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Ikechukwu Ufomadu: Amusements

By | Published on Tuesday 15 August 2023

As soon as I heard that Ikechukwu Ufomadu was to perform in Edinburgh this summer I was really interested in finding out more about his show. Reading about the American performer’s career, I was struck by its eclectic and acclaimed trajectory, and felt primed to expect a comedy show that stands out, style-wise, from the more commonplace stand-up format. 

It’s not his first time at edfringe, though it’s the first time he is here with his own work. I spoke to Ike to find out more about his show ‘Amusements’, but also about his interesting career, his hopes for the future, and what motivated him to be in the Scottish capital this August. 

CM: Can you start by telling us what to expect from your work? What are your performances like? How would you describe them in terms of a comedy style or genre? 
IU: I think a lot of my material takes ordinary, mundane aspects of life and tries to twist them in ways to make them feel new and strange.

There’s also usually some kind of tango between being very formal and very silly. I think potential audience members should expect me to play with whatever their expectations are.

I’d classify the work as absurdist or surreal, but perhaps it’s best not to classify it at all, in case some burst of inspiration hits me in the near future that completely changes my approach to writing and performing. I always try to stay open to this happening.

CM: And now, specifically, can we talk about ‘Amusements’. Does it have a particular theme?
IU: I don’t think there’s a central theme to the piece – at least not consciously. However, there are a number of little threads running through the show that sort of revealed themselves in the process of putting it together.

It would seem there’s much exploration done at the boundaries between seriousness and play, sense and nonsense, and stagecraft and statecraft. What this all adds up to though is a mystery – much like life itself.

CM: What inspired the creation of this show? Was it put together for the Edinburgh Fringe or has it already been performed?
IU: I think the show was born of curiosity. For a good long while, I’d been doing five to ten minutes of material at a time on comedy shows around town. And then a couple of years ago, I wondered what would happen if I tried to assemble all these bits into an evening’s length piece of entertainment.

Other live projects I’ve done in the past usually started with some kind of big concept or idea which I’d then try to translate into a show structure that would function almost like a playground – simple anchor points to ground me, but mostly an excuse to play around and improvise in the moment. 

’Amusements was different in that it started from specific bits of material, with me exploring whether they could be woven into a larger whole. I wasn’t consciously thinking about the Fringe, but it’s always been in the back of my mind to try and bring a show here someday.

After a work-in-progress showing in New York last August, one of the audience members suggested thinking about taking it to Edinburgh. And… long story short, here we are.

CM: Have you been to the Festival before? What hopes or expectations do you have for this Edinburgh run? 
IU: I came to the Fringe in 2015 after being cast in a work-in-progress production of an absurdist clown / comedy / variety show. It was a really fantastic introduction to the world of the Fringe and Edinburgh.

I didn’t need to do much on the promotion or production side of things, so I had a lot of downtime to explore and wander around. I remember trying my best to make the absolute most out of every day in case, for whatever reason, I never made it back here again.

Now that I’m back with my own show, I’m less ambitious about packing each day to the brim and more focused on striking a healthy balance between the different things I want to do.

My main goals are to: (1) grow as a performer, (2) continue developing my show and (3) see enough other shows to be sufficiently inspired for whatever creative impulses await me in the future.

CM: So what are you doing when not performing? Are you managing to fit in visits to other shows? 
IU: Thus far, I feel like I pass the days away like some kind of a show business monk.

When I’m not performing, I’m either: (1) preparing to perform, (2) unwinding after performing or (3) addressing my basic human needs for food, sleep, exercise, etc.

I’ve been able to see a few shows – Courtney Pauroso’s ’Vanessa 5000’, Bill O’Neill’s ’The Amazing Banana Brothers’, Martin Urbano’s ’Apology Comeback Tour’ and Gemma Soldati’s ’The Poor Rich’, all of which I recommend – and am hoping to see many more.

Outside of performing, my favourite aspect of the Fringe is being able to discover work from all over the world that I wouldn’t normally get a chance to see in New York.

CM: Can we talk about the other stuff you do now? Well, a little bit, because there seems to be a lot of it – you write, act on stage and on screen, do comedy… do you have a favourite thing to be doing? Or is it all equally compelling? 
IU: My favourite thing to do is create and perform original solo work. But I enjoy hopping between different disciplines and modes of working. More often than not, it offers new perspectives on the creative process.

My experiences writing for TV eventually informed how I went about arranging and editing the various bits in ‘Amusements’. There was a period of time where, for whatever reason, I would get ideas for material while doing staged play readings. There’s something fun in discovering just how porous the boundaries are between all the different ways of making things.

