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Wot no LOFT or Voicebox?

By chief hack Ignatius Rake

Posted February 18, 2016
marcus keely on stage at voicebox at loft
Top place, top laughs: Marcus Keeley during a Voicebox night at LOFT. © Voicebox Comedy

Voicebox Comedy on hiatus as LOFT in Belfast closes but at least you can now watch the second part of the Voicebox Movie.

The Rake & Herald is saddened to hear that LOFT in Belfast is to be demolished as part of some 'redevelopment plan'.

A truly excellent art space in the heart of the city, it was also the setting for the monthly Voicebox Comedy night organised and hosted by Rake & Herald local soak Marcus Keeley.

At this point, I could embark on a foul-mouthed rant about property developers, gentrification and 'urban renewal' but I shan't.

Instead, I'll leave it to Marcus to throw a little light on this rather gloomy situation.

"The closure of LOFT has always been on the cards since we moved there in 2014," he exclusively tells the Rake & Herald via email.

"It's no big secret that the North Street area of the city is undergoing regeneration, with most of it laying vacant and in serious disrepair for a long time."

"The guys at LOFT really made the most of the space and gave people a reason to check out that area, but unfortunately it didn't fit in with the overall plans, which seem to be building student accommodation and probably a Wetherspoons or something."

"There's been a real increase in the area with the likes of Aether and Echo, the Hudson Bar and the Sunflower Bar; however, the Sunflower is in danger of being demolished due to the same plans that have closed LOFT."

"There's serious talent there and I hope they can find some sort of solution."

"The Cathedral Quarter has become more popular over the last 10 years with more pubs and the increase in tourism but, don't get me wrong, it's great to see Belfast getting busier but there's the danger it's slowly turning into something like Dublin's Temple Bar district – expensive pints, stag and hen parties from the rest of the UK, etc," Marcus continues.

"It could be in danger of pushing out the artistic talent and affordable venues that used to be prevalent in the area."

"As well as LOFT, I know of other people and organisations that have had to up sticks and go further out of Belfast or just go home."

"The Black Box is right in the middle of all this, and they have a constant roster of events and shows all week, but as far as I can see the comedy scene (outside of designated art festivals) is yet to benefit from this influx."

"Although that could be due to local comics, me included, not finding the best way to take advantage of this more than anything else."

"When I heard LOFT was closing, I was more upset at the artists losing their space than Voicebox not having a home."

"There's serious talent there and I hope they can find some sort of solution, either individually or regroup in a different location."

So, with LOFT sadly going the way of the dodo, what's happening with Voicebox?

"Nothing at the moment," Marcus reports.

"After we lost our original space at Safehouse Art Gallery in 2011, I brought Voicebox to a few different places, which never really worked out for various reasons."

"It was a real boon finding LOFT and it just fitted perfectly, at times exceeding shows back at Safehouse."

"A few have suggested I take it to some of the pubs and venues in the city centre, but having tried that before I'm quite hesitant."

"The charm and appeal of Voicebox has always been a BYO alternative comedy gig in an unusual location."

"Bringing that into a licenced venue loses some of the grassroots, grotty, underground magic and runs the real risk of seguing into a more typical comedy night."

"It's supposed to be a cheap night out for the audience… not 'Live at the Apollo' with a bottle of Bucky."

"Essentially, all Voicebox needs is a city-centre room on a Friday, with some chairs or cushions to sit on and folk to be able to bring a carry-out," Marcus says.

"Bonus if it has a projector for us to create and show videos, which was a significant feature of our Safehouse shows, which we've missed."

"It's much harder to find somewhere that fits that bill than you'd think, as well as venue owners who buy into the ethos of the show."

"I've pulled the plug on Voicebox before at places where they saw the popularity but could only think of profit."

"I've never intended it to be a money-maker, as stupid as that sounds."

"It's supposed to be a cheap night out for the audience and an opportunity for comedians, poets, filmmakers or whoever to get something unusual and untested in front of people for the love of it, not Live at the Apollo with a bottle of Bucky."

"Although I'd probably watch that."

