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I TALK TO Athena Kugblenu

Having made her Edinburgh Festival Fringe debut last year, Athena Kugblenu is back after a successful with another hour of stand-up, Follow The Leader, in which she talks about a new way to talk about politics, race, class and identity in a time where there seems to be little middle ground.

© Karla Gowlett

Last time we spoke you were about to head to Edinburgh with your debut hour. How did it go for you?

It went really well. It was a bit nerve-wracking but I had really good word of mouth. I like reviewers but I think word of mouth is better. Immediately afterwards I wasn't sure how well I did but then I look back and realise that I had a nice little run.

I had really nice feedback from audience members who effectively pay my bills so they're the ones you want to make happy.

Were you noticing that audiences were increasing each night then as a result of word of mouth?

Yeah and en I had lots of people saying they came to see me because it was recommended to them by their friends or on social media. I had people coming again and bringing their friends which is really sweet because money is not easily available so to come and see the show twice is the most flattering thing.

I felt like people were leaving my show happy. I definitely had some dead shows, don't get me wrong, but generally they were leaving really happy, so that was really satisfying.

When you first go to Edinburgh as a comedian you have this real industry focus. You want to be seen, you want to tour etc. but actually you realise that all you're doing is playing a club gig but you're on stage for an hour.

So you have to keep reminding yourself that you're just doing what you do week in week out.

When did you decide to return this year?

I think I was always going to come back. A couple of things happened. Underbelly offered me a room and a time and you don't really say no do you?

And then I managed to get myself knocked up so I thought "Oh God, I've got to go to Edinburgh now because I can't do it in 2019 because I'll be a little busy. So if I didn't do it now I'd have to take a much longer break.

What's this year's show about?

This year's show is called Follow the Leader and it's basically a show about how unhappy I am with all of the leaders we have at the moment. I'm saying specifically the western world because that's generally where most of my dissatisfaction comes from.

But then I thought, well it's not just the leaders, it's the people as well isn't it? Because we live in democracies right? And then I thought what gives me the right to criticise a) citizens and b) leaders when I'm not perfect.

It's about putting too much faith in humanity and people having to ultimately fix themselves before they can complain about things... but with jokes!

How have you found this year's show to write?

Harder because last year was my first show and I had about three years of material. Even though it was quite topical in the end, I had this wealth of unheard material and ideas and notes. So even if it hadn't been tested, I had it in a notepad.

This year was a totally blank slate. There's nothing in my show that is less than 8 months old so it was definitely harder. But I think because it was harder, and because it was a blank slate, it's really benefitted the show. I'm not just going "That's a good bit, I'll stick it in", I'm thinking about the structure and what really fits in with the theme and what I'm trying to say.

What did you learn last year that's informed your show this year?

That people are tired of jokes when they come to your show. Even though they buy a ticket and they know they're coming to see a stand-up, they've also seen three stand-ups that day. They've got three more in the diary and they're there for a week.

So I learnt not to bombard them with so much material. Have moments for the audience to think in the show. Have ups and downs too. I know it sounds obvious, but the way you fill up an hour is different to the way you fill twenty minutes.

My show last year was quite dense I think and an hour goes quite quickly! By the time you've done your banter, you're five minutes in!

A lot of debut acts talk about the pressure they feel in Edinburgh. Did you feel that pressure? Did you read reviews?

I didn't read reviews whilst I was up there because I didn't want them to either put me off or give me a big ego. In the end, they didn't do anything because they were all three, three, three, three - so I was like "I don't know what to do with these".

Towards the end I found it very exhausting and tiring but this year I'm hopefully going to be a lot more relaxed.

How have the previews been going?

Really well. I had a really weird one where a few went really well but then I got this inbox from this guy who said "Don't take this show to Edinburgh. You're just putting shame on black people. Me and my girlfriend hated it. All you do is talk about being promiscuous and playing up to stereotypes blah blah blah..." and it really got to me.

He went on to say "You should get to know people like Stephen Colbert and Trevor Noah" and I was like, "Yeah, I think I've heard of them."

I read a great analogy once about art which is that art is a bit like when a quarterback throws in American football and whoever catches it and how they catch it, isn't really up to that quarterback. So when you throw meanings out to the crowd, however they receive it, you can't really help.

You can do what you can and to be fair he did make me think "Athena, go through your show line by line and make sure you're not misunderstood. But not at the cost of a laugh."

I've done fewer previews this year actually because last year my show was really scripted and I wanted to do more writing on stage. I didn't want to go to Edinburgh with the final show. I wanted to really use those first two days to experiment with my room. That really shook me last year because I had to change so much and because it was such a rigid show, it was difficult.

So this year it's a little looser but it's still been rehearsed. I just feel like it's going to be more malleable to the environment and the staging and to the Edinburgh audience who we can all agree are a bit weird. And I mean that with all the love in the world, but they're tired, they tend to be diverse in terms of nationality. They smile more than laugh.

What are you most looking forward to about returning to Edinburgh this year?

I think taking it easy actually. Most times when I go to Edinburgh I never say no to a gig, I never say no to a PR opportunity, I flyer flyer flyer but now I'm doing my show and picking and choosing how I spend my time.

I feel like I work really hard. I really like the show and hopefully I'll let the show do the talking. I've got a lot of perspective this year and if the show's a success it's because it deserved to be. And if it's not it's because it didn't deserve to be.

Whereas before I was running around going "Please come and see my show!" but actually if they like it and it's a good show, I've got a good time, a good venue, they'll come.

Who are you looking forward to seeing perform this year?

Sindhu Vee is doing her debut so that will be really good. Catherine Bohart's show will be a good one. Eleanor Tiernan I'd quite like to see. We've crossed paths loads on the circuit but I've never seen her do an hour so I'd love to see her.

Outside of the Fringe what are you working on?

Hopefully more radio because I really enjoy that. I'm working on scripts which is what I started doing this year. I got my first sketches broadcast on BBC Radio 4 which was one of my aims for this year, to write stuff that people say out loud.

I'm hopefully going to start a podcast because I'll be having a bit of time off obviously, so what better thing to do than start a podcast? I'm constantly on them so once I'm off, that might be a nice thing to do.

It's going to be about being a new parent. I had this idea of people coming to keep me company and not just comedians. People from across the artistic and creative world, I'm just interested in people.

If you publish that I'll have to bloody do it now... so I'm in your hands! (Laughs)

Finally, how would you sum up your show in just five words?

Funny. Honest. Thought-provoking. Observational. Fun.

Athena Kugblenu: Follow the Leader runs from 1st - 26th August (not 13th) at 5:30pm at Underbelly, Bristo Square (Clover). Book tickets here.

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