Monday, March 28, 2011

Guest Post: Jeff Raz & Co. in China

[post 115]

Jeff Raz's performance credits range from Cirque du Soleil to Broadway, his teaching credentials from San Francisco's Clown Conservatory and ACT to the Big Apple Circus and now all the way to China.  His international experience is staggering, and he has already favored us with a guest blog post about Japanese Butoh.  This time he has been so kind as to write about his travels as a pioneering clown teacher and director in China.  For more, you can visit Jeff's personal web site here.  Thank you Jeff, and also to Calvin, Jonah, Christopher, and Linie for their contributions. —jt

In fall, 2008, Circus Center Artistic Director Lu Yi organized the first ever Chinese government-sponsored workshop in “Western-style Clowning”, held in Nanjing.  Students in the month-long workshop came from acrobatic troupes from across the country.  The Circus Center team, Joan Mankin, Linie Orrick, Jonah Katz and Jeff Raz, taught acting, mime, classic routines, make-up, creating original material and other skills from the Clown Conservatory curriculum. 

Teaching through a translator takes extra care, both in framing the language for instructions and feedback and in reading when the students are off on a wrong track because of translation issues.  Working with professional acrobats with no experience in Western acting or clowning was also a challenge – very basic imagination and improvisation work took days to get going, while slapstick, tap dance and other technique work would often fly.

In the final week of the workshop, the students performed in various venues in Nanjing.  We were thrilled to find that their professional experience kicked in at show time and, by the third school show, the cast was confident and audiences were laughing and cheering.  The culminating performance, held at a local University, was attended by the vice-president of the Chinese Acrobatics Association, General Ning Gen-fu and other high Chinese officials.  Gen. Ning was impressed with our work and has become a strong supporter.  He helped Lu Yi to set up a second trip to China, this time including both a workshop in Nanjing and an extraordinary invitation to bring a performing team to the Wuqiao International Circus Festival.

Part One – Nanjing Workshop, September 26 – October 23, 2009:

The second annual Nanjing clown workshop was lead by Diane Wasnak, with Linie Orrick and Jonah Katz. The workshop was organized in a similar fashion as the first, with Diane taking over the bulk of the curriculum, focusing heavily on her mime skills.  Jonah again taught tap dancing and Linie again taught classic clown gags. The student body was larger than in 2008; the 23 students were a mix of new and returning students, including 12 students from The Beijing International Arts School, all freshman in high school with no previous performing experience.

“We proved to our Chinese hosts that one doesn't need to copy others to make good clowning. I truly feel we are starting an artistic revolution in China. It will be written in the history books that people from the San Francisco Circus Center brought emotional and creative innovation to all forms of performance in China.”
— Jonah Katz  (Clown Conservatory ’08, AP ’09, Acrobatics Program ’10)

Part Two - Wuqiao International Circus Festival, October 27 – November 8, 2009

After the successful completion of the Nanjing Workshop, 2009, Lu Yi, the Circus Center Nanjing team and four Chinese acrobats traveled to Shijiazhung where they rendezvous'd with Jeff Raz and his team flying in from San Francisco.  Shijiazhung, the capital of Hubei Province, is the site of the bi-annual Wuqiao International Circus Festival. 

The Wuqiao performing team included — Diane Wasnak, Calvin Kai Ku, Fae Kleivman, Jonah Katz, Christopher Keller, Linie Orrick and four Chinese performers, all top acrobats, who did one hour of pre-show entertainment in stilt costumes. The team also included designer Chris Weiland, who did the Chinese performers’ make up, helped with costuming for all performers and painted faces in the audience for one hour before each show.

In order to highlight our strengths of flexibility, audience involvement and vivid characters, Lu Yi arranged for the American performers to work outside of the competition format.  This allowed us to be in all of the shows and to work closely with the director to make the performances flow smoothly.
Our six American performers were featured in all nine Festival shows, working with world class acts from over 20 countries, including Russia, Mongolia, France, Australia, Uzbekistan, Cuba, North Korea and South Africa.  We also did pre-show walk around for all the shows, included Christopher as the god Pan on bounding stilts, Diane as her baby character (baby talking in Chinese, a huge favorite with the crowd), Fae as a gluttonous ‘panda’ and his little partner Calvin, Linie’s grandmother character (also using Chinese to great advantage), Jonah’s slick-suited tap dancer and our four Chinese colleagues in stilt costumes based on the Transformers. 

Lu Yi worked closely with the performers in the months leading up to the trip to custom fit their material for a Chinese audience, e.g. with a little design work, Fae and Calvin’s balancing routine with a 15’ pole turned into a number about selling Chinese lollipops in the traditional Tonhulu display.  Fae’s Kung-Fu Panda costume and moves went over very well, too.  Christopher featured his routine with a monkey puppet in the shows because of the long tradition strolling performers with trained monkeys in Hubei province.  Diane, Linie and Jonah incorporated a lot of Chinese language into their routines, with Diane and Linie capitalized on the strong Chinese affection for babies and grandmothers.

