Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Guest Post: Hilary Chaplain Interviews Spy Monkey

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When I run into Hilary Chaplain, an old friend and fellow New Yorker, my usual greeting is "Oh, I didn't know you were back in the country." As a popular theatre clown with a one-woman show and as a teacher of clown and physical comedy, Hilary is in demand at festivals and variety theatres all over the world. It was on these travels that she became acquainted with Spy Monkey, and her enthusiasm about their work led not only to this guest post, but also to her bringing them to New York to conduct workshops. You can read more about Hilary here, and if you're anywhere near New York next weekend (Dec. 8–11), catch her show, A Life in her Day, as part of the Voice 4 Vision Puppet Festival at the Theatre for the New City. —jt

Spymonkey was founded by Toby Park, Petra Massey and Aitor Basauri in 1997 and has since been joined by Stephan Kreiss. With their dark, edgy physical comedy rooted "somewhere between Monty Python, the Marx Brothers and Samuel Beckett" (The Houston Chronicle), and a quartet of performers from Spain, Germany and England, Spymonkey has proved to be a truly international phenomenon, enjoyed by and accessible to a wide range of international audiences.

In May 2010, I took a week-long clown workshop with Aitor Basauri, co-founding member and performer with the group in Brighton, England where Spy Monkey is based, and subsequently brought him to NY twice in 2011, assisted by Petra Massey on his second visit. He is a clown teacher at École Philippe Gaulier, Paris, and for Cirque Du Soleil, Montreal, and regularly teaches in London.   I find Aitor to be one of the best clown teachers out there. His teaching method and pedagogy is drawn from his teachers, Phillipe Caulier, Pierre Byland, Mick Barnfarther, and Cal Macrystal.  He has clearly created his own way and his classes are full of joy and fun and laughter. He dedicates himself to helping every student find their way.

During the workshop, I spoke to Aitor about his teaching.

“I think that everybody can be funny, and the way to show ‘your’ funny is by showing your stupidity. We see it when you do something that you know is not done or hasn’t come out in the right way. In order to do that we play lots of games that seem very simple, that the actor thinks they can play well. When they play badly, we see in their faces how stupid they feel. That’s the moment when we all laugh. That’s where we can all be funny. We laugh at stupidity because it’s very human. We like to see human people on the stage. If you see someone having lots of fun on the street — like kids, full of jokes and games — you’re amused at the amount of pleasure that kid is having.

We should have that kind of fun when we’re on the stage. We should have that kind of fun when we’re in the workshop. It should be a party, a playground, a place where you have lots of fun all the time. A place where you don’t have to worry about being funny. If you worry about being funny, you’ll never be funny. It’s great when someone tries to be funny and fails — but then they have to show it to the audience, that it didn’t work. If this doesn’t happen, we, the audience, know that they are not playing for us. And that’s the point — to play for us. If not for us, then who? Why is the audience here?  The clown exists just for the audience.  If there’s not an audience, the clown doesn’t exist. It sounds a little simple to say, but an actor can play when there is no audience. But the clown show is so clearly different every night because of the audience. There’s a clear dialogue.”

“In the clown workshop, we’re trying to see YOU. Once we do, once you’re happy on stage doing nothing, being stupid, you can do anything. We look for your pleasure, your fun and your optimism. We hate you for lying and for being clever. Anything will work – it’s not about what you’re doing. It’s your attempt and your pleasure that we laugh at.  We often don’t even know why we’re laughing. It’s a dangerous place out there on the stage in front of the group not knowing what to do, but being OK in that place and finding something just from being there and in being honest in the immediate situation. When we stay safe and do what we think will work, it will very often fall flat because there’s no honesty in the moment.”

The four members of the Spy Monkey company are Aitor from Bibao, Spain; Stephan Kreiss is German and lives in Vienna; Petra Massey lives in London; and Toby Parks lives in Brighton. The four met about 10 years ago doing a show in Switzerland and, finding an affinity with each other through a common vocabulary stemming from their training with Phillipe Gaulier, they formed this company of clowns who like to act. Aitor says “many people will not call us clowns because we don’t use the classic red nose, but we are always very interested in the stupidity of the clown and in all our shows we try to push that to many places. In all our shows we’re clowns who like to act. That’s what we’re interested in. In our PR blurb we’ve been forced to get rid of the word clown because it’s generally misinterpreted. We’re interested in the stupid situations that the clown’s spirit creates in relationship to the audience and each other and the stories that they play.”

Here's my interview with Aitor Basauri and Petra Massey, conducted during their recent visit to New York.

Thank you to videographer Jim Moore, of VaudeVisuals fame!

Here are a few Spy Monkey videos. Go to their web site to read about current and past shows and to see more videos. I  have yet to see them live, but I’ve watched their videos over and over and laugh every time!

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