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!

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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 be Wild

Having read Stefan Kanfer’s biography of Groucho Marx, it is clear that the Marx Brother’s greatness comes from performing thousands of shows, day after day, week after week.

This is the case for most vaudeville performers – but I think repetition provides something unique for clowns  – something different to the obvious benefits of practice needed by skills-based performers such as jugglers and acrobats.

I call it “petulant deviation”. Groucho’s wild conversations are great examples of it.

Petulant what now?!

Apologies for making up terminology – let me try and explain myself!

Most performers who have done a show more than 40 times will know that there comes a point when you know it inside out. After that, there comes a period when the performer is so familiar with the show that little cracks start to appear.

Maybe you see things that don’t make sense, or you notice things that don’t quite fit the rhythm of the show. Maybe you get the feeling that there should be more or less emphasis on certain sections.

But more importantly, little opportunities offer themselves up. And as long as the performers stay in character, the theatrical illusion can be maintained to allow some improvisation.

That is what I mean by “deviation”.

“Petulant” deviation occurs when performers are so familiar with a show that they start actively looking for opportunities to improvise. It is often in these moments that real truth can be found in a show. It can also be where performers start destroying a show – the Marx Brothers were particularly good at that. Groucho and family were well known for being wild and unreliable. Their film bosses would insist on a tour of a stage version of each film to “run it in”. This was a great way of ironing out any problems – and testing out new material. But Groucho and the gang were so “petulant” that they would improvise with little regard for the fact that shows would over run by hours.

In his brilliant biography, Kanfer describes an incident where a young starlet who had offended the film company bosses was sent to work with the Marx Brothers as a punishment.

In the clip above, you can see how a pretty straightforward comedy scene may have been expanded through wild improvisation. In the clip below you can see how years of repetition and messing around has allowed Harpo and Chico such effectiveness as comic performers.

As I said before, this process feels quite different from the repetitive practice needed by jugglers and acrobats. It is about accessing a unique “zone” of clowning – the chaos zone, the boredom zone or the messing around zone. If you wanted to make up another piece of terminology, you could call it “finding an anarchic impetus”. But I wouldn’t – it would be too pretentious.

Without it, we have to be satisfied with well-rehearsed, technically accomplished performances.

But, with it, we get that unique wild quality which makes great clowning great.

If you want to have a look at the Groucho biography mentioned, click here:

Groucho Book

We want New Slapstick is a resource for everyone involved in visual comedy of any kind.

We’re putting our money where our mouths are and creating films of our own. To have a look at the attempts so far, click here:

http://www.thesillyseasons.com

A Bit of Animal Magnetism

One of the stranger aspects of visual performance, clowning and animation is that the characters often have an “animal-like” or “non-human” quality.

This wonderful clip of the Godfrey Daniels character sums it up perfectly.

The character is roughly human, but we certainly don’t react to him as we would a “person”. He doesn’t speak and has no facial expressions – so we only get information about his mood from his physicality. There is something fascinating about it.

Harnessing this idea can be invaluable, allowing characters to be:

  • completely unique
  • very likeable
  • surprising
  • free from the usual rules of society (and even physics)

This is the territory of mask work but we also see it in clowning, puppetry and even early film, where facial expressions couldn’t be seen very clearly.

My favourite Chaplin films are where his antics are viewed from a distance. It is Chaplin’s extraordinary physicality that made him such a great silent film star. Have a look at his physicality compared to the other actors in the first few minutes of the famous factory scene:

The “non-human-ness” of his appearance allows us to view his character differently. Perhaps we don’t judge him as harshly. Maybe we don’t worry so much when he gets hurt. And we enjoy his unnatural movement which we might consider too “fake” if watching a modern film.

Some performers, like the one “inside” Godfrey Daniels, have masked their whole body, giving a new dimension to their physicality. Clowns use big shoes and baggy pants to deliberately distort the body shape. Some performers have taken this to the extreme. The creators of “Mummenschanz” are a good example. (I especially like the “tube” in clip at 48 secs:)

Some of the Mummenschanz “characters” have got hardly any recognisable features. But the movement still allows us to follow a narrative. Note in particular how they use focus (ie where they are looking) and how they change speed.

If you want to explore this oddity further, try this for fun:

  • Get together with some friends.
  • Draw some different faces on some sheets of paper (one face per sheet).
  • Poke small holes for the eyes.
  • Use an elastic band to hold one of the pieces of paper over your face.
  • Try moving around as your new character – but be careful if you can’t see that well!
  • Get your friends to ask you questions, or make suggestions about what’s happening to you.
  • Without using words or facial expressions, you will find that you have to explore a whole new vocabulary of expression.
  • Have fun!

