Monday, April 27, 2020

HOW DO YOU CLOWN IN A VACUUM?

The origins of the word "clown" tell us a lot. Giovanni Fusetti first told me about how "clown" comes from the old word "clod", or "Wet Earth." He was trying to explain to me his take on the difference between Clown and Improv Comedy. Improv is dry, he said. Clown is wet. This website does a nice job of talking about where the word comes from. A low-German word for klutz, a Scandinavian word for boor. There's even a possibility that the Latin word for farmer, colonus, is in the etymological mix. So, to sum up, the foundations of the word "clown" are deeply rooted in possessing the following qualities: FILTHY, WET and INAPPROPRIATE. 

That could be why this pandemic feels like the end of everything to me. 

Of course, I'm a pessimist. I believe in staying pessimistic so I don't have to get... you get my pointMy pessimism is an ancient, inherited, shtetl pessimism that comes from the old country and goes very deep. She entwines her gnarled fingers around each individual DNA strand I've got and knits me into my very own walking Pessismism Sweatervest, all the time. 

So you, dear reader, can take anything I say with a giant grain of kosher salt. But, personally, I'm calling it The End. The end of my Butt show (technically impossible to do without saliva), the end of my breathy, wet, intimate workshops... oh shit, wait, this all looks like I'm into porn. Am I into porn? Is clown soul-porn? 

I don't expect to perform or teach in person again for up to a year or maybe more. Am I a big downer? Sure, absolutely. Take two of me and take a nap. I'll still be here when you wake up. 

Anyway, so I'm watching too much TV and rending my garments and wailing, like everyone. My biggest delight so far has been the discovery of jello-making. The first week it was a pomegranate jello, followed by a prosecco jello, and then my most impressive feat yet, a 5-layer deconstructed Thai iced tea jello: 3 layers of thai tea jello, 2 layers of sweetened condensed milk jello. Life-altering. 

Beyond the jello, I feel like my big takeaways so far have been aimless grief and TV. 
Speaking of, What We Do In The Shadows. The movie was cute, but the show is sooooooo cute! 

But anyway, my pessimism and grieving have a point, or could. Acceptance and trying to dig in for the long haul and hopefully—eventually—evolve feels like a reasonable choice. It at least gives me something to aspire to. I'm still a good capitalist stooge, after all: aspirationalism is my middle name, sandwiched between Good and Capitaliststooge.

Hopefully I'll get unemployment. Plus I am a saver. So I feel relatively hashtag-blessed for the mo', in terms of basic needs. I believe plenty of other people will get their jobs back sooner than I will; there are ways that we can social distance and still shop or whatever. Capitalism loves it some shop.

And it's not that I'm sad all the time. Most of the time, I appreciate my privilege and feel like I'm trapped on a packed schoolbus of chorus kids that's broken down in a snow drift. There's a lot of metaphorical snow around us, blanketing freshly, and lights are twinkling in the distance. The driver's name is Collingswood or something equally last-name-first-y, with a deep comforting voice and a sense of calm. Help is on the way, and until then, we're all together.

Incidentally, this has made me realize that, usually when the Depression Monster has me in its clutches, it's the isolation that I experience most bitterly. Somehow when everyone else is bereft too, I feel weirdly better. Which seems fucked up, but true. Not schaudenfraude, exactly, but there's got to be another long German word for it. 

So I'm not super depressed right now, but I definitely feel obsolete. I see the essential workers, more essential than ever. I see the white-collar-work-from-homers, going on with their zoom-meeting selves and still getting those paychecks like no big thing. And then here I am, trying to put together another reasonably-cute at-home outfit that I can both exercise and curl fetally in. 

I am humbled and amazed by my friends and colleagues who seem to have figured out... anything about how to work in this new reality. I am not there yet, but I admire you so much! You can stop reading this and go on back to being a pandemic art hero! 

I dedicate this blog post to everyone more like me, performing artists currently in love with jello or whatever your non-Jewish equivalent is, who have the feeling that everyone else has figured out more than we have about how to artistically survive in this strange new world. 

This is a very exclusive club we've got here, here in this blog post. I've put the red velvet ropes up and the only people I'm letting in are the aimless grievers and jello-makers and cake-straight-out-of-the-pan-eaters. Are you not just watching RuPaul's Drag Race, but the RECAP videos as well? Or whatever your heteronormative equivalent is? Whatever your preferences, you and your aimless grief are super welcome in this blog post. 

I may be a long way from figuring out how to feel anything like useful or productive, but I feel like I have a few useful suspicions, so I figured I'd get them down before another recap video comes on.

1) PROBABLY EVERYONE ELSE FEELS SECRETLY SHITTY SOMETIMES TOO. 

