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Susan Provan has been director of the Melbourne International Comedy Festival for 27 years, taking it from strength to strength. So, the decision to cancel this year’s event – for the first time in its history – was no laughing matter. “We were in a position where we had to move quickly. We were literally building venues. We needed to minimise the fallout.” By Mikey Cahill.

MICF director Susan Provan on shutting down the show

Melbourne International Comedy Festival director Susan Provan.
Credit: SUPPLIED

Laughter is hard work. You see or hear something funny and – fwoop! – it’s uncontrollable: a bullet-train from your lungs, up your throat, out your mouth. It can make your cheeks sting, guts hurt, squeeze your brain like a sponge, even challenge your bladder.

Susan Provan has two laughs. The first is an oh-yes-that’s-good-gear chuckle; low energy. Laugh number two is louder, still contained, a near-guffaw when something’s tickled her. Mid-strength cheer. She’s not a bellower. She generally keeps her shit together, which is handy because she has been director of the Melbourne International Comedy Festival (MICF) for an astonishing 27 years. A very big laugher likely wouldn’t last long in this role.

A calm, if somewhat cagey character, Provan scurries along to shows day and night during the 26-day festival while steering the ship, putting out spot fires and making huge decisions on the fly. She’s a marathon runner. Except this time around the race has been cancelled.

She’s frank about the decision to cancel the festival, for the first time in 34 years, due to the threat of Covid-19. “We were in a position where we had to move quickly. We were literally building venues. We’d already bumped the Gala into the Palais [Theatre, in St Kilda]. We were 48 hours away from sending in crews to complete the rest,” she says. “We needed to minimise the fallout.”

Somehow, she still manages an indomitable presence when I call her to update this profile in the wake of the cancellation. I ask how many cries she’s had. “I haven’t had time yet,” she deadpans. “I probably will in July.”

But, understandably, the decision to cancel MICF has taken a toll. Provan is there in the trenches when comedians are starting out, right up to the point where her team selects who gets a chance to “make it” with a three-minute spot at the Opening Night Gala, broadcast on TV. Usually. This year, the pandemic beat them to the punchline.

“We were the first of the arts festivals to cancel. Adelaide Fringe were enjoying a boomer last weekend when we made the call. I’m so jealous. After us, the rest of the festivals fell like dominoes,” she says. “I’m heartbroken for all the comedians who have been working on shows since last year.”

Provan lives and breathes comedy. She catches “at least 108 shows at Edinburgh Fringe every year” while scouting for talent for Melbourne, before moving on to Just For Laughs in Canada. While Montreal’s festival is yet to make a call on cancellation, the Scottish Fringe looks unlikely this year. “I’m talking to my friends there,” says Provan. “It’s not looking good…

“This has affected a whole industry in a way that nothing else has. All the front-of-house crew, the technical staff, the support staff, the hospitality industry were just about to swing into action and now they’ve been decimated,” she says. “All the safety nets are just gone.”

 

A staple of red-carpet openings in Melbourne, Susan Provan is instantly recognised by everyone in the comedy circuit, but she’s no household name. She flies under the radar, comfortable working behind the scenes.

To some in comedy, she’s a star-maker, a Mother Teresa figure.

“I feel a great sense of pride in comics I’ve seen come up since they were babies,” she says. “Tom Ballard, Aaron Chen. Seeing Josh Thomas up in lights on a billboard in Hollywood. Watching Ronny Chieng host the International Emmys, incredible. Then I see everyone falling in love with Celia Pacquola and Luke McGregor on Rosehaven.”

Part of Provan’s longevity is her ability to deflect attention onto other individuals. She remains a fan. “I’ve never wanted to be famous,” she says. “You get blamed for everything as it is; I don’t need to make my target any larger. Why would you want that? Why would you want that lack of privacy?

“It’s also, partly, to be honest, some fear because I’ve had some horrible experiences with people being mean to me. What they perceive to be my role, or lack of role, in their careers … which is bullshit. I’d rather keep my head down and not expose myself to that.”

Certainly, her near three decades at the helm of one of the world’s largest comedy festivals haven’t been without detractors. There are those who say she has too much power.

“I don’t have nearly as much power as what people think,” she counters. “Everyone has their favourites. We’re having internal conversations all the time with my team. I like to think that we have very developed taste: We know what’s good,” she says, tapping the table for emphasis. “I’ll often book comics who are not my cup of tea. I can be at a show and thinking, ‘I don’t like that’, but everyone else is laughing, and my colleagues – who I respect – think it’s funny.”

But some in comedy see Provan as a Thatcheresque figure who has reigned too long. A high-profile Irish comedian once seethed to this journalist that he’d been shunted to the Trades Hall in Carlton after complaining about his venue: “Nobody comes to Trades,” he said.

Provan deduces the name, internally, and creases her brow.

“It’s really hard. Everyone wants 8.15pm in the Powder Room at the Town Hall, and they can’t have it,” she says. “If you’re good, people will talk and come and find you. Trevor Noah was in the Trades Hall and he sold out every night.” Up-and-coming British comic Sarah Keyworth scored the Powder Room slot this year.

 

Provan started life in Bairnsdale, in East Gippsland, Victoria, the eldest of three in a stable home. Her dad was a teacher, her mum a nurse. “My mother is my most indefatigable inspiration,” she says.

Her first funny memory is Charles M. Schulz’s whimsical comic strips: “I loved Peanuts. I’d read it every day in the newspaper. It’s had a bit of a resurgence – my daughter Maddy loves reading them. She’s got my Snoopy pillowcase.”

Provan’s family moved to Nunawading in the ’70s for her dad’s job. It was there she discovered the art of performance.

