Saturday, October 13, 2012

Remembering Ken Feit

[post 288]

This is the first of four posts in remembrance of the life and work of Ken Feit, "itinerant fool."

If you were in the clown / mime / movement-theatre world in the 70s, chances are your life was touched in a magical way by Ken Feit (and we were certainly not the only community to be so moved). A Jesuit by training, Ken evolved into a self-styled "itinerant fool" whose workshops and celebratory performances were truly unique, an original brand of storytelling that drew from such diverse traditions as fools & jesters, scripture, haiku, origami, Sufi dervishes, sign language, and koshare Native American clowns — to name just a few. His business card read "Ken the fool — clown, sound poet, storyteller, puppeteer, mime, musician, and jester."

His remarkable life was cut tragically short by a car accident in 1981.  He would have been 72 today, and I am grateful to finally have the time to celebrate his birthday by sharing memories of the man and his work over the next few blog posts.

Probably a workshop, with Ken third from left.

A lot of people are succeeding at things that aren't worth doing in the first place. — Ken Feit

Ken traveled everywhere, knew everyone, and was forever saying "you really have to meet so and so." Even in a pre-digital era, Ken had little use for technology; human contact was his thing. He was the Facebook and LinkedIn of his day, connecting us to one another in ways that lasted and mattered, consciously building community. There was a spiritual element to everything he did but, despite his seminary background, there was zero dogma. His religiosity was totally ecumenical, he made everyone feel comfortable. It seems appropriate, then, to start these posts with some fond remembrances of "the Feiter" from those who knew him. Thank you to Reid Gilbert for leading us off with a wonderful article he wrote on Ken five years ago, and to the other contributors who jumped in and composed remembrances within hours of my request. Much appreciated, all.

E. Reid Gilbert

Ken Feit, a Fool for the Lord

Ken Feit, a frequent visitor to Valley Studio, was a tall, handsome Jesuit seminarian, studying to enter the Roman Catholic priesthood. The staff and students always looked forward to his visits, as he was such a wonderful storyteller, sharing with us his adventures of hitchhiking across continents in search of storytellers, clowns and fools. He sometimes found them in trees with bright metal objects hanging from the branches. He had traveled across Africa and Australia on his quest.

After Ken finished seminary, he petitioned the bishop of Milwaukee to appoint him as the “Official Fool to the Church.”  When Ken related this to me he was obviously deeply troubled over the bishop’s refusal. I attempted to reassure him of the efficacy of his calling; “Well, Ken, you know the unofficial fools are always more effective in the Church than the official fools.”  He seemed to take some comfort in that.

Ken was wearing his much-patched denim jacket when he was entertaining some New York ghetto children. One of the kids commented on his jacket, “Man, that coat is ba-ad.”

Ken was somewhat abashed at this remark and said, “Why are you saying that?  I like this jacket.  These patches are souvenirs from all over the world.”
“Man, that’s what I’m a sayin’.  It’s really ba-ad.” That was when Ken realized that “bad” means “good” when it’s spoken in two syllables; “ba-ad.” He celebrated new languages generated by the younger generation.

Ken’s parents visited the school once while Ken was also there.  When Ken wasn’t within earshot, Mrs. Feit asked me, “If you didn’t know Ken has gone to seminary, would you know that he had gone to seminary?”

At first this inverted tautology stunned me, but I answered, “Well, Mrs. Feit, a person may not know specifically that Ken had gone to seminary, but anyone who knows him at all, will realize that he is a very spiritual person.”  This seemed to reassure her of the value of his investment in religious studies.

On his storytelling occasions Ken would often take from his duffel bag a paper sack, from which he would extricate a spoon into which he would pour a couple of drops of oil. He would then put in a kind of seed before lighting a candle, which he held under the spoon. While he talked of transformations of life, we waited anxiously for the expected explosion of one grain of popcorn.  Pop! Celebration! Transformation! Something quite different had hopped out of the spoon and into the air. Unfortunately, no clown was sitting close enough to catch it in his mouth.

Ken’s wish was, “I want to unhinge the mind from the definition of things it has been civilized into.”