Even Taylor Swift has got to feel sad. Feeling sad is okay. Even before the pandemic, sometimes it's okay to feel sad. Here is Rosey Grier, former footballer, bodyguard and men's needlepoint activist, singing "It's Alright to Cry." I'm going to feel okay about being sad and try not to beat myself up for it. Thanks, Rosey Grier. 

2) HA HA HA ON YOU, SIZE QUEENS. 

If you're like me, you used to be a real size queen when it came to audience and workshop numbers. Ha ha ha, ego maniacs like me! While there's something moving about seeing a lot of strangers in a zoom room, I've personally had trouble feeling pulled in by big group experiences, and I suspect I'm not alone. I wonder if, when our attention isn't necessary, it's much easier to lose focus. That's one of the many joys of TV. It doesn't care if you're watching it, so you can have it on in the background or pause it, just toss it around attentionally-speaking and not give a shit. 

As a performer and teacher, that's not what I'm personally aiming for. 

The best experiences I've had so far have been super intimate. I attended/participated in a Zoom-based show called Couples Therapy for one audience member at a time, I got to play the couples therapist, highly recommended if it comes back. 

Before the quarantine, I did a lot of coaching of artists on their solo shows via online platforms, and that actually worked pretty well. Hoping to do more of that. I'm also trying to work on online performance experiences for just one audience member. And by "trying", I mean, I'm thinking about it. Between jello layers. 

Having to recalibrate and value quality of attention over quantity of attendees, that's a fascinating shift. And it could make me a better performer, in the long run, because of all the practice I can potentially get just playing for one person at a time. 

I always used to say, if you can make one person laugh, that's harder than getting an audience to laugh. But I didn't really mean it, because I was still thinking about those big fat crowds I used to have. So maybe that's the new goal. Just to believe the stuff I used to say about the importance of individual audience members. 

3) MAYBE GET REAL WEIRD.

You know how performing live, you get laughs from human beings who are a few feet away? That experience is gone for a while. The new experience of being a comedy artist might be about trying to get something else. 

What if we don't try to be funny anymore. Crazy concept, but it might just be too painful for our sensitive comedy organs to try jokes in empty rooms. Comedy organs are very touchy things, and if you expose them to too much not-laughing, your brain can start sending you signals that the comedy organs aren't functioning properly, which may or may not actually be the case. U like all that science I just dropped? All accurate. 

What if we tried to be beautiful. To be cinematic. To be weird. To be gorgeous. To be surprising. The good news is, we will probably end up being funny just because we're idiots. But I think focusing on something other than comedy feels healthy somehow. See above science.

I've done a few "clown" playgroups with friends on Zoom where we just get real weird with each other. They've been amazing. I get dressed up like a tragic telenovelas star (actually jewnovelas) with a velvet turban, mascara and lipstick (glossy, sticky-looking lipstick! that's the key! keep it wet!) I've rolled around and drooled on the floor every time. And my friends are of course brilliant and weird and they've surprised and delighted me, so that's been therapeutic. I'm learning about how to position the camera so that I've serving my friends the best angles, the most interesting tableaux. And I can tell they're doing that too. So that Zoom screen just looks beautiful, each of us our own tableau, creating little cinematic gifts for each other. That's been nice. 


4) AND WHEN POSSIBLE, SPARK SOME JOY.

You know Marie Kondo, right? The very charming celebrity-author of The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up. Runs an entire tidying empire with her flutey voice and deft-folding fingers. If you don't know Marie Kondo, you live under a messy rock, and that's totally fine. I'll summarize her. She's all about getting rid of stuff, and keeping the stuff you do have real clean. And the big question you have to ask yourself about every single thing you own is DOES IT SPARK JOY. 

does it spark joy does it spark joy does it spark joy does it spark joy does it—

An incredible question, and congratulations to Marie Kondo for coming up with it. 
Let's apply it to everything in our lives immediately. 

does it spark joy does this spark joy does that spark joy do they spark joy do we spark joy do i spark joy do i do i do i do i—

But seriously, do you? Do you spark joy? Do you spark joy in every person who has an interaction with you. Could you? Could that be your little assignment? 

Let's ask Marie Kondo what the fuck "spark joy" really means, because, define your terms bitch. Marie Kondo says that in order to determine if an object that you own in fact sparks joy, you have to hold it in your hands. Marie Kondo says that if the object sparks joy, then it will lift you up cell by cell, so that all parts of your body feel a little bit lifted. How do you know if the object doesn't spark joy? Every cell, every part of your body seems to be a little heavier. According to Marie Kondo, it's that fucking simple. 

You know what? I think she's right. Her point is that the body knows more about joy than the brain does, and it's important to listen to it. 

