Saturday, May 7, 2016

Complete Book: Les Mémoires de Foottit et Chocolat

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As a follow-up to my previous post, here's the complete text of the 1907 biography of Footit & Chocolat. To read, just click on the full-page icon at the bottom-right. (Yes, it is in French.)

Friday, May 6, 2016

Film Review: Monsieur Chocolat

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Foottit & Chocolat were a legendary clown duo in turn-of-the-century, belle époque Paris, famed for their trailblazing partnership: the first white/black clown duo and first popular clown pairing of white face and auguste. Chocolat, born Rafael Padilla to slaves in Haiti, was to become France's first black celebrity, long before Josephine Baker.

The story of the rise and fall of Chocolat's career and its relation to racial politics has intrigued many writers, and it has recently gained more attention with a French play and a new biography (both by Gérard Noiriel), an exhibition, and now the release in France of a major motion picture, Monsieur Chocolat, starring the celebrated French actor Omar Sy and the exceptional physical comedian and clown, James Thiérrée.

Omar Sy & James Thiérrée in Monsieur Chocolat
The film has yet to find an American distributor, though I'm guessing it will. Meanwhile, I was lucky to catch it my last day in Barcelona. My cut-to-the-chase verdict:

Clowning / Physical Comedy:  A
Acting:  A
Cinematography:  A
Writing / Historical Accuracy:  D

Here's the official trailer.

The good news is that the depiction of circus life and the fragments of some very physical clown acts are well done, thanks no doubt to Thiérrée not only playing Foottit, but also choreographing the action. Thiérrée (grandson of Charlie Chaplin) has the physicality to pull off the manic acrobatic clowning of Foottit, who was very much in the robust tradition of 19th-century British knockabout comedy. And Sy, like Chocolat not coming out of the clown School of Hard Knocks, still very much holds his own in and out of the ring. You can actually imagine the audience finding them funny!

Only a few short film clips survive of Foottit & Chocolat. Filmed away from the circus ring, these first two clips, shot in 1896 by French film pioneers the Lumière brothers, show fragments of a William Tell entrée and a chair routine.

This longer, colorized clip, likewise shot without an audience, provides more clues as to the range of their work and Foottit's agility.

In Fellini's film, I Clowns (1970), he had two contemporary clowns depict what Foottit & Chocolat's chair routine might have looked like. The results seem tamer and much jollier than the original work. (The old man in the audience is the clown James Guyon —Paris' first famous auguste— who escaped from his hospital death bed to catch one last performance at the Nouveau Cirque, but the excitement led to a heart attack that killed him —or so the story goes.)

Now back to the movie and that storyline, and why did I only give it a "D"?

First of all, some credit to the filmmakers for tackling an important subject. It's a tricky one, because the act very likely contained racist elements, and yet Chocolat often got to be on top and slap and throw Foottit around the ring. Chocolat played the auguste, aka "he who gets slapped," so being the fall guy wasn't by definition racist, though many spectators might have especially enjoyed that aspect of it precisely because he was black, while others may have savored his moments of revenge.
Chocolat Dancing in
the Irish-American Bar

Toulouse-Lautrec (1896)

We would have to have been there to truly understand the dynamics, but my sense is that the film oversimplifies matters considerably. In the movie, Foottit discovers Chocolat earning a  meager living in a poor provincial circus, playing an African "savage" whose job it is to frighten the locals. Foottit creates an act for the two of them, audiences love it, and a producer brings them to Paris. Their big break!! Their first taste of the splendors of the City of Light!! They become stars but flame out after what seems to be just a couple of years when Chocolat has had enough of being the lesser-paid, somewhat abused underling, slaps Foottit hard in the ring, and storms out, turning his back on him forever. Gambling and drinking send Chocolat on a downward spiral from which he never recovers.

Very dramatic and all, but...... not much of it is true. Chocolat was actually discovered by another
well-known clown, Tony Grice, around 1884, started performing in Paris in 1886, and soon gained a reputation as a very funny auguste, often working independently, as augustes did at the time. He was featured in several water pantomimes at the Nouveau Cirque, including starring in La Noce de Chocolat (The Wedding of Chocolat) in 1887 —with a white bride, no less.

