Here’s Chaplin with a good example of the strength of focus.
His exacting focus on the statue not only makes the scene believable – it makes his acting uncluttered – so as not to get in the way of the gags.
This is a good introductory read about the techniques of clown super-director Cal McCrystal.
Most usefully, it highlights some games that he uses to generate clown material.
I just came across this terrific post from the New York Times in which Seinfeld reveals some of the process of writing a comedy bit.
Spot on, of course. And despite being about verbal comedy, it reveals a lot of the important aspects of visual comedy – rhythm, brevity and reincorporation.
There is something really odd about a character that doesn’t talk.
Silence holds a unique tension. Stillness is the same. They create a wonderful expectancy.
Think of being in any situation with a group of people, one of whom never speaks. What would you think of that person?
I not against talking. I’m definitely not against sound. (In the double act that I work in, my partner talks for the entire show and we pay a huge amount of attention to creating rhythm from the natural sound of our movement, our props and our environment.)
I don’t want to make characters that are silent for the sake of being different. For me silence is not an “experimental” choice.
On the contrary, we spend most of our days in silence. Much of our interaction is non-verbal. A huge amount of our observation of other people is of their movement. We’ve all sat in a cafe window people watching!
So we don’t need to make fraudulent “mime” scenes. We can just make scenes where talking naturally is absent. Most obviously, when people are on their own and when people are watched from afar. Or you could set a scene on a deafening oil rig. Or even where two hostages have their mouths taped. (These last two are less interesting to me as they will inevitably involve attempts at talking through mime.)
I enjoy the fun of interpretating or “working out the puzzle” of non-verbal scenes. And equally I love the creative puzzle of making clear inferences without resorting to pointing or unrealistic mime!
As noted in a previous blog, I love the freedom given to the audience to be vocal – not worrying about interrupting the performer or other audience members.
And, finally, but most importantly for me, there is the mysterious anonymity given to a character who we cannot hear. In watching something without the extra information given by the voice, we infer our own ideas about their personality and psychology. Once a character speaks, it is as though the mask slips, and we are presented with something different – something more obvious and less animalistic. Maybe less unpredictable. (I always feel like Chaplin has a great wild animal quality.)
Is there perhaps something more universal about the non-verbal? Do we avoid projecting our preconceptions about people with certain accents and vocal qualities? Does it allow us to relate more deeply to the character as a result?
To conjure a simple example, imagine watching people on the road from up on a bridge. You see someone waiting, then someone arrives to stand next to him. Another person stands on the other side of the first. The last two exchange glances.
If I was watching that from afar I would be captivated, and a little anxious. And it is that feeling of interpreting what you are watching and not hearing that I find so thrilling.
But this doesn’t mean that everything is about a mysterious narrative. So long as the viewer believes that what they are watching is realistic – or at least consistent – you can explore an extraordinary world of subtle and outlandish behaviour.
Jacques Tati is probably the greatest exponent of this style of film-making. His use of “anonymous” behaviour is fascinating. He often uses a character that is a “watcher of the action”. In Jour de Fete there is an artist and an old lady. In Les Vacances de M. Hulot many of the characters watch each other. And it interesting to read that in French art, there is a well known character called “le flâneur” – someone who spends his time drifting around people watching.
There is a great example of Tati’s vision from 30 seconds:
The exclusion of words has a long tradition, particularly in France where the use of words was banned in theatre unless specifically licenced. This resulted in the French traditions of mime and pantomime. such as the manifesto of French physical performer Étienne Decroux in which he suggested that words be banned from theatre completely for a few years so that actors could learn to use their bodies effectively.
My exclusion of words is not about artistic resistance training! It is about accessing an unusual experience of interpreting what you are watching and a freedom to vocalise as an audience.
Am I being too fussy?! Or do you get a unique experience from watching non-verbal comedy?
Please let me know what you think!
Thanks To Jonathan Lyons at comedyforanimators.com / Stupix for this link.
I thought I’d briefly look at what the “yellow” character is doing so well.
I love the way this actor is so distinct in his movement from one body position to another.
And I love the way his sharp movement makes the change really clear – his changes from one emotion to another are so clear and sharp that the change itself often gets a laugh.
Visual comedy is great when the characters have strong emotions and emotional reactions.
In a non-verbal performance, I like to write out a script of emotions instead of words.
This actor is doing it really well… shocked, confused, upset, delighted…
Good rhythm makes a character really come alive.
The New York Times said of Bill Irwin: “This uncanny comic actor has always exuded the sense that he is listening to music that no one else can hear.”
That is a very astute comment about visual performers.
Try this at home:
Get some knives and forks and imagine you’re a butler in a show.
Lay them out on a table ready for a very important meal.
Now do it again, but this time put some music on. Let the music feed your movement.
Really get into it! You don’t have to dance, you just have to move.
Try it with different music.
I use this idea a lot. I had a tune stuck in my head for years. Not quite knowing what it was, a friend asked me to sing it to them. They identified the song as Girls Aloud’s “Promise I Made”. It was a few weeks later that I realised that in fact it wasn’t Girls Aloud, but the Blankety Blank theme tune.
So if I am ever flagging in a show, I just have to sing the song in my head, and I’m back up to speed.
Please don’t judge me!
Can you be jealous of a film?
The Silly Seasons has been seen all over the world this year. In fact, it’s been to New York and Minnesota – my top two places that I’ve always wanted to visit!
It has been an incredible surprise that film festivals have scheduled it.
Thanks to all the bookers, and thanks to everyone who has given me your support throughout the year.
If you haven’t seen it, it’s not too late!
Here’s the link to the official site – where you can see the trailer… and maybe do some Christmas shopping!