This year, comedian Angella Dravid took out the Billy T award in the New Zealand International Comedy Festival for her extraordinary show Down the Rabbit Hole, exploring her spell in a UK prison. She talks to Alex Casey about finding humour in the dark, and being the ‘car crash’ of Jono and Ben.
When Angella Dravid worked as a receptionist in a brothel, she would ask every single customer if they wanted a receipt. Nobody ever did, and nobody ever laughed. “You’d want a receipt in any other shop,” she said, staring into the distance as impossibly wide-eyed as ever.
Angella Dravid is the only Billy T winner who has also spent time in jail. As explored in her show Down the Rabbit Hole, an unhappy marriage to a man 30 years her senior escalated one night into her wielding a picture frame as a weapon, and him calling the police. She was 19 years old. With no-one to bail her out, that decision landed her in prison in the UK, later to be deported back to New Zealand, and later still to write an award-winning comedy show about the whole ordeal.
I remember seeing Angella first perform during a storytelling night at The Basement Theatre, which also turned out to be the first time she attempted wrenching open in public the Pandora’s box that is her life in prison. Standing there, notes trembling and saucer eyes darting back and forth a la Felix the Cat, Angella’s breathless voice caught on every word of the extraordinary tale. Just like anyone who has ever encountered Angella, I became instantly obsessed.
How does she go so long without blinking? Was this story for real? Was she for real?
Cut to two years later, and Angella is a bit of celebrity in her own right, not just luxuriating with the coveted yellow Billy T towel but also chalking up regular, scene-stealing appearances on the Jono and Ben and Funny Girls. I got to see her tell her story again, this time on the opening night of her first solo one hour show. She was more assured this time, even opening up to the crowd for questions – of which, of course, there were many.
Honestly, Angella is such a rare treasure that I didn’t really know whether to put her under a microscope or trap her behind glass so she can stay a magical mystery forever. Hoping to get somewhere between the two, we cracked open some beers and talked about her newfound fame, dwelling in the darkness, and how being in prison changed her life for the better.
How long had you been working on telling this story? Was there a moment that you realised it could actually be ‘material’ for something else?
I only started doing stand up because I wanted to do something with this story. I was like ‘if I get really good at this, then this is the goal, to make a show about this story and make it funny.’ I wasn’t sure whether to make it a play, or a series, but for some reason stand up seemed to be the thing that got to me most quickly. The apartment I was living in had an open mic night, and I just started from there about four years ago – I knew I had to build up the experience to be able to deliver it.
I had also become more aware, as I was getting a bit more into the public eye in things like Funny Girls and Jono and Ben, that the public were probably going to want to know what it is that I’m hiding. I think people know that, although I’m pretty open, I’m also a little bit mysterious. I knew that I had to tell this story, because then people will be able to understand, ‘okay, that explains why she’s like this.’
Right, and when you say ‘like this’ what do you mean?
Terrified and anxious and nervous. In the past, I suffered talking to people, I used to feel like the words strangled me. It’s a panic response. Everything seizes, and then I have to fight through that. I also never know the right social way to do things, and I’m a bit too blunt, things like that. I feel like all those things came from my childhood but also, coming from prison, you don’t exactly know what’s etiquette. You’re kind of tip-toeing around each other. I’m completely vulnerable, I’m a real person – but I also don’t know how to deal with most interactions.
So everything that you present onstage, that’s the real Angella?
I mean, some of it is a game to see how far I can stretch the awkwardness before I put in a punchline. To me, I think the joy comes from the long-awaited tension, and people seem to be able to go along with those little games I put in my set. I want people to trust me enough – even if it seems like it’s going terribly – that there’s going to be some point where they can laugh.
If you were using stand-up solely as a conduit for this one amazing story, does that mean you are finished with it now?