“Every day something would change and I always felt that we were up to the challenge. Seeing other acts helped me to gauge where I am and what things I need to work on, being thrust into an environment with a huge language barrier showed me many of my strengths, as well as my weaknesses.”
— Christopher Kellor (Clown Conservatory AP student)

Lu Yi and I worked closely with the Chinese director, lighting director and conductor, helping to make the 3.5 hour plus shows flow smoothly and ensure that our performers where able to show their best stuff.  It would have been exhausting even without the multi-lingual improvisations, since the programs and our participation in them changed minute to minute for the entire ten days. 

For example, when we arrived at the theater for the first public performance, we found that the show order had changed and the tiger act would start the show.  This left Jonah Katz to cover the cage strike, doing a silent, solo tap dance/juggling number 3 feet downstage of thirty roustabouts madly dismantling an enormous cage.  Because they had trouble with the cage in rehearsals, the lighting director left the stage lights on (the tigers were also on stage in their wheeled cages) and, for the first show, accidentally left the house lights on as well.  Jonah held his own in this chaos, winning applause from the audience and a lot of respect from our hosts. 

Although nothing was easy about the Wuqiao Festival, including an 11-hour traffic jam on our way to the Bejing airport, the trip was a success.  We met many wonderful performers from around the world and dozens of directors and casting agents got to know us through our performances, informally over meals and through our reputation with the Chinese Acrobatic Association.  Members of our team were interviewed and taped by many media outlets, including many Hebei Province papers and stations, The China Daily and a number of TV channels that are aired across China and internationally. Here are links to a few samples of Chinese press coverage:

Snapshots from the Wuqiao International Circus Festival

Rehearsal Day #1

• Walking by a semi truck as I leave the theater by the back door, looking into the back and seeing the yellow eyes of a tiger staring back at me.  The tigers and dogs were waiting to be off-loaded for the tech.

• Grandparents with little kids lining up outside the padlocked glass doors, staring at our rehearsals in the huge lobby.  There are very few westerners in Hebei province, so we get stared at all the time, but even more when Diane is in her baby outfit, Christopher is a Satyr on jumping stilts, and Fae is a giant panda.

• Watching the director of the festival, Ms. Liu, watch our "audition." Jonah starts his act and her face relaxes as she sees his moves are clean and clear, and then a hint of a smile as he dances and juggles.  She wants to see more, so Christopher comes out with the monkey puppet, which gets a real smile of recognition and, when Diane goes into her baby bit in Chinese, Ms. Liu is laughing out loud and repeating each phrase after Diane.  The day is won; Lu Yi's crazy idea of having a group of American clowns do the transitions at a major international circus festival in China now seems like just the ticket to the director.

• After a few hours of refining our ideas and deciding where the acts might go in the different shows (and eating a huge and wonderful lunch), we're back to show the assistant director the whole megillah.  Now, in addition to dozens of kids behind the glass doors, we have camera crews in the lobby, swarming over Lu Yi and the performers as we try to show our stuff.  Lu Yi is as happy as I've seen him in years, with microphones in his face and cameras all over his students.  We'll be on TV tonight and, if things go well in the next couple of days, doing S.F. proud in front of thousands of circus fans and agents in the next week and a half.

• The pollution is so thick you can taste it; horns honk constantly and, a moment ago, the fireworks began (no, I have no idea why we have fireworks tonight).

• Then it snowed.  Hard.  I left early for the show to buy a sweater which I found for cheap but they wouldn't take my 100 yuan note for some reason so I got to the theater cold and early and everyone else was late because the snow caused a traffic jam and then the "A" show lasted for nearly 4 hours and most of the audience left before the final bow and it is now after midnight and I'm just getting home and I have a meeting with Lu Yi at 7:30am to figure out how we're going to do it all again tomorrow for the "B" show."

• I wrote that 3 days ago.  The snow cleared the air for one glorious day and now we're back to smoggy and mild.  The "B" show is a lean 3-hour affair while the "A" continues to lumber in at 3:40.  Our team is doing very well, connecting with the audience, filling in the gaps and getting real laughs.  And I have a lovely matching sweater, hat and gloves.

• A woman carrying a black naugahyde couch strapped to the back of her bicycle.  On closer inspection, I see that she has the matching armchair sitting on the couch.

• Walking home late last night on the street that, during the day, is a riot of wheeled transportation, pedaled, motorized, two- and three-wheel, but is now deserted.  First I smell and then I see a sidewalk cafe — seven or eight tables with chairs, patrons sipping hot soup and the kitchen built off of two of the tricycle drays that are so popular here.  This morning, there is no sign of soup or chairs or kitchen.