IN A NUTSHELL

Disguising the “human-ness” of a character can have strange and exciting results.

You don’t need words to enthrall an audience.

Experiment with face masks, body masks and physicality.

(I’d love to hear from anyone who knows more about the psychology of non-verbal, non-facial expression. If you could recommend some reading I’d be really grateful.)

We want New Slapstick is a resource for everyone involved in visual comedy of any kind.

We’re putting our money where our mouths are and creating films of our own. To have a look at the attempts so far, click here:

http://www.thesillyseasons.com

Slapstick & Street Dance – Not So Distant Cousins

I’ve got an idea… it could be huge, so keep it secret…

Let’s combine street dance and slapstick in a new artform called slapdancing.

Maybe?

Anyway… here are 3 areas where slapstick and street dance professionals can learn a lot from each other.

NUMBER ONE: The Extremities

Big shoes, wigs and white gloves?

As Gok Wan might say, it’s all about the extremities.

In big arenas like circuses or dance-off pits it is difficult for audiences to see. Clowns use white gloves and big shoes. Street dance crews can use a similar trick.

In the following clip (start watching at 40 secs) the stripey tights and accurate foot position help the audience pick up the visual gag.

On the other hand, in this clip of a street dance crew, the movement is lost against the dark background.

Start watching at 2.20min

BUT remember, simply being seen is for cyclists, not performers.

Performers must concentrate on the extremities.

In this next clip, an all-white costume causes problems – we don’t get a sense of how sharp the movement is – because we can’t see the hands and feet.

Watch from 1.57

NUMBER TWO: Body Isolations.

Try swirling your neck around with out moving your head.

Try swirling your hips, without moving your torso.

The result could be sexy – or hilarious. (It’s a fine line!)

Here is eccentric dancer Earl “Snake Hips” Tucker showing off his extrordinary body control. Sexy or hilarious – you decide:

Bill Irwin moves his body parts around to great comic effect – watch his wiggling from about 6 mins 45.

All these performers have great body control and it is a great tool for a visual performer to have up their sleeve. Or up their baggy trouser leg!

NUMBER THREE: A Sense of Humour!

Using the body to “mess around” is a great way to get laughs – and to create variation in street dance.

This street dancer has combined great skill with fun to create a fantastic (though sometimes rude!) performance.

So, maybe all you trendy young dance dudes can learn something from old slapstick clowns – and maybe you trendy young slapstickers can learn something from those old dance pros.

Maybe we could have slapdancing clubs all over the country.

Maybe?

 

We want New Slapstick is a resource for everyone involved in visual comedy of any kind.

We’re putting our money where our mouths are and creating films of our own. To have a look at the attempts so far, click here:

http://www.thesillyseasons.com

Why Do Visual Comics Use Weird Voices?!

Shut up. Shut UP. SHADDUP SHADDUP. SHUUUUUT UUUUUUUP!

That’s the standard reaction I get when I do my (terrible) Jerry Lewis impression.

It’s not just my Jerry Lewis. It’s my Norman Wisdom, my Peewee Herman and my Jo Pasquale.

I have always wondered why  so many comics use these high pitched (some might say annoying) voices But after a few years of live shows, I found myself doing it. This wasn’t a planned decision. It just happened.

One reason is that high pitched sound can be sharp and surprising – perfect for comedy. But from my own experience, I am convinced that the unusual character voices of Wisdom and Lewis emerged for more practical reasons.

BIG STUFF

Large arenas like circuses or big theatres can get noisy and chaotic. In these arenas, routines can get lost beneath the audience reaction. Sharp, punchy noise is good punctuation for a routine.

And it’s not just about noise. More importantly, it can be due to the audience “falling about”. In my experience, very large audiences can take a while to “get back on board” after big jokes – they are catching their breath, they are wiping their eyes, they are telling their kids to get off the floor.

By using a variety of tactics – including high pitched noise – a performer can re-establish order. Jerry Lewis is a big proponent of saying “Hey!” to an audience. Norman Wisdom laughs hysterically – or uses a baby-like “waaah”. Both used to regain focus.

IS IT JUST ME?

Why then, are strange voices so particular to comics?

Firstly, there is rarely as much audience rowdiness during other styles of performance as there is in the wild chaos of a clown show.

Secondly, higher pitched voices indicate low status, so that is appropriate for clown characters.

Thirdly, a high pitched voice upstages a low pitched voice in the same way that the clown’s physical antics can upstage a straight man’s stillness.

Finally, it’s so weird, other types of performers would avoid it!