When Foottit and Chocolat teamed up in 1890,  they were both already famous as comedians, in the ring and on the variety stage. And their partnership endured until 1909, which if you're counting is 19 years together —in clown years a lifetime. In the final stretch, they were both branching out, with solo appearances in  pantomime and music hall, notably at the Folies-Bergère. Nothing all that dramatic.

A biopic is bound to compress history and simplify matters in order to expound a theme, but the distortions in this narrative are large enough to drive a circus wagon through. A few other examples:
• Chocolat died of a heart attack, not tuberculosis, and Foottit did not miraculously materialize at his bedside, just in time for the duo to reconcile, Chocolat taking his last breath as we fade to black.
• They were not the first whiteface-auguste team, just the first wildly popular one.
• Foottit had two sons who eventually joined him in the ring; in the movie he is a loner, no family, and there is a strong implication that he is gay.
• Foottit was British and part of his comic persona was speaking French with a horrible accent; Thiérrée is Swiss and in the movie speaks normal French.
• In the film, Chocolat struggles with alcoholism. In life, they both did.

You get the point... Oh well, there's still a lot to like, so go see the movie, and kudos to Sy and Thiérrée. Worth the price of admission!

Click here for an excellent Circopedia entry on Foottit & Chocolat.
Click here for a post of mine on Footit & Chocolat from 4 years ago.
Click here for a post of mine from 5 1/2 years ago on James Thiérrée.
Click here for an article that explains why not everyone loves Fellini's I Clowns.
Click here for a good interview (in French) with Sy and Thiérrée.

Friday, April 22, 2016

Join Us Next Weekend in Barcelona!

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I've been busy with other projects and away from this blog, but one of the projects that's kept me busy is on display next weekend in Barcelona. If you're in the neighborhood, come join us, or if you know anyone who is, please spread the word!

Saturday and Sunday (April 30, May 1) I will be doing a physical comedy intensive workshop , 7 hours a day. And on Saturday night the 30th, the wonderful Almazen Theatre (in El Raval) will be hosting the Spanish-language debut of Angela Delfini Explains It All for You, a 3/4 Woman Show, which I co-wrote and directed. Here's the info:

A Kama Sutra of physical comedy vocabulary for clowns, mimes, dancers, circus artists, and actors. We will play with slapstick and pratfalls; with safe techniques for working physically with a partner; and with creating comedy with the world of objects (chairs, tables, hats, plates, etc.). All of this vocabulary will be be put to use in comic situations to create gags.  Some performance experience and a reasonably sound body are highly recommended, but all ages, body types, and levels of experience are welcome. The workshop will be conducted mostly in English but with Spanish translation.

Creado por Angela Delfini & John Towsen
Ciclo Very Important Women
Sábado 30 de Abril´ 2016, a las 21h.
Precio taquilla: 12 € / Atrapalo: 11 €
Entrada anticipada soci@s: 10 € escribiendo un mail con tu nombre, apellido y nº entradas a: o al tlf. 664277579.

¡ ANGELA DELFINI te lo explica todo!!!!! Angela interpreta tanto al Guru de la autoayuda Dr. Angela Delfini, y a su nerviosa pero valiente paciente: Estrella, llevando a la audiencia a través de un cómico programa de recuperación en siete pasos lleno de retos únicos y transformaciones del tipo “no podras volver a casa otra vez” La vida de Estrella esta estancada en su versión 1.0, pero esta desesperada por mejorar hasta que se encuentra con el maniático gurú de la autoayuda, Dr. Delfini. Antes de que lo sepa, se encuentra subida en una disparatada montaña rusa. Este viaje en 7 pasos ofrece retos que hacen que la Odisea de Homero parezca un paseo en el parque. Seguirá Estrella ahogándose en sus dudas y depresiones? O podrá Dr. Delfini ayudarla a bailar y reír en su camino hacia su propia versión 2.0 y más allá? Probablemente, lo logrará, pero no sin tu ayuda!!!

