New ways of working: A comedy revolution

Felt Nowt co-op offers a new way for comedians in the north-east to find work

Felt Nowt is the UK’s first comedy company that is “run by comedians for comedy fans”.

The co-op consists of around 60 gigging comedians who are available for hire, running comedy nights and delivering workshops around the north-east and Cumbria. Felt Nowt’s aim is to generate as much work as possible for each other while growing the region’s local comedy scene.

Si Beckwith, one of Felt Nowt’s founding directors, has a busy working life involving a number of freelance roles, including stand up comedy – which before 2020 took him and his fellow comedians up and down the country.

But when the pandemic hit, their industry was gone with little support. “There were scraps but it wasn’t enough to make a sustainable living,” he says. In response to this challenge, Si and his fellow comedians decided to pool their efforts to find and create work together.

Felt Nowt began its journey at the height of the pandemic when online gigs were the only way of reaching a live audience. By delivering their gigs from a local theatre, Felt Nowt aimed to bring audiences as close to an in-person experience as possible.

“We realised the issue we had with Zoom is that it was silent, you’re reacting to a camera and nothing else,” says Si. To overcome this, the group created a “front row” of audience members who were shown on a big screen in front of the performers, who could hear the reactions through headphones. “Suddenly you could interact, suddenly there was dynamism. Online gigs became real gigs.”

Felt Nowt managed to generate a lot of work running online gigs for general audiences as well as corporate clients, as people looked for Covid-friendly forms of entertainment over lockdown. Last year it also launched Nowtflix, a subscription-based home for north-east comedy content, including videos and podcasts.

As venues began to reopen, Felt Nowt was already on a good footing to start running its own nights, having built a collective reputation and able to draw on the resources of its individual members. The attitude of Felt Nowt is that, by bringing comedians together to share work and support one another, it will ultimately benefit everyone involved.

“If we make more gigs happen, there will be more work for each other,” says Si. “So where I might have been a resident compere previously, I now share those out among other resident comperes in Felt Nowt. So I get less work short term, but it allows me more time to put effort into Felt Nowt to generate more gigs which will create more work. It’s all about looking at the bigger picture and rather than feeling isolated, being able to have those conversations about what’s happening to the future of north-east comedy.”

Si Beckwith, one of Felt Nowt’s founding members (Photo: Jake Robson)

Even before Felt Nowt was set up, there was an informal culture of support among many comedians in the local scene. Si says that when he compered new act nights at Newcastle’s comedy club The Stand, he would often sit down with comedians starting out and answer any questions they had. But the existence of Felt Nowt means that now this support can be offered in a more conscious way. 

“It means that if a young lass who is 18 years old, and has just done her first gig, wants to get advice about doing comedy, she doesn’t have to get it through me, a 37-year-old white man with a different lived experience to her.” Instead, Felt Nowt could link that new female comedian with someone like Lauren Pattison, who has been in a similar position and can offer more relevant advice.

Si explains that bringing 60 comedians together under one banner is a stronger way of working. Before, they were isolated freelancers, competing against each other for work. Even though this competition still exists to an extent, the co-op now provides a structure that can help any comedian working in the local scene develop their comedy career to whatever level, and in whatever way, they choose. Felt Nowt is open to all comedians at any stage, whether they are working full time as  jobbing comics, or doing comedy alongside other work.

“Everyone’s journey is going to be different. What we’re not trying to do is make people feel like ‘this is how you become a professional comedian‘,” says Si. Felt Nowt instead tells its members that the co-op’s aim is help them “to be able to gig as much as you need to and want to, to be able to make money from the work that you do and also open up avenues for other work”.

“What Felt Nowt offers [its members] is the opportunity to develop as people, as workers, as employees and as comics obviously. But the co-op will allow them to flourish in a way that they see fit.”

Si explains that crucially, all members of Felt Nowt have an equal voice in the co-op, regardless of their experience level, and that they try to utilise as many channels as possible to create open dialogue with the members.

“We want everyone to feel valued, so that even if you have done no comedy gigs and you’re starting for the first time, you can still come and join Felt Nowt, you’re still a part of this. Your experience will be different to someone who’s getting loads and loads of work, but your voice is still as valued as theirs.

“We’ve got people who will end up applying to join Felt Nowt, who haven’t even done a gig yet. So it’s open to anybody who really wants to be a member and has that interest in preserving north east comedy heritage and the future of north-east comedy.” 

Felt Nowt Comedy Night at South Causey Inn (Photo: DJM Photography)

Felt Nowt believes that every town should have a comedy night, and a lot of their work involves bringing comedy nights to areas in the north-east that don’t yet have one. This concern for the north east comedy scene, and the wider community, is a big part of Felt Nowt’s work, and one of the reasons they chose a co-operative structure. 

The ethos of what a co-op can do for a community massively gelled with what we were trying to do for not just comics, but the area around us,” says Si.

“I think pretty much every north east comedian comes from a working class background, we’d all come from not having a lot. And comedy isn’t funded by the Arts Council like other arts are. So we understood that we’ve always had to make our own opportunities, but also that work ethic can very much feed into generating opportunities for other things. Opportunities that make a real difference to the communities around us, and the communities we live in.”

As the co-op goes from strength to strength, Si explains that the aim is for Felt Nowt to continue building the profile of the north east comedy scene so that more local comedians can find opportunities where they live, with perhaps less of a need to be going up and down the country to find work.

“There’s a reason Felt Nowt exists in the north east first, and that this has happened here. This is the area that it has to exist in, because we’re trying to better our region, not just the people who are working in it.”