Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Learning from Animation

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Book Review: Comedy for Animators by Jonathan Lyons

Most clowns I know love cartoons, often having the same reverence for Daffy Duck and Bugs Bunny that they have for Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton. Comedy animators have borrowed a lot from the (human) physical comedy tradition, but there's a lot we can learn from animation. And a good place to start is the creative and historical work of Jonathan Lyons.

Jonathan has worked for over 25 years both in traditional animation and 3D, with an array of impressive credits that include the first four Pirates of the Caribbean films; Pillsbury Dough Boy commercials; two Clio awards while working at Industrial Light & Magic; his own independent films featuring Floyd the Android; and much much more. He has taught animation at the university level and for years has authored a blog, Comedy for Animators, which you should dive into headfirst at your earliest convenience.

"To get laughs with animation, you have two choices. Gags and jokes. A gag is intended to create laughter with visual humor. A joke uses words for the same purpose. Tex {Avery} was right, gags are hard to come by, requiring considerable time to develop and integrate into the action in a natural way. American television animation has relied on verbal jokes because they are far more efficient in production. A group of writers can sit around in a room and pitch storylines, then fill in some jokes, and before you know it the script is ready and there is only limited expectation on the artist to make it look good. Visual gags require much more time to invent, develop, and work into action. Jokes don't really affect the storyline, whereas visual stunts will physically change the situation for the characters. Gags need careful timing and acting, which require more time than lip-synching words... One aspect of visual comedy does make it easier, though. A joke heard once is used up, whereas a good sight gag can be successfully recycled."

Jonathan's blog led to the book of the same name, which is targeted for animators who know how to draw funny characters but don't understand the craft of physical comedy. Thus there are chapters on characterization, comedy teams, context, gags, and storytelling structure. Not all of this is new, but it is pulled together with a unique slant and analyzed with the precision of a creative artist who uses these concepts day to day and not that of an academic on the outside looking in. The book should be an essential source not only for animators trying to tell stories through images, but also for the readers of this blog engaged in live performance. Jonathan offers strong insights for performers telling stories through their own extreme physicality, making very useful connections between live action and animated movement. Highly recommended!

You can buy the book here
and check out his web site here.

And if you want proof that Jonathan knows his stuff, just check out these videos...
his demo reel
one of his Floyd the Android short films

And here are two wonderful video compilations Jonathan has put together analyzing physical comedy:

10 Types of Comedic Entrances


Sunday, January 22, 2017

Guest Post: Michael Evans reviews Lou Campbell's "Emergence of Physical Theatre..."

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"Memoirs of Mime for all Time –The Emergence of Physical Theatre in the 21st Century” by Louis H. Campbell

[Michael Evans is author of the book “The Great Salt Lake Mime Saga and Amsterdam’s Festival of Fools.” He graduated from art school, but spent a long career as an engineer and technician in private industry, higher education, theatre, and the arts. He is webmaster for the Cosmic Aeroplane Archive Site, about the early history of Salt Lake City’s still-vibrant Alternative Culture.]

Lou Campbell
Dr. Louis Campbell is a teacher and theatrical director who has published about eighteen other books —all except one outside the field of physical theatre. Dimitri Mueller’s death at the age of 80 was my main impetus for undertaking this review. I acquired a previous version of this book in the 2000s and promised to write about it.  Some very positive theater-related travel interfered with completing the project. The experience of writing my own book also modified my point of view of what it takes to publish these sorts of things.

Dr. Campbell’s book relies on dozens of names. I’ve chosen to review it according to its overall structure, keeping these metaphorical eggs in their cartons, and making the context clear.

Diversity in Mime Terminology
This chapter has only six pages but many viewpoints. It features a lot of names and matches them with quotes and concepts, so we might as well start this review with a baker’s dozen personalities encountered in the book:  Etienne Decroux; Ladislav Fialka; Louis Dezseran; Yass Hakoshima; James Donlon; Claude Kipnis; Bob Francesconi; Tony Montanaro; Jacques Lecoq; Mamako Yoneyama; Adrian Pecknold; Richmond Shepard; Bari Rolfe; David Alberts; Antonin Hodek; and Geoffery Buckley, who states: “Mime is a very loose word.”

Major Influences and Solo Acts 
Substantial historical sketches make this section a valuable resource on its own. There are also quotes, explanations, and anecdotes galore, along with a few references to other theatrical figures including: Isabella Canali Andreini (1562-1604); Joseph Grimaldi (1779-1837); Jean Gaspard Debarau or Debureau (1796-1846); François Delsarte (1811-1871); Jacques Copeau (1879-1949);Vsevolod Meyerhold (1874-1940); Charles Dullin (1885-1949); Jean-Louis Barrault (1910-1994); Etienne Decroux (1898-1991); Jacques Lecoq (1921-1999); Jerzy Grotowski (1933-1999); Marcel Marceau (1923-2007); Geoffrey Buckley (of England); Ctibor Turba (1944-); Adrian Pecknold (1920-2000); and Sigfido Aguilar (of Mexico).

Clown Dimitri A Major Force in Physical Theatre 
This chapter starts with a short professional biography, and an appreciative quote by theatrical director Max Frisch. It continues with an outline of the curriculum at Dimitri’s own school in Ticino, Switzerland, told in clear colloquial English by the great man himself. A coda of appreciation finishes the chapter, with a few more quotes from Dimitri and his fellow performers.