“But  Ken, “ we might respond, “we continue to strive desperately for such definitions in order to communicate in a rational manner.”

“All I’m trying to do is find universal symbols that kind of tickle people to the threshold of a personal query and just leave it there. I direct my actions toward those who are afraid of themselves, locked into routines, trapped, despairing.”

One late summer afternoon at Valley Studio, Ken confided to me that he had a problem. Raising myself to an increased counseling stature in Ken’s shadow, I asked if I might help.  He said that he didn’t know what to do with his two original hand puppets, whom he had retired.  Their button eyes had already been transplanted to younger puppets, but he couldn’t bring himself to throw them away in the garbage.  However, his traveling luggage had to be as light as possible.

I suggested a cremation.  A crowd soon gathered. Ken and his eyeless puppets led a procession under a canopy of white fabric — retrieved from the costume shop — down  past the garden to the creek.  We built a fire on a sandbar. Ken laid the puppets on the funeral pyre with loving respect. While they were still aflame I found a stick to place them in the water.  As the puppets sank slowly into the creek, the water gurgled bubbles and steam rose silently to join the clouds.

Our paths crossed several times after that; usually at the Clown, Mime, Puppet Ministry Workshops, where people from all faith persuasions, including Baptists, Jews, Methodists, Catholics, and Muslims, came to celebrate their individual religious faiths through performance venues. At the Workshop, held at Oberlin College, Ken and I accompanied by our mutual Jewish friend, Avner Eisenberg, discovered a secluded lake near the campus. We decided to go skinny dipping there in a celebration of ecumenicity — a Methodist minister, a Jesuit priest and a Jewish clown, stripped, literally, of  all external baggage or pretensions. Unfortunately our friends, Islamic Jamal Mohammed and Southern Baptist Billy Bob Jones, weren’t there to participate in our ecumenical celebration of water immersion.  

In August, 1981, I had arrived at American University in Washington for our annual Workshop.  Margie Brown sought me out and asked me, “Have you heard about Ken?”

“I haven’t talked with Ken for several months,” I replied.

She said, “Maybe we ought to sit down . . . Ken was killed last Friday in an automobile accident.”

I was not prepared for this news. Apparently he had fallen asleep while driving somewhere in California. His traveling companion, knowing that he was seriously injured, attempted to assist him. His response to her was, “Quiet, please! I’m dying.”

Another friend, Joseph Martin, celebrated Ken’s life by publishing a book, Foolish Wisdom, containing stories, activities and reflections from Ken Feit.

Even in the hushed whisper of death, Ken seemed to celebrate us back into the wise foolishness of life.
© E. Reid Gilbert, 2007

As a clown/fool I have a special language to express the vision of paradox. The mask of whiteface covers my mask of flesh, enabling me to uncover my inner self. No longer confined by convention and laws, I can defy physical and social gravity through fantasy, transformation, sheer roguishness or naivete. — Ken Feit

Fred Yockers

Ken Feit and I shared one thing in common. We both talked our way into Clown School. For me, it was a late summer, last-minute desperation phone call to Bill Ballantine, then Ringling Bros. Clown College Director, hoping to get a reversal of their letter of rejection for the 1970 fall class. After about an hour of reasons why I should be accepted, I think he just gave up and said be here for opening day of classes (which was only about a week away). I arrived barely in time for the first Monday class, after a grueling non-stop drive-away car trip from Brooklyn to Miami and then a bus to Venice, Florida.

For Ken, it was simply showing up at that same 1970 fall class and sitting in the seats at the Venice circus arena and watching. After a few hours, he was approached by a staff member and asked to explain his presence. He said he was a former Jesuit student on a “voyage of discovery” to learn everything he could about “foolery.” He didn’t want to participate, just watch, and proceeded to sit in a lotus position, occasionally blowing bubbles and always smiling. He was strange, but harmless, so they just left him alone. As I recall, he stayed most of the 2 months of school.

