TWO South Warwickshire entrepreneurs have joined forces after fleeing the rat race to pursue new careers – in stand-up comedy!
Anne Docherty from Stratford-upon-Avon and Mark Hinds from Warwick are the creative minds behind Comedy at Work, an innovative new business that brings stand-up to venues across the country in support of local charities.
But the journey thus far has not always been a laughing matter for the plucky pair who have both overcome personal setbacks in order to embark on this new chapter in their lives.
They met at a six-week comedy course on which Mark enrolled following the collapse of his marriage after more than 20 years.
The 47-year-old former stockbroker turned London cabbie moved from the capital a few months ago to establish the new business with Anne, a mum of three.
He said: “My wife woke up one morning and said ‘I don’t think this is working any more’ and that was that.
“This caused me to take a massive dip and I suffered with bouts of depression and anxiety. All my hopes and dreams I had for our future together had suddenly been taken away from me.”
He added: “Then, a few months later, I just had this realisation that actually, none of this matters. I thought, right, I need to go and live my life for me – and do all the things I should have done before.
“As a London cabbie for 18 years, every day I would drive past a place in Regents Park that had an advert outside for Stand Up Comedy and I always thought to myself ‘I should do that!’
“I’ve also always wanted to learn a language so am currently teaching myself Italian and plan to learn guitar!”
For Anne, 43, the new venture, which started out as a dare, has now become a new passion as well as a lifeline from mental health struggles and a job in which she felt trapped.
“Part of what made me leave my job is that I had become overwhelmed and stressed. Stress was taking its toll on my physical and mental health.
“That was a real turning point in my life. It just made me realise I wanted to spend more time doing something that I love.”
She added: “I had a conversation with a friend of mine who didn’t want to settle down and have kids but also felt like he was being left behind. So I said to him: ‘Why don’t you challenge yourself to do the scariest thing you can think of to do. He said that for him that would be moving abroad – and now he lives in Fiji!
“Soon after that, and knowing how unhappy I was at work, he turned it back on me and said ‘now it’s your turn.’ And the scariest thing I could think of was stand-up comedy.
“So the idea was I would put myself through this course and do a five-minute comedy set at the end of it and then never do it again. But I just kept going back! I discovered there is something quite magical about making people laugh. It’s unique in the sense that you’re allowed to say whatever you like, whatever is on your mind, as long as you try and make it funny.”
But Anne, who admits to nearly giving up during a crisis of confidence, is convinced that fate had other ideas.
She said: “I remember I had Live at The Apollo on TV just before I was due to go on the course and felt this moment of overwhelming certainty that I would be on that programme one day, which was really strange because it had never been a dream or ambition to do that.
“And then, halfway through the course, I went on holiday and was having a real wobble. I’d convinced myself I couldn’t do it. It was so stressful and making me feel sick. And then I proceeded to get on the plane – and found myself sitting directly behind Rob Brydon! I definitely took this as a sign. I thought, whatever reason I’m doing this for, I need to keep going.
“I did try and engage with Mr Brydon as I wanted to pick his brains, but he didn’t seem to want to talk, he was incredibly shy actually. I have decided I will write to him at some point though and let him know how he, unwittingly, inspired me to keep going in comedy!
Anne has now turned a corner and is excited about her new future.
“My day is enriched now, my mental health is much better because this is something that is a joy to do. Poor mental health was forcing me to re-evaluate my life. When I’m more experienced on the comedy scene, I will have the confidence to do a set about it,” she said.
Mark is a fan of American comedian Bill Burr and Anne’s favourite is Michael McIntyre. But who – or what inspires the pair’s own material?
Mark said: “For me it’s starting with everyday life and putting a spin on how you see things and how bizarre it can be. I also do a lot of material about myself because, from what I’ve seen from other comics, a lot of it is almost like self-deprication.
“I also use material from my days as a cabbie, for instance where I have said the wrong thing to celebrities. And I have absolutely no problem with naming and shaming – as long as it’s in the name of comedy and it’s funny!”
Anne said: “All my material is inspired by own life because I find it much easier to remember and speak with passion on something if it is based on truth. I start with an idea and it just evolves from there.”
No stranger to public speaking in her previous role at a corporate transformational software company, Anne admits stand up presents very different challenges.
“I’ve had to overcome quite a lot of fear in being able to stand up and make jokes and it’s all about that inner voice. If you say to yourself ‘this is scary, I can’t do this’ and think about all the bad scenarios then you paralyse yourself with the fear and you can’t do something.
She added: “Even on those nights where I completely bomb – the thing we’re all frightened of as a comedian – they are what I need because they show me how to improve my comedy and it also shows me that I’ll survive. If that’s the worst thing that’s going to happen, then I survived it. That frees you up as a performer, not to care too much, which makes you a better comedian.”
“It’s just so exciting at the moment because every day is different and that’s so different to the day job I was doing before.”
Mark said: “It was a big change but I now feel that this is the way my life should be.
“Yes, we do have responsibilities and kids and mortgages and stuff, that’s fine, but at the end of the day no one’s going to say after you’ve gone, ‘he was a great mortgage payer!’
“What it always comes back to for me is what advice you would give your children. I always tell my kids to do what makes you happy. You don’t have to follow the 9-5 and get bogged down in life, just do what you enjoy and you’ll find other people who have that same goal in life – and that’s where the joy is.”
So what do their family and friends make of their new personas?
Mark said: “They have been very supportive. Even my ex-wife came to see me one night and was really impressed and my kids think it’s fantastic.”
Anne said: “My husband saw my first comedy gig and he wasn’t very keen because at that point all my jokes were about him.
“But I was were talking about comedy to my children the other day when my eldest daughter said to me: ‘Mummy, I’ve worked out that it doesn’t matter if you’re pretty but if you’re nice and you can make people laugh then people want to be friends with you.’ “
It’s early days for the new business partners whose self-confessed mission is to just ‘follow the laughs.’ But they don’t shy from ambition and, longer term, have their sights set on Edinburgh Fringe Festival – and television – exposure.
And as for Comedy at Work, well, there are secret hopes it will soon have these fledgling masters of mockery laughing all the way to the bank!