"History is the best story"
by Maddy Ryle for remotegoat on 22/08/10

Stand-up comedy is a process of turning one's life experiences into good onstage material. Often those experiences provide for (perhaps self-deprecating, perhaps withering, hopefully amusing) observations about life in general.

Ryan Miller's show does something slightly different. He has taken a chapter of his life, working as a tour guide in Rome a few years ago, and produced a show in which he both continues to act as a tour guide of Rome, albeit with no Rome to walk around, and simultaneously does a kind of retrospective commentary on his own life at that time, from the vantage point of now, when he has become someone making a show about a job he used to do. It's an original concept, and given that Ryan is clearly both a good tour guide, and an astute commentator on his own life - and a really nice bloke to boot - it works very well.

There are essentially three personas here. There is tour guide number one: this is the Ryan who gathers together his audience, tells them what they're in for, and takes them from one site of interest (say St Peter's Basilica) to another (Michelangelo's ceiling in the Sistine Chapel for example). Then there is tour guide number two: this Ryan is doing a performance within a performance, in full tour guide mode as he dramatises the stories of the historical sites that his audience is gazing upon (albeit, for us, only imaginatively - since there isn't actually anything to look at apart from Ryan on the stage). While these first two Ryans are, if you like, historical, the third persona (not actually a persona at all) is Ryan in 2010, looking back at the time when he was a tour guide in Rome, and how he used to love the job, or get hassled by the cops for being unlicensed, or feel like he'd made the right choice leaving Vancouver because he both conquered a city he arrived with no knowledge of or language for, and also married the woman he followed there.

Ryan mark two is the most fun to watch on stage because this is where Ryan gets to use his acting experience to bring to life the legends of Romulus and Remus, or the tales of envy and intrigue that resulted in Michelangelo getting that commission in the first place, or the terrible megalomania of various Popes and Emperors and the terrible consequences of their decisions on the populace of Rome. You really learn a lot from this show - how a fresco is created, the true relevance of St Peter as the rock upon which the Christian faith is founded, why it's the Swiss who always guard the Vatican… It is also astute in the way it weaves these tales together into a historical narrative that not only reflects analogous moments in Ryan's own life story at the time, but in giving a sense of historical cause and consequence that connects a twenty-first audience with this ancient history in a very entertaining way, told in the vernacular and with ironic pop-cultural references (Brad Pitt, Russell Crowe, i-Phones…) thrown in.

It took ten minutes or so for him to settle into the space at the Camden Head, and initially the move between these different self-characterisations was a little clumsy, but as the show progressed and the audience got the hang of it we quickly picked up on these subtle moves between narrators, and the show feels very fluid and well rehearsed without being stilted. In the show Ryan talks about the skill of the tour guide being the capacity to walk the line, for your audience, between accessibility and reverence; I'd wager it's much the same for doing stand-up - and it's a skill Mr Millar seems to have down pat.

And, in case you're wondering, Rome was founded on April 21st 753 BC, at around midday.

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