Following a number of cancelled live events due to COVID, the Aberystwyth Comedy Festival is back. Here, writer and comedian Esyllt Sears hears from festival director Henry Widdicombe on the importance of this return to live comedy.
Two of the best comedy festivals in the UK happen in Wales. There, I’ve said it. And I’m sure I’m not alone in that belief.
Little Wander have created two events in the Machynlleth and Aberystwyth comedy festivals that provide acts with safe spaces to both debut new material and showcase their final, polished shows in front of audiences who not only love comedy but understand it and the chaotic processes that sometimes go into creating it.
I grew up in the area that surrounds both Machynlleth and Aberystwyth and so to see someone put so much faith in these two towns as venues that would attract not only some of the best comedy acts from around the UK (via the Cambrian Mountains and Crewe), but also the audiences needed to fill out large rooms, is quite an overwhelming feeling.
It’s been two years since Little Wander was able to run a comedy festival – Aberystwyth 2019 was the last time – and so I wanted to find out from Henry, one of the company directors, about what they’ve had to endure and overcome to make this year’s event happen.
“We had no idea what was coming down the line. At the Aberystwyth festival in 2019 we were already planning for Machynlleth 2020. Little did we know that we would be cancelling our next three festivals.
“We’re clearly still not fully out of the woods with this pandemic, but we felt that, if the guidelines allowed us to go ahead and it was safe to do so, then we should put the festival on. Having said that, we didn’t take the decision lightly either – we wanted to understand how people would feel about attending and ensure that their safety was our main priority.
“It wasn’t until we ran the comedy tent at Greenman Festival that we felt we were making progress around our own perception of how the festival could take place. Seeing an event happen, seeing people laughing and comedians doing what they do best made it all seem possible again. We’ve all missed bringing people together through a collective experience that helps us all feel less isolated.
“It’s been a difficult two years for the arts sector and for many it’s proven to be quite a confidence knock. I don’t think any of us had considered how fragile the industry was before all this happened – it disappeared overnight. And even now, we are still in a strange grey area between what was before and what is coming back.
“One of the few good things that came out of the last two years is that it gave us all a chance to reflect – what do we want the festival to be, how should it look, and also what do we want for Wales?
“Our company is very much centred on the Welsh element of what we do. We are a Welsh company and work predominantly in Wales and our aim is to influence the wider UK comedy scene from here. We want less of a reason for artists and people behind the scenes to have to move out of Wales. It isn’t beyond the realms of possibility that you can have a career in comedy and not have to move away.
“It is so great to be back in Aberystwyth. And it made sense for us to hold the smaller of our festivals first in order to lead onto Machynlleth in May 2022. However, our long term aim is to grow Aberystwyth to be bigger than Machynlleth as the latter has already reached its capacity.
“We picked Aberystwyth because we love the area and it has some amazing venues – from an independent cinema and pier to an arts centre and a film and television studies centre. It has all the best parts of a city but as a town.
“Having a large university here also helps. Our partnership with Aberystwyth University is going from strength to strength, we couldn’t do this without them. Not only are they our principal sponsor but there is also great potential there to work together – on showcasing the best comedy that’s on offer to the student body and also in utilising the students in placements and job opportunities outside of the festivals. There’s real potential for skills growth.
“I also find that being near the sea helps put things in perspective. It’s where you’ll probably find me at the end of each day during the festival.”
The Aberystwyth Comedy Festival runs from 1 – 3 October. Tickets can be bought here.