So let's apply the Kondo Principle, shall we? First of all, in order to have the potential to spark joy for another human, they have to be "holding" you, which obviously in today's day and age they can't do. But let's say, they have to be holding you in their attention. So the UPS guy who throws the box down on your stoop and runs away is probably not a good candidate. They have to be focused on you for a moment at least. Long enough to have an experience of you. 

Okay, so now that you've got them, it could be time to spark joy. 

How do you spark joy with everyone? You're a clown, you probably already know. You've been working at this your whole life. Try to break through, try to tickle. Try to have an effect on their body, lift it up, cell by cell. Even for a moment. You know when you've sparked joy, you see it. The energy around them gets fluffy for a moment. A tiny gust of hope. 

That's your only job now, clown. If you're doing that, you're doing something. Get 'er done. 






Thursday, April 2, 2020

BODILY FLUIDS AND COMEDY: IN MEMORIAM

The last time I performed was on March 14th. It was a musical improv comedy show, and I especially noted how much I spit all over the stage, without even meaning to. Oh, this is me all the time, I realized, suddenly horrified. In the green room after the show, my fellow improvisers praised my restraint. You didn't put your fingers in anybody's mouth tonight! they congratulated me. 

Since then, I've been remembering, and reflecting on my not-so-distant performance past. It feels like forever ago. 

I remember telling a guy to take off his wedding ring and put it in his mouth, and then I tongue-kissed him with his ring rolling around on our tongues.

I have put many people's fists all the way into my mouth. All the way. 

I remember making a lady hock a glob of spit into her own hand and then I licked it off. I've probably done that more than once, but I just really remember this one lady's face when I did it to her. It was the most extreme combination of horror and delight I've ever seen. 

I've been slapped a fair bit. 

I remember several men well into their 70's that I deeply tongue kissed. At least several. Maybe 15. 

I have touched so, so many people. Every show, touching people's faces, touching their hands, sitting on their laps, having them sit on mine.

I have licked many, many bald heads. I remember one particular bald head I licked in a crowded Spiegeltent, and it must've had cologne on it, because my mouth tasted of cologne for the rest of the night. 

I have spat on hundreds, no, thousands of people. Thousands of people have received sprays of my saliva, all over themselves. 

I have no idea how many strangers of all ages and genders that I have made out with, but it's a lot. 

And all in front of paying audiences. Thank you so much. 
Show business!

For years, my show involved personal body fluids—mine and, when I was lucky, other people's. 
Those shows, and so many other things, are over. 
And today, I allow myself to feel sad about that. 

I used to love spitting on people. I didn't do it on purpose, but Butt Kapinski has so many speech impediments that it's impossible for the character to say anything without spit leaving my mouth. And actually, it always seems like I have plenty of spit around, whether I'm speaking like Butt Kapinski or no.

But I liked it because so many of us, myself included, have felt so much shame around accidentally spitting, and it just felt so good to not give a fuck. And it always seemed that audiences appreciated that freedom more than they felt annoyed getting spit on them. I never remember seeing anyone look sad about the spit, actually. Was I delusional?

I also loved licking and making out with strangers. I liked it because audiences were thrilled by it: watching two strangers have an intimate experience together, watching the dance we did as we each figured out what the other person wanted. And the delicious surrender of all those strangers' tongues in my mouth! Those moments when the stranger and I were both like, fuck it, let's fucking make out like crazy in front of all these people. Those kisses were some of the wildest kisses I've ever had. They just felt like rainstorms, or like all the flags of the United Nations, flapping mightily together in the midst of the biggest hurricane of the world. It was a unified, wet, liberated flapping, and I'll never forget it.

At some point, maybe I'll figure out how to perform online and enjoy it. But right now, I'm in mourning, as so many clowns are, because it wasn't just that I used to perform in front of people. I used to perform on top of people, in and amongst people, against people, and with people. Their bodies and my bodies were constantly in negotiation with each other as I careened around a crowded theater. After shows, my thighs always had bruises from all the people's chairs I banged into, but I never felt any pain. I have built an entire career around performing togetherness and demonstrating a kind of spontaneous, liberated intimacy, and all of a sudden, it's totally over. 

Naturally, I've wondered in the past, did I ever get anyone sick? I've only performed sick a handful of times. And I never felt like I got sick from people at my shows. But I never thought about it too deeply. I always thought all my gross audience-interaction habits probably helped strengthen my immune system. I didn't think about anybody's else's immune system, which seems crazy now. 