CM: How does filming things compare to performing live?
IU: There’s a certain athleticism at play in performing live. I don’t play sports, so maybe I’m out of my element here, but I think there are parallels.

Both involve training and preparing to do a very specific task – while remaining flexible to changing things up if need be – and then showing up to a specific place at a specific time in order to do that thing. And one must do that thing regardless of whatever comes up to try and stop you from doing that thing. There’s a certain immediacy to everything.

The demands in performing on film are much different. Being on set often feels like being at the airport. There’s a lot of waiting around which, if you’re not careful, can be very draining. There are so many moving pieces in a film production that don’t directly involve you, so it’s a challenge to maintain some level of readiness over the course of a long day.

Another challenging adjustment, particularly as a comedian, is the fact that no-one can laugh at you while you’re being filmed, so it sometimes feels hard to know if something is playing well or not.

And editing can play such a big role in creating a performance, so there’s a bit of letting go that must happen in adjusting from the stage where the performer has a lot more control over how they’re seen. Filming is no less intense, but is a different creature from the immediacy of live performance. 

CM: Where and how did all this begin? Did you always want to be a performer? What steps did you take to become one? 
IU: In sixth grade, I really wanted to get into this advanced speech and theatre class, but only because I wanted to be in all advanced classes. The only way to qualify for that class was by participating in a speech tournament, which consisted of, in part, various acting and acting-adjacent competitive events.

I signed up to compete in pantomime and came up with a five-minute solo piece set to a midi-version of the ‘Ghostbusters’ theme song. It was about a man who woke up late one morning and so had to rush through his routine to make it to work on time.

I called it ’The Man In The Paper Bag Mask’ – a spoof on the then-new film release ‘The Man In The Iron Mask’ – because during his routine, the man accidentally cuts himself shaving several times and so puts on a paper bag mask to hide his mistakes. I managed to do pretty well and got a trophy out of it, which was fun.

But more than that, I was a terribly shy and reserved kid, and performing felt like a way I could express myself. And being able to get laughs was a revelation.

A year later, I informed my mom that I was going to be an actor. Then after high school, I moved to New York to study theatre in college. After college, I had no idea how to translate studying theatre in school into pursuing a career in show business.

There were about ten years of acute struggle in figuring out how to survive as an adult while trying to break into the arts. Then, about five years ago, a more sustainable path started to emerge.

I’ve condensed a lot of life experience with those two previous sentences, but this answer is getting long and perhaps it’d be best to save it for a memoir or something!

CM: What have been the highlights of your career thus far? 
IU: There have been many. The first to come to mind – mostly because it’s among the most recent – was receiving an Emmy nomination last year for the project called ‘Words With Ike’ – a series of short videos, only a couple of minutes long, that each explore a specific word.

The last thing I ever expected the Television Academy to take notice of was a series of short videos, only a couple of minutes long, that each explore a specific word. It was a surreal experience. 

Being invited to do a project of mine at The Public Theatre in New York was another highlight. It’s such a legendary and storied venue where, over the years, I have discovered other artists whose work I really love. So, again, a surreal experience.

Honestly, this Fringe will likely be a highlight. It feels like such a rare thing to be able to perform this much, and I’m very grateful for the chance to do so.

CM: What aims and ambitions do you have for the future? 
IU: I’d like to keep consistently crafting new hours of comic entertainment. I’d like to make a live project of some kind that’s more high-concept and immersive.

I’d like to write a half-hour situational comedy for television. I’d like to record an album of children’s songs. I’d like to write a book of comedic essays.

There’s likely more things, but that’s what I currently have written down on a list of goals that I keep.

CM: What happens next with this show? Do you have further plans for it?
IU: I’ll keep tinkering with it this autumn, and then it’s slated for an Off-Broadway run in New York at Playwrights Horizons starting in November.

It’d be a dream to somehow tour it a little as well and film it someday. And from there, I hope it becomes an indelible memory in the hearts and minds of many; one they’ll look back on with fondness for decades to come. 

CM:  What’s coming up next for you? Do you have anything currently in the pipeline? 
IU: As a member of the Screen Actors Guild and the Writers Guild Of America, the next thing coming up is to continue to strike until a fair deal is reached with the studios to resume work on the TV and film side of things. Outside of that, it’s ’Amusements’ that is getting much of my creative attention right now. 

‘Amusements’ was performed at Pleasance Courtyard at Edinburgh Festival 2023.

LINKS: www.ikehimself.com | twitter.com/ikeminded 

Photo: Zach DeZon