Comedians Caitlin Yolland and Rob Lloyd have two shared loves: Harry Potter, and comedy*. From these two passions comes A Brief History of Magic, performed by the duo, now to be known as Wizard Actors. Both Yolland and Lloyd have ample experience with combining Potter and comedy too – they co-starred in Completely Improvised Potter. With A Brief History, they’ve gotten out the notebooks and scripted a show so full of detail even the most hardcore Potterhead would be pressed to know everything. We caught up with Caitlin and Rob to chat about magic: the magic of comedy, the magic of fandom, and, of course, the magic of JK Rowling’s world.
*Okay, they definitely have more in common than these two things, but they’re very passionate about them.
It’s been 21 years since the first Harry Potter book came out! What do you think the enduring appeal of Harry Potter is?
Caitlin: The one thing that endures most in literature is world building, and it is done brilliantly in Harry Potter. We not only know and love the key characters, but we know and love their whole world… The way paintings move, the international schools, the rules to Quidditch and – of course – the centuries of history behind it all.
Rob: I think it’s also the fact that JK Rowling has created a world where everyone has somewhere they can belong. Whether it be a place like Hogsmeade, or an occupation like at The Ministry of Magic or as simple as a school house you are sorted into. No matter what background, religion, orientation or gender identification… there is a place for you.
What’s the most intriguing part of the wizarding world for you?
Caitlin: I personally love the wandlore. I love that different cores and woods and flexibilities each result in different qualities. The idea that some wands are more loyal, or more flighty, or more impatient. Apparently my wand on Pottermore would “randomly combust” if I used it for household chores for too many years without living a more adventurous life! I just love that, it’s so fun.
Rob: For me it’s the developing creation of Newt Scamander and how he sees the world. He’s such a fascinating creation with such a powerful message to share, “preservation over destruction”. Plus he’s a Hufflepuff. I think he is one of JK’s finest creations.
I’ve heard that you both got to do a lot of research and that the show is littered with new information (or Easter eggs if you’re already a Potter expert). How do you balance this educational info with comedy?
Caitlin: We have taken great effort to keep the show dynamic (“shape of show” in theatre terms), so that each period through history has a slightly different feel to it. The show is also very us, in that we haven’t tried to force “comedy” in there but rather allowed it to stem from our own lighthearted banter and playful conversation.
You’re both excellent improvisers – how has that influenced your writing process?
Rob: Caitlin and I did a lot of riffing while we initially brainstorming the scenes for the show. This helped us immediately build a relationship between our characters, create a sense of location and establish the overall tone of the show. That’s very much an improvisers way of doing things…know your ‘Who? What? Where?’ straight away.
Rob, you are often drawn to adaptive storytelling – having done Doctor Who themed shows and Journey to the Centre of the Earth, plus improvised Potter of course – what is it about building on exisiting worlds that appeals to you so much?
Rob: It’s what I grew up with. I was raised on classic Science Fiction or Fantasy stories that my brother and I would re-create in our living from, or on car long trips and then add our own jokes, characters and storylines. It’s the same as what I do now, with my solo shows, with David Innes and now in Wizard Actors with Caitlin…it’s connected with how I first got into performing.
What’s the most difficult part about building these immersive worlds on stage? How do you overcome that?
Rob: Due to the fact we do these shows with very little sets and props (i.e. none at all), this means we rely on our physicality and emotional commitment to the show to maintain the audience’s imagination. This is ‘Make Believe’ at its purest… it’s what I love about live theatre, the collective suspension of disbelief.
What’s it like performing at the Butterfly Club?
Rob: Oh The Butterfly Club is by far our favourite venue in Melbourne. It’s Melbourne’s best comedy/cabaret/fringe venue…hands down. Xander, Simone & Tom run the venue beautifully. They are so professional, understanding of artists and support of whatever ideas we bring to the table. In fact all the staff are just out of this world. It’s feels like coming home every time we do a show there. We adore the lay-out and the overall atmosphere…it’s quite magical to be perfectly honest with you. I guess that’s why we thought it would be the perfect fit for Wizard Actors.
What houses are you in and why do you think you’re in them?
Rob: For years I just assumed I was a Gryffindor. I never really thought that hard about it. But the first time I when to Harry Potter World in Orlando, I saw all these peeps rocking the yellow ties. Then as I was re-reading the books I really adore the mindset of Hufflepuff students and was immediately drawn to anything Puff. So I finally bit the bullet, signed up to Pottermore, did the test and was sorted into Hufflepuff. Finally I felt home. I always felt if I was in Gryffindor I’d be competing with all these show ponies but in Hufflepuff I truly felt I could really do some good and I could learn a lot from other Puffs…and I have. Four proud years a Hufflepuff.
Caitlin: I had kind of the opposite experience to Rob…I always denied that my true place was in Gryffindor. I thought that I only identified as Gryffindor because it was the main focus of the story, the home of the protagonists. There were many theories, maybe Hufflepuff, maybe Ravenclaw, pretty much anything except Slytherin, (no offence to my wonderful, ambitions snake friends – just wasn’t me). And then Pottermore made the final decision and I knew that I had just been denying the truth, I am at home with the bold, brave, somewhat self-centred, Gryffindor clan!
Caitlin, you’re also a PhD candidate studying neuroscience (on a personal note wow congratulations, I am very impressed you’re balancing show making and PhD life!) What can you tell us about the effect of comedy on the brain?
Caitlin: Haha thank you! Some might call it masochism, or sheer stupidity, but I do kind of love my double life. My minimal understanding is that, theoretically, laughter may release both dopamine (a neurotransmitter associated with reward) and endorphins. People have been shown to have an increased pain threshold after laughing, indicating that there may be some science to suggest that it really is “the best medicine” (or at least the most fun!) At the end of the day, laughing is fun and healing. We ALL know that, instinctively. Now to prove it… It’s probably near impossible to do fMRI studies because you have to be still in the scanner. And laughing isn’t still. See? I’m good at this science thing.
Rob: ….my cat’s breath smells like cat food…
What drew both of you to performing comedy?
Rob: I was raised on The Muppets! That was my introduction to the idea of performing and specifically comedy. I never stood a chance. As soon as I realized I wanted to be an actor there was only ever one option for me…make ‘em laugh.
I know you’ve spoken before about comedy as a means of connection, can you talk a bit about how this interacts with fandom and fan communities?
Rob: I love that feeling of shared knowledge. It’s what I love about geek-culture, you can instantly connect with a room full of strangers because of the books you read, the TV shows you binge or the movies you can quote word-perfect. I love building communities through performing.
After they’ve come to see your show, what books, movies and/or TV shoes would you recommend to people currently experiencing Potter withdrawals?
Rob: Neil Gaiman! Read ALL the Neil Gaiman. If you like your fantasy writing with a lot of brains, heart, humour and wickedness…you can’t go past Neil Gaiman. My personal favourite of his is Neverwhere. I also recommend The Graveyard Book and Good Omens (which he wrote with Terry Pratchett). Plus there’s always his more intense stuff like American Gods and of course the graphic novel Sandman.
Caitlin: …My cat’s breath smells like what Rob said…
A Brief History of Magic is on at the Butterfly Club from Tuesday 22 May – Saturday 26 May. Tickets range between $25 – $32 and are available from the Butterfly Club website or box office.