We chat with Melbourne International Comedy Festival Director Susan Provan ahead of the 2017 event

The Melbourne International Comedy Festival has been delivering laughs to audiences for three decades.  Whoever’s been running the show must doing something right – right?

Look no further than Festival Director/CEO, Susan Provan, who earlier this month was recognised for her incredible work and inducted into the Victorian Honour Roll of Women. “I got an e-mail from Rich Hall saying, ‘I heard you were made a knightress,’” Provan laughs. “I view it as not just something for me but something for my industry and my world, so I regard it as a bit of a gong for all of us.”
Each year, it takes a team effort to bring live comedy to the masses. If you’re curious as just how much work actually goes into staging a festival of this magnitude, Provan can tell you all about it. “It’s non-stop,” she explains. “We roll from one straight into the next and some things are in planning for more than a year. There’s already stuff bubbling away for 2018. We’re focused on the festival from the conclusion of the preceding one.”
Clearly Provan and co. take this business of comedy pretty seriously. When it comes to measuring the success of any given festival season, there’s focus delegated to one thing in particular. “There’s a lot of pressure from the media every year to get ever higher ticket sales – an ever-higher attendance – whereas, in fact, our focus is on sustainability,” says Provan. “I’m happy if the average number of bums on seats per show has gone up a bit rather than the overall ticket sales, because that indicates the health of all the shows."
Festival patrons are spoiled for choice this year, to say the least. As ever, the festival branches out far beyond your traditional stand-up comedy. “There’s so much in the program that is more narrative, sketch, more physical or musical,” explains Provan. “Obviously Frank Woodley, everybody knows him for his ridiculous, crazy physicality. In terms of music, there are people such as Geraldine Quinn, who is amazing and has been doing great work in Australia for so long. She’s a huge talent. There’s Abandoman, who are coming out from Ireland for the first time. They’re Irish hip hop improvisers. Watson are amazing, whether it’s more improv stuff or narrative, sketch, character stuff. They’re a great mob to go and take a look at.”
Of course, the festival celebrates diversity in more ways than one. As Provan reveals, there are certain cultural considerations in putting a festival program together. “It’s definitely a priority,” she says. “I guess we do engage in a bit of positive discrimination in trying to make sure that the program does reflect the diversity of our community and our world. It’s an open program for Australians, so anyone can be in it. We don’t program that. But in terms of the overseas artists that we bring in, we do try and make sure that we have quite a diverse representation.
“We try and promote diversity through the venues that we do actually operate and run and in the developmental programs that we run - things such as Class Clowns, Deadly Funny, Upfront and the series of various live podcasts that we put on our website, all kinds of things like that. We do make sure that we are basically showing the world as it is, which is very diverse.”
Something else Provan has sought to address is gender, which remains a hot topic in the world of comedy. “My world has an equal number of men and women in it. I’m not interested in a stand-up lineup that has only men. You want that mix of voices that actually represents your world and has something to say, something familiar in terms of your environment. We are quite focused on that issue.”
Of course, for all the work that goes into making a diverse, varied program, there’s just no pleasing some people. Curating an amazing comedy festival can be a thankless task. “Every year there’s social media posts saying, ‘Why didn’t you have...’ and they’ll rattle off this big, long list of artists,” says Provan. “I go through it in my head and go, yep, tried them. Sometimes I feel like responding and saying, ‘Do you think I didn’t try to get them?' If anyone knows that they’re amazing, it’s me. I think people often don’t realise how hard it is. You can’t just ring up everyone and expect them to drop everything and come over.”
If it happens to be that your favourite comedian isn’t touring this year, Provan has the perfect solution. As ever, she prescribes an open-minded approach. “It’s worth having a look and going to see half a dozen things you’ve never heard of. I always say this – go see half a dozen people you’ve never heard of. It won’t cost much and you’ll very likely find some people that you will then follow as their careers develop. It’s really worthwhile.”
By Nick Mason

The Melbourne International Comedy Festival runs from Wednesday March 29 - Sunday April 23 in venues across Melbourne. Head to www.comedyfestival.com.au for tickets and program details.