Specialty Acts
Hovey Burgess & Judy Finelli
1974  International Mime Festival
These dozen pages include the great Swiss performing company  Mummenschanz,  plus educators such as Hovey Burgess and Carlo Mazzone-Clementi. These pages embody the theme “… Emergence of Physical Theatre” in the title of the book. Other performers and their philosophies are described in this chapter, along with a mix of color and monochrome photos. They include: Avner Eisenberg; Mamako Yoneyama; Lotte Goslar; Ladislav Fialka; Charles E. Weidman; and Tom Leabhart.

Exploratory Glossary of Terms 
These twelve pages contain innumerable quotes and reflections by practitioners introduced in the previous chapters. They are applied to seven subjects: The Value of Mime to the Actor; Techniques of Character Development; Circus Techniques in Mime Training; Commedia Dell’Arte in Relationship to Mime; Improvisation, and Mime and Dance in Physical Theatre. It barely touches on subjects that could make a whole shelf of books, but agreements and disagreements are stated, plus personal theories are expounded by various artists.
Mummenschanz at 1974 International Mime Festival

Forms of Mime
This is a chapter about hair-splitting. It is also a sincere attempt to articulate, in words, a visual art form that is supposed to be independent of words. Quite challenging, to say the least! There are more quotes and cross- references from most of the other practitioners found in the book, and Dr. Campbell tries hard to have the many artists speak for their own artistic practices.

Commedia & stage fighting
This is a short essay about a vast subject, where the various dramatic functions of masks are bravely outlined in Dr. Campbell’s own voice.

Commedia Dell’Arte Overview —Timeline and Characters
This book starts getting personal as Dr. Campbell expounds about the rich history of these Italian stock characters. They still haunt the backgrounds of innumerable books, movies, and stage works, though! This chapter is illustrated with classic prints of major zany archetypes, and provides a graceful transition into Campbell’s most personal chapter of all.

Joshua Squad 
This chapter seems to come right from Dr. Campbell’s heart, and delightfully so! There are forty-two pages of illustrations and descriptions of an international performing company (Joshua Squad) that put Dr. Campbell’s ideas and aesthetics into practice onstage. Commedia Dell’Arte seems to be their point of departure, but they look timeless rather than archaic. This is a book within a book with some early explanations, outlines, and policies constituting a de facto manifesto. It expresses so much in visual terms with lovely photographs from as late as 2011. Chapters Eight and Nine seem to be the soul of the book to me.

The Ultimate Gesture
Carlo Mazzone-Clementi
Sketch by Michael Evans
This chapter is an amalgamation of a workbook, more definitions, written exercises, a review of the previous material. There is a deeply personal essay about the International Mime Festival and Institute in 1974, with lots of names and stories about contacts with important individuals. Mary Wigman is mentioned, along with her association with important movement master, Rudolph Laban... like Laban, Dr. Campbell suggests drills of his concepts, and summarizes his interpretations of the work of Geoffrey Buckley, Robert Shields, Ladislav Fialka, Marcel Marceau, Charles Weidman, Antonin Hodek, Carlo Mazzone-Clementi, Mummenschanz,  Lecoq, and Mamako. 

Carlo Mazzone-Clementi
with Gunda & Dimitri, 1974
International Mime Festival
More Photos 
The final chapter consists mostly of pictures taken at the International Mime Festival and Institute in 1974. I saw a number of these artists myself. It is enjoyable to see these images, along with pictures of performances I missed.

Reviewer’s Random Thoughts
My own definition is simple —“Mime is the visual aspect of theater,” which even includes radio dramas. One needs to make decisions about what to say when there is nothing to see! The use of labels can help, or not help, but the decision is really up to people who are putting themselves on the line for their art.

Some of this material was previously printed in a small hardback called: “Mime and Pantomime in the Twentieth Century – History Theory and Techniques” by Dr. Lou Campbell in 2008. The Foreword by Jewel Walker is much longer, with a separate Preface by Campbell. There were a couple of paragraphs about Leonard Pitt in Chapter One which aren’t in “Memoirs,” and the chapter “Mask” was not present at all. The content is almost identical through the first six chapters, except for “some textual errors,” as Campbell said to me.

The quantity and quality of photos and illustration is much superior in “Memoirs of Mime for All Time.” The larger physical size of the second book is much friendlier to visual content, and Campbell’s wonderful personal chapters at the heart of the bigger book simply outdo the smaller volume.

Dr. Campbell’s generosity has resulted in my making contact with Mamako Yoneyama. The fine lady is working on an essay about her career after 1980. She still performs in Japan.
Dr. Campbell barely mentions Cirque du Soliel, arguably the most successful theatrical company of all time, and I vividly remember Noel Parenti’s performance and presence at the International Mime Festival, but nothing is said about him in this book. Parenti was on the cover of Smithsonian Magazine, which did a pictorial about this landmark event. I also wonder about the videotaped interviews recorded throughout the festival.

