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.

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Rube Goldberg + Physical Comedy = Joseph Herscher

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When I was setting up The (Very) Physical Comedy Institute in 2014, I heard from a prospective student who said he was a kinetic artist who had been building Rube Goldberg machines for many years and was now trying to integrate human performance into his work —thus his interest in physical comedy. It was Joseph Herscher, a New Zealander living in Brooklyn, and though I didn't know Joseph personally, I'd actually read about his work (which has millions of hits on YouTube) and had even done a blog post on him way back in 2012.

I already loved his stuff, and especially the idea of integrating it more with physical comedy, so my immediate reaction was "yes, come as a student, but also come as a teacher!" Which he did, but more on that later...

Rube Goldberg (1883–1970) was an inventor and cartoonist who drew popular cartoons of elaborate gadgets that performed simple tasks in the most convoluted way imaginable. His influence on such silent film comedians as Charley Bowers and Buster Keaton was unmistakeable.
To give you an idea of what I'm talking about, here's "The Page Turner," an absolutely insane machine that saves Joseph from going to all that trouble of having to use his own hands to turn the page of his morning newspaper. I can't for the life of me understand why every home doesn't have one of these.


You can see the introduction of the human character in that one, but his first big foray into human physical comedy was "The Dresser."

You won't be surprised to learn that "The Dresser" was a year in the making! Well, we didn't have a year at The (Very) Physical Comedy Institute, so what Joseph did in his class was to hang some ropes on pulleys from the Celebration Barn rafters and then add in some objects with kinetic potential. From there we developed our own chain reactions and tried to create sequences involving human behavior.

Before we got to play with the toys, however, we did a variation on the old Viola Spolin building-a-human-machine improv. This one, a "slapping machine," was pretty funny. It was half over before I thought to whip out my phone camera and start recording, but you'll get the idea. (Left to right: Shane Baker, Sara Ski, Drew Richardson, Michael Trautman, and Leland Faulkner)

It was a giant leap forward to next be playing with all kinds of moving objects. All you're going to see in the next clip are the beginnings of some rough ideas being sketched out. We didn't have a year, we had an hour or two! (With Shane Baker, Angela Delfini, Sara Ski, Hank Smith, Michael Trautman, Bronwyn Sims, and yes, that's me at the end patiently awaiting my fate.)

In another class at the institute, DIY Silent Filmmaking, co-taught by Lee Faulkner and Drew Richardson, Joseph was in a group with three other students —Adina Valerio, Steven Koehler, and Bronwyn Sims. Not surprisingly, their film wasn't exactly prop-free:

Fast-forward to summer 2015, when Joseph returned to New Zealand to create a four-part web series, "Jiwi's Machines." These pieces are actual comedy sketches revolving around three characters: Jiwi, the mad, messy inventor (played by Joseph); Jiwi's compulsively tidy sister Jane; and whatever guy Jane is foolish enough to try to impress when Jiwi is within striking distance. I was honored to consult on some of this work, as did my NYC clown colleague, Hilary Chaplain.

Here's the first in the series, "Crumbs":

Joseph has also been a participant in our weekly NYC Physical Comedy Lab in Williamsburgh, Brooklyn. (Check out our page on Facebook!) One day last spring we played with a sequence he wanted to use in the web series. The idea was for a chair to shoot backwards, then stop suddenly and catapult its occupant back and up, to be caught by her romantic partner. This is us trying it out, with Mik Kuhlman doing the pushing.

And here's that same scene in Jiwi espisode 4, "Recipe for Disaster."

Not the height hoped for, but at least Jane got her happy ending! You can see the full Jiwi series, as well as the marvelous work that came before it simply by clicking here. Enjoy!!

Monday, December 28, 2015

In Remembrance: Meadowlark Lemon

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I've said it before but I'll say it again: physical comedy is everywhere. Not just in silent films and the circus, but in dance and mime, in straight drama and in television commercials, in rodeos and —you can see where I'm going with this— in basketball. Of course I'm referring to the Harlem Globetrotters and to the great Meadowlark Lemon, a five-decade veteran who passed away yesterday at the age of 83.

Lemon was the type of clown who could make fun of a particular skill because he was actually very, very good at it. “I’ll put it this way,” he explained. “When you go to the Ice Capades, you see all these beautiful skaters, and then you see the clown come out on the ice, stumbling and pretending like he can hardly stay up on his skates, just to make you laugh. A lot of times that clown is the best skater of the bunch.”

In fact, Wilt Chamberlain (who started as a Globetrotter) maintained that Meadowlark Lemon was the most awesome basketball player he had ever seen, even ranking him ahead of Michael Jordan. That may be hyperbole, but the basketball skill was indeed formidable and was enhanced by ball manipulation chops that any juggler would be proud of and some silly but slick movement not too far from eccentric dance. I know that when I first saw the Globetrotters as a kid, my reaction was "I didn't even know that was possible." And all of the skills were packaged with creativity and irreverence, so I laughed A LOT. (It also forever lodged "Sweet Georgia Brown" in my brain.)

Much has been written about Lemon and the Harlem Globetrotters, including a sweet guest post to this very blog by comedy animator Jonathan Lyons. Here are a few fun videos, interspersed with excerpts from the NY Times obituary.

This was a time, however, when the Trotters were known not merely for their comedy routines and basketball legerdemain; they were also a formidable competitive team. Their victory over the Minneapolis Lakers [white world champions--jt] in 1948 was instrumental in integrating the National Basketball Association.

It was his charisma and comic bravado that made him perhaps the most famous Globetrotter. For 22 years, until he left the team in 1978, Lemon was the Trotters’ ringmaster, directing their basketball circus from the pivot. He imitated Tatum’s reams [gags--jt], like spying on the opposition’s huddle, and added his own. He chased referees with a bucket and surprised them with a shower of confetti instead of water. He dribbled above his head and walked with exaggerated steps. He mimicked a hitter in the batter’s box and, with teammates, pantomimed a baseball game. And both to torment the opposing team — as time went on, it was often a hired squad of foils — and to amuse the appreciative spectators, he laughed and he teased and he chattered and he smiled; like Tatum, he talked most of the time he was on the court.

“Man, I’ve had a good run,” he said at his Hall of Fame induction ceremony, recalling the first time he saw the Globetrotters play, in a newsreel in a movie theater in Wilmington when he was 11.

“When they got to the basketball court, they seemed to make that ball talk,” he said. “I said, ‘That’s mine; this is for me.’ I was receiving a vision. I was receiving a dream in my heart.”