Angela plays both a self-help guru, Dr. Angela Delfini, and her nervous but brave subject Estrella, taking the audience through a comic seven-step recovery program full of unique challenges and you-can't-go-home again transformations. Estrella's life is stuck at version 1.0, but she's clueless as to an upgrade —until she meets the maniacally confident self-help guru, Dr. Delfini. Before she knows it, she's off on a roller-coaster, 7-step journey whose challenges make Homer's The Odyssey look like a walk in the park. Will Estrella continue to wallow in self-doubt and depression? Or will Dr. Delfini help her dance and laugh her way to version 2.0 and beyond? Probably, but not without your help!

ALMAZEN C/ Guifré, 9 bajos. 08001 Barcelona // Tel. 664277579 // // Facebook: Almazen Barcelona // Twitter: @AlmazenBcN

Friday, February 26, 2016

Guest Post: Billy Schultz on Dance Move Daily

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Billy Schultz is an actor and director working in physical comedy for stage and screen. He has performed in your friend's garage, at the Guggenheim museum and at loads of variety shows. His focus is on creating comedy from character and movement. Major sources of inspiration: Amy Schumer as Leslie Knope and ridiculous Vine dance compilations.

As someone who performs physical comedy, I want to master the art of making people laugh with movement. With the studio as my laboratory, I started a project called Dance Move DailyI would make a comedic dance move every day. Forever. I worked at it for months, making 20-second videos that amused me and a handful of friends. It was perhaps much more "mimey-movement-theater" than dance, but the term "dance" is so open to interpretation (at least in the art world) that I went with it. Here's an example.

I was having fun but realized I wanted a collaborative project. I began experimenting with different themes I could include my friends in. One theme I call "Tribute to the Masters." In this, non-dancers were given 3 minutes to re-create serious and challenging dance:

I still love this idea and will get back to it once the project is more established. But in addition to realizing that I wanted something collaborative, I also realized I was toeing the line of making fun of dance. My respect for dance is profound, and this immediately gave me pause. One of my goals is to have fun with dance and find the comedy in it. Not make fun of it. How to do that? This is what I've come up with so far:

1. Begin with the right (fun or funny) video source material. This might seem obvious, but as a comedic actor, my goal is usually to turn any source material into comedy. Working with dancers —artists who spend their lives honing a technical craft that is often aimed at erasing the personality of the individual— is very different. So the source material is key. If dancers watch a video of a panda playing in the snow, they are going to have more fun than dancers who watch a Trials of Life video. Some dancers can also make anything funny, but dancers do not volunteer to make these videos because they want to be comedians. Largely they do it because I show the process of creation. We both love this part.

 2. Familiarity Above All. We have to understand something to be able to laugh at it. I'm no comedy scholar, but the way I see it, we have an expectation of the familiar. If that expectation is betrayed there is a chance we'll laugh. Another way that honors this idea or rule of familiarity is through the time-constraint the dancers work under. Much contemporary dance is very heady. The movement comes out of a concept, or perhaps a formal architectural or rhythmic dynamic. They might build movement sequences based on geometry, or a concept like "freedom" or "power." As an audience, it will likely take us some time to understand this concept. I give the dancers something very concrete to build off of. They then have three minutes to create based on what they observed. There is very little time to get beyond the surface, into a concept or an abstraction —so the movement stays more closely related to the observed video. The movement is still recognizably from the video. This is one of the ways that I'm finding comedy in the fun of this project.

3. Editing. I speed things up, I slow them down, I zoom in. By no means am I an expert. This is better than anything I could say on the matter.