But it's not like I ever took it for granted. Every audience member who entered into that freaky, sudden bargain with me, I cherished. I felt so much gratitude for those who felt, as I did, that there was nothing to lose and a lot to gain from spontaneous displays of physical intimacy between strangers. We felt like we were, together, modeling a way to be. Unafraid. Free. Those strangers were my collaborators, and I was lucky I had them. And I was lucky that it was happening, well, basically anytime but right now. 

There's a lot to be sad about, but today I'm feeling especially sad because I loved all those weird intimate fluid exchanges with strangers, and I felt like they were artistically and spiritually important, and now, they're done, and it doesn't feel fair. It feels like the kind of performance that was the most risky, the most vulnerable, is the one that will be punished the most and the longest by this virus, maybe for a lot longer than other kinds of performances. To be sure, sanitary-ass garbage- performance will be allowed again first, right? Oh yeah, fourth-wall bullshit is going to be let back into the fray first. And then maybe they'll let performers in who ask the audience rhetorical questions but don't expect answers. That sounds pretty safe too.

But what if my kind of performance recedes into history. What if what I do, and what I teach, is no longer allowed. Maybe they won't let me on stage anymore unless I can control my spitting and touching tendencies. They'll build that fourth wall up and say, get back JoJo. They'll wrap me in caution tape and station me way up in the upstage corner, alone, my own kind of post-quarantine quarantine. Just the freaky, out-of-date interactive performer, salivating on my own, just breathing and drooling and trying desperately to make eye contact and get someone to connect with me. Dangerous. 

When the only fluid I ever felt full of was love. 



Saturday, January 4, 2020

VIA NEGATIVA IS ACTUAL BULLSHIT

The other night, I was telling an improviser-friend of mine how funny he was, and he wasn't buying it. "Tell me I suck," he said. "Then maybe I'll trust you."

Put that in your pocket for a second. 

Cut to a party, where I'm talking about vulnerability. Most parties I'm either talking about vulnerability or just feeling it. So I'm at this party, talking to some polite and curious person who asked what I do for a living, and they're a massage therapist or something easy to explain, and so when I say I perform and teach comedy, they ask lots of follow-up questions. And then, when I explain that my subset of comedy practice is rooted in individual authenticity and vulnerability, they tip their head, and say, "Do you know the work of Brené Brown?"

Oh, yes, trust that I get down with some Brené Brown! I'm eternally grateful to her. She made vulnerability cool. She made it hip, human and bankable. And she continues to be a resource to me for her canny ability to provide METRICS to what I have always believed as a clown: that the root of my power IS my vulnerability. My absolute strength IS my absolute weakness. And she's got science to prove that? My shero. 

Here's what Queen Brené says about the relationship between vulnerability and creativity. 

"No vulnerability, no creativity. No tolerance for failure, no innovation. It is that simple. If you’re not willing to fail, you can’t innovate. If you’re not willing to build a vulnerable culture, you can’t create."

What Brené is suggesting here is that in order for people to discover and create, to be artists, they have to feel safe. They have to feel that there is SPACE for them to fail. 

Put that in your pocket too. 

I was recently hanging out with a woman friend, brilliant clown/comedian. She had just taken a Via Negativa clown class. Just to fill in those lucky enough to not know what Via Negativa is—this is a style of clown teaching in which, supposedly, the clown finds themself through negative criticism; that is, after being told "you suck, get off stage" enough, presumably, the clown will find a way to stay on stage, not be told "you suck", and discover triumphant success despite all obstacles. 

My friend was telling me about her experience in this class. "The teacher had us go on stage and introduce ourselves, so I went and said, Hi, I'm ______, and then he immediately goes, Get off stage, you're being insincere. And I'm like... wait... I paid a hundred bucks for this?"

Add that to your pocket. 

Now, think back to my improviser-man friend, who needs to hear he sucks before he can believe that he's funny. 

Is your pocket full-to-bulging? 

Let's call that bulge the heady start to a conversation about Via Negativa, and its very real and complicated place in comedy pedagogy. Enjoy your bulge! 

My personal experience with Via Negativa was my month with Gaulier in Sceaux, just outside of Paris: every day, 7 hours of training, maybe one minute of stage time, followed by two minutes of being told I suck as a human being without any specific notes I could actually use and apply, and then an evening crying over pastries. 

The idea behind this style of training, I've been told, is that, in order to succeed, the clown must find their own cocktail of desperation and inner-strength. Once you are fired up enough to stop caring what the authority says, that is when you are able to really let loose and be free. Think Michael Douglas in Falling Down. Think Peter Finch in Network. I'M MAD AS HELL AND I'M NOT GOING TO TAKE THIS ANYMORE. When the oppression gets too much, the white man stands up and—oh shit, I'm showing my hand too fast. But let us just consider. Who's been set up their whole lives to potentially excel at a certain kind of maverick rebellion against authority? And who, perhaps, maybe, hasn't? 