Yup, that just about says it all. This unannounced arrival and patient sidelines observation seemed to be a pattern for Ken at the time. He had not yet embarked on his “touring” schedule of later years. He was in a learning mode and yet he taught us all very much. The first time I laid eyes on Ken was as I returned from nearby Sarasota, in another Clown College student’s car, about a week into the sessions. He was sitting (as he almost always did) in a half-lotus position, at the side of the road, blowing bubbles and passively thumbing a ride. With his long pony tail, white t-shirt, patched denim jacket and faded jeans (his “uniform” for those of you who knew him), he was an odd sight. We didn’t pick him up. We saw him later at the arena, and of course, the rest is history.

I came to know Ken very well. Throughout my nearly twenty years of clown studies and performance, he wove in and out of my life. I followed him to a Michigan college (in the middle of a frigid winter) to participate in a week-long workshop in foolery. (I remember one late night class, when he led all 30-40 of us into the school cafeteria to “gently disrupt” things. We ended with a romp in 3 feet of snow and a massive snow ball fight.) I attended numerous performances he gave at the oddest of sites. I hummed approval for his “pieces” (as he requested, instead of applause). I read his writings. I gave him a warm bed and hot meal during his travels whenever he asked, no matter where I lived.

Over the years, I tried to describe Ken to friends, both in and out of the clown world. To say he was an enigma is an understatement. Ken’s unique style of performance defied cataloging.  In the age of “new vaudeville,” he was pure storyteller, weaving elements of gestural comedy, mimetics, sign-language, poetry, wisdom. He was as at home with rodeo cowboys as he was with holy fools. He was one with clowns and historians.  I can still hear the jazz chords of “Zeke, the no-string bass player” — one of his signature pieces and I can still feel the pain of “America”, his anecdotal story of our countries history told in first person.

I attended the final memorial performance given for him at The Cathedral of St. John the Divine, where he frequently was hosted as an artist-in-residence.  Many of us dressed as white face fools and ran around, causing a kind of loving disruption to the service…a tribute to his never ending passion to question the status quo. There was so much to discover in Ken…the joy, the pain, the sublime ecstasy of living.  At times, he was as troubled as we all get and we who were close to him took this as a sign of his “mortalness.”  Yet somehow, he always managed to triumph through his personal pain, pack his bag and move on. I miss him.  I don’t hum much anymore. Maybe I’ll start again.

I am interested in the fool as an agent of spirituality. Unless we become as fools, we cannot really be wise. — Ken Feit

Michael Zerphy

Ken used to come and teach at Thomas Jefferson College where I was in school in Michigan, and I got to know him very well. I "apprenticed" with him one term and traveled to Princeton and other east coast schools, where he would perform and I would help lead workshops. To me he bridged the gap between clowning and the spiritual fool. He was able to draw on such a vast knowledge of history from a wide variety of religions, having been a Jesuit historian. Dan Berrigan encouraged him to go the Ringling Bros Clown School in Florida while Ken visited him in jail for protesting the Vietnam war...Dan said...we need real clowns right now and that's your calling... Ken left the work he was doing in the inner city of Chicago and followed his dream. I think we all know that he encouraged many others to follow theirs...including me.

In 1976 he did a Bicentennial show that made a big impression on me. He sat on his familiar blanket but instead of the Fools' Mass or sound poetry etc. he told the story of the Civil War through the songs written about it. Most of the songs were about a specific battle, Ken would start out by playing the song on his harmonica. Then he would tell the story of the battle and the people who fought it. He made it very personal, brother against brother, families split.  A heart-wrenching rendition of the nation torn apart from such a unique viewpoint. He created empathy for all who fought and loved those who did and I came away with visual images that are still with me, much like images I have from seeing some of Spaulding Grays' monologues. Lasting visual impressions that are stronger than film.

I'll always remember long car rides with Ken talking through the night...he was a big guy and he could just take it all in. He fell asleep sometimes during workshops because he pushed himself so much... he just didn't have enough time. I treasure a tile from the Taj Mahal he brought back for me after visiting India and retracing some of Ghandi's travels. He said people there thought him crazy as he would not go to see a place he was close to until later because he was traveling in chronological order following historical footsteps. A friend of mine, Ladon Sheets, who lived at Jonah House with Phillip Berrigan met Ken with me once when we were all in Baltimore...we ate very thin slices of strawberries that Ken cut up. Ken was showing how you could get ten times the flavor out of each strawberry...Ladon called him a creator of experience...that he was...always the trickster, destroyer and creator. He truly lived that.

