Damien Warren-Smith is an award-winning clown who performs under his theatrical alter-ego Garry Starr. His first show with the character, ‘Garry Starr Performs Everything’ won a string of awards across festivals in his native Australia and the UK and had a sold-out run in Edinburgh in 2018. He returns with his new show, ‘Garry Starr: Greece Lightning’, in which the ‘overzealous idiot’ attempts to recreate all Greek mythology in under an hour. We spoke to Damien about about the Aphrodite-like fully-formed birth of Garry Starr, how he made the Greek myths funny, and the far less hilarious but equally titanic issue of Fringe accommodation. 

How have the last few years been for you?

It’s been a real roller coaster. Edinburgh in 2019 was my last time in the UK, and I went straight from there to Las Vegas. I was supposed to be there for a year-long contract, and I got six months into that and Covid happened. I moved back to Australia and was basically locked down in Melbourne for over two years. It’s been three years since I’ve been in the UK so it’s time to be back.

Can you tell us about your show, ‘Greece Lightning’?

It stemmed from an earlier show that I did in 2019 called ‘Garry Starr Conquers Troy’. I’d kind of planned to take on all of Greek mythology in that one, but it was kind of half-baked. I was still making when I was touring the other show and I didn’t have time. So I thought I’d put it to bed, but then on tour and being in a van all day I started listening to Greek mythology audio books and thought, ‘I need to have another crack at this show!’ I started to come up with some new ideas for the show and it just completely changed. I couldn’t call it ‘…Conquers Troy’ any more  so I came up with the name ‘Greece Lightning’ as I thought it was very funny that Zeus, god of thunder and sky, calls himself Greece Lightning as kind of a nickname. And so that’s where the title came from, and it’s much more akin to my first show, ‘Garry Starr Performs Everything’ where I do every genre of theatre, and this is all of Greek mythology. It’s very silly. You don’t need to know anything about Greek mythology. In fact, people who do know about Greek mythology who came to see the show said they now know less about Greek mythology!

How did you come up with the character of Garry Starr himself?

I was in this clown troupe called The Plague of Idiots and we did Edinburgh and Adelaide for a few years, 2015 and 2016. I was the boss clown in that, the MC character. I just started calling myself Gary because I needed a name for that character, and I just find Gary to be a really funny name. And then it might have been a combination of Gary Glitter and Freddie Starr or something. And then my friend said I should put double Rs in each and it just kind of grew. It wasn’t divine inspiration, it just came to me from somewhere. I think it was the jacket! I bought this vintage ‘80s leather jacket that was too small for me at a vintage shop in Soho. I remember that it was when I put that on that I started calling myself Garry.

What’s your favourite of the Greek myths? And if you could be any of the Greek gods or Titans which would it be?

That’s a funny one, because I am not much of an expert in Greek mythology. I’d put my hand up and say that. I didn’t know much about it when I first started writing the show and I didn’t want to know too much to begin with. It’s only now that I’ve made the show that I’ve started to dig a bit more into it. I didn’t want Garry to know any more than the audience knows. Since then, now I know a bit more I’ve started to hide some Easter eggs in the show. There are things in there for the nerds that know a lot, so they can go, ‘I get that reference!’ But other people won’t know but they won’t feel like they’re missing out on anything. Some of the stuff that I really enjoyed… I had no idea about the story of Narcissus and Echo. That was a fantastic little one that initially made it into the show but was cut in the end. The whole idea of Narcissus meeting with Echo and I found it really incredible. But I don’t think there are any where I’d want to be that character. They’ve all just got horrific lives and I’m sure if I said Oedipus it would come across very poorly!

Narcissus and Echo was an example of a myth that almost made it in, but were there any myths you left out as you weren’t able to put a comic spin on?

The way I structured [the show] was first to lay out all the characters from the Greek myths that I know and then what I know about them. And coming in from a stupid perspective, it was like; Medusa: snakes for hair and if she looks at you, you turn to stone. Zeus: lightning bolts. What did I associate with these characters? And then, how can Garry misunderstand the story about these characters, given what we know about them? There are some where I came up with some fun games, but I chatted with some friends and they just weren’t well-known enough. You don’t want to alienate a huge portion of your audience. I don’t want to dumb the show down, but if it’s an obscure [character] I don’t dedicate an entire scene to it. Those like Cronos or Icarus; most people will get that it’s about time or about flying too close to the Sun. But if you do a whole scene about it when someone doesn’t know who that is, then it kills it. The ones who have the majority of the stage time are those like Zeus and Poseidon. I really wanted to get some of the giants, the Gigantes, into it. I got Cyclops in in the end, and also Odysseus. I was going to the whole of Homer’s Odyssey as one scene within the show, but that ended up on the cutting room floor. But we still have Odysseus blinding the Cyclops and stuff like that.

This is the first time back in Edinburgh for three years. Have you done any similar events since the comedy landscape has opened up again? And has Edinburgh missed the chance to evaluate what it should be and scale back a little?

I’ve done the Australian [Fringes] since, and there were some struggles, but the struggles in Australia are very different. The struggles there were around regulation, but Britain doesn’t seem to have any regulations at all. In Australia there were really strict rules about what I could and couldn’t do. For example, Melbourne Comedy Festival wouldn’t allow audience participation at all. Adelaide wouldn’t allow me to pass props to the audience and back again, as they had to be sanitised between hands.