Noel Parenti
I would recommend any reference library possessing a copy of Dr. Lou Campbell’s “Memoirs of Mime …” without hesitation, but I’d also recommend having a copy of “Mimes on Miming” (1979) sitting on the shelf too. It was edited by Bari Rolfe, with essays by and about major figures in the art form. Ms. Rolfe was co-director of the International Mime Festival and Institute in 1974. The two books together provide a sweeping overview of Mime from differing perspectives.
Bari Rolfe

“Mimes on Miming” contains of historical sketches, attempted definitions, essays, and interviews —but with more artists than those included in Campbell’s survey, although there are overlapping subjects: 

Mime in Greece and Rome;  Lucian: On Pantomime;  John Weaver: Pylades and Bathyllus; Charles Hacks: A Roman Premiere; Mime Through the Seventeenth Century; Two Miracle Plays; Paul Hippeau: Pantomime in Italian Comedy; Evaristo Gherardi: The Italian Theatre; Elizabethan Dumb Shows: Gorboduc; Hamlet; Herod and Antipater; Mime in Asia; Cecilia Sieu-Ling Zung: Some Symbolic Actions;  Motokiyo Zeami: On the Noh; Ananda Coomaraswamy: Notes on Indian Dramatic Technique; Mime in the Eighteenth Century; R. J. Broadbent: Rich's Miming; jean Georges Noverre: Ballet Pantomime;  Jonathan Swift: A Pantomime Audience; Glaskull, the Edinburgh Butcher; Mime in the Nineteenth Century: France with Theodore de Banville: Deburau-Pierrot; Horace Bertin: How to Listen to a Pantomime; Raoul de Najac: Souvenirs of a Mime; Paul Margueritte: Pierrot Yesterday and Today; Saverin: The Last of the Pierrots by Barrett Clark; Mime in the Nineteenth Century: England, Europe: Grimaldi; Paul Hugounet: The Hanlon-Lees Go To America; Jacques Charles: Dan Leno; Ronald S. Wilson: The Pantomime Theatre of Tivoli Gardens; Carlo Blasis : On Pantomime.
Mime in the Twentieth Century to 1950 – France: Georges Wague: Resources of the Silent Art; Colette: Music Halls; The Cinema According to Max Linder; Etienne Decroux: Each Art Has Its Own Territory; Jean-Louis Barrault: Dramatic Art and the Mime; Serge Lifar: The Mime and the Dancer; Europe -- Grock: Life's a Lark; Rudolf Laban: The Mastery of Movement; USA -- Charles Chaplin: My Sense of Drama; Buster Keaton: My Wonderful World of Slapstick; Harold Lloyd: My World of Comedy; Stan Laurel: Mr. Laurel and Mr. Hardy; Bert Williams, Everybody by Ann Charters; Angna Enters: Mime Is a Lonely Art; Charles Weidman: Random Remarks; Red Skelton: I'll Tell All; Mime in the Twentieth Century: Contemporary – France: Marcel Marceau: The Adventure of Silence; Jacques Lecoq: Mime, Movement, Theatre; Jacques Tati: The Cinema According to Tati; Pinok and Matha: Mime and Something Else; Europe, Asia -- Clifford Williams: Mime in Great Britain; Oleg Popov: Russian Clown; Henryk Tomaszewski: Movement Theatre; Dario Fo: The Art of Dario Fo; Ladislav Fialka: The Fools, or a Strange Dream of a Clown; Ctibor Turba: A Topsy-Turba World by Kuster Beaton; Dimitri: Dimitri, Clown; Mummenschanz: Mask, Mime and Mummenschanz, with Bari Rolfe; Mamako Yoneyama: Zen Mime; USA -- Lotte Goslar: How Sweet It Is; Dick Van Dyke: Mime in the Medium; Paul J. Curtis: American Mime; Carlo Mazzone-Clementi: Commedia and the Actor; Antonin Hodek: Price of Folly; Samuel Avital: Mime, Self-Imposed Silence; Bernard Bragg: Signs of Silence, by Helen Powers; R. G. Davis: Method in Mime; and Robert Shields: Mime in the Streets, by Jack Fincher

In the last chapter, “Anti-Mime,” there are catty maunderings by Max Beerbohm, Marc Blanquet, and Woody Allen. They act as a record that there were warnings against artistic stasis by peers and competitors. The term “mime” would lose its luster in the USA, and become the butt of unfair jokes. However, Cirque du Soliel, Blue Man Group, Julie (Lion King) Taymor, and others associated with Lecoq’s school carried the art form to great heights of success, rarely using the term at all.

Sunday, December 25, 2016

I'm Dreaming of a (White) Christmas Physical Comedy

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Merry Christmas all!

Here's a little physical comedy gem for you from the 1954 Bing Crosby – Danny Kaye classic film, White Christmas. This is Danny and crew in "Choreography," a parody of modern dance, and especially of Martha Graham. Enjoy!

BTW, Riley Kellogg found this photo of the real Martha Graham and also informs me that the structure the Kaye dancers climb on towards the end is a reference to the more than twenty sets the famous sculptor Isamu Noguchi built for Graham dances.

On the Second Day of Christmas Update:  And this just in from my old friend Jim Moore, whose excellent VAUDEVISUALS blog yesterday featured a slapstick version of White Christmas performed by Lou Costello. Click here to watch. The mayhem starts around the minute and a half mark.

On the Third Day of Christmas Update:  And this just in from Ira Seidenstein, who knows a thing or two about a thing or two.  Choreography by Martha Graham and featuring Merce Cunningham.

