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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Slapstick Festival 2013 – Peter Lord and Nick Park in Conversation

A packed cinema in the Bristol Watershed was a perfect setting for this very modest evening with the two giants of British animation.

Peter Lord lead most of the evening in authoritative style, with regular contributions from the charmingly self-effacing Nick Park.

There was no intention of a lecture-style through-line to the evening, but throughout the entire 80 minutes, the connections and contrasts between animation and live slapstick were clearly drawn. It was fascinating to hear how many parallels their early experience of making slapstick animation had with my own first attempts at making live slapstick.

Peter Lord made an early observation that “sustained visual comedy” was now usually only found in the world animation. (I felt strangely awkward knowing that I had just made a series of non-animated visual comedies. Am I completely out of touch?!)

Interestingly, Peter Lord also noted that his first big commercial success (Morph) emerged from ideas developed while making animation for Vision On – a programme for deaf children. He pointed out that almost everyone at Aardman starts by working with Morph.

A clip was shown which I hadn’t seen since the age of 9  – and the memories of watching TV while eating meatballs and chips came flooding back!

They also said that the other reason why they avoided dialogue in early work was simply due to the expense and complication. Especially the arduous task of lip-syncing.

In an salute to the validity of “borrowing”, three clips were shown using the famous “missing mirror” gag – Max Linder, The Marx Brothers and Morph – all using the same idea.

The conversation then turned to live visual performers. (I started getting ants in my pants.)

We watched a clip of Norman Wisdom. Nick Park pointed out how performers like Wisdom had come from a music hall and variety background which didn’t exist any more. (Desperately… trying… not… to… shout… out!)

Peter Lord agreed that there was no equivalent training ground for live visual performers these days – so there were no more Norman Wisdoms to perform in these type of productions. (How I stayed in my seat at that point will always be a mystery! Three thousand shows in the bag and I couldn’t say a word!)

They noted the narrative use of “loser” characters for slapstick – and how visual comedy narratives often had a loser “fall on his feet” due to his foolishness.

Lord praised Park’s decision to keep his animation subtle. (Park revealed a playfulness by feigning modesty in response.) Of particular note was the villainous penguin Feather McGraw in The Wrong Trousers. Park called it his “ethos of anti-animation”! He noted that some may have been tempted to get laughs from the penguin doing a funny waddle. But the simple, still, “milk-bottle-like” physicality of the penguin was much more effective.

Park stated that economy is the animator’s friend. As a live performance teacher, this was fascinating. For a performer, faffing is the actor’s false friend. Student actors often feel comfortable when doing something that “fills time”, delaying the moment of action. But the animator (and audience – and director!) does not want that delay. He or she does not want to animate even one frame more than necessary! So gargantuan was the task of animating Wallace and Gromit, that Peter Sallis did not see the final cut until seven years after he recorded the voice over!

In complete contrast, we were shown the opening scene of “Who Framed Roger Rabbit” and “The Cat Came Back” – each showing great flamboyance and lack of subtlety! I’m not sure what the learning objective was at that point, but they were still good fun – especially Dick William’s wild, dimension-bending Roger Rabbit sequence involving classic comic violence. Park insightfully pointed out that the violence was acceptable because the cartoon character was never really hurt.

And to finish, they noted that the animator’s scripts were pictures, not words – so visual comedy was a natural result of the preparation process. This is an area of great interest to me. I would love to know more about the preparatory process of film, television and theatre. In particular British film and TV, which I feel is too text-focussed. Film is traditionally prepared for with storyboards – and the natural outcome of this is good attention to visual detail – and regular, obligatory montages! Sadly, there wasn’t enough time to develop that topic.

The evening wrapped up with a final clip – a beautifully constructed idea with a simple locked-off shot. I will refer this clip to students as it is an exceptional example of re-incorpration. There are just a few characters that come and go, but always re-introduced surprisingly. And the central problem created by the environment is superb.