It does actually feel a little bit like that sometimes. I’ve been holding onto this content for a long time, so a part of it feels like ‘oh, it’s over’ – but there’s still so much more beneath the surface of it. To be honest, this show was like the vomit draft, and what comes next will be refining it and making it better. If I had just been in prison for a couple of days it would be different, but that whole experience was three years in a bail hostel and two months in prison – it was such a huge chunk of my life.
It’s funny, when I was in prison I somehow knew that part of my life didn’t make sense, but that something would happen later on to make the whole chapter funny. I now genuinely believe that if something is not funny to you now, it’s just because something will happen in the future is waiting to call back to that moment. There were just so many amazing tie-ins that happened organically with my story. Like realising that the dates of my wedding anniversary and Last Laughs aligned, or realising that a guy I was talking to on Tinder was a probation officer from the same prison. If you dig hard enough, you’ll find connections in anything.
I came to your opening night.
Opening night was rough.
You ran a bit under time and threw to the audience for questions. I just remember sitting there thinking… ‘where the hell do you even start?’
I ran under in Wellington too, opening night was only 30 minutes so I did half an hour Q&A. People had so many questions I had never thought about answering in the show, because I’m so used to the story. I thought it might be nicer to have a Q&A at the end so people get their own resolution, because it doesn’t really have a resolution. It’s not a happy ending, it’s just an ending.
That seemed to work in Wellington, so I did it in Auckland because I ran under time again and I thought people would have questions. I kept thinking someone would be a dick, but then I realised: what kind of an asshole would confront a person who has openly admitted that prison was one of the best experiences of their life?
So before all of this happened: what was your life like in small town Australia, what was your journey there?
Dad was setting up a business in a couple of small towns and was away most of the time. He was also an alcoholic. When he did come back he would be drunk and quite abusive, so I wanted just anyone else’s attention but his. In school, I felt left out as well because I was the only Kiwi and the only Indian girl in the whole school. Dad was the only Indian guy in the whole town. It made us look both so isolated, out there living in rural Australia.
And it’s around that time that you met your ex-husband in a chat room, right?
It was easier to find attention and talk to people in chat rooms. I used to play violin in high school, so I would go to classical music chat rooms, and we’d just talk about music. We’d share really bad puns and other things that 40-50 year old men do in real life. It was just a nice escape, to talk about mundane silly puns, or listen to and discuss music.
In the chatroom you also don’t really see their faces, so I guess you’re attracted purely to what they say. Your identity is more in your font selection rather than your image. My ex-husband got drunk one night, and he messaged me saying “I have feelings for you.” I told him that I felt the same way too and then he started calling me on the landline. We formed a romantic relationship that way, and it didn’t take long for me to leave Australia for the UK. When I ran away, it didn’t feel like I was losing anything.
I don’t want to get too much into the details and spoil everything, but you went to prison due to an incident with a picture frame. I didn’t realise that was the kind of thing that could send someone to prison?
Normally you probably wouldn’t – it wouldn’t have happened if I had been in New Zealand or I had been established in the UK and had friends and family that I could be bailed to. The problem was that I had no friends, and nobody to stay with. I just had to be outside of the marital home and the only place that would accept me was prison.
That sounds incredibly sad but, as you say in say in your show, the way you feel about prison isn’t sad right?
I was trapped in a marriage and honestly, going to prison seemed like fun to me at the time. You can build up a routine, talk to people, it’s really social. I never felt like I fucked my life up. When I went in there, people saw that I was so eager to make friends and meet different people. I was a 19 at the time, and I think in prison women get very protective. When they see someone struggling, it brings up the nurturing side.
Now, if I see someone who is 19 and struggling I’m gonna say to them, “you’ve got your whole life ahead of you, you can do whatever you want.” I was surrounded by that attitude every day. Prison definitely sounds terrible, but you’ve got people who have come from all walks of life, just trying to do the best they can.
Keeping in mind that I’ve only been informed by TV and movies about this – what was it like the day you were released?