From the Performing Arts Encyclopedia,:
Performed by the Martha Graham Dance Group to music by Paul Nordoff, Every Soul Is a Circus premiered on December 27, 1939, at New York's St. James Theatre. Costumes were designed by Edythe Gilfond and the set was created by Philip Stapp. This work marked the first appearance of Merce Cunningham, who became the second male dancer (after Erick Hawkins) to join Graham's ensemble. Composer/critic David Diamond, writing in Modern Music (December 1939) said, "The circus she creates is one of silly behavior and ridiculous situations, its theme, the desire of woman to be the apex of a triangle, the beloved of a duet, who, as the spectator of her own actions, becomes the destroyer of experiences necessary to her essential dignity and integrity. It represents the fullest consummation of Miss Graham's conceptions. She has unified her entire dance vocabulary into a simple and direct theatrical means of projection and communication. The perfection of her technique, the warmth of personality, make this performance a piece of the most poignant clowning seen in the dance."

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Guest Post: Sacred Clowns by Mike Funt

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It is a pleasure and honor to have Mike Funt, artistic director of Four Clowns, join us as a guest contributor. Mike is well-known internationally for his workshops in clown, mask, and circus arts, and for the many physical theatre shows he has directed, including Servant of Two Masters, a stage adaptation of the 1971 film, Cold Turkey, and his own translation and adaptation of Molière’s The Imaginary Invalid. Clown training includes work with Philippe Gaulier, Aitor Basauri, Stefan Haves and John Gilkey of Cirque du Soleil, Avner the Eccentric, Aziz Gual, and instructors from Ringling Brothers. He has also studied with play expert Dr. Stuart Brown and trained extensively in Laughter Yoga with Dr. Madan Kataria. Here he shares his longtime interest in the sacred clown, which has led to him teaching a workshop on it this weekend (Dec. 3 & 4) in Los Angeles. Check it out here!


Jacques Lecoq, the renowned clown and theatre teacher was famous for his pedagogy. He helped to inspire and train some of the most brilliant and innovative theatre artists currently working. And at the heart of his teaching are the principles of le jeu (play), disponsibilité (openness), and complicité (connection or togetherness). When I became a clown twenty years ago, I found these tools useful as a performer. Now, more than ever, I find them useful as a person.

I suffer from anxiety disorder, with frequent bouts of depression. For years I was on medication as I worked to start a career in the performing arts, not a task that is exactly helpful for those two issues. Then, as I began to work in clown more and more, I suddenly found that I no longer felt the need for the medication. So with the aid of a doctor, I was slowly able to ween myself off the medication and use clown as my anti-anxiety/anti-depression drug. (I repeat that I did this with the aid of a medical professional. I do not recommend taking a clown class and quitting any medication cold turkey.) For eight years, I have been without any medicine for my mental issues. As I began reading up on this, I discovered that there was an anthropological and scientific reason why this works.

When was the last time you sang?
When was the last time you danced?
When was the last time you told a story?
When was the last time you sat in silence?

These activities are fundamental to a person’s well-being, and early humans knew this before they knew how to farm. By doing these things in a regular practice, the way you would yoga or tai chi, you begin to feel a sense of well-being and peace. So I began to understand why these aspects of performance can make a person feel good, but these things are not exclusive to the clown. What is it that clown adds to the process that made clown, at least for me, such a soothing panacea?

Then I came across a book called Trickster Makes This World by Lewis Hyde. This is a fascinating book and it was eye-opening in answering my questions. The trickster is the “laughing shadow of the shaman.” The trickster sees the pageantry and ceremony of the shaman, and simply cannot take it all seriously.
Illustration of Coyote the trickster

In fact, according to Byrd Gibbens, Professor of English at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, “Many native traditions held clowns and tricksters as essential to any contact with the sacred. People could not pray until they had laughed, because laughter opens and frees from rigid preconception. Humans had to have tricksters within the most sacred ceremonies for fear that they forget the sacred comes through upset, reversal, surprise.”

Heyoka, sacred clown

With this insight, I added a fifth question to the shaman’s list: When was the last time you laughed? And so my answer was clear. Why did clown help me so much? Because it has been helping people for thousands of years before I set foot on this planet. With this in mind, I created “The Sacred Clown,” a workshop that takes the principles of the clown and transforms it into more of a healthful mindfulness practice rather than exclusively a performance tool. Those familiar with clown will recognize Lecoq’s principles:

Le jeu. Play. Do everything you do in life with that sense of play and joy and childlike innocence. Do your job this way. Go to school this way. Go on vacations this way. Treat every situation like you are the dumbest person in the room, and you will learn more, discover more, and be amazed by more than most people. And you will have a lot more fun.

Complicité. Connection. A sense of "oneness" with others, what Emile Durkheim calls “communitas” or “collective effervescence.” Find that human connection with everyone in your life. Your friends. Your family. A stranger across the room at Starbucks. The person next to you on an airplane. Connect with other people, make eye contact, talk to them, touch them, share affection. Find your complicité, change the way others breathe, and you will meet new and fascinating individuals every single day.

Disponsibilité. Openness. Give 100% of yourself to everyone you come in contact with. Hide nothing and share everything. Oh sure, there will be people who will respond negatively to this. They'll say you're weird or dumb or irresponsible. They'll try to take advantage of you. But don't take it personally. "This is not my audience," says the clown. But if you keep celebrating your flaws in public, you will eventually find your audience. You will find your people because, as Philippe Gaulier says, the clown’s motto is, "Next time it will be better."