Look, we all hate comedy classes in which "everything's fine and everyone's great." We hate dishonesty in our comedy classroom. We yearn for someone to call out the garbage. And we are right to want that. And, sure, there can be real power in triumphing against oppression. It's what happened to me for the two days I actually triumphed and got laughs in my otherwise-absolutely-money-wasting experience with Gaulier. If you can kill in that room, that workshop in which everyone is oppressed—if you can rise to the top of that huddled, miserable pack, you've reached the American Dream, you've made it, you're unstoppable. I know, now that I've made that room really laugh, I can make ANY ROOM LAUGH. Sure, that's a little bit true. 

And yet, I still think I could've saved myself a few grand and a month of crying over pastries, and just found an actual good teacher to study with. 

It is possible for a pedagogic method to keep a classroom honest and not involve abuse. When I was learning how to ride a bicycle (at age 30, incidentally), someone told me to focus on the path I'm following and not on all the potential obstacles and things I could crash into. Focus on where you want to go, not on where you don't want to go. I use this with my students: keep them focused on the desired path. That doesn't mean I'm not being honest, it just means the focus is on the goal, not the mistakes. 

Via Negativa, on the other hand, asks the student to focus on all the obstacles they crashed into. To wallow in what they've just done wrong. For my masochistic white man improv-friend, this is fabulous, because it reminds him that his shit stinks, which is apparently what some people seem to need.

But I'm going to go out on a limb here and say that a lot of people, and definitely a lot of not-men, do NOT need to be reminded that their shit stinks. They've gotten plenty of that message already. And for those people, wallowing in their shit-stink (god I'm sorry this is the current metaphor) is going to keep them convinced that they're not funny and that they don't deserve stage-time. Highlighting failure is not the right teaching mode for people who already feel marginalized or not-privileged, and thus, I'd say it's a pretty problematic teaching mode, period. 

So you'll have to excuse me when I come right out and say that Via Negativa, the practice of focusing on what's bad and wrong about what a clown is doing onstage—for the supposed higher purpose of encouraging the clown to "rebel" against authority and "do their own thing"—is patriarchal, misogynist, and, while we're at it, colonialist. It might've been very innovative in the 1960's. But today, let's just call it what it is: macho, abusive bootcamp-style sadism befitting frat houses and old-school military training. It's not teaching, it's bullying. 

And sure, this Not-Teaching/Bullying technique might work for some, but I would argue that it mostly works for people who are already in a position of privilege in terms of their own entitlement to take up space. If your teacher is encouraging behavior that comes naturally to some because it's been culturally conditioned, and encouraging others to cower and hide because that's what's been culturally conditioned for them, they're not only Not-Teaching, buddy. They're perpetuating patriarchy. 

As artists, we are commanded by the good sweet Satan to work another way. 

Via Negativa is some actual bullshit, and I'm done making excuses for teachers who use it by saying nice diplomatic things like, "Well, it's not my style, but it works for some dot dot dot." No. I'm officially mad. 

I'm officially tired of women coming into my classes having taken Via Negativa clown classes and thinking they're not funny when they're SO funny. The amount of traumatized (and very funny) women I've worked with is STAGGERING, friends. I am officially calling that out as un-cool. And not just women; I've seen a lot of funny performers of all genders fail miserably in an oppressive Via Negativa atmosphere and succeed big-time elsewhere. 

And I've heard from so many people trying to make excuses for these Via Negativa teachers. Oh, he's really good at training men, just less-so with women. You know what else works great for men and not women? The fucking patriarchy. You are a comedy teacher and you're NOT doing everything you can to support the comedy of non-men? Well, enjoy yourself, I guess. But don't call yourself a feminist, don't call yourself a liberal or a radical or anything else. You're a status-quo-enforcer, pretending to dismantle the master's house and using the master's tools the whole time. 

Set the gender issue aside for a moment and just focus on the concept of PEDAGOGY. Try this. Think of a skill you possess. Got one? Great. Now, how would you teach someone that skill? Would you break it down into manageable chunks? Would you encourage repetition and practice? Or... would you allow someone 0.5 seconds to try the skill before you yell at them to go away and stop trying? 

Of course you wouldn't do that last one, right? Because that's not actual teaching.

I don't care how anarchic and bad-ass you think you are. If you think about teaching for two seconds, you realize that There's The Actual Way You Teach Someone A Skill, and there's Definitely-Not-That. Plus, remember what our friend and researcher-to-the-stars Brené Brown says: it's scientifically unlikely that true creativity is even possible in an environment where failure is not tolerated. 