We fools merely probe playful possibilities, mirror ridiculous realities, and retreat behind our motley with a twinkle in our eye. Don't take us (or yourself) too seriously. — Ken Feit

Judith Britt

I met Ken at The Valley Studio. He made the most incredible paper animals. They weren't just origami, but cut and folded into amazing shapes. He also introduced me to the musican/storyteller, Gordon Bok's tale of Peter Kagan and the Wind. It was a very clear moonlit night. He had us all lie down on the floor in the dark, with the moonlight streaming through the huge windows. I was transported! I bought the CD not too long ago. To this day, that story thrills me. "She was a seal, you know."

Ken once asked me to travel to Japan with him. He was an EX-Jesuit. Now, in retrospect, he was probably yanking the romantic chains of a naive, gullible, wide-eyed girl. However, his ability to weave a story and bring it to life has left me with indelible images of the possibility of the two of us discovering Japan together, strolling down petal strewn lanes and watching the moon's reflection on the water. After what I thought was some real soul searching, I declined his offer. I suspect he was amused that I took him seriously!

When I learned that Ken had been killed in a car accident, I just remember being so sad and angry. Ken made me experience creativity and magic in a whole new way. And then he was gone.

My totems are the spider (weaving from within her ephemeral web-mandala, shield, mask, home, trap, fantasy, window, vision, story), the turtle (carrying home on back and proceeding slowly, cautiously on land and in water), and the bee (collecting and alchemically transforming pollen into ambrosia, cross-fertilizing and networking fields of  stationary flowers). — Ken Feit

Zeke Peterhoff

I remember Ken showing up in Viterbo, Wisconsin one night during the 1974 International Mime Festival. He wasn't on the program, but made a 10pm street performance out of his small suitcase in the vestibule of a store that was closed for the evening. He made stories with string for props or less than string and had a capacity for entering his characters deeply, and bringing them back with his voice alone. He made his very delicate "Fool's Mass" for us, where he waits for the miraculously explosive transformation of a single kernel of popping corn in a drop of oil on a teaspoon over a lighted match....The assembled were stunned by the intensity of the smallness Ken created for us.

I think he made just the one impromptu show there and I, with others, lingered to talk — finding out he'd been a Jesuit, which surprised me as he was not wearing a good watch. Ken taught a few summers at Reid Gilbert's Valley Studio in Spring Green, Wisconsin (again, local for Ken). I spent a couple of weeks in his workshop one summer and spent quite a bit of time hanging out. I don't remember much of the hanging out banter but I do remember something he once said that both me and Jacques Burdick really like. I think this is a straight, unmolested quote... "Art, play and prayer are the only human activities that are totally meaningless and completely meaningful.” If I'm paraphrasing, I've just got my adverbs shuffled — not the context or the all-important nouns. Good guy — great storyteller — fine soul in motion. Ken Feit...wish we still had him, and had forgotten how much I miss him.

Fools propose other realities and invite you into other parts of yourself.— Ken Feit

Barbara Leigh

Thanks for bringing Ken back to life! What an incredible force of nature he was!! I actually performed with him once, at the old Water Street Art Center. Needless to say, it was a humbling experience...

Ken used to stay at a mutual friend's home, Joan Giehl, in Wauwatosa whenever he came to town — which is where I met him. I was also living at Joan's so we actually made a very funny short film with Ken and Joan's family one New Year's Eve. It was called "Over-Population Sucks.” Ken played Mother Nature. Wearing a babushka and a large "pregnant" pillow, we used animation to show him popping out more and more children, who tried to suckle and kept crying for more food — more food!!! We used Joan's long vacuum cleaner hose to show Ken then "sucking up" the children, so they disappeared, one by one...

A little dark humor...

I was also at "The Gathering" in Minnesota, where Ken was heading at the time of his death.  He had many loyal fans there, and we couldn't believe that, after all his travels in dangerous countries, he was killed by falling asleep at the wheel here in the U.S. We were all in mourning, and gave a special ceremony for him, in which we each shared our  memories.