In “The Sacred Clown,” you will find elements of Lecoq and Gaulier as well Richard Ponchinko. However, you will also find a lot more tools to help you bring your clown off the stage and into your real life, and of course there will be LOTS of singing, dancing, stories, silence, and laughter. It works. I know from experience. To me Anxiety is an overwhelming and uncontrollable worry about the future, and Depression is an overwhelming and uncontrollable worry about the past. The clown lives only in the present. And when you force yourself to play and live exclusively in the present moment, a nifty little trick is played on Depression and Anxiety: there is no past or future for them to feed off of.

Every day I still wake up to those two foes of mine, and they are worthy adversaries. I don’t always beat them, but I do fight them, every day. And my clown is my greatest weapon against them. The clown is pure goodness. He is the opposite of everything that is evil in the world. Joy and peace await the trickster if you try to stay in the mindset of what Gaulier calls the “Beautiful Idiot.”

A Photo Essay on the Heyoka Clowns:

A little info about Pueblo Clowns: 

Friday, October 14, 2016

On the Inevitable Triumph of Clowning and Circus

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Dario Fo
It seems that the world we know is being torn asunder. I speak not of Donald Trump and the wreckage and foul taste of his campaign, though it's in some ways related. I'm thinking of all the wonderful clown sages we've just lost —first Dimitri, and then in the past two days, both Dario Fo and Pierre Etaix. (Which reminds me of U.S. presidents #2 and #3, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, staying friends and pen pals in their later years, and then dying on the same day.)

These losses were inevitable, but more stinging in a time when the media is suddenly obsessed with sightings of so-called "clowns" frightening people, as if these idiots were the real deal. Dressing up as an astronaut wouldn't get me on the space shuttle, but a costume, make-up, and fright wig somehow make me a clown.

The craze started here in the United States, spread to England, and is apparently headed for the rest of Europe. It is not only damaging the image of clown performers, but costing them gigs as well.
Pierre Etaix
Just as the media has allowed Trump to drastically lower the level of discourse, they have allowed these masqueraders to be taken seriously. Once again, real clowns have to defend their art and answer the same stupid questions, which are  on a par with "when did you stop beating your wife?" And that's if they can find anyone to interview them. Part of me wants to write an Op Ed piece for the newspapers, patiently explaining that these are "Halloween clowns," people dressing up as clowns with an exaggerated, macabre look designed to scare people, and have nothing to do with the noble and quite loving tradition of clowning.

But I haven't bothered to write this, and won't. The media is the media, and they will take this and run with it until it runs its course. Which it will. It's a fad, and even its shallow-minded perpetrators will soon grow tired of it. The good news is that true clowns, who value and delight in the tradition of Dimitri, Fo, and Etaix, will honor these grand fools by continuing to do their good work tomorrow, next year, and centuries from now.

Here's an à propos discovery I'd like to share with you. As some of you may know, I am working on a revised and expanded version of my book, Clowns. I'm not updating it, which is why I think of it as Clowns: Volume 1, but but but I know a lot more than I did forty years ago, when it was first published (Nov. 1, 1976!), so some sections are being significantly improved. One of them is the very beginning of the book, which starts with the clowning traditions of the native American cultures of the U.S. southwest, especially the Hopi peoples. What I am emphasizing more this time around is that the clown is a central part of the Hopi creation stories; the clown is there from the very beginning, is part of the fabric of life.

For the Hopi, in the beginning was The Emergence, and it was the clowns who led humans from the underworld to a higher level of existence. It was the clowns because they were the ones who could cross borders and teach lessons. And this is not just some myth gathering dust in the archives; rather, versions of it are re-enacted time and again in countless Pueblo ceremonies. Which is why this wonderful sculpture, The Emergence (1989), by Hopi artist Roxanne Swentzell, will be the first illustration in the new edition of my book.

But that's not the discovery, this is:

This Mimbres bowl, whose subject shows a clear kinship with Hopi koshare, is from the same southwest region and dates all the way back to between 1000 and 1250 A.D. I know what you're saying! "It's been a thousand years and they couldn't even afford a new costume?" Point well taken, but that is how we know this stuff has been going on forever! My point is that what we should be talking about when we are talking about clowns is an elemental life force, and a very positive one. When pundits trash politics as a "circus" and politicians as "clowns," my only response is, "ah, if only they could rise to that high level..."

And here are some more reasons to remain positive. Those performance traditions that we group under such labels as clown, circus, vaudeville, physical comedy, etc. —and which are repeatedly pronounced dead— are actually becoming a more widespread part of our culture. Clown training and performance is everywhere, with hundreds of times more practitioners than half a century ago. Clowns are in circuses and hospitals; in the theatre, in the street, and in refugee camps. Circus training is no longer just a family tradition. There are professional schools everywhere, especially in France and Australia. Circus education that's not just for those with career goals is now contributing to positive youth development throughout the world. Social circuses —yes, I'm thinking of you, Circus Harmony— are doing amazing things to bring people and cultures together. There may be no formal vaudeville circuit, but countless individuals have embraced the variety arts as a means of self-expression, of sharing what they do best and what they love... and the staggering variety is a wonder to behold.

Likewise impressive are all the self-taught enthusiasts who do it for fun and only occasionally for profit. Think of all the slackliners executing incredible tricks between two trees. Or all the excellent jugglers who juggle because they love juggling. All the subway acrobats doing amazing hat moves with baseball caps. All the bartenders learning flair juggling to impress their customers. All the trick cyclists and parkour practitioners.... Clown and circus have indeed arrived, they just take different shapes and forms.