• Both the "A" show and the "B" show end with flying acts, from North Korea and Kazakhstan respectively.  Their rigging takes at least 10 minutes to set up, ten minutes that we need to fill with joy and excitement to keep an exhausted audience from heading for the street. Lu Yi and I decide to put all of our folks in the audience, spread out and performing all at once; Diane, Jonah and Linie improvising in Chinese (we hear Diane's amplified baby voice above the crowd yelling 'Are you my daddy?'), Christopher's monkey puppet raising havoc in the second tier while Calvin and Fae hold down the center with a revised balloon act.  Folks stop at the door and step back into the theater, at least for a moment, and the flyers have almost a half house to perform to.

• The horribly studied, distant stare on the North Korean performers faces when I say "hello" in the halls of the theater.  For some reason, I thought that international tensions melted away for the moment when we are all in costume and make-up, sharing the same stage.  That stare makes me sad and bitter.

• A French performer is arguing about his lighting, trying to get it just right.  On one hand, I sympathize with his passionate attempt to make his act great, and on the other hand, I see that he is teetering towards arrogance (and making me late for lunch).  Finally, the director, Ms. Liu, steps forward, says something into her mic and twenty Chinese women in elaborate head dresses stand up and come to the stage; our French friend is finished.  He argues and, from the look on his translator's face, clearly crosses the line of rudeness.  The director walks away and sits down.  The performer leaves.  My heart is with the director — this is what I would have done (minus the headdresses) and I think to myself that it is good that this arrogant young performer learns a lesson.  Within the hour, I am arguing with Mrs. Liu to try to get a spotlight on Diane in the audience.  The irony registers in time for me to tone down my rudeness a bit.  We get the spotlight, mainly, I think, because I am working with Lu YI, who still has enormous respect here. Coda:  I presumed that the French guy was on his way home but he is in the show that night; his lighting isn't very good and his act suffers for it.


• Being in China for an international circus festival and performing alongside other professional performers for professional directors pushes me to a new level that I could never get in a school setting. I know more of what it takes to become a professional artist on stage, and especially off stage: Shmoozing with other performers to get the know-how of where they've come from and their training process; shmoozing with agents to gain future job opportunities; and looking good for directors to want them to have us back again.

• Seeing "Clowns. San Francisco Circus Center" on the big screens of both house left and house right as our WuQiao team hit the stage was a glorious moment that I'm sure will in many ways get Circus Center known in the circus world. As we talk to other performers, agents, and other circus heads, we always bring up the name San Francisco Circus Center to let people know where we come from and to simply let people know of another Circus School in another part of the world. All this being said, a bridge has been built that definitely goes both ways for people to check out Circus Center as well as for people to grab talent from Circus Center.


• Nanjing: I have broadened and strengthened my skills as a physical comedian by focusing on mime. I have improved as a director by directing acts. I now know how to run sound. I have gotten much better at working from the inside out as opposed as the outside in. I have improved my ability to completely take on an emotion/character. I have gotten much better at Chinese, which has broken a lot of barriers. I have also improved as a teacher. I would be comfortable leading a clown workshop to any age group.

• Wuqao: I have learned the level of skill I must be at to compete. I have gotten better at talking to the people you need to talk to, staying calm, and asking the right questions.

• Nanjing: We proved this year you don't need to copy others to make good clowning. It was representatives of CC that did that. I truly feel we are starting an artistic revolution in China. It will be written in the history books that people from San Francisco Circus Center brought emotional and creative innovation to all forms of performance in China.

• Wuqiao: We are rocking. Because the directors like us, they like CC. Also, more people know about CC. However, I think it all boils down to: they like us, they like CC. Everybody likes us. I think.


• There were many good things about the Wuqiao festival. First off It was a great chance to see circus acts from all over the world: Canada, Australia, South Africa, and France, just to name a few. It was also a great opportunity to connect with other circus artists and to learn that we all are not that different from one another. I also learned about the strengths we as Circus Center clowns have, mainly being hungry and flexible; a good appetite is important for a clown. Every day something would change and I always felt that we were up to the challenge. Seeing other acts helped me to gauge where I am and what things I need to work on. Being thrust into an environment with a huge language barrier showed me many of my strength, as well as my weaknesses. I have learned that my jumping stilt caricature is one that I need to explore as well as pursue with gusto. I also learned that even though my skill at animating my puppet monkey is good, our relationship is lacking, which causes our relationship with the audience to suffer.


• Nanjing Workshop: I was pleasantly surprised by several things during this second Western clowning workshop.  The Beijing International Arts School sent us twelve students! They were young (all freshman in high school) with no previous experience. In a way it was a little stunning to have such inexperienced students (especially when we were expecting returning students); however they were enthusiastic and bright and learned the skills and philosophy of clowning quickly.

