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BBC News’ Wordlessness Debate

The minimal word count in some Hollywood films has ruffled some feathers.

But is it something to worry about?

Click here to listen to the BBC discussion.

 

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Why Not Use Words?

tati4

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!

Tell Us How You Feel, Make Your Move.

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.

SHARPNESS

I love the way this actor is so distinct in his movement from one body position to another.

He snaps in and out of poses using all the extremes of his body. He bends and straightens his neck to emphasise head movement. He lengthens his fingers as well as his arms. He turns his feet in and out.

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.

EMOTIONS

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…

RHYTHM

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!

Great News – Things Aren’t Perfect!

Nowadays lots of things work properly. They are reliable, last a long time and you can always get an identical replacement.

It’s becoming a real problem.

For comedy, I like props that are quirky, unbalanced, mis-shapen – stuff that doesn’t work properly!

I used to get quite stressed out about it. That is until a few months ago, when I was working in a school –  a brand new, bang up to date contemporary “new build” school.

I needed to get into costume quickly, so after asking if I would like a tea or coffee,  a teacher proudly showed me to a deluxe toilet where I could change. You needed a code to get in (for safety reasons) – so he typed it in – and in I went.

It really was a lovely room. Gleaming surfaces, modern design, energy saving equipment, everything…

Suddenly I realised I had left my waistcoat in the theatre. I popped back to get it. As I got there, the school secretary appeared with two mugs of tea for myself and my double act partner. She told me that we couldn’t leave the drinks unattended (for safety reasons). My partner had disappeared, so I had to take the drinks back to the deluxe toilet / dressing room – only to find myself locked out and not knowing the entry code.

Hot teas in hand, I took a difficult and messy journey through unpredictably opening automatic doors to find someone who gave me the toilet code. I returned to the toilet after another difficult and even more messy journey. With no hands free to type in the code, I had to type it in with my nose. The handle was at head height (for safety) so I had to turn it with my mouth, trying not to loose any teeth, or spill any more hot tea on my now slightly burnt hands.

After some awkward trial and error, viewed with disdain by passing 5 year olds, I managed to get back in – and on entering the efficiently designed (tiny) room, I set off the automatic (hyper-sensitive) hand dryer. The brand new (faulty) dryer nozzle had slipped and was facing upwards – and shocked at the sudden blast of hot air in my face, I staggered backwards towards the sink, setting off the automatic (hyper-sensitive) tap. Startled by the noise of the luxury (over-powered) water jet, I turned to be blasted with water, ricocheting off the attractively curved (particle-accelerating) sink.

With wet trousers and a show due to start in minutes I started panicking.

I tried to put down the cups of hot tea, but the sparkling clean (incredibly slippery) surfaces were all of such a delicately curved (completely impractical) design that the mugs kept slipping off. Placing the mugs on the immaculate (skiddy) floor, I went to get some toilet tissue to dry myself. The environmentally friendly (pointlessly small) tissues were dispensed one at a time, each time with a grand (embarrassingly loud) “thumpf”.

I decided to try the hand dryer again. Unable to turn the nozzle to face downwards, my only hope of drying my trousers was to take them off or stand on my hands. Anyone experienced in working in schools knows that you should never take your trousers off. So I clambered onto the toilet seat and sink and attempted to dry my trousers whilst astride the dryer. The very high technical specification meant that it would only work if you constantly waved something (exactly 20 centimetres) underneath it, so I  spent a difficult few minutes balancing on the various porcelain surfaces, while waving my hand between my legs.

Suffice to say that my faith in the rubbishness of things was restored.

I am confident that while man endeavours to make things perfect, he will always make things worse – which will always make our jobs easier, which will always make us laugh.

So as you venture into the immaculate risk free future, fear not. The universe will always provide chaos to mock our attempts at order.

In tribute, here is one of my favourite depictions of the disasters of the future, Jacques Tati’s extraordinary “Playtime”.

How to Write a Comedy Scene

Here are some simple things that you can do to make a great comedy scene.

There are no absolute rules – but here are some ideas and examples to get you started.

Characters

Try and make your characters as exact as possible. Give them an “attitude” – which is a bit like an emotion, or an outlook on the world. eg. excited, sad, suspicious. Good “attitude” words often end in “-ful”. Such as playful, careful, bashful. (But not things words like spoonful or cupful!)

In the incredibly successful sitcom Friends, the characters are superbly drawn. For example, Ross Geller is gloomy, dispondent and pessimistic. He often walks into the room and says “Hi-ii” in a gloomy way.

The clearer the character’s attitude, the better. Attitudes are emotional words – so “shy”, “tense” and “enthusiastic” are good. Words that aren’t so helpful are judgemental words like stupid, clumsy or wrong as they are not about the character’s feelings. Also, descriptive words like heavy, tall or well-dressed don’t give any information about the character’s feelings, so they aren’t as useful either.

Plan

Each character must be trying to do something in a scene. So if your character is entering a room, give them a definite reason – eg. looking for his lost keys, coming in to get changed, hiding from someone outside. You could get the “plan” from his or her attitude. So a shy man could be coming in to escape from a noisy party in the next room. Or an angry mother could come in looking for their naughty teenage son.

Problem

Something happens that hinders the character’s plans. The problem might arise from the characters conflicting “plans”. eg one might be trying to put clothes away, while the other might be taking clothes out to try on.

In the following scene, we see Chandler planning to eat a cheesecake. Rachel causes the problem by pointing out to him that it is immoral to eat it.

Reaction

Comedy scenes really get going when the characters start reacting.

When they react, their attitudes change. And they try to do something to solve the problem.

These reactions and attempts to solve the problem will result in further reactions and further attempts to solve the problem. And this is the core of your comic scene.

Using the clothes example again:

Betty is excited about going out. (Attitude)

She wants to wear exactly the right clothes. (Plan)

Betty’s mum, Mrs Crocker, is cross because of the mess. (Attitude)

Mrs Crocker tidies up the clothes. (Plan and Problem!)

Betty gets cross. (Reaction)

Betty grabs the dress from Mrs Croker. (Trying to solve problem)

The dress gets ripped.

Betty starts crying. (Reaction)

Mrs Crocker starts laughing. (Reaction)

Betty gets cross at Mrs Crocker’s reaction. (Reaction)

Mrs Crocker teases Betty for getting angry. (Reaction)

etc…

Re-incorporation

To keep the audience interested, the writer must keep everything within the bounds of credibility.

But to really excite an audience, the writer should try to re-incorporate as many ideas as possible. In other words, keep using objects, phrases or ideas that have been mentioned or noticed earlier.

In the Betty and Mrs Crocker scene, it would be great to re-incorporate the ripped dress. There’s other things to re-visit too – where is Betty going this evening (to meet her estranged father?) Why is Mrs Crocker so stressed out about keeping the place tidy (a lover coming round while Betty’s out?) So many options! So much fun!

In this Chaplin boxing sketch, he re-incorporates the bell, the hugging and the hiding behind the referee to great effect. Watch from about 1 min 15 secs into the clip.

Rhythm

It is worth noting as well, that in the Chaplin boxing scene there is a crackling rhythm. The bouncing movement of the boxers and referee gives the entire scene life.

So, give it a go! With just a little bit of practice, you will come up with wonderful, satisfying comic scenes.

To see some of my attempts at one-man scenes, visit http://www.thesillyseasons.com