“I loved school,” she says. “I had a couple of amazing teachers in the performing arts. We had an American woman called Judy Carlson. She produced a full-on school musical with the music teacher. I got very involved.”

How involved? “I was a complete bossy pants control freak,” she says.

Provan directed her first show at age 15. “I did a bit of performing but I was more suited to directing. [Carlson] let me direct The Diary of Anne Frank,” she says, and then lets out laugh number two. “Our family cat was in it: Anne Frank’s cat.”

When she finished high school, Provan started a bachelor of arts at Melbourne University. “It took me 10 years to finish that course,” she says. “I spent a lot of time at university at the start of the year enrolling in several subjects then systematically dropping out of each of them because I started working at The Last Laugh.”

The Last Laugh was the engine room of Melbourne’s comedy and theatre scene in the ’80s. Characters such as Wendy Harmer and Steve Vizard were omnipresent. “John Pinder and Roger Evans owned The Last Laugh. They were chalk and cheese, but they were so driven,” she says. “Collingwood was dead back then; not the hipster haven it is now. People from the suburbs came in to The Last Laugh and felt like they were going on a big adventure.”

From there, Provan ran off with Circus Oz for eight years, before doing a year at the State Theatre Company of South Australia. Then an old mentor gave her a fateful call. “The job came up for Melbourne Comedy Festival and Roger [Evans] was on the board. He said, ‘You should apply for it.’ I said, ‘I’m quite happy here,’  ” she recalls, deploying laugh number one. History shows she made the right call to jump to MICF.

In her first year, there were 56 acts in the program. This year was going to be the largest festival yet: 640 acts in 120 venues doing 8000 shows to nearly 800,000 people. “When we started, in 1994, I did all my deals on faxes,” Provan says. “The internet had only just started.”

About this time, while at Edinburgh Fringe, Provan met musician Mick Moriarty of The Gadflys, a band of yucksters who went over to Scotland to busk.

“I met Mick while dancing to The Gadflys. That’s who all the comedians went to dance to. Then they came to Melbourne and played the Festival Club,” she says, referring to the Hi-Fi Bar, now Max Watt’s, where late-night legends are made and newbies die spectacular deaths. “We got together one night, late. That was back in the day when I drank a bit more than I do now. I was never a big drinker; I hardly drink at all now. Since I have a child, I haven’t got time for a hangover.”

That child, of course, is Provan’s daughter with Moriarty, Maddy, who’s now 15. The three live in St Kilda. “It was a total surprise,” Provan says. “Having Maddy has made my life a lot busier. Somehow the day has expanded.”

Early on, when Maddy was young, Provan had “a very supportive board who were prepared to help out with childcare”. A nanny travelled abroad with the family. “It would have been impossible without the nanny and without my mother. Mick’s not a stay-at-home dad, or if he’s there, he’s twiddling his guitar,” says Provan. “You say nanny and people think, ‘Oooh, ladies who lunch’. That really shits me.

“So, between all that, I don’t have any extra time or money. I don’t have nearly as many new frocks as I used to have.”

But Provan isn’t cynical. She clearly believes in comedy, believes in the process. She isn’t of the Robin Williams “you either kill or you die” school. “There’s in between,” she says. “You can tell if they have funny bones…

“Stand-up comedy is like playing a musical instrument in a band, you only get better by doing it. It’s very, very rare I feel like walking out [of a set] … and, of course, I never do, because I’ll get recognised.”

 

Laughter is hard work, and it was already a dicey time to put on an arts festival before coronavirus had its wicked way. “I want the comedy festival to be sustainable. We run a huge event on the smell of an oily rag,” Provan says. “Government support is only 14 per cent of our income. Everyone is doing the job of eight people, which I’m not saying is right.

“We operate pretty much like a commercial enterprise. In show business you never know how many people will buy tickets; if you’re selling toilet paper you know everyone’s going to keep buying. It’s absolutely terrifying.”

Provan heaps praise on her colleagues. “My team has been amazing under incredible pressure. Like many people, we’ve become fans of Zoom. We’re having staff meetings morning and afternoon. We’re concerned about keeping morale up.

“When stress happens, you want to be together, physically. It’s hard not to be able to do that.”

 

After they pulled the pin, Provan’s team spent the next two days turning the festival’s website into a donations portal.

“Comedians, musicians, crews, everyone – all those people were the first people to respond when the bushfires and floods happened,” she says. “And our public have been remarkable. It’s been lovely seeing how many people haven’t asked for a refund.”

Comedians did want a refund, though – the $525 registration fee was a bone of contention. The festival said no, the comedians revolted, the decision was reversed.

“The problem is that everything the registration pays for has been spent. We basically have built and paid for a festival and we are not seeing any of the box office income,” says Provan. “People were asking a question we were struggling to answer. Literally, within 24 hours, the fruits of all our conversations came good and we found a solution.”

Philanthropist? Arts funding honey pot? Melbourne City Council? The festival is keeping mum about who funded the deus ex machina. But usually how MICF works is something comes through in the end. Such as in 2006, when the festival got pushed back a month deeper into winter because of the Commonwealth Games and still had a strong year.

By comparison, though, Covid-19 makes that look like a fun problem-solving task. “The thing is the show always goes on… But it just hasn’t,” says Provan.

“In the week since we cancelled, we have been having loads of conversations with stakeholders and supporters. We are confident we can trade through and present a festival next year. We just have to.

“It’s entirely our focus – we need it.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Mar 28, 2020 as "Provan performer".

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Mikey Cahill
is a journalist, DJ, MC and football club mascot.

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