• The “overseer” of the Beijing students was an administrator at the school and has a theater and directing background (American musicals!). He was very taken with the teaching and curriculum and is most anxious to have clowning teachers come to Beijing to teach.

• One of the four returning students had clearly worked on his skills over the past year and came back with his acrobatics partner with the “bones” of a great act that we were able to develop within the workshop.

• We had even more students this year: 23.  The workshop was organized in a similar fashion as last year. Jonah taught tap dancing, I taught "clown gags,"’and Diane taught the bulk of the curriculum, leaning heavily on her mime skills. We are still reeling from the ‘expectations’ the Chinese had for the workshop. We arrived believing we were going to teach advanced clowning skills to returning students and have the option as to what sort of final show we would produce. Nothing was said about providing costumes, music, or make up. The Chinese, however, enrolled 18 beginners and (in four weeks, no less) expected every student to have a finished and polished individual act. They also expected us to produce a final full-production show that included music, lighting, and costumes in addition to the acts!!!  I feel we were able to give them most of what they wanted. Mr. Ning the vice president of the national acrobatic association was generous in his post-production comments in admitting that we didn’t have to have lots of costumes, music and makeup to do clowning successfully.  Future workshops need to have a written outline of expectations that is reviewed and signed-off on by both the Chinese and American parties before the workshop begins! I believe that for a second year our curriculum was very strong and the quality of our teaching was solid.

• I love hearing Calvin, Jonah, Fae and Christopher talk about their craft. I envy their enthusiasm and eagerness to perform! It was fun to hear them discuss how the audience reacted to a particular gag or movement, or what they will do ‘next time’ to make the act better. They are always analyzing their movements, their “motives’ for doing things, how to start or end a gag… Jonah realized that his tap act, though great, doesn’t work well in a huge space with lots of other things going on. Christopher has to figure out how to keep little boys from hitting him and his monkey as he moves through the audience. Fae and Calvin are working on how and when to use audience participants, and how to keep their stage ‘relationship’ playful enough to be interesting but not go towards “mean.”   I love it! Best of all, I think watching the other clowns and having just a ‘taste’ of performing at Wuqiao has made them more determined than ever to work on perfecting their skills and acts---as fast as possible. They all have great talent and are not far from receiving their own invitation to perform at Wuqiao!! I think their biggest challenge will be to have the patience and self-discipline to get their acts ready!

Finally, Jeff, thank you, thank you again for giving me this wonderful opportunity to play with your clowns… I am honored that you thought I was ‘up to snuff’ for the walk around and I am so glad I have been a part of the team here. I learn so much each time I interact with you and the circus. I appreciate more than ever what performers endure in order to compete and perform. It is not an easy life! (I know, I know: I’m old!)

China was something of an eye opening experience. I met performers and agent's from all over the world and made some real connections and friends for future work with Calvin. Some of those being the Joka Boys, Arnold and Jose. We picked their brains and asked as many questions as one could about how to make it in this business as a clown and circus performer. The answer simply was to get out there and compete in the festivals. If we did that we would get the work, because that is where the circus producers go and agents go. Jose and Arnold work at the Zip Zap Circus school in Cape Town South Africa when they are not on contract. What is amazing about them is they are truly dedicated to the school because it is designed to be free and the school is literally a social circus school that is free for all of its students, who are from different backgrounds. Some of the kids in the school have absolutely nothing to look forward to in life and some come from wealthy backgrounds, but they are all welcome.

Jose and Arnold told me the school acts as an agent. I found that to be interesting and that they do not make the same as most performers do. They make less in any given gig, but more in the long run. They have a steady income. They do not have individual users. just the program and their show are their bread and butter.

I learned that it isn't enough to be subtle on the stage, one has to offer much more(demand presence) in such a big venue and with such an audience. This audience was all over the place. Talking on cell phones and getting up and walking in front of the stage and many times in front of Calvin and my act. It called for us to be bigger and yet stay personal with them. Stay real with them.

I learned a lot on this trip and realized that there is allot missing from the circus center that is needed. Like for one why doesn't the circus center act more as an agent for its students? I believe that students in the professional programs should all learn to teach circus and should all go to a circus festival so they can really understand what the circus world is looking for and is like.

Being up there performing in front of a 2,800 seat audience from a different country was just what I needed to understand I must keep performing and learning. I must be a flexible  performer and willing to do it all, because there are so many performers who wont. And that creates good business for me.

Quote from Jonah Katz and a little from me too, "Clowns must be DEPENDABLE, RELIABLE, FLEXIBLE and most of all IRREPLACEABLE."

1 comment:

Jonathan Lyons said...

A post worth waiting for. Sounds like an incredible experience.