Earlier this month, rising senior Michael Fleming found himself on stage at the Bill Murray Comedy Club in London’s Islington district, performing stand-up in a show hosted by British comedian Arthur Smith.
Fleming knew he and some other Emerson College students would be ending their month-long trip to London at the comedy club, so he had the majority of his material prepared, but there was also the audience to consider.
“One of the most important things for comics to realize is you shouldn’t just stick to your material, because you have to read the audience and see what they’re [reacting to],” said Fleming, a Media Arts Production major with a concentration in screenwriting. “I had a lot of Trump material in my bit so I think that translated well, because I think he’s a world figure.
“I also had a lot of shower material,” he added. Apparently, the shower in his room was difficult to operate.
Fleming was one of a dozen Emerson students to travel to London July 13–August 13 for the inaugural From Shakespeare to Stand-Up Global Pathways program. Global Pathways, offered through Emerson’s Office of Internationalization and Global Engagement, is a series of 14 credited summer programs that immerse students in a particular topic or discipline in locations around the world. The London excursion was one of four new programs that took students to Berlin, Ghana, and Cuba.
From Shakespeare to Stand-Up examined the history and evolution of British comedy and how it’s entwined with issues of class. Through classroom work, sightseeing trips, walking tours, attending plays and comedy shows, writing, and performing, students learned about the differences in American vs. British comedy and incorporated what they learned into their own original work. They also had plenty of opportunity to explore the city on their own.
“How cool is it to be a kid and get to go live in London for a month and go tooling around London like you’re from there?” said Manny Basanese ’82, assistant professor in the Department of Visual and Media Arts (VMA), and along with VMA Professor Tom Kingdon, faculty co-director of the program.
The students spent mornings in class, where Kingdon, who worked for the BBC and lived in London for many years, taught a course on Class in English Comedy and led them on walking tours of the city that covered different aspects of English culture.
“I tried to give them a cultural introduction to London and English society in general so they weren’t just getting a tourist-level appreciation, but [were getting] something deeper,” Kingdon said. “Everything in English is historical. If you can’t pick up those historical signals, you’re missing a lot of what’s going on around you.”
Basanese worked with the students on crafting their own material based on what they were learning. For one assignment, students broke into groups and visited different markets around London, and then wrote comic scenes based on what they saw or heard.
Many field trips and activities, as well as the students’ accommodations in the Waterloo district, were arranged through CAPA, a nonprofit that partners with colleges and universities to facilitate study abroad programs. They organized a number of cultural activities that didn’t directly have to do with comedy but helped round out the experience, Basanese said.
A highlight of the program was a weekend trip to Edinburgh for the legendary Fringe, the world’s largest performing arts festival where anyone can put on any kind of show.
“It was a crazy experience. I’ve never seen anything like it,” said Brittney Eisnor, a rising junior who, like Fleming, is concentrating in screenwriting.
Eisnor wasted zero time in the Scottish capital, checking out ten “really unique” shows in two days.
“That was the best thing we did in line with our program because we got to see a lot of young or amateur comedians, because anyone could basically set up a show,” she said. “It was just good to see a lot of younger comedians who were more like ourselves.”
The London program obviously appeals to students interested in comedy and will eventually be a natural fit for majors in the new Comedic Arts program, Basanese said. But because only rising juniors and seniors were eligible, and 2016–2017 was the first year the comedy major was offered, most of this summer’s students were from other departments.
Molly Zalman is an exception. The rising junior transferred from another college to major in Comedic Arts and said she learned a lot of things about comedy that she never would have discovered otherwise.
“It was a much more enriching experience, going to London, being able to go into a pub or have tea, just knowing that’s what this work is based off of, this sort of social/class setting,” Zalman said.