I don’t know what it’s going to be like in Edinburgh to be honest. My biggest regret, and it’s something that I’ve been saying for a long time, is that Edinburgh needs to do something about accommodation. The festival’s just becoming too elitist. I was able to save some money, thankfully, but I would say a huge chunk of my budget has gone on accommodation. And I’ve turned 40 this year so I just don’t don’t want to share a room anymore. I’ve done festivals where I’ve slept on a couch and someone else has slept on a floor in front of the couch. A friend of mine is renting a kitchen floor for $2000 AUD. I’m not going to say how much I’m paying, but I wanted to be closer to the action and I want to have my own room and it’s just too much money.

There’s got to be a way round this, or we’re not going to have anyone except a wealthy elite doing the festivals. In London, you’ve got the Camden Fringe which runs at the same time. Yeah, London is a hugely expensive city but a lot of people already live there.

I will say, straight after Edinburgh I’m going to Gothenberg Fringe Festival. It’s going to be great. I asked them what the deal was. They said, ‘You keep 100% of the box office.’ I said, ‘Okay, so what’s the venue hire?’ They said, ‘Oh no, there’s no venue hire.’ And they said, ‘And also, we’ll provide you with an artists’ kitchen where we’ll give the artists free meals every day.’ And Bergen, which has just been pulled, but was going to be just before [Gothenberg], also provides all of that and they were also going to provide accommodation. I asked them how they would manage all of that, and they said they get local funding, and rather than using that to promote the festival, it all goes straight back to artists. That doesn’t seem to happen at all in the UK, or in Australia. It’s very rare that they would use some government funding to waive registration fees or something like that. I know they want to promote the festival, and you see the banners everywhere but I do wonder if there isn’t a way that somehow we shouldn’t strip it right back and say, ‘Here’s some money from the government, here you go; perform this.’ And that would be in the form of box office.

It seems like a wasted opportunity, having the time out to reflect on what might be done differently when things opened up again. That hasn’t been the case.

As it is, we as artists should stand to gain a lot from [the Fringe], but it’s only a very small amount of us stand to gain a lot from it. The vast majority of us lose all of our money and most of our dignity. I honestly think if they just opened up the Meadows and put up some tents for the artists to camp and some toilets… I mean the locals would hate it though!

What would constitute a successful Fringe for you this year? Do you have any hopes or expectations for the show?

If I can get through without getting Covid and having to cancel, that’s one success. Or if I don’t get injured or lose my voice, because I’m now three years older than the last Fringe I did. And my show is as physical, if not more, than the last one. I would say, ideally some sell-out shows. I’m in a slightly bigger room so it’s about that snowballing. I think if I get there and I feel the snowballing effect then it’s going to be successful; and for me that happened with my first show in 2018. Whereas in 2019 when I came back with a half-baked one I kept having to pack snow on to the ball to keep it rolling through the festival. It wasn’t unsuccessful, but it was a struggle.

I think I’d be delighted with this one if I could sell out at weekend and nearly during the week. But I don’t expect anything any more! I’ve got a manager in Melbourne who I’ve just signed with and she’s wonderful. We’ve got plans for the future and there’s very little that resolves around what we can get from Edinburgh. But there might be some relationships I make there. It would be nice to meet some TV people who might be interested in helping us put together a show. We have a couple of projects in the pipeline. So it’s more about meeting those kinds of people. My manager lives in Melbourne but has to go to Edinburgh to have the meetings with the Australians!

What for you are the best and worst things about the Fringe?

The best thing about the Fringe for me is the community. I’m never surrounded by more people I love in the world than when I’m in Edinburgh. And seeing my fellow performers and what they’ve come up with is going to be fascinating for me because it’s been a good three years. To see what those people who were young and up-and-coming are doing now is really exciting.

The worst thing about the festival is all the walking! As a comedian who has quite a lot of props, it’s definitely carrying stuff! Thankfully one of the other things I don’t like about the festival which is disappearing, which is the flyering. I think there are going to be fewer people flyering which is a good thing. It’s likely harder to draw a crowd in when you can’t hand them flyers, but it’s nice to not be harassed so much. So I’m interested in seeing what new and inventive ways people have to draw a crowd.

Are there any performers who might not have the recognition they deserve that we should check out?

It’s probably best for me to speak about Australian stuff! There’s someone called Gabbi Bolt. She wasn’t going to come over, but there’s something called House of Oz, which is this new thing supported by the Australian Council [at the King’s Hall]. They’re bringing Gabbi over and she was a huge hit at Melbourne. I haven’t seen her show so I’m going to try and see that. There’s a guy called Sam Duggan, who does a show called ‘Manbo‘. It won the Edinburgh Fringe Award at the Adelaide Festival. Edinburgh Fringe sponsors a show to bring over, so ‘Manbo’ is going to be really, really good. It’s a great show. He’s a fellow clown, but he didn’t study at Philippe Gaulier, he studied at the Lecoq school in Paris, and he’s just a total idiot, it’s wonderful! Michelle Brasier is coming over. She was part of Double Denim. She’s bring her show ‘Average Bear‘, which was nominated for the big award at Melbourne last year. So she’s great. Of course, Josh Glanc’s new show ‘Vrooom Vrooom‘. I’ve seen it three times and it just gets better and better. This is his best one I reckon!

Greece Lightning‘ runs from Thu 4 Aug to Sun 28 Aug 2022 (except Wed 17 Aug) at Underbelly Cowgate – Belly Dancer @20:55