So, somehow I managed to restrain myself for 80 minutes! But I couldn’t help popping up to see Peter Lord afterwards to give him a copy of The Silly Seasons. Unfortunately, my star-struck nerves kicked in – and rather than talking about the modern equivalents of the variety circuit, I ended up gabbling nonsense about ten years schlepping around the country and something to do with a locked-off camera! Oh well!

Thanks to Chris Daniels and the team at the amazing Slapstick Festival for a great fun evening with two of the most successful visual comedy makers in the world. And thanks to Peter Lord and Nick Park for continuing to support the festival.

If you get a chance to head down to Bristol this weekend, I highly recommend it! All the details are here: www.slapstick.org.uk

Performer Analysis: Chaplin (or A Kick Up My Backside!)

I had been feeling rather pleased with myself.

I had worked out that I’d performed thousands of live shows to over half a million people; I felt that I had a developed a high level of understanding of the process of clowning and visual comedy; and I had just finished making four short slapstick films, which I thought were “not too shabby” for a first attempt.

Then I watched a Chaplin short called “Behind the Screen”.

Suddenly I didn’t feel so special any more!

Well, it turns out that in his book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell is right – there is a difference between capable and extraordinary!

I had come across the title reading Bryony Dixon’s essay on slapstick, “The Good Thieves”. I was delighted when I found the whole film on youtube.

Delighted… and distraught.

It turned out, my self-conceived “expertise” was nothing more than a knowledge of the absolute basics of a craft which Chaplin had taken to extraordinary heights.

Unlike my youthful introduction to Laurel and Hardy, I had never seen a Chaplin until about five years ago. Prior to that, I had the impression that Chaplin films were at best interesting curios of a bygone era and at worst saccharine and dated. But I was completely wrong.

In “Behind the Screen”, Chaplin displays an extraordinary level of physical ability, performance skill and, above all, visual creativity.

Most striking to a fledgling film maker like myself is Chaplin’s variety of visual jokes and varied visual construction:

  • the angles at which he manoeuvres (and his great use of depth)
  • his general movement – walking, behing lifted up
  • the creation of images eg the human hedgehog made from chairs stacked on his back
  • the close up character work (eg his onions reactions)
  • the chaos – the huge pillar, the trap door

And then , on top of all this, is my favourite feature of Chaplin films: the consistency of  “other worldliness”. The Chaplin character stands out above his contemporaries because it embodies an animal, non- human character. This allows him to behave in odd ways without having to adhere to naturalism – which, for other slapstick performers, can hinder their antics. This idea is played out in modern cartoons – invariably animated characters are non-human, allowing the creators to play around with ideas that are not restricted by human reality. Chaplin’s tramp, although “humanoid” is more like a cartoon. And our emotional reaction to this sort of protagonist is subtly different. (See my blog “Animal Magnestism”) Traditional circus clowns represent a similar detachment from “natural humanness”. And the lack of verbal language is justified by this choice.

Even when his peers moved on from the cartoon-ish behaviour of early slapstick towards more naturalistic characters, Chaplin made the decision to remain animal-like – and his impish innocence, strange costume and make up remain valid choices beyond the end of the limitations of early film technology.

Perhaps this is why, above all else, Chaplin’s films hold up under contemporary scrutiny: they are in world of their own.

Have a look at some of my own slapstick attempts here! 

http://www.thesillyseasons.com

Help Your Audience Laugh!

shouting           iPodGirl

One of my favourite jokes in my double act show is when my character suddenly can’t hear.

I’m sure everyone is familiar with the basic idea: the clown character puts something over their ears – eg ear muffs, a hat with ear flaps, ipod headphones. The boss character talks to him. But the clown can’t hear and doesn’t even notice that the boss is trying to communicate with them.

It’s so silly, but it is a great joke for all ages.

But the other day I came across a little trick to make it work to even better.