I  saw Ken perform numerous times — and especially loved his sound poems and his piece with the popcorn kernel in a spoon and a drop of oil, held over a candle flame: "Pop! " "Resurrection!"

Yay! we'll bring him back!!

Don't know if you're familiar with Milwaukee Public Theatre, but we started as "Friends Mime Theatre" in 1974 — and were very much influenced by the simplicity and depth of Ken's work.  We changed our name to Milwaukee Public Theatre in 1991 — partly because we were tired of people asking if we were Quakers, and "Why do you talk?" — and mostly to focus on our commitment to accessibility for everyone here in our home city.

I was in a bad accident in December of 1987, resulting in partial paraplegia. Thanks to my years of work as a clown, I soon began to notice there were still funny things about being hospitalized, etc. The result was the creation of a solo musical comedy about the healing process, "The Survival Revival Revue." I toured around the country with it for several years, and am still doing excerpts in the form of talks on "The Art of Healing From A Patient's Point of View" and "Humor and Healing."  The experience has been amazingly helpful in dealing with such a loss. And, lucky for me, I've had some partial return of function in my legs, so I walk verrrrrry sloooooowly with two canes.

Anyway, MPT and my life were hugely influenced by Ken's work. We remain grateful.

The things I do are magical and certainly foolish. After all, if most people did them, they would lose their jobs. — Ken Feit

Leland Faulkner

John, you may not remember this, but the details flash back to me like yesterday. You and I walking and driving with Ken after we had attended a workshop at D’ell Arte in California. I was a kid of seventeen. We spent a full day together, and when meal time came, you cooked a chicken. I wanted to do something, so I tried to make a gravy for our dinner, and thickened it with a ton of corn starch. You and Ken could hardly disguise your disgust at my extremely unappetizing looking cooking effort. Without anyone saying a thing it all turned into a poop joke, and we all had a laugh. I felt I had been treated kindly, gently, softly.

The first time I met Ken, he breezed into Kansas City on a wind that cleared the cobwebs. Ken was a former Jesuit priest, and I, having been raised as a good little Catholic altar boy, I held a certain awe about his presence. After all, he had been a Jesuit priest. Well, it turned out that Ken was indeed holy. Holy in the sense of complete, whole. True, Ken had plenty of flaws, and he’d be the first to admit it. He was very human, but there was something very different about his commitment to his path. His living out of his religion, psychology, and philosophy was something I have never seen before or since. His silent fool’s mass was church in a way I had never experienced, it was the Church of Fools, and he was its prophet. A performance by Ken was better than any mass I had attended as an altar boy. It was joy. His little show was more profound than almost any theatre I’ve seen on the big stage, and it reconnected me with a part of my religion that had been lost, the truly personal and spiritual part.

My friends and I went to see his show in a church basement. No more than twenty people were there, but the show was an awakening for me. For the first time, I saw someone who articulated all the things I loved about the tradition of fools in a way that was direct, unpretentious, and completely meaningful. He was by turns funny, profound, silly, and wise. From the oranges in pantyhose that became his jester’s cap and priestly garb, to his paper unicorn and the popping of a single kernel of popcorn. Each was a symbol of transformation, resurrection, patience, wonder, and hope. All while he hardly moved from his seated position. It was that intimate, and each bit of performance revealed a world of parable and metaphor. It was simple in execution and thick with meaning. It was art as ritual, and it woke me up. I was a convert to foolishness.

We had a storefront mime studio in Kansas City, called Mimewock, which was our base for street performing, creating shows, and running workshops. Ken loved our little world, and he visited us often. When we got wind he was coming, our expectation was palpable, and we looked forward to it each time. He referred to our studio as John the Baptist crying in the wilderness, and it was. Ken would stop in, give a performance in our space, and the next day give us a workshop, and then roll on. The workshops were great. We plied him with what we thought were big questions, and he answered like a Zen monk. We listened to poetry with new ears. We learned about onomatopoetry, where words sounded like what they were describing; he demonstrated Basho’s frog poem with a bendy straw making the voice of the frog; he shared Rutabaga Stories by Carl Sandburg with us, and pointed out the metaphorical qualities; he opened doors in our souls that truly affected our directions in life, and he did all this effortlessly. He really lived the holy fool’s itinerant life.

