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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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

Performer Analysis: Bill Irwin

It’s strange how a world opens up to you when you start exploring.

In the 1990’s my emerging obsession with visual comedy led me down some bizarre avenues. One of these was buying a book called Modern and Post Modern Mime by Thomas Leahbart. It was such a strange title that I couldn’t resist!

That book was one of those gateway experiences. I could hardly believe the story that mime emerged as a political genre. I thought it was brilliant, but hilarious, that Etienne Decroux suggested that there should be a twenty year ban on speaking in theatre. And I was galvanised by the discovery that there was a collection of performers known as “New Vaudevillians”.

And then, of course, there were the photos. I’ve always been a push-over for a great visual and here were some great publicity shots of performers doing exactly what I thought I wanted to do.

A NEW TYPE OF CLOWN

One of the most striking images was that of Bill Irwin. Superficially, it was just a photo of a clown – a red nose, white face, a crazy wig, baggy trousers and big shoes, and yet, unlike all clowns that I had seen up until then, it had absolute class.

And that is the crux of why Bill Irwin is so extraordinary.

Despite having all the appendages of “creepy” clowns, Irwin’s clown was “done properly”. His make up was faultless, his clothing was made of superior material and somehow the proportions of his costume were spot on.

This attention to detail allowed me to see his clown in a new context. The usual prejudices that I have about circus clowns evaporated. Instead I saw the character itself: authentic, fun – and wild. The possibilities for this clown’s antics thrilled me. What would this character do in a show? What chaos would he leave in his wake? The traditional clown suddenly had meaning for me.

CONTENT AND STYLE

Irwin emerged in America in the 1970s and 80s when circus skills, mime and clowning were enjoying a renaissance. Also emerging at this time was the post-modernist movement. The traditional, familiar structure of circus was good fuel for the post modernists, allowing them a clear, recognisable format to deconstruct.

In 1982, Irwin had a huge theatre hit. It was a bizarre deconstruction of a vaudeville show, “The Regard of Flight”. It includes eccentric dancing, mime, slapstick and ukelele songs. It is esoteric, but it is replete with Irwin’s technical skill.

In fact, it is Irwin’s incredible physical skill that is the core of the show. Again, this was not just a performer who could do the usual tricks. It was a performer who could do these tricks better than anyone else you have ever seen!

ARTHOUSE OR FUNHOUSE

Bizarrely, Irwin is probably most famous as Mr Noodles in Sesame Street – possibly as far from arthouse post-modernism as you could get!

As Mr Noodles, he does a lot of the schtick that made him famous: climbing down the stairs in a trunk and getting dragged off stage by an invisible force. But, again, whereas I had seen many children’s performers do similar things, Irwin was absolute class.

This time, it was the final part of the Bill Irwin package that reveals itself: it is his warmth of personality that wins over the Sesame Street kids.

NUTSHELL

As a performer, Irwin is pretty unique. He is a great physical illusionist because because his skills are so exceptional. He is a great clown because of his wonderful personality. And his attention to detail gives him an alchemistic ability to make the ordinary extraordinary.

This clip shows Irwin’s skill in all its forms. It is from the 2011 dance event Voix de Ville organised by Cori Orlinghouse. Now in his sixties, Irwin puts most younger performers to shame.

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