AUDIENCE DOUBT

Within the joke, there is an important moment where the audience realises that the clown cannot hear. But this moment can be vague. Individuals in audiences don’t want to laugh at something alone – that would make them feel weird. The individual will let him or herself laugh at the exact moment that they know for sure that it is meant to be funny.

A good comparison is that moment in group singing when everyone has to start singing the first note. We feel comfortable starting to sing if a conductor tells us when. But if there is no conductor and the pianist gives a vague, meandering introduction, no one will want to be the one to risk singing first – and I’ve been in lots of situations where no one starts singing and the group collapses into embarrassed giggles!

In the “can’t hear” joke, the audience will be thinking that the character probably can’t hear, but they are not absolutely sure. So they need a little indication to confirm their guess. They need clear confirmation that the character can’t hear. And the sharper the moment of confirmation, the better the laugh.

So, how to give confirmation quick and subtley?

I had often played “not hearing” absolutely straight, doing nothing – and the anticipation built until an audience was sure enough of the fact to allow themselves to laugh. But recently I have started using very delicate breathing to give a clearer indication that the character “can’t hear”. I do this with a distinct release of breath – either audibly or physically. It is enough confirmation to the audience that their guess is correct.

This tiny indicator releases a big laugh from the audience.

Try it! It’s easy… and great fun to perform!

Have a look at some of my own slapstick attempts here! 

http://www.thesillyseasons.com

The New Slapstick Film NOW AVAILABLE!

Things have been manic getting the first New Slapstick films through post-production.

We are so pleased with the results. And here’s a sneak peek…

You can download each episode for just £1.99

Or, if you’re in the UK,you can get the luxuriously packaged DVD! (A perfect stocking filler!)

While the proper website is being created, here are the links for downloading:

EPISODE 1: http://www.digitalgoodsstore.com/c/KX9uMb

EPISODE 2: http://www.digitalgoodsstore.com/c/OGMWN7

EPISODE 3: http://www.digitalgoodsstore.com/c/jqOIgv

EPISODE 4 (Christmas): http://www.digitalgoodsstore.com/c/T9FGep

I hope you enjoy them! Please let me know what you think.

 

Thanks for all your support over the year.

Chris

Performer Analysis: George Carl

There are better quality clips of George Carl on youtube, but this is my favourite.

The audience is right behind him which gives a great fluency and sharpness to his schtick.

George Carl is probably best known to modern audiences for his role in the film “Funny Bones” as an old variety entertainer who never speaks.

Carl is a fascinating performer to study as he is a direct link from the authentic vaudeville circuit, having begun performing in 1932. His act looks and feels old fashioned, but it’s still great fun for a modern audience. He enjoyed great success late in his career appearing on The Johnny Carson Show – and there is plenty of youtube footage of him on European television.

The greatest thing about Carl is his dexterity – high speed control of hat tricks and getting caught up in wire, mic stand and button holes. His skill is superb, and for most audiences this is enough.

But he also has a wonderful persona – a tiny man with a wizened face – who has a likeability similar to Norman Wisdom and his voice-less performance gives him a Chaplineqsue animal-like quality which is very attractive.

There is a slight problem for modern viewers of Carl’s act. In his pursuit of pace and as a result of having done the same act so many times, he slightly fudges the sense of his routine. There are occasions when he manipulates props in ways that don’t make sense to his character’s situation. He doesn’t always acknowledge events or take time to react to events within the chaos.

I have a feeling that this was not always the case, and that he has lost definition over hundreds of performances. Having said that, the chaos is so sublime that it is enough to make a great act. Having seen some other footage of Carl as a great acrobat, I imagine that he concentrated more on the execution of the skills than on strict adherence to the rules of naturalism.

For me, though, the core of Carl’s success is his persona – his small stature, cheeky face and vulnerability are just wonderful and you can see the years of artistry in his every movement.

IN A NUTSHELL

Use a likeable persona

Enjoy full control of your props

You don’t need any vocal sound to knock out a modern audience

 

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 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