JUDGEMENT

Unfortunately, vocal noise is often used in place of good physical technique. There is no reason why most performers shouldn’t be able to maintain sharpness and rhythm through the accurate movement of their body.

My feeling is that once established in a live setting, using high pitched noise can become habitual. In Lewis and Wisdom’s careers, it was probably never questioned as to whether this type of voice was suitable for film. They had had hugely successful live stage careers with these voices. In fact, because they were very mimickable, it made those characters more memorable – even if, for some, they were annoying.

In film, we don’t have to worry about audience control. One of my greatest revelations about film comedy was the first time I watched a Chaplin film as part of a large audience. Because we knew no one would speak, we realised we didn’t have to listen. We could make as much noise as we liked. We all guffawed, gasped and shout out loudly – happily knowing that we wouldn’t miss a thing. What an experience! What a release!

Overall, I would recommend avoiding the weird voice – and let your body do the work. (If you want to look into this more, have a look at some mask work. Try www.trestle.org.uk)

The main points again:

Sharp punchy noise can punctuate a routine

Sharp noise can help “reset” an audience after a big joke.

Noise is NO SUBSTITUTE for good physical technique.

We want New Slapstick is a resource for everyone involved in visual comedy of any kind.

We’re putting our money where our mouths are and creating films of our own. To have a look at the attempts so far, click here:

http://www.thesillyseasons.com

How to Be Good at Something

People often think that slapstick is a lazy form of comedy. The best reply to this accusation is to show them some Chaplin.

Have a look at this rip-snorting bit of schtick from the master (at 3 minutes 08 secs):

This wonderful routine is something that Chaplin had performed live for years. The result is slapstick perfection – and as far as you can get from the perceived idea of slapstick as unrehearsed custard pie fights!

Stephan Kanfer wrote a wonderful biography of Groucho Marx: The Life and Times of Henry Julius Marx. He makes it very clear that the Marx Brother’s greatness came from performing thousands of shows, day after day, week after week.

kanferoutliers_malcolm_gladwell

In Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers, he says that to become a true expert, you need to amass 10,000 hours of experience in your chosen craft.

It is a staggering figure. And to modern performers it is almost unattainable. It is the equivalent of performing for 2 hours every single night for over 13 years!

How many actors can get the opportunity to perform that much? Even if fully employed, it is unlikely that an actor would be practicing his craft more than once a day – let alone for more than a fraction of an entire show.

Even stand up comedians, who are in essence modern vaudevillians, only get to perform 20 to 60 minutes once or twice each night. In fact, stand up is probably the only form of modern entertainment in which a performer can amass a substantial amount of experience – and that is why it is the most prominent of all niche entertainment forms today.

Those early silent films, so often denigrated as daft, are full of performers who have done their time. They have learnt their craft inside out on the vaudeville and variety circuits. Not all of them reached the heights of Chaplin, but even acts like The Ritz Brothers who have little appeal to us nowadays, are stunning in their technical prowess.

Personally, I have been lucky to have gained my hours in lots of different ways: actor, walkabout entertainer, clown, but most significantly, I have performed in schools 3 times a day, in 40 minute shows, 5 days a week for about 25 weeks a year. I have been doing this for eleven years. But even that only gets me up to about 3000 hours! Plus maybe another few hundred writing, teaching and directing.

In that time my understanding has deepened. But more importantly, many things have become automatic – things that I struggled to understand at first are now subliminal. I am far from a finished product – and I would say that Gladwell’s maths feels correct – I am about half cooked!

Aside from stand up comedians, the other prolific group of performers I know are those who work primarily with children and as outdoor performers. Inevitably, this is all down to where the money is – and where there is the chance to perform more than once a day. I would suggest that the the only way performers can amass a suitable amount of hours is to do shows for children and families – allowing them to perform during the day as well as the evening.

Now, I am not saying that if you haven’t performed thousands of shows you are not a good performer. But I would suggest that to become an exceptional performer, you do.

So, what can we do about this? Well, if it was up to me, I wouldn’t spend arts funding giving audiences access to artists. I would spend it on giving artists access to audiences. And how would we spend the funding? Encourage everyone do family shows? Get people to watch more live shows? Get performers to more shows regardless of audience numbers? Well, if we want to be better performers, yes, that is exactly what we have to do! And if performers have had a chance to amassed more performance experience, the quality of the work will draw the crowds.

Here’s Bill Irwin talking about the importance of his experience of working in schools.

 

We want New Slapstick is a resource for everyone involved in visual comedy of any kind.

We’re putting our money where our mouths are and creating films of our own. To have a look at the attempts so far, click here:

http://www.thesillyseasons.com