I for one am tired of all of it. I believe it was the great John McClane who, when trapped in a skyscraper full of terrorist robbers led by a German-accented Alan Rickman, said to some idiot cops, "Now, you listen to me, jerk-off, if you're not a part of the solution, you're a part of the problem. Quit being a part of the fucking problem!"

So let's call teaching what it is, and not-teaching what IT is. Let's call macho, patriarchy-enforcing classrooms what they are. If you want to be an asshole to people trying to learn an art form, if you want idol-worship from people who love to worship idols, call it "live directing" and charge a lot less. 

I propose Via Negativa be cancelled, bitches. Let's cancel this bullshit right now. 
What do you say? 

Wednesday, December 4, 2019

THE DRAG KING CLOWN'S DILEMMA

I've had a dream gig lately: directing a troupe of womxn clowns in Vancouver. We've been developing turns based on masculine impersonation, and it's fabulous to watch each of these clowns birth the strange, unique man inside of them. All of their inner-men are broken, tender, hopeful, ridiculous... and damn amusing.

I was working with one clown the other day on her solo turn. She is super funny and talented, but she told me she'd been in her head about the upcoming show.

I've just been like, what am I doing, what are we doing, as feminists... Then she quickly looked at me. She felt bad, because she knows that masculine impersonation is my big thing. She added, It's not like I don't think you're a feminist...

Naw, I get it, clown. It's complicated. I've built a tiny career on being the worst masculine impersonator out there. But what am I doing, as a feminist? And now I'm encouraging other women to do it too? 
Why are we playing men? 
What are we saying, by playing men? 
Are we saying men are funnier? 
Are we reinforcing the gender binary? 
Are we saying we're not funny as womxn? 
Do we suck? Should we shut up right now? 
Is something burning on the stove that needs our attention? 
Is there a scarf we ought to be knitting instead? 

I don't personally know how to answer anyone else's questions. I can only speak to my own experience. 
I've had gender trouble my whole life. When I was very young, people asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, and I told them "Boy Dog Fisherman." Why was that what I wanted to be? Was that the beginning of everything? Apparently I didn't just have gender trouble back then, I had species trouble too. But that's a whole other blog post. 

The point is, some part of me has always wanted to be a man. I think a lot of non-men have felt that way at some point in their lives. And when I leaned into that—when I started living my fantasy trying to be a man in my comedy—I got a lot of laughs and I got paid. Playing a man gave me permission to be fierce and take up space. Playing a man gave me the privilege to risk. It taught me how to take that sense of permission and privilege, and apply it to all of my future characters regardless of their gender. It made me a better overall performer. 

And I believe that my particular brand of masculine impersonation says something to womxn; I want it to say something to them. I'm not trying to be a convincing man, I am parodying the patriarchy. And as a non-man, I'm in a great position to do that. I've had my nose pressed up against the patriarchy's window for a long time now. 

So is playing a man feminist? I believe it's deeply feminist. Because it's a feminism that I don't have to construct in my mind. My body understands the patriarchy and how I'm not it, and it knows what to do to send it up. Take up space, be entitled, get your cookies. Bam. 

And if it isn't feminist, or if it isn't someone else's definition of feminist, that's fine too. I don't personally believe that comedy and social justice are the same thing. I'm not saying they're not related— I'm not going to go all Jerry "It used to be easy to get laughs back when I could date teenagers and still be cool" Seinfeld on you. As comedy makers, it's important to be keeping track of what's funny, and what's funny changes. Thank Satan. 

For example, Punching Down used to be funny. Punching Down is not so funny anymore. There might be some comedy rooms somewhere in which Punching Down is still funny, but I haven't been in those rooms. Unless we count Adelaide, South Australia on the day of the Clipsal 500 big car race. 

Otherwise, it's pretty much no longer funny to punch down.

Beyond that, I don't much judge what is and isn't funny, and why. What we laugh at, and why we laugh, are not always easily explainable. We laugh because we need relief from some sort of tension that builds up in our souls, just from existing. A lot of things make us laugh that we don't "approve of" as any kind of prescription for how we should think or act. The relief of laughter is an exhale of car exhaust, stomach-lining and subconscious dust. It is at least part-catharsis—part-flushing-out-what's-inside. We laugh at the inappropriate, the taboo, the utter-garbage that clutters and infects our minds because... Society. And we have to. 

So I am not here to judge why some things are funny. 
But I will say, with some certainty, based on my experience alone, that—in times like these—it is funny to watch people who are not men attempt to portray men for comedic purposes. 

