The Invisible Dot: How has one of the country's smallest comedy venues become an industry powerhouse?
It might be tiny but it attracts big stars and manages to discover major talents. Alice Jones investigates
Down a side street in King's Cross, in an old welding workshop behind a hefty sliding door, some of the country's finest comedy minds are hard at work. Call in on any night and you might find Stewart Lee trying out his latest routine, Simon Amstell warming up for a new American tour or Adam Buxton doing his thing – all for a small, discerning crowd who have paid less than £10.
This is The Invisible Dot, the first custom-built comedy venue to open in London for 20 years, and home to the production company of the same name. It moved in nine months ago, but aside from a spare white neon sign down the brickwork, you wouldn't know it was there. You would, though, know many of the acts the company has hosted since its inaugural show in 2009. That February night at Proud Gallery in Camden featured an astonishing bill – Tim Minchin, Daniel Kitson, Kevin Eldon, Simon Munnery, Arthur Smith, Pippa Evans, Tim Key and Tom Basden – riffing on the theme of Love, God and Evolution.
Since then it has quietly become one of the most exciting comedy powerhouses in the country – a place to see big names up close but more importantly a production line and proving ground for new talent. Long before they became Inbetweeners, Simon Bird and Joe Thomas starred in its boardroom spoof, The Meeting. Alan Partridge's sidekick Tim Key, who won the Edinburgh Comedy Award with the Dot-produced Slutcracker in 2009, won't stage his shows with anyone else. Edinburgh Comedy Award winner Adam Riches, Best Newcomers Tom Basden and Jonny Sweet and 2012 nominee Claudia O'Doherty are all on the books. In other words, if you were looking for this decade's Day Today gang – the Iannuccis, Coogans and Marbers of the future – this unassuming little warehouse would be a good place to start.
Opening straight off the street, it has whitewashed brick walls, a few rows of wooden chairs – maximum capacity is 75 – and a tiny, barely raised stage, flanked by the toilets. There is a bar at the front. In the summer, a barbecue on the pavement provides free interval burgers and hot dogs. After the shows, acts might hang around for an impromptu Q&A session. It is very much not the O2. And yet (or perhaps for that very reason) comedians love it.
"The Invisible Dot understands how comedy works, and how best to serve the best interests of both performer and punter," says Stewart Lee, who is currently doing a series of work-in-progress shows, priced £8, there. "When I approached other similar-sized venues to do the same thing they actually tried to double their normal prices because I was on."
While comedy is its mainstay, theatre is a growing strand. Political satire Party transferred from the Fringe to the West End, from where it was picked up for three series on Radio 4. Last year it paired Jaime Winstone with Russell Tovey in Sex with a Stranger, marking the West End debut of Stefan Golaszewski (creator of Him & Her). In August it will take two new plays up to the Edinburgh Fringe – a bodyswap comedy by DC Jackson and Holes, a plane crash drama by Tom Basden, with Daniel Rigby (Bafta-winning star of Eric and Ernie) and Mathew Baynton.
There are Invisible Dot books and LPs, too. Each show, event or product is catalogued with its own "ID" number, Factory Records-style. "I'd been reading about Factory Records, Bill Drummond and the KLF – those sort of pranksters," agrees Simon Pearce, 31, self-effacing boss of the Dot, and a Goldsmiths graduate. "I quite like that collision of business and creativity. There's something deeply charming about the stories of those companies who behave quite naughtily." In Edinburgh, its happenings have become a Fringe highlight. They have shipped audiences to the seaside for a gig headlined by Lee, with Kitson as surprise MC, staged three-sided football matches and dumped fake phone boxes around the city: when you picked up the receiver, Will Self, DBC Pierre or another writer would be on the other end, reading stories down a crackling line.
It all began in 2006 with a poem by Russell Brand, or, more accurately, a book of poetry by stand-ups, published by Pearce. Brand (who submitted a piece of blank verse about his sex life), Harry Hill, Tim Vine and Isy Suttie were all enthusiastic contributors, as was Arthur Smith, who paid the costs to get it into print.
After a few years of occasional shows at London's Union Chapel and the Edinburgh Fringe, The Invisible Dot Ltd was established in 2009. Its first home was an impossible-to-find space, no bigger than a classroom, in Camden Stables. By day it functioned as office, studio and rehearsal room; by night, the computers were pushed back to make room for comedy. That summer, it took several shows to the Edinburgh Fringe – Key's Slutcracker, Party and The Hotel, a fake guesthouse staffed by 20 stand-ups – and swept the board for awards.
A permanent home was the logical next step. With the help of their hit shows and a grant from the Paul Hamlyn Foundation's Breakthrough Fund, it moved into Northdown Street last September. Acts have carte blanche to drop in during the day, leading to cross-pollination between established stars and up-and-comers.
New comedy talent is taken very seriously. The self-consciously titled New Wave night is a regular fixture and rising stars are encouraged to host their own events. Claudia O'Doherty, whose Dot-produced show was nominated for the Edinburgh Comedy Award last year, recently staged a series of Friday night variety shows. "It's a place to try stuff where you're not completely terrified it will go wrong," she says.
Audiences too are encouraged to take a risk, and sign up to the programme wholesale. A "natural magnetism" between acts means that it is more than likely that if they like Thursday night's show, they'll enjoy Friday's, too. And with tickets capped at £8 or £10 no matter who tops the bill, it's worth taking a chance. "The through line has always been intelligent comedy writers and performers," says Pearce. "We just thought we'd do stuff that we thought was really good. If something's good it will always find an audience or an audience will always find it."
Meanwhile, the new building is inspiring new ways of presenting comedy, from storytelling nights to movies, short films, director Q&As – Edgar Wright and Joe Cornish are slated to appear – and comedy homages to cinema classics. Ambitions include developing more new writing for the West End and a Hotel-style installation for London. And with its habit of punching well above its size, Invisible Dot Films and Television wouldn't come as too much of a surprise in future.
The Invisible Dot, London N1 (020 7424 8918; theinvisibledot.com)
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