I was told out of the blue, either on the day or maybe the day before. I think it’s because that they don’t want you to have any notice of informing people outside or collaborating with other prisoners. When he told me I was in total shock. I told him that I wanted to stay. And he was like, “No, you need to pack your bags and leave.” So I packed my bags and left.
I was expecting a paddy wagon to come pick me up, but I just walked out the front gates. It was kind of anticlimactic because it’s such a big build up to get inside. You spend three days in the police cell, then there’s a day of going to court, and if they don’t make a decision you’re still in the police cell. It took me a week to get into prison, and it took me a day to get out.
So you’re just out on the road with your bags, what do you do next?
I had a plastic bag, a travel pass and a little map of how to get to the train station. I took the train, and I remember arriving at Reading and finding it so disorienting to even talk to people. I think I was kind of stunned – I had two months of being inside, and now I could just walk wherever and pretend to be a normal person. I liked asking people for directions, and listening to them while thinking to myself ‘none of these people know that I’ve just come from prison’.
That was empowering, the fact that I could suddenly just blend in. It actually gave me some stupid bravado, like I got into a guy’s car just because he offered me a ride. I went in thinking that, if this guy attacks me, he’s going to regret it because I’m a prisoner. If he murders me, the police will be after me anyway because I breached my curfew. I just always felt like I was in such a good position.
Always the optimist! Has it changed the way you thought about criminals, prisons and people in general?
Yes, and I still have a very tough time when I hear people saying judgemental things about prisons. The women I saw in there just needed someone to believe in them when they were younger. They were doing the best they could with the knowledge and the resources that they had.
I think prison teaches you a lot of empathy, it’s also taught me to bond with someone more over their suffering rather than their joys. That’s definitely how I connect with people now: if I share my sadness with you and you share your sadness with me, then I feel like that we can be happy together. Because if you got through your sadness and I got through mine, then surely it gets better.
Do you ever feel like you’ll be free of the tragedy in your comedy? Or is that always going to be very central?
I think I’ll always need tragedy as a base, but you always need to find the optimism in the worst possible situation. When you reach rock bottom, there’s a part of you that feels totally free. Like, if this is the worst it’s ever going to get, I may as well just do what I want to do. Quite often that involves just digging more into pain, and finding the joy of digging, and then realising it’s a tunnel out. Kind of like having a broken leg but still being able to touch it – there’s a joy in that.
Are you worried that, with the Billy T and everything, this story could define the rest of your career?
I had a real fear of getting typecast now that I’ve told this story. But I think I approached it quite differently to a comic who wants to do comedy, I just wanted to get the story out. I do feel like winning the Billy T was polarising. I could feel some people thinking, ‘was that comedy? Or was that just a lot of pain?’ I only really felt the magnitude of it at Last Laughs, when [David] Correos yelled my name and a lot of people cheered. In my opinion, I felt like that Billy T was recognising potential rather than being an end point. For me, it just felt like an indication that I’m going in the right direction.
You mentioned that you loved wandering around and pretending to be a normal person on that first day out. Do you feel normal now?
No, because that whole experience is abnormal. And even how I’m dealing with it by doing stand up comedy is abnormal. But I feel like being with comedians has made me feel normal. I think that’s when I realised I liked comedy, because the people in it made me feel a part of something. I’ve also become a part of it through being entirely myself. They’ve embraced me, and I don’t have to worry about making a good first impression anymore.
It’s almost like being back in prison, actually. As soon as you open that first door, there are people behind it who are wanting to take care of you. The first thing a comedian will tell a rookie comic is: “I bombed too, but don’t worry about bombing, bombing’s fine.” It’s very nurturing, a very similar culture to prison.
So bombing on stage must be a totally different experience for you, because you… like… to bomb?
