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The Sheffield culture guide written by in-the-know locals

Rich Milner

Rich Milner is one of the longest running DIY comedy producers in Sheffield. He has almost a decade of experience bringing some of the best comedians in the country to the intimate function room of the Red Deer at his night Square Hole Comedy, and more recently creating spaces for new comedians in South Yorkshire. Rich’s productions have always been lovingly curated and borne of a genuine desire to make a more diverse and accessible comedy scene in Sheffield.

How would you describe your work?
Gathering people in a room on a relatively selective basis to facilitate the having of laughs.

I would describe my 'work' before that point as absorbing a working knowledge of the broad range of elements of the comedy circuit, both its professional and amateur components, and asking them to perform. I try to book acts who you might not otherwise see around these parts, or not very often. Oh, and I bake cake. I also host/MC/compere the nights with varying degrees of success. Sometimes it really works, of a fashion, but I think I do suffer from the fact that I don't gig regularly anymore.

At the time of starting comedy I was unemployed and I wrote and re-wrote and rehearsed and re-rehearsed my material daily. In order to afford to gig regularly I needed to sort out my employment situation. So I did that, but I was still skint on a zero hours contract. I earned a little more money and acquired a car, but it was quite tiring to work and gig with great frequency. Then I crashed my car, writing it off with three other budding comedians in it at the time. It seemed that I should either wind up doing the comedy circuit or carry on at genuine risk to myself and the potential comedy stars of tomorrow. Now I have somehow found myself a rewarding career in trade unionism and what I have left of my time spent dabbling with stand-up is this little gig that I cherish and the wonderful people who fill the room once a month. So I think it's okay that I'm a pretty inconsistent host when all is considered.

What's your workspace like?
The function room above the Red Deer is my workspace. It's very much a pub function room with charmingly drooping velvet curtains and upholstered benches down each side of the room. It's small, it can only fit 40 people in, and it's perfect. It's made all the more special by the great folk who work there, who've supported the gig from its beginnings. It didn't have a stage, but after a couple of years the Red Deer purchased a small stage which was nice of them. It's quite intimate, and the lighting generally means that the audience are fully visible to the person on stage. Often, performers stare into pure darkness because of proper stage lighting. At Square Hole that's not the case, so the audience can be more readily involved and interacted with, whether in the front row or back. Not that that results in any kind of scenario in which people are 'picked on' but some acts have described it as a bit of a support group or small town hall meeting vibe. I try to have actual conversations with the audience, which in most other rooms would probably have detrimental impact on it being a functional comedy night. For Square Hole, that seems to be part of the charm.

What, who or where should be better known in Sheffield?
I also help run Big No No at the Cellar Theatre, which a group of Sheffield-based comedy folk initially ran as an open mic night. Now we are moving towards a different format – providing an interesting and fun space for interesting and fun acts, and making it a good space for experimentation and alternative ideas. I would like that to be better known. It's a good group of people.

Away from comedy (but not really, as they are also funny) is the band Soup Review. They are brilliant and their music is very often funny and always lovely. They are probably fairly well known already, but should be much more well known.

What would you change about the city?
I can't really answer this question without immediately thinking of class. Having grown up in Sheffield and moved around a little between different social spheres, I think (like most cities I'm sure) what I would most want to change is inequality. As with everything, it is rooted in the peculiarities of history, and even has something to do with the direction the smoke from factories and steelworks traveled during and following the industrial revolution. The big grand houses got built upwind and the rest generally got built in the path of the smog. George Orwell wrote about it if I recall correctly. There was a little compounding of it in my lifetime when the Labour council of the 80s attempted to rationalise education by abolishing the city's sixth forms in favour of colleges, but it wasn't able to push this through in the leafy Tory suburbs. So those upwind areas kept their sixth forms, and the rest of the city had colleges instead. Whatever the merits of either, this disparity eventually manifested in further disparities between Oxbridge-aspiring sixth forms in high priced ares and the colleges where the working class kids tended to end up. I found myself in one of the sixth forms and I wasn't exactly filled with a sense of belonging. It was rife with classism I experienced and racism I observed. The longterm impact of housing and education policy on the social structures that are imposed on the city's children is just one set of factors that should take some of the blame. The wider horror of the marketisation of every atom of our being might deserve more blame. But whilst many of those living in Sheffield would likely say things like how it's very green, not too big, quite safe, and so friendly it's almost like a big village rather than a city – my experience of it has always been through the prism of socioeconomic division, where the affluent through active and passive means divide themselves from the less and lesser affluent, until lives lived miles apart are practically alien to one another. But please do come to my comedy night.

