ED2017 Caro Meets ED2017 Comedy ED2017 Interviews

Robert White: InstruMENTAL

By | Published on Wednesday 12 July 2017

If you’re a regular Fringe-goer, you might well have seen Robert White’s previous Festival shows, one of which won him a Malcolm Hardee Award. This year, he takes something of a new direction as he presents his latest show, which combines his comedy skills with the fruits of his musical training.
Through the show he tells a verging-on-unbelievable story of incidents that befell him in his late teens, prior to a significant diagnosis that suddenly made a lot of things clear. I spoke to Robert to find out more about his life, career and this show.

CM: Can you start by explaining for our readers what to expect from ‘InstruMENTAL’, stylistically and genre wise?
RW: It is a one man comedy opera (though it wouldn’t be opera in the way that most people would understand it) containing props, puns, jokes, recorded music, live music, singing, recitation, poetry and a crazy story. All of which I’ve made or produced or composed or written or otherwise created myself.

CM: What story do you tell? Is it entirely truthful?
RW: It is a totally true story from when I was 19 and my life went tits up due to a ridiculous faux criminal incident, that came from an autistic mental breakdown, which grew out of a reaction to a highly tense relationship, which I got into due to denial of my sexuality.

CM: What themes do you explore through the show?
RW: Whilst the show is a story and doesn’t explicitly analyse or unpick anything directly, it does touch upon various subjects from self-acceptance through to misfortune, misunderstanding, the way the police treat people with mental conditions, and much more.

CM: It sounds as though the show touches on some pretty serious stuff – how easy is it to create something funny around those themes?
RW: Comedy can be found in the darkest places and in the most ridiculous places; in this case it comes from the ridiculousness of something so unbelievable actually being real, as well as the jokes, music, props and puns which are used along the way.

CM: You studied music, didn’t you? How did you end up going into comedy instead?
RW: The show sort of explains this. Basically, at 19, after my music degree, I got a criminal record, as well as discovering I had Asperger’s syndrome. Where my childhood and adolescence had been an uncomfortable journey (the reasons for which were unknown at the time), my adulthood became a struggle to support myself and understand myself with a newly found knowledge of Asperger’s. Numerous jobs came and went and then comedy came along, which was the thing that continued and grew and so it has stuck.

CM: When you were a child, what did you expect to be when you grew up…?
RW: When I was a child I used to teach myself to play the piano on a rickety out-of-tune upright instrument in the back room of our house, and compose music and write songs. I think I would have wanted to be a composer, but I didn’t come from a family background where that sort of thing was even considered an option, I didn’t know how to go about getting into that, I didn’t have the money to study over and above my degree and, as I said, at the age of 19, when I should have been thinking of taking steps in that direction, my life took a shit on me. I’m not saying I would have been a composer if everything was perfect, but I am saying that I didn’t even take as much as a glance down that road.

CM: As you touched on a couple of questions ago, in the years between graduating and then taking up stand-up, you did many different jobs, didn’t you? What kind of thing did you do, and why so many?
RW: I have worked as a teacher, worked in a factory, numerous call centres and shops, I have given leaflets out on the street, worked for insurance companies and much more besides. I have done so many things. Having Asperger’s, it’s hard to fit in with people. It’s a hidden disability so people often don’t make allowances, and can think you’re being rude or odd or obnoxious. Numerous situations would arise where jobs would end for many and various reasons to do with not fitting in with people or being odd or such.

CM: Did getting the Asperger’s diagnosis have a positive effect on your life? How does it affect or inform the way you perform?
RW: The Asperger’s diagnosis was like a light in the dark for me. It didn’t mean that things immediately became better but, through performing comedy my social ability is hugely improved compared to 20 years ago, when I was 19 and this story took place. In terms of performing, I feel my musical and improvisational ability are partly due to my autism, in that I can think laterally and make connections, puns come from my autistic use of language as I take language literally, and there are jokes that come from Asperger’s experience too.

CM: I read somewhere that you have webbed toes, and I remembered that, because I do too. Have you ever had anyone respond badly to them?
RW: I was 16 stone at 16 and fat during all my secondary school years, due to comfort eating, so when people saw my toes in the showers, during PE,  they were much too busy picking on me for being the fat kid to bother with calling me a freak for having webbed feet.

CM: You’ve taken a number of shows to the Edinburgh Fringe. What makes you want to go back? What do you like about it?
RW: I’ve taken three shows to Edinburgh. The first was a non-starter – someone offered to produce my show if I worked for them but I hadn’t been performing long and got no audience, so basically spent my first Edinburgh working as a dogsbody. My second and third shows were good, I got some great reviews and won the Malcolm Hardee award. In these shows I was doing an extended stand up set, as in, the stuff that I do in clubs and gigs but for longer. I have now seen that many Edinburgh shows take the form of a narrative which is much more like musicals I wrote as a child. So this new show combines the music from my childhood with the comedy of my adulthood. As to why I go back?  Well, comedy is my only option for employment and Edinburgh is a way to try and improve my career prospects.

CM: What non-Festival things do you like to do when you are at the Festival?
RW: I like speaking with friends, comedy has given me friends and acquaintances and people to speak to, and learning social skills has given me the ability to mix with people much more than ever before. In fact, before comedy, and before learning about myself with Asperger’s, I had very few friends and often fell out with people. I also like to go to the cinema, walk in green areas when it’s sunny and, if there are any piano practice rooms, I’d like to find a real piano and do that every so often.

CM: What other shows are you planning to see while you are in Edinburgh?
RW: I’m looking forward to seeing everything and anything with no specific choices, and Terry Alderton who is an absolute genius.

CM: What plans do you have for the future? Do you have any idea where you’d like to be ten years from now?
RW: I have no idea for the future apart from the fact I want to continue growing as a person and want to find a place in life with as much stability and as little struggle as possible.

CM: What’s coming up in the nearer future, after Edinburgh?
RW: After Edinburgh I plan to be sitting in my room in total silence with the lights turned off.

Robert White performed ‘InstruMENTAL’ at Gilded Balloon Teviot at Edinburgh Festival 2017.