It works like this: I rent and hour of studio time and meet a couple of dancers there. I show them a viral video and then give them 5 minutes to turn it into dance choreography. I take video of our time in the studio and edit it together. It ends up looking like this:


On March 4th, I’ll be presenting my first live event with this project. Together we'll watch viral videos. Dancers will then make choreography based on the videos. There will be some stand-up comedy. Some live music. There will also be wigs and tutus. A panel of nearly famous judges will decide which dynamic dance duo will reign supreme as the Dance-ify That! 2016 champions. If you are in the NYC area, the details are below. Whether you are in NYC or not, I'd love it if you could take a second to "Like" the project on FB, and more importantly subscribe on YouTube, as this puts me in a better situation to form partnerships with dance studios and companies (you'll get an email in your junk account every Tuesday morning when I post a new video.) Thanks!

Click here for YouTube channel.
Click here for Dance Movie Daily web site.

See the live performance March 4, 2016 at 8pm at Triskelion Arts in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. Click here for tickets.

Sunday, February 7, 2016

Enter and Exit the Republicans (Physical Comedy is Not Dead, part 2)

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In an earlier post I made the argument that physical comedy, far from being dead, is all around us. We just don't recognize it. Today in part two we look at physical comedy in politics, where it can prove especially embarrassing to those so desperate to control their self-image. The first hilarious example is hot off the wireless, last night's Republican debate where, with help from ABC, the presidential candidates proved Chaplin's adage that "good exits and good entrances, that's all theatre is."


In fairness to the Republicans, it was pretty clear that Carson couldn't hear moderator Martha Radditz, who amateurishly introduced Carson before the applause for Christie had died down. Carson, already considered by many to be a fool, was unintentionally thrust into that role by Radditz.  Apparently Trump didn't hear her either. And then, as a nice button to the gag, the moderators had to be reminded by Christie that they'd never called on Kasich to enter.  You just can't make this stuff up.

UPDATE 2-10-15: Click here to see Stephen Colbert's spoof of the botched entrances.

For my money, physical comedy is often more real, more visceral, more revealing than verbal humor. Which brings me back to my favorite George W. Bush clip. As many of you surely know, there are many clips of Bush mangling the English language. These were damaging enough to his presidential image, but I always thought that this physical comedy moment of him trying to go through a locked door was far funnier. It's man-in-top-hat falls. It's slipping-on-the-banana-peel territory: the humor is in that initial reaction.

What was it that Chaplin said?

Saturday, January 16, 2016

Book Review: Dave Carlyon's "The Education of a Circus Clown"

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Dave Carlyon’s memoir, The Education of a Circus Clown, only minimally touches on the world of physical comedy, but it is a book that many of my blog readers should find interesting, especially those who have spent time with Ringling Brothers... thus this review.

Dave is quite the Renaissance man: writer, teacher, historian, actor, lawyer (!) and, last but not least, clown. His narrative of attending Clown College (1976) and touring with the Blue Unit (1977) stands above most circus memoirs not just because he’s a better writer —it’s a good read— but because he actually focuses on the performer’s struggles to stay vibrant and funny from day to day, audience to audience. He doesn’t try to pass himself off as a super clown, just as a reasonably skilled and talented individual learning his craft one mistake at a time.
First, clowning is hard because clowning is easy. Throw on makeup, and some laughs are automatic. I-get-it laughs. I'm-a-free-spirit laughs. Ironic it's-not-funny-which-makes-it-funny laughs.... The various laughs convince rookies they're comic geniuses.

The limited time, focus, and choice of material accorded to the Ringling clown is a challenge to creativity, both in terms of establishing a strong character and devising innovative physical comedy. The traditional routines Dave and hundreds before him performed in the ring and on the track —whipcracker; clown car; charivari; the walkarounds— all have potential for a more imaginative physicality, but rarely live up to that promise. It is while playing with the audience up in the seats that this First-of-May clown and future author learned his craft. How to relate, how to be real, how making a connection is more important than desperately seeking the big laugh. As he struggles with the divide between the popular image of the clown and the actual need to be funny, he comes to the conclusion that “clown” is not a noun but a verb. "I never imagined that grammar would improve my clowning." Actions are what define the clown, not the “look,” not all the preconceived notions. Amen.