It's funny because it's Punching Up. It's funny because, as womxn, we're uniquely situated to parody the patriarchy because there's no way we'll ever be the patriarchy. We have received the same lessons about manhood that the men have. We've watched as that letterman sweater got tailored to everyone but us. So when we steal that letterman sweater and wear it, that's whatcha call subversive. We will never fit into the Patriarchy Sweater, and so, we flop around in its sleeves, and we revel in the space between us and it, between our clownish ambition and our reality. And people laugh. 

I could spend years in therapy (actually I have) trying to figure out why playing men is so satisfying for me and for audiences.
I could beat myself up about this thing I like to do, and see it as one more big excuse why I, as a woman, don't deserve to take stage time and don't deserve to encourage others to take it.
Or I could say fuck it.
This works for me, and I observe that it works for a lot of people.
It is one way to be funny. There are thousands.

But it is one.
And I, for one, recommend it. 

Saturday, September 28, 2019

DOES YOUR COMEDY TEACHER NEED TO BE A COMEDY SUCCESS?

I was talking to a workshop participant who was debating whether she should take a teaching-comedy-course offered by a clown teacher, we'll call him Dr. X.

She said: Dr. X was trying to convince me to take this class of his, and I told him, "I haven't had a show of my own hit it big yet." And Dr. X said that that didn't matter, that teaching and performing are two totally different things.

Then she asked me, What do you think? 
So I thought.
I think I have two different answers.

First of all, I must mention that two of THE MOST IMPORTANT theater/comedy teachers IN MY LIFE, the ones who really taught me about using my instrument and freeing myself— brilliant teachers! life-changing forces for good!—I saw them both perform and neither one made me laugh. AT ALL. Those were surprising, horrifying moments: seeing these idols of mine, these mentors, totally eat shit. I realized then that they were great teachers and not-great performers, and I made a weird kind of peace with that, like when two people break up but keep living together because of the kids or the rent or whatever. They just moved into separate bedrooms in my heart. 

So, I believe you can totally be a great teacher and not-as-successful a performer. Yes. 

And we probably all know great performers who are pretty lousy teachers, too. Real smart people who have thought a bit about how they achieved their own comedic heights, but maybe they haven't figured out how to translate it to the masses, or they don't care enough, or they're just not meant to teach. 

They ARE two completely different art forms, teaching and performing. Yes. 

Good teaching involves curriculum planning, lesson designing, trial and error, energetic generosity, generous curiosity, humility, learning environment cultivation, organized practice rituals, egolessness (or sincere attempts at such), and a firm grasp of classroom management skills.

Good performing involves mental illness and whiskey.

But seriously.

I'm sure we all recognize that less-awesome performers can of course be amazing teachers, and verse vice-a.

Here's a question then, why do we instinctively assume that teaching and performing go together?
Famous, super talented people could fill any workshop anywhere always, why is that? And when you see a show that blows your mind, and you hear that company is teaching a workshop, why are you like I GOTTA GET ON THAT?

Clearly, there is something deep inside us that suspects—if we really love the way someone performs,
if we fall in love with them a little bit—and feel instinctively that they would understand us—and we them—on the most HUMAN of frequencies—then we believe they have something to teach us. 

And it defies logic. I can prove to you with many complicated logic proofs that Great teaching and great performance are totally separate! No connection! Still, everyone feels in their hearts like you Christians feel about your Santa. There's no factual basis, but we believe. 

And I do think there is something to that, too. We have to love and respect our teachers in order for them to teach us something. If we admire what they do, if we enjoy watching them perform, that is another way to learn from them. Great comedy is magic. And learning a magic trick is really only half of learning magic, right? You have to learn the trick, sure, but you also need to experience the rockets in your own eyes that shoot out when you love a trick from the audience-side. The love of the trick is the fuel for making that trick sing. It's nice when your teacher can give you that too.

Maybe it doesn't matter at all.
But it might matter a little bit.

Ultimately, I respect that workshop participant of mine who feels like maybe it's a little too soon to teach comedy, before she really feels like she's nailed it for herself, and given it fully to the world.

Teaching and performing are not inextricably linked, but they're next to each other, right? Like the way I wanna put silver and gold bangles next to each other. I wanna wear ALL the bling, ALL the time... except sometimes I can't pull it off.
Sometimes it's better to just wear one, keep it simple.

We can dream of both. We can pull off both some times.
Other days, recognize silver for silver and gold for gold.
They're both precious, bitch, after all.

Tuesday, August 27, 2019

SHOULD I FRINGE INTERNATIONALLY?

It feels like I haven't fringed in ages, but really it's only been a year and a half. Man, it's amazing though. I look at my friend's facebook posts about shows and after-show bar experiences and it all feels very far away and I feel very old. But it's only been a year and a half! How old could I get in that amount of time? Old enough to sit down in my rocking chair and reflect on the crazy scope of the international fringe scene? Apparently! So, now that northern hemisphere fringe season is starting to wind down, why not come sit by my fire (crackle crackle), listen to the creak of my chair (creak creak) and my voice blathering on about old Fringe memories that aren't actually that old? 