I feel like the joke is bombing, yeah. It’s indulgent, and I think good comedians know when to give up the game. Bad comedians keep going, and I think it’s all in the timing of it. Again, I never got into comedy because I wanted to be a comedian. My knowledge of comedy is really limited – I watch comedy movies occasionally and I never watch standup specials. I feel like my job now is to catch up and watch all the comedy specials, but of course when you watch everybody else you start to wonder, is this still my voice?
That’s what I wondered about when I first saw you perform, that either you’ve done all this work and honing and research and managed to carve out this exact perfect comedy persona… or you’ve done absolutely nothing and are just this pure gem.
I’ve definitely learned my comedy through being in very, very hard diverse groups. Being this person here, being in a chatroom, being in a marriage, being in prison, being on bail, being deported, coming back to New Zealand – they’re all vastly different groups. Drawing how you are in various groups and deriving comedy from that makes you a comedian as well. So mine came entirely from being in a tough situation, and then trying to recap a story and people laughing, and me realising ‘oh, that’s absurd’.
What I like in humour is the emotional attachment you can suddenly have to the person onstage. I like bringing everyone in to understand the moment just from one word, or creating a bridge to gap before you understand the punchline. It reminds me of my grandma’s broken English –the stories that she told me before I went to sleep were far more vivid, because I was trying so hard to link the two words together. I feel like saying the bare minimum is more powerful, because the audience has to get there themselves.
And so how does something like Jono and Ben fit in with the rest of what you are trying to do with your comedy?
Jono and Ben is interesting. The producer got me in there because she said that I bring a warmth and a different kind of energy and pace. I struggle to find the comedy in the live process, because it’s very alien to me to not see someone react. It’s in front of a camera, and I don’t know if people are laughing. I find it very jarring, but that’s kind of the test for me.
And you’ve obviously been in some seemingly hellish live TV situations – I’m thinking of the Tattoo Of Us party for example. How was that experience?
It was a bit of a shock, because those two weren’t playing up to the camera when I was talking to them beforehand, but they were both very extroverted and I think they’re used to doing that in front of cameras. That was kind of weird. I didn’t know how to deal with it, but the audience seeing that made it very genuine as well. We all like to see car crashes, I think I provide the car crash element to Jono and Ben.
Is nothing off limits in terms of how much ‘car crash’ you will to give the audience, or how dark you will go?
It seems that way, and I’ve heard from a lot of comedians that you can get away with whatever. I kind of believe that. I believe that you can make a joke out of anything – if you know what your limits are. But good comics should be trying to figure out what those limits are. Limits should be coming from their joy, and the joy of the audience.
For example, I become very aware of myself when someone does a fat joke, so I don’t do fat jokes. I have jokes about being Indian and Samoan and diabetic, but that’s because I am all of those things. I really feel like you should have jokes that are based on your experience, so no one feels like it’s directly related to them. I also just like to have really low standards and low expectations.
Finally, with all this success and TV and Billy T, are you concerned that you might lose that ‘otherness’? How are you going to stay Angella Dravid?
Yes I am concerned. Now I’m in a world where everything I do fits in, which is not a world I’m used to having to deal with. I used to feel like I knew myself, but the me from two years ago is not the person I am now, it’s almost like I to put on a shell to perform that. There is definitely a little bit of crisis. I don’t know if the person I am now is funny, I’ll only know that in two years time when I’m performing material.
I’m always trying to work backwards on comedy. It’s like, life happens and then it makes these punchlines. For example: I never, ever, thought I would ever swipe on Tinder and find a mutual connection with a man who was a prison guard in the same prison I was in. I guess I will just continue to spend my life looking for the next punchline to write itself.
This content is sponsored by Garage Project. Garage Project firmly believes that BEER can change the world, and brilliant journalism, like The Spinoff needs to be championed and cherished. Writing is thirsty work, so we’re doing our bit to help, one beer at a time.
The Bulletin is The Spinoff’s acclaimed daily digest of New Zealand’s most important stories, delivered directly to your inbox each morning.