He said he was not a storyteller, but a story maker, and oh what stories he made. Cleo the pregnant woman giving birth to a whole country; the jazz puppet who played the no-string bass; the story of a Japanese fisherman combined with graphic images made by a fan; and a Native American story, told as he shared a peace pipe. As far out and ridiculous as this may seem to some, it was beautiful. It was simple. It was spare, and it was profound. and his performance left indelible impressions.

Ken is one of a handful of people who have left marks on my soul, and changed the way I see theatre and performance.  Ken showed me how to teach, mostly because he knew how to give permission.  He gave people permission to embrace foolishness, and in this he gave us all a tremendous gift.

By showing the way, he blessed us, and I am thankful for his influence, and the too short time he spent with us.
Basically, I am concerned with celebration as a subversive activity. — Ken Feit

Celia McCarthy

I met Ken through Fred Yockers in 1973. I can't believe that it's more than thirty years since he died! Here's what I remember:

He was physically much larger (tall!) than you'd expect (he had to stoop when he visited my basement room in Berkeley). He could crush you with a hug, but he was gentle, sweet, and kind. He had gone through a transformation, like many people did in the late 60s and early 70s, and rejected the strictures of his past.  Most of us accomplished that transformation through drugs, but Ken's drug of choice was foolishness, which he embraced with abandon.  He had mastered many small arts that helped him express the vulnerability that is the basis for all true clowning and he deeply touched the lives of just about everyone he met. He was also a man who was looking for love, which I wasn't able to return in the same way it was offered. But I still have this tiny paper unicorn, which he executed with a few quick folds and snips.  I think all of us who were fortunate enough to meet Ken still carry a piece of him in our hearts.


Additional contributions to these remembrances are always welcome and will be added to this post. I like to call this a "blogopedia," because it is as much an archive as it is a journal; readers do access past pieces on a very regular basis... months and years down the road... so it's never too late!

Coming up: 
• Book Report: Foolish Wisdom, Joseph Martin's collection of Ken's work
• Ken's long letters about his incredible global adventures.
• Excerpts from Fools for Christ, a documentary partly about Ken's work


Roberto said...

Yes, Ken, WOW.
After all these years you are still with me.
I met Ken in the UK in the mid 70s as a neophyte storyteller.
Of course he encouraged me to pursue my passion.
I was at a workshop he did there in Bristol in 1977.
I remember doing a performance piece "The Song of the sky loom" out on the lawn, in which I cupped my ear to hear the birds sing for the line 'Let them walk fittingly where birds sing" and of course they sang for us, a magical moment I will never forget. I felt like I could fly off with those birds at that moment.
I was in a mime troupe in Detroit in '81 and we were expecting Ken to come do a workshop with us in the fall. His death was a huge shock, he was the most fully alive person I had ever met.
His dying impaled by his bamboo performance sticks was a last rather ironic joke.
How I wish he had stayed with us for a few decades longer, I would love for him to have met my kids.
How about a reunion of his flock next summer for the 35th anniversary of his passing.
I would be happy to host one here in Victoria, BC.
Maybe a celebration for Mother Earth dedicated to Ken?

Herman de Roos said...

I never met Ken Feit, but I do remember him. I learned to know him during a Workshop of the Ritual Lab back in 2007, on the Radboud University in Nijmegen in the Netherlands. The workshop was given by Prof. Ronald Grimes. He said that he considered himself a friend of Ken Feit. He had not had the opportunity to go to his funeral. For that reason he wanted to pay attention to this during the workshop. To give everything a place in this way. That workshop has made a big impression on me. I came away from it, so to speak, with images that have remained with me to this day. That is also the reason that I respond here. When I started reading about Ken Feit on this website I recognized so much about what I had learned during the workshop, that I first thought that the website was set up by Ronald Grimes himself. That is not the case and now I think that Prof. Grimes was influenced by Ken Feit and so, indirectly, I am influenced by him as well.