What are you working on at the moment?
I am, as is often the case, a bit behind on booking. I don’t tend to book line-ups very far in advance – partly because I am lazy, but there are benefits. If I suddenly learn about an exciting comedian and want to dive on that feeling of discovery, I can offer them something that’s not over a year away. And, as a little gig that tries to punch above its weight, I have booked ‘TV names’ only for them to very understandably have to cancel in favour of some TV work. So planning ahead doesn’t always result in plans going ahead. I’ve attempted for some time to get a gender balance on every line-up. I’m always utilising word of mouth and watching endless YouTube clips of upcoming comedians to find interesting new acts. I’ve also been asked by Lee Moore of Tales of Whatever, a comedy/storytelling night based in Sheffield, to if I would like to tell a story there sometime. I’m not sure what story I should tell, and it’ll need a lot of editing, which you can probably imagine from having read these overly wordy answers.

What got you interested in comedy?
I always liked watching comedy when I was a kid. I have fond memories of watching Jack Dee on Channel 4. But getting into performing comedy came after I’d already been performing poetry. I wrote what I’d call bad poetry, but okay performance poetry, and was eventually talked into going to a spoken word poetry night called Words Aloud, which was popular in Sheffield at the time. Some of my poems had funny lines, and it was any laughter these lines prompted in the audience that made me think ‘that’s exciting, perhaps I could do more of that’. It was that satisfying sensation of producing an audible emotional reaction that I got hooked on. It’s very ‘instant gratification’ as compared to most other forms of writing, if you get it right. And it’s easy enough to bin it if not.

What is your aim with the nights you put on at The Red Deer?
Before starting Square Hole Comedy I was gigging as an 'open spot', an amateur hopeful who would traverse considerable distances at some cost in order to stand on a stage for five-to-ten minutes to 'hone my craft'. Some of the gigs weren't that much fun. Sometimes they were poorly attended, poorly situated, or just poorly conceived. If you were a bit different, alternative or aspired to do reasonably thoughtful material, then you might not have a great time unless you found a way to either strip your performance of those elements which made it less accessible to some audiences, or have the great talent to strike a fine compromise between your art and their entertainment. For these reasons I wanted to set up a nice gig and invite comedians I liked to perform, and hopefully cultivate an audience who would also enjoy those performers. The gig is just as small as it was then, but I'm very excited to get to book the range of talented and interesting comedians that I try to.

What do you think Sheffield's comedy scene adds to the city?
I like that comedy is quite accessible, and it’s quite inclusive (despite perhaps historical baggage to the contrary). The audience has to participate. If they didn’t, it couldn’t exist. When I did performance poetry, without an audience it would be lonely, and wouldn’t really be a performance. But if the audience didn’t respond at all it wouldn’t make a huge difference to the performance (this might be unfair to say, and there is more of a performance poetry scene these days, but I’m going to stand by it as an opinion). Comedy is palpably bilateral. So any comedy scene adds this in-real-time spontaneous performance feedback to the cultural gamut of the city. Something about this dynamic makes it very democratic, and quite vulnerable. Good comedy nights also result in people socialising around them. A couple of my regular audience members have coupled up after meeting each other at my gig, and have since had kids. I think that’s a terrible mistake, but they seem happy.

Coming up next at Square Hole Comedy: Harriet Dyer, 26 January 2020. See more in our Sheffield Comedy Picks.

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