"Don't be clowny, be yourself," that's what Cuz had told me in Atlanta. But "be yourself" is a performance paradox, a gumbo of instinct, habit, and self-conscious awareness as you try to act, as a clown, in an exaggerated way that is simultaneously who you are. Watching Emmett Kelly at the Sarasota benefit in January, I hadn't been impressed. He  seemed to be doing nothing except nodding and greeting the crowd as he shuffled along. Now, more experienced with crowds, I recognized that he had been masterfully weaving a web of connection... Good clowns create human connections."

The book is published by Palgrave Macmillan, which I assume markets to libraries, because the list price for this modest volume (the narrative comes to 165pp) is a whopping $95 ($82.46 on Amazon). Hopefully, there will soon be a paperback and/or Kindle edition so it can reach its natural audience, which I think will include many of you reading this review.

Also by Dave Carlyon: Dan Rice: The Most Famous Man You've Never Heard of

Click here to read Ernest Albrecht's review of Dave's book in Spectacle magazine.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

The 2016 London International Mime Festival

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If I weren't in Costa Rica right now I'd be seriously wishing I were in London. Even if you've never been and might never go, it's good to know that the London International Mime Festival is now entering its 40th year. Since its inception in 1977, the festival has gone way beyond mime to encompass circus, clown, physical theatre, mask work, puppetry, and more. In the process, it has not only popularized a lot of deserving movement-oriented work, but has opened eyes outside the already converted. As the NY Times comments this week, "over four decades it has had a significant impact on British theater, disrupting the dominance of scripted plays —something that hasn’t quite happened the same way in the United States."

You can read the Times article here, but meanwhile here are some preview images and videos of five of this month's offerings that highlight physical comedy.

Svalbard (Sweden)

Svalbard bends the edges of contemporary circus and blends it with theatre, physical comedy and live music to create a truly original piece that you will remember for its surreal quality as well as its awe-inspiring skills.

BabaFish (Belgium)

Dominoes topple… an hourglass is overturned. Time is ever-present in this ephemeral retrospective of one man’s life, his scattered memories conveyed through acrobatics, movement, music and dance… Assisted by her father, an inventor by trade, Swedish-born artist Anna Nilsson has devised a Heath Robinson-esque set, where a ball bearing spins around weird and wonderful machinery and pendulums wave. It provides a poignant backdrop for an abstract tale about time running out, characterised by four performers and their unpredictable mix of acting, juggling, hand-balancing and singing.

Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord, Paris (France)
By and with Jos Houben and Marcello Magni

"An entire performance history lurks behind this ticklish two hander, the opener for the London International Mime Festival, created by Jos Houben and Marcello Magni, two of contemporary theatre’s greatest clowns. This funny, heart-breaking show celebrates the pair’s relationship stretching back to the early 1980s with Complicite and ground-breaking shows such as A Minute Too Late and More Bigger Snacks Now. It also draws on the history of clowning from commedia dell’arte to the slapstick of 19th-century music hall and early 20th-century film... the show continually reaches out to the audience, playing us with a knowing sweetness. It’s a brief hour that gives the kiss of life to the ancient art of the gag." —Lyn Gardner, The Guardian

Familie Floez (Germany)

In Infinita, a cast of irresistible, larger-than-life characters are seen both as warring children, and then in later life as residents of an old people’s home. The wily games of nursery one-upmanship seem hardly to change with the passage of time; survival of the craftiest is still the rule of the day. Infinita plays out in a succession of increasingly hilarious scenes, combining poignancy, astute observation and some superbly skilled slapstick.

Trygve Wakenshaw (New Zealand)

NAUTILUS is the final part of rubber-limbed Trygve’s ‘underwater trilogy’, the follow-up to delirious, sell-out physical comedies KRAKEN (LIMF’15) and SQUIDBOY. Oozing with whimsy, dripping with charm and magnificently mad, Trygve is his own animator in a cartoon world. A master of risqué innocence, he trained with Philippe Gaulier, developing a uniquely eccentric style of mime-comedy that has won him legions of fans the world over.