Thursday, December 3, 2009

Guest Post: Jonathan Lyons on San Francisco's Flying Actor Studio

[post 041]

by Jonathan Lyons

[Jonathan Lyons is an animator at Imagemovers Digital, and you can see his latest work in Disney's A Christmas Carol, starring Jim Carrey, in theatres everywhere right now. You can read his other guest posts here and here.]



When I was an adolescent living in New England, I was told that Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus ran a clown college in Florida. To me, that sounded like an excellent institution of higher education. Just about my speed.

Alas, one thing leads to another and the decades go by. I never made it to Clown College. I think perhaps it’s a good thing, as I am somewhat injury prone. I probably wouldn’t have lasted many years in the profession. Still, my love of physical comedy, and my curiosity about the art remains undiminished. I practice it in a virtual form, animation. Recently however, I had a chance to sample the real-world training of a physical actor.


I live in Marin County, California, and this past summer a new school opened up in San Fransisco, just across the Golden Gate Bridge. The Flying Actor Studio, operated by James Donlon and Leonard Pitt. They offer “physical theater training with world-class master teachers offering: movement, mime, mask, clown, circus arts, improvisation, voice, new performance.” They have an impressive list of guest instructors, including Geoff Hoyle, John Gilkey, Bill Irwin, Judy Finelli, and Suzanne Santos.

To kick off the opening of the school, they held a special performance with Donlon, Pitt, and Cirque du Soleil alumni, John Gilkey. The show was called “The Zany and the Surreal.” It featured rotating solo performances from the three actors. Donlon delivered some of his deeply felt mime, Pitt introduced some mask techniques and told an entertaining Jewish tale. John Gilkey’s pieces included his signature coat rack juggling routine, which I enjoyed watching in the Cirque du Soleil show Quidam.

The Flying Actor Studio is a full-service training facility offering everything from one-day workshops to a full-time, 28-week conservatory program. They also arrange special guest shows and workshops. This October they welcomed the International Czech Theater Festival, and held a clown workshop with Steve Capko. Among the workshops and classes they had the ideal opportunity for a working family man such as myself. “Meet the Flying Actor Studio Drop In Class”. Held on a Sunday, 10 am to 4pm, it is described like this:

“A survey of the Flying Actor Studio methods including improvisation, imagination, time, movement, mask, and mime. This class is offered on a sliding scale to make our classes accessible.”

I was happy to pay the high end of the $25 to $40 suggested price. It was more than reasonable for the experience. I and a handful of other participants warmed up with stretches in the bright loft space. Some of them were actors, at least one other was just curious like myself. James Donlon ran the morning half of the program. Among Mr. Donlon’s many teaching credits, was the Ringling Brothers Barnum & Bailey Clown College. Finally, I would have my day! We did a variety of basic exercises in movement. He introduced the idea of “neutrality,” which I found intriguing. Neutrality in this case being a way of moving (or being still) that would offer no clues about the person. You wouldn’t be able to determine age, sex, state of mind, state of health, anything. Half of us would wear black hoods, to hide the face, while walking around the room in whatever fashion felt neutral to us, while the others would discuss what they saw. We did the same thing with sitting in a neutral position. While I would have thought that the class would be all about creating character, this exercise in removing character was just as informative. After that we practiced a variety of mime exercises, and by this time, I was beginning to sweat. It was a workout, and I would be sore the next day.

After a lunch break, Leonard Pitt took over the class. During Mr. Pitt’s 40 years of experience he has studied with Etienne Decroux, written several books, and been a movement consultant on major motion pictures. We started with an exercise between pairs of people locking eyes and moving back and forth as though on a rail. Building on that we expanded it to random group movement, quickly switching to pairs. The exercise involved focused attention, and physically grabbing attention from others by just turning towards them. I can see where it would be a useful exercise for the stage movement. Following that, Mr. Pitt introduced us to the basics of using masks. It was interesting to learn that mask work is not so much about movement, but about posture and posing, and also eye direction. This is useful stuff for an animator.

Thanks to James and Leonard for setting up such an accessible, educational and enjoyable program. Good luck to them and their venture.

Click here for more information about the Flying Actor Studio.

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