When I taught my first physical comedy workshop more than three decades ago, I called it "theatrical acrobatics," by which I meant adapting and disguising acrobatic vocabulary in order to make it work believably for a character in a comic situation. Everything had to have cause and effect and look natural, not gymnastic. You could learn a lot from silent film comedy, circus clowning, contact improv, Pilobolus, and stage combat, but precious little of it was written down.
Then one day in a dusty second-hand bookstore on Manhattan's 4th Avenue, I stumbled across Tumbling Illustrated from 1932, which looked like another one of those not particularly useful old-timey gymnastic books with stick figures and scant explanations of complicated tricks. (My copy had been discarded by the Oakland Public Schools.) But this one was different, because its author, L.L. McClow, must have spent considerable time on or very near the vaudeville stage. In its pages were countless falls, partner moves, and tricks with furniture and props. There's even a "Clowns" chapter, whose subheadings are:
• Without Apparatus
Not all the material's great and the instructions are often sketchy or non-existent, but there's much food for thought. And a move that might not look like much can actually be a gem —in the right hands (or in this case legs). Admit it, if you read this one, you wouldn't be impressed:
But here's Lupino Lane doing it:
Another example: I never realized a forward roll with a chair was possible until I saw this:
Although I did learn to do the back roll with the chair, I couldn't do this forward one. Even at that age my hips were just too tight for the follow-through. (No front straddle rolls for me!) But a forward roll taking the chair with you is actually not so hard, and in a typical physical comedy class I teach, about 25% of the students are limber enough to do it.
Before I saw my first table act, the Gaspards, I read about the peanut roll on and off the table in McClow:
And though I learned the handspring into the chair, I never tried this one (not yet, that is!).
Well, you get the point. I've scanned three of the prime chapters for you —Groups, Clowns, and Novelties. Don't try this stuff at home! (Unless of course you want to.)
Chapter 8 — Groups
Chapter 9 — Clowns
Chapter 10 — Novelties
WARNING: There is a 2012 reprint of this book available on Amazon, but it's only 88 pages, not 212. Only buy the 1931/1932 edition!