This blog post is really for people who are interested in the difference between the English-speaking scenes, and will be very boring for (1) people who are not interested in those differences; (b) have already done all these festivals; or (gamma) people who have just finished a fringe... why would you want to read this if you've just finished a fringe? Shouldn't you be napping? Shouldn't I?

Quite possibly... and yet, I have facebook friends from all the English-speaking Fringe communities, and they're always wanting to know if they should take their shows to the OTHER English-speaking Fringe communities, and I think, as someone who has dabbled in all of those fringes, maybe I can speak on that shit a bit!

If you don't feel like reading any further, I'll get right to my thesis statement: If you're Australian or British, or used to doing those festivals and being successful and having fun, then get your ass to Canada. If you're used to doing Canadian fringes and being successful and having fun, and wondering if you should do Australia or the UK, I'd say, only maybe.

SHOULD I DO THE CANADIAN FRINGES?

Let me tell you about the cream puffs that are the Canadian fringes. They are the coziest, cutest, easiest fringes of all. Not like I knew that when they were the only fringes I'd ever done. I thought they were big and hard and scary! But ha ha ha! Then I went to Edinburgh and got my ego handed to me in thin raw slices of carpaccio-like misery!

Canadian Fringes are only two weeks long, and you get about 8 performances. So there are things like DAYS OFF, which is insane. Also, there aren't that many shows! The biggest fringe in North America, Edmonton Fringe, still maxes out at under 400 shows. Compare that to, say, Edinburgh's 4000 shows, or even Adelaide's 1300 shows. Actually don't compare them, cuz ya can't.

Canadian audiences vary from being adventurous and fun, to old and stodgy. They're a good mix, but in general, their tastes can be pretty white-bread. There are ready audiences for conventional stuff. If you are a straight white man who likes to sit on a stool on stage and tell amusing stories, you might do fantastically well in the Canadian fringes. That said, more off-beat artists can also do great in the Canadian fringes, because these fringes are super word-of-mouthy. Also, the audiences are Canadian, so they're real polite about taking fliers from you, and even acting interested/grateful to hear about your show.

Another feature of Canadian audiences is that they LOVE ACCENTS. So especially if you're British, because Canadians have an especial hard-on for Brits, but really, if you're from anywhere not-US/Canada, there's going to be built-in enthusiasm for your show.

As if that wasn't enough, Canadian fringes, for the most part, FIND YOU HOUSING. That's right, the fringe itself actually finds a place for you to live, for free, in some art-friendly house where you will in most cases feel nourished and looked after, and where your host will most likely become a friend for life. This is called billeting, and it is a gift from heaven. 

So, yeah, if you're from the UK or Australia or anywhere else, you should probably get in on the Canadian Fringe scene.

The trick to this scene, however, is just that: getting in. Those Canadians know what they have, and they don't make this easy. Each Fringe is determined by lottery, which usually happens in this hemisphere's autumn. So you pay a 25$ application fee and then, if you're international, your show goes into an international pile. And there are only a certain number of international shows picked for each festival. The good (or bad) news is that the lottery isn't curated, so no matter how good/bad your show is, it doesn't matter, it's just luck of the draw.

Once you've done one Canadian Fringe festival, you are then eligible to participate in the Canadian Association of Fringe Festivals (CAFF) lottery, which also costs 25$, but if you get picked, then you are automatically accepted into however many fringe festivals you want for that year.

Otherwise, you have to apply to each individually, and the chances of getting in, frankly, are slim each time.

Another option, which many fringe veterans take, is BYOV, or Bring Your Own Venue, which means that you don't have to participate in the lottery, you just find a venue that works for you, pay the Fringe fees plus the venue rental fees (so the total does end up being quite a bit higher than if you're accepted via the lottery), and you're good to go. This is great if you already know a festival and know what the good BYOV venues are, (and where the bad/out-of-the-way venues are) or if you're a known quantity at that festival and will bring in audience regardless of where you are. If neither of these things apply to you, then BYOVing is much riskier. It could work, but it could also be a disaster.

Still, when you consider the disaster that Edinburgh is for so many performers, it's not that scale of disaster, at least.

SHOULD I DO THE EDINBURGH FRINGE? 

So far, I've done Edinburgh twice: one time I did the Free Fringe, one time I was co-produced in a sweet central venue with a 60/40 split and a flyering team. Both times I hired PR. I broke even the first time and made a few grand profit the second time.

I've tried to answer this question in previous blog entries, but the short answer is this: