Sheffield Girls’ pupils to learn comedy — so they’ll be taken seriously

A piece published on the website of Justice for Men & Boys (and the women who love them), the political party of which I’m the chairman, in September 2019:

Give me strength. Will the “audiences” be urged to laugh, even if the “comedians” are woefully unfunny? Because that will be a useful lesson for the girls to take into adult life. The piece in today’s Times:

Most schools have a class clown, but one headteacher is encouraging more pupils to play the fool.

Stand-up comedy lessons have been introduced at Sheffield Girls’ School to teach sixth-formers how to deal with hecklers and silence and could help girls to cope with job interviews, negotiate at work and give them the confidence to ask for a pay rise.

The comedy club is an alternative to debating societies, developing similar skills among those put off by formal rhetoric and argument.

Nina Gunson, head of the school, is teaching the comedy lessons and has started with eight girls for eight weeks. Pupils could end up performing in front of bigger audiences at the school.

Mrs Gunson said: “We’ve got many types of girls at the school. You’ve got to find different types of ways to develop skills, so they can find their own confidence, their own ways to push themselves forward. Lots of our girls do things like debating, public speaking but those things aren’t for everybody. They put off as many girls as they attract. They really do require a certain skillset and personality type.

“We wanted to diversify the sorts of settings in which girls could develop those same skills. Some girls think, ‘I’m not the sort of person to go to an Oxford debate, that’s not how I see myself.’ This finds a space to have fun and develop the same sort of skills.

“It probably reflects me to a certain extent as well. I don’t see myself as being highbrow in any way, shape or form. I would not have been one of those girls who would have been attracted to something like debating. But I do think I do have those skills which means having the confidence to be heard, feeling the right to be heard.”

Girls learn how to develop their voice and how to deal with a “dead” audience and hecklers.

“Even if they don’t want to be a stand-up comedian, they do really have to push themselves out of their comfort zone,” Mrs Gunson said.

“We do refer it to things like an interview situation. They might give what they think is a really good answer and if they’re not getting the kind of response, body language from people that they would expect back, how they deal with that? A lot of the improvisation is about them preparing and being able to deal with a panic situation.”

To prepare herself Ms Gunson went on a stand-up comedy course in Soho. “I think the top [skills learnt from stand-up] are public speaking in its purest sense like giving presentations, in negotiating and thinking on your feet and improvising and being able to present a case, change your opinion, voice your opinion, reiterate a point, deal with difficult conversations. Being able to have confidence in what you’re saying, to being able to present your point clearly, not take things personally and things like that are really valuable skills for your own mental wellbeing and your own resilience.”

Girls come up with own material through improvisation during structured scenarios.

“Phoebe Waller-Bridge is an absolute heroine of ours and she was one of the people that made us think, we want our girls not just want to be doctors, we want them to be writers, we want them to be journalists, we want them to be Phoebe Waller-Bridge. We want them to be finding these voices,” Mrs Gunson said.

The aim of the school was not to be a “doctor-factory”, she said, but many parents wanted their children to go into careers for life in “safe” professions.

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