"I've got a few one-off show ideas that may come to fruition later this year in 'proper venues', but they will not be fully-fledged Voiceboxes, just featuring some of the regular acts in a different format."

"So until I find an appropriate venue, there will be no more Voicebox."

"Some folk have said I should do some one-off shows in people's living rooms, which I'd totally be up for, if anyone would be willing to let us into their house."

marcus keeley and aaron marshall at voicebox in loft belfast
So why was it called LOFT? Marcus with Aaron Marshall (right). © Ignatius Rake

And on the subject of other shows, this past Saturday (13/2/16) saw Marcus putting on a Quickfire Comedy sesh in the Green Room bar of the aforementioned Black Box.

So what was all that about, then?

"Quickfire Comedy was something I did every so often back in Safehouse some months in lieu of a Voicebox show," he explains.

"It featured 10+ comedians performing a strict five-minute routine."

"The timer was projected behind them and if they ran over, it would automatically play music until they left the stage."

"I did it for a while in White's Tavern as a weekly mid-week show until it became personally untenable."

"Recently, Graeme Watson of the Cathedral Quarter Comedy Club page asked me to put some sort of show on during an afternoon in the Black Box, so I resurrected it as a one-off."

"It went quite well, with probably half of the acts I hadn't seen before."

"It had a vague competition element, but the focus was more on having fun and seeing a wide variety of acts in a short time."

"I think Keyboard Cat holds a special place in all our hearts."

"This time around, instead of music playing when the timer ran out, it automatically switched to a random video on a YouTube playlist I'd compiled," Marcus reveals.

"I was a bit worried it was going to come across as quite harsh towards the acts, even though I'd explained it to them beforehand, but they got behind it and at times looked forward to seeing what videos would bookend their sets."

"I might have to think of other ways to be a dick towards the acts."

"In the end, Keyboard Cat was the winner of the show, as opposed to any of the comedians on stage."

"Although that's not a reflection of the talent – I think Keyboard Cat holds a special place in all our hearts."

"I might do it again, but not for a few months and treat it as a seasonal show to avoid burning through available comedians and, of course, give me more time to source YouTube clips to play at the end of sets."

Well, all here at the Rake & Herald certainly wish you well with that, sir, and also hope that Voicebox returns in a suitable venue very soon.

Likewise, we sincerely hope that LOFT also finds a new setting equally quickly and that any period of homelessness proves to be merely fleeting.

But what, you, yes YOU, the cherished and beloved readers of the Rake & Herald, may well be wondering, was a Voicebox night at LOFT like?

Well, thanks to the camera skills and editing work of Stephen Mullan, here now, embedded on the video-tastic Rake & Herald from the Voicebox YouTube channel, is the second part of the flippin' ace Voicebox Comedy - Recording Special vid, aka The Voicebox Movie, as we kinda billed it above.

Meanwhile, to watch the first part, have a click of this and while you're about it, also check out our award-worthy Voicebox review here.

Now sit back and enjoy the feast that unfolds before you.

A Celtic Elvis, UFFOs and George Firehorse to boot.

It's just a bloody shame there won't be more nights like this in LOFT.

Screw Wetherspoons.

There's plenty of those already.

The world needs more places like LOFT.

Have you got, or know of, a potential venue in Belfast for Voicebox and/or the artists of LOFT? If so, drop us a line here at the Rake & Herald and we'll pass the info on.

See also Voicebox the movie, posted 4/12/15, Big laughs in Belfast Pt 1, posted 2/7/15, and Push up champ dead!, posted 5/5/15.

Marcus Keeley
is a comedian, improviser and soak. Regularly gigging in Belfast and Paris, he is the host and promoter of the Voicebox Comedy alternative comedy club, a member of the Wonder Frog improv group and an all-round homme fatale. You can follow him, Voicebox Comedy and Wonder Frog on Twitter here, here and here, respectively. Meanwhile, to keep tabs on Voicebox via FaceBook, have a click of this.

Ignatius Rake is a freelance journalist, geographer and illustrator who has visited more than 70 countries on six continents. The co-founder of the Rake & Herald, he can be contacted by email here.

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