

For Auton, unpredictability is an integral aspect of spoken word performance. He muses, ‘the vast amount of live performance that you see on TV is either music or live comedy. I heard someone in the street saying the other day, ‘I like laughing but I don’t find comedy funny’ and I think quite a lot people feel like that. Whereas with a spoken word event I would say you never know what’s going to happen. Anything goes and it’s just people trying to express themselves’.

He adds, ‘I just think that the best thing about spoken word nights and poetry nights is that it’s a real rollercoaster of emotions a lot of the time. It’s just not monotone and it’s a safe space where you can get exposed to people’s lives. When I go to open mic nights it’s just so interesting to get an insight into the way that people are living. To have, say, 40 people do that in one night, you come away just full of enthusiasm for life.’ Watching headliner Travis Alabanza at Raise the Bar, he says was ‘a real education’, which is what he wants from spoken word. ‘I just want to get exposed to as many different people as I can. I think that’s really healthy’.

Auton stumbled into performing by chance. After an art foundation course and graphic design degree, he started off in advertising, but quickly grew disillusioned due to the limitations it posed on his creativity. He reflects, ‘the thing is about advertising, I found, is that it’s almost the perfect job for someone who considers themselves to be a creative person but at the end of the day it is still a business and it’s about problem-solving for clients’.

He started channelling some of his frustrations and unused ideas into notebooks and one day his boss asked whether he’d like to perform some of what he’d written at a fireworks party. The event ignited his passion and he started trying to find as many open mic nights as he could, soon becoming involved in running London-based spoken word night, ‘Bang Said the Gun’.

After one night, someone came up to him and asked whether he’d like to perform at an alternative comedy event. Rob recalls his hesitation. ‘I was like ‘can I just do exactly the same? I don’t have to change it do I for it to be comedy?’ And he was like ‘no, you can just do that’.

"you only need to phrase something wrong and you can completely throw the audience"

It hasn’t all been plain sailing from the start. He recalls, ‘some of the gigs went well and some were awful but it’s all a learning experience isn’t it and it’s exactly the same now. It’s just a case of trying to get better and never going into a gig thinking ‘this is going to be great’. Like when I did a gig at Raise the Bar I thought, ‘ok this looks like a nice bunch of people’. But even then it’s not a given that it’s going to go well. You only need to phrase something wrong and you can completely throw the audience.’

Don’t be fooled by this apparent modesty though; Auton’s been performing since 2007 - long enough to have learnt a fair few tricks about his craft. He doesn’t hesitate when I ask his advice for aspiring writers and performers: ‘If you have an idea for a line or a poem or something like that, just get it down there and then in the moment. Don’t wait until you’ve got a minute later on because it won’t have the same life to it as when you first thought of it. I think that is something that I’ve learnt. Once you have that initial idea it flows out of you more freely than if you were trying to think ‘oh yeah, it was about that’.

Auton’s usual tactic is to choose a single topic, like hair, the colour yellow, the sky or, as with his current show, talking, and to see where it takes him. He explains, ‘I am going to speak about things I’ve heard people saying, things I wished I’d heard people saying, I imagine what it might be like if certain things could talk to each other, and just the value of having a mouth and a tongue [...]. Just trying to come to terms with that fact and that’s exactly what I’ve done with all my other shows. [It’s] me trying to turn the detective’s lamp on me, shining it in my eyes and saying, ‘What do you feel about this?’ Putting a word in the middle of the spider diagram and just going off on one really.’

Busy smashing what he calls the ‘stigma [...] of corduroy jackets and people sat in silence’ attached to poetry, Rob Auton’s show is the one to watch if you want to discover what spoken word is really all about. If you’ve failed to be convinced by poetry performances or comedy nights in the past, it’s worth giving Auton’s brand of ‘going off on one’ a go.

Feature image: Rob Auton / Facebook

Have you been to see Rob Auton? What did you think? Let us know in the comments below or on social media.

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