Thursday, November 15, 2012

Guest Post: Betsy Baytos on Andy Serkis

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Pop quiz: What do King Kong and eccentric dance have in common? I had no idea, but it turns out the missing link is Andy Serkis, known to millions as Gollum in Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, as the giant ape in King Kong, as the chimpanzee Caesar in Rise of the Planet of the Apes, and as Captain Haddock in The Adventures of  Tintin. Millions except for me, that is, but now thanks to our resident eccentric dance expert, Funny Feet director, and guest poster Betsy Baytos, I am being properly schooled. In addition to voicing these characters, Serkis' body language and facial expressions were digitized by means of motion capture technology and formed the basis for animating each one of them. Not surprisingly, this leading motion capture actor with the circus name is also a student of eccentric dance. Take it away, Betsy! —jt

Many wonder why on earth do I need to reach across the pond for eccentric dancers, but there are several reasons, and here is only one: Andy Serkis, a celebrated actor and director, whose brilliant character work has galvanized motion capture technology! What a surprise when English actor and friend Tim Spalls suggested I seek Andy out for his role in Topsy-Turvy, the highly acclaimed musical drama about Gilbert & Sullivan. I soon came upon this blog post he wrote on studying eccentric dance for the role! He is one of many contemporary actors and physical performers the U.K. who I must include in Funny Feet!

Notes from Andy Serkis

In Topsy-Turvy, Mike Leigh's award-winning, highly authentic investigation into the lives of Gilbert & Sullivan and the D'Oyly Carte company circa 1885, I play the Savoy choreographer. The character was based on the real life of John D'Auban, an eccentric performer and consummate theatrical. Stepping into his shoes was an immensely pleasurable but physically challenging experience. D'Auban was known in his day as a grotesque pantomimic dancer, a music-hall artist, and a choreographer of ballet, of burlesques, and of practically all Gilbert & Sullivan's works. He also taught dance and invented the "star-trap," a rather dangerous piece of stage machinery.

In the six months leading up to filming, I studied ballet, Irish dancing, and (for four hours a day) eccentric dance with choreographer Fran Jaynes. Research on the Internet unearthed an extensive thesis about D'Auban, which revealed where he was born, lived, got married, died and was buried. I visited all these locales. Along with the entire company of actors researching their own roles, I delved deeply into the business of living day-to-day in Victorian London. What trams or buses did one travel on? Where did one eat? What sorts of street food existed, what were the buzzwords of the day? Etiquette, the social and political scene. Nothing that pertained to the lives of these characters was left unresearched, all so that when the actors came together "in character" they had so much ballast to sustain the imagination and keep them completely submerged in the moment, able to improvise freely for hours.

The most memorable times were when we came together to improvise the D'Oyly Carte Company "rehearsal" scenes. The Savoy Theatre (created by reshaping Richmond Theatre) was bustling with sometimes 60 or 70 actors wandering around in character, carrying out their daily business in full Victorian garb. It was extraordinary hurrying to "rehearsal", greeting members of the chorus, stage managers, principal actors such as Grossman and Temple, and then Gilbert himself would stride in and the rehearsal would commence. D'Auban would inevitably be late, having dashed from some pantomime or dance class, arriving like a whirling dervish. He was a very busy man. Egos would clash, tempers flare, life and death decisions about a particular gesture or dance step were thrashed out. Anyone walking in off the street witnessing these moments would honestly have believed they had traveled in time — it was that potent.

The scene that encapsulates D'Auban's spirit in the film revolves around a rehearsal for which Gilbert has brought in three genuine Japanese women in an attempt to authenticate the Three Little Maids choreography that D'Auban had lashed together from stock "oriental" pantomime steps. Where Gilbert wants reality, D'Auban wants comedy. It is wonderfully reminiscent of the eternal battle of "art" versus "bums on seats." D'Auban's parting shot is "I haven't laughed so much since my tights caught fire in Harlequin Meets Itchity Witch and the Snitch."

— Andy Serkis, December 2000


Andy Serkis discusses The Art of Motion-Capture Acting
Andy Serkis to direct animated Animal Farm.

Click here for Betsy's web site.
Click here for all of her guest posts to this blog.

And stay tuned. More to come!

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