And this just today, which gave me a chuckle: a NY Times article on a new craze for bottle flipping, which is flipping a bottle so it lands upright on its own. (Depressingly, the last line in the article quotes the mother of an avid bottle flipper saying, well, at least he's not dressing up as a scary clown —as if these were somehow either-or choices.)

Here's the short video they share, but you can find more on YouTube.

And why do I chuckle? Because in 1973, as an NYU grad student and TDR Assistant Editor, I co-edited a special popular entertainments edition of The Drama Review, and had to fight to use this Diane L. Goodman photo on the cover. We had seen this guy at a carnival in Ypsilanti, Michigan earlier that year. I knew what he was doing with that bottle, but my TDR colleagues didn't think it was clear enough. Maybe they were right... or maybe I was just 43 years ahead of my time!

So my conclusion is: Don't panic! Try to take the long-range view. This crap shall pass (so to speak) and the good shall endure. Meanwhile, here's my recent tribute to Dimitri, and a tribute to Pierre Etaix that I wrote back in 2010. I subsequently got to meet Etaix in Paris and he was a very sweet man. Such an honor. And in 1990, I was likewise honored to attend rehearsals at the Comédie Française for Dario Fo's production of two Molière plays. I wrote an article about it for Yale Theater, which I will share with you in a future post.

To be continued... so keep on doing what you're doing!

Thursday, July 21, 2016

In Remembrance: Clown Dimitri

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There are professional clowns today who have never even heard of the great Swiss clown Dimitri, though they owe him a big debt. Dimitri died this week at the age of 80 in the Italian region of Switzerland, where he lived and, since 1975, operated the still-thriving Scuola Teatro Dimitri. But he sure should be remembered, because he played a major role in elevating the status of the clown as a performing artist. And I'll tell you why...

Flashback to October, 1975, when Dimitri made his New York debut at the age of 40, performing his one-man show on stage to a packed house at Hunter College. (Yes, I was there.) Sure, Marcel Marceau was filling theatres bigger than that on a regular basis, but Dimitri was a CLOWN, not a mime. Audiences loved him and came away with a heightened understanding of what a clown could be. And aspiring clowns took inspiration from his success and began taking themselves more seriously. This was especially true in the United States, where clowns rarely got to play in theatres. And Dimitri reminded us that clowns were traditionally highly skilled, as he played ten different instruments (including four at a time), juggled ping-pong balls out of his mouth, and performed sleight-of-hand and balancing feats, all to great comic effect, as he got himself in and out of endless troubles.

Interesting connection: It was another great Swiss clown, Grock, who earlier in the 20th century packed European theatres with his full-length show and demonstrated that the clown could be a star in his own right, outside of the circus ring. Early on, one of Grock's whiteface partners was the French clown Louis Maïss  Decades later, after studying with Decroux and Marceau, Dimitri launched his clown career playing the auguste to —you guessed it— Louis Maïss.

Here's what the great Swiss playwright Max Frisch had to say about Dimitri:
Look at him, I say, this is a real clown. But, what is a real clown? I don’t know, but look at him – he can do practically anything, and yet remains calm and serene when he accomplishes something new and incredible. He’s a delight to behold, like watching a child discovering the pits and traps of the world who manages, as though by some miracle, to avoid falling. I was tense during the whole performance until someone started to laugh, roaring out loud as though alone – not how one laughs at a joke, but a laugh of joy, the laughter of a child. I was the person laughing, and the clown was Dimitri.

Thank you, sir!

Monday, May 30, 2016

Video from the Early 1800s! (or, In Search of the Harlequinade)

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(L-R), Joseph Grimaldi as Clown, Tom Ellar as Harlequin, James Barnes as Pantaloon (watercolor, British Museum)

The harlequinade is the holy grail of physical comedy.

No, not the kind of harlequinade you'll find if you do a YouTube search. That's George Balanchine's ballet, based on a 1900 Russian work, Harlequin's Millions, by Marius Petipa. The ballet is a prettier and romanticized version of the commedia tradition and of the Arlecchino/Harlequin character, sorely lacking the robust physical comedy of the earlier harlequinade that was central to 19th-century English pantomime during the Joseph Grimaldi era.

NYC Ballet's "Harlequinade"
That earlier, off-the-wall harlequinade is what we're searching for because it was by all reports highly skilled, wildly imaginative, and surrealistically insane AND provides the strongest direct link we have from the commedia dell'arte to 20th-century silent film comedy. And let's face it: silent film comedy remains the major inspiration for today's physical comedians.

And I know what you title-readers are saying: that's impossible, of course there's no video from the early 1800s. Ah, but wait a minute, there actually is. Sorta kinda.... but we'll get to that later.

First here's a pretty good introduction to the harlequinade from some clown book written forty years ago:

It was in the harlequinade, the long chase scene that concluded most nineteenth-century English pantomimes, that rough-and tumble comedy became an obsession and an art form. In those days, pantomimes were divided into two parts, a short opening — a fairy tale in dance, dialogue, and song — and the madcap harlequinade. The two halves were linked by a transformation scene in which a benevolent agent such as Mother Goose or a Fairy Queen miraculously changed the characters of the opening into such stock types as Harlequin, Columbine, Pantaloon, and Clown. The plot shared by both parts usually centered around the romance between two young lovers (later Harlequin and Columbine) who were determined to be united, the opposition of the girl’s father (later Pantaloon) notwithstanding. The inevitable result was a long chase scene with Pantaloon and his not-so-loyal servant, Clown, in hot pursuit of Harlequin and Columbine. It was as if a performance of Cinderella suddenly turned into a Keystone Cops comedy.

Scenes from the harlequinade (c.1890), including blowing up the policeman and reassembling him, by caricaturist Phil May. Courtesy of Jonathan Lyons, from his excellent book “Comedy for Animators” Click to enlarge!

 The harlequinade began with the Clown’s traditional boisterous greeting, “Hello, here we are again” — a sure signal of the delights to come. The chase scene that followed was merely an excuse for a long succession of practical jokes and for dizzying displays of acrobatic agility. The actors danced on stilts, walked on barrels, suffered jarring pratfalls, and performed tricks of contortion (often disguised as animals), feats of strength, and daring leaps.
Early 19th-century cutout figures

Because they were performed on stage rather than in a circus ring, these pantomimes took full advantage of a wide assortment of trapdoors and elaborate trickwork. Nothing was ever what it appeared to be: illusions from stage magic became valuable comic tools; scenery could be transformed instantaneously into something quite different; objects literally took on a life of their own; and Clowns and Harlequins miraculously appeared and disappeared through undetectable gaps in the floor and walls. There was even a standard joke that some performers never met, for while one was going up to the stage, the other was coming down.

The star trap in action. Drawing
from Georges Moynet, Trucs et Decors.
French poet Theodore de Banville wrote in 1880 that... “...between the adjective “possible” and the adjective “impossible” the English pantomimist has made his choice: he has chosen the adjective “impossible.” He lives in the impossible; if it is impossible, he does it. He hides where it is impossible to hide, he passes through openings that are smaller than his body, he stands on supports that are too weak to support his weight; while being closely observed, he executes movements that are absolutely undetectable, he balances on an umbrella, he curls up inside a guitar case without it bothering him in the least, and throughout, he flees, he escapes, he leaps, he flies through the air. And what drives him on? The remembrance of having been a bird, the regret of no longer being one, the will to again become one.”

The stage in most pantomime theaters included a trapdoor known as the “star trap” or, internationally, as the “English trap.” This trap was usually circular in shape and consisted of sixteen triangle-like sections of one and-one-half-inch planking that were so lightly secured to the surrounding floor that the least bit of pressure from below forced them open. Underneath it (in the area below the stage) was a platform on pulleys, designed rather like an elevator, that could catapult a performer through the stage floor faster than the eye could see. When the counterweights attached to the platform were released, the performer — sometimes Clown, but more often a supernatural sprite — was shot through the trap to appear suddenly as if out of nowhere. The performer had to remain poised, for any sudden movement could result in a grave accident.

Harlequin dives thru a trap in the wall
 Similar to this was the “vampire trap,” said to have first been seen in 1820 in James Planché’s melodrama, The Vampyre; or, the Bride of the Isles. It was a segmented trapdoor on spring hinges, usually consisting of two spring leaves, which assumed its original configuration after the performer had passed through it, thus enabling him to enter or exit through what seemed to be a solid surface. These vampire traps were frequently placed in flats and drops so that Harlequin could escape his would-be captors by leaping through a “solid” clock or mirror. In John Fairburn’s description of Harlequin and Mother Goose, for example:

A bustle ensues, they [Clown and Pantaloon] endeavor to secure Harlequin, who eludes their grasp, and leaps through the face of the clock, which immediately represents a sportsman with his gun cock’d, the Clown opens the clock door, and a Harlequin appears as a pendulum, the Clown saying shoot, present, fire, the sportsman lets off his piece, and the Clown falls down, during which period Columbine and Harlequin escape, (who had previously entered through the panel). Pantaloon and the Clown run off in pursuit.

As another pantomime succinctly put it, “Aristotle in book concerning entertainments has laid it down as a principal rule that Harlequin is always to escape.”

These leaps and falls were not without their dangers. An acrobatic Clown by the name of Bradbury, whose fearless jumps included one from the flies down to the stage, wore protective pads on his head, shoulders, elbows, hips, knees, and heels. Leaping through trapdoors was especially
difficult. The performer’s trajectory had to be exact; otherwise, he might crash into the scenery instead of disappearing through the appropriate flap. This took considerable training. First of all, he had to be remarkably adept at high, diving forward rolls. The process of diving through the trap was a unique experience, something he could practice only by doing. He had to be certain that his body remained elongated until had cleared the trap. If out of instinct he drew in his knees, he would bruise them badly against the bottom of the opening. Once through the trap, his hands had to be ready to take his weight as he tucked into a forward roll.

Tom Ellar in the role of Harlequin leaps through a mirror.

The dangers were multiplied when Harlequin, perhaps with a boost from a concealed springboard, catapulted through a trap-door located somewhat higher off the ground. In such cases, stagehands had to be positioned in the wings, like firemen below a burning building, to catch the leaping actor in a blanket. The stagehands expected to be tipped for their services, and it was unwise to ignore their demands. When Tom Ellar, the famous Harlequin, did just that, his leap through the clock resulted in an unpleasant surprise. There was no one there to catch him and he was lucky to escape with only a broken hand.

Even Superman needed help.

In the harlequinade, all of this related acrobatic work went hand in hand with the rough-and-tumble violence of slapstick comedy. Mastery of the fake blow and the relatively painless pratfall were essential to the harlequinade characters as they are to today’s movie stuntmen. The art of the swift kick in the pants was likewise eagerly cultivated. Butter was generously used by Clown to grease the path of shopkeepers, policemen, and Pantaloon, encouraging slipping and sliding and yet a few more pratfalls. The slapstick itself, which had been introduced to England by seventeenth-century Arlecchinos, was “improved” by inserting gun powder between the two sticks to add to the noise. To vary the arsenal somewhat, another comic weapon was popularized: Clown’s red-hot poker. Sneaking around the stage and indicating his intended victim, Clown would ask the audience, “Shall I?” When they gleefully shouted back, “Yes!”, the poker was firmly applied to the seat of the innocent victim’s pants. The pain was minor in comparison to what Clown felt when, later in the show, he accidentally sat down on the poker.

This knockabout business was the duty of all the principal harlequinade characters, including the elderly Pantaloon, who was a frequent victim of the Clown’s blows. Even Joseph Grimaldi, who was considered by his contemporaries to be a rather non-acrobatic Clown, was an excellent stage swordsman and choreographer of mock fights, and well accustomed to being knocked about. “It is absolutely surprising,” wrote a London Times critic, “that any human head or hide can resist the rough trials which he volunteers. Serious tumbles from serious heights, innumerable kicks, and incessant beatings come on him as matters of common occurrence, and leave him every night fresh and free for the next night’s flagellation.”

A standard decapitation effect.
 Much of the harlequinade violence depended upon special effects. With one’s real head hidden beneath a coat at what appeared to be chest level, an artificial head could be worn and used for a comical decapitation effect. Clown boldly swings his sword, and the man’s head falls off and rolls through a trapdoor. Clown says, “Oh, I beg your pardon,” and a real head resembling the artificial one pops through the stage floor to ask, “Where’s my body?” In another old scene, wrote a theatre critic, “Clown was mangled flat as a flounder, but we were relieved by his appearing down the chimney immediately afterwards in his natural shape just as if nothing had happened."

OK, you get the idea. There's more: animal impersonations; large-scale magic illusions, and of course the comic genius of Joseph Grimaldi, but I know you're still asking, where's the video??

So here's Exhibit #1, an amazing clip from the 1929 Lupino Lane movie, Joyland. (Feel free to turn off the music.)

Exhibit #2, a year earlier, is from Lane's Three Musketeers spoof, Sword Points. Lane was making about ten films a year in those days. Some were pretty formulaic but still rich in physical comedy.

Pretty impressive, eh, and a good match for the description you just read?

But why do I say this is likely the equivalent of footage from the 1820s? Because Lupino Lane (born Henry William George Lupino) was, like Grimaldi, descended from a storied Italian theatrical family who were big stars of English pantomime. Georgius Luppino (as it was then spelled) came to England in 1634, and his son (also Georgius) made his pantomime debut in 1718 in The Two Harlequins,  and thereafter that's pretty much what the Lupinos did."Our family holds the record for hurtling through stage traps," bragged Lane. "My record of jumping 8' and 5" has never been beaten. My record of 83 traps in six minutes made at the London Hippodrome has never been beaten."

And here's what Lupino Lane's biographer has to say about it:

In Victorian times the family was closely connected with the Britannia Theatre, Hoxton, the "Old Brit," which was owned by Mrs. Sara Lane, the celebrated actress and great-aunt of Lupino Lane. Five generations of Lupinos appeared there, and the harlequinade was often a family affair. In 1880, George Lupino appeared as Harlequin, Arthur Lupino as Pantaloon, Harry Lupino as a comic policeman, and George Lupino Jr. as Clown. With the turn of the century, the old-style pantomime, and in particular the harlequinade, began to die out... One of its last strongholds was the Britannia, and the last of the old-time clowns was George Lupino (1853–1932).
— Born to Star: The Lupino Lane Story by James Dillon White

Our hero Lupino Lane was born into all this tradition in 1892 and —like Grimaldi before him and Keaton after him— thrown onto the stage as a young boy, taking the name Lupino Lane in honor of the aforementioned impresario aunt, Sara Lane. The rest is history.

There were of course other thru lines. As the harlequinade faded in the 19th-century, its highly physical tradition was picked up by the Hanlon-Lees (Voyage en Suisse), who in America influenced the Byrne Brothers (Eight Bells), who in turn influenced Buster Keaton. For example, both the 3-high pyramid used for elopement in Keaton's Neighbors and the ladder on top of the fence from Cops can be seen three decades earlier in this Byrnes Brothers poster for Eight Bells, which was still touring as late as 1914 and was made into a film (unfortunately lost) in 1916.

Keaton, who grew up in vaudeville as part of his family’s knockabout comedy act, made considerable use of trapdoors or their equivalent in many of his films. This memorable sequence from The High Sign (1921) is the best example.

Finally, one more video from the early 1800s, a wonderful sequence from Keaton's Sherlock, Jr.

Have I made my case or what?

• Some of the best material on Lane is to be found in Anthony Balducci's encyclopedic works, The Funny Parts: A History of Film Comedy Routines and Gags and  Eighteen Comedians of Silent Film.
The Pantomime Life of Joseph Grimaldi: Laughter, Madness and the Story of Britain's Greatest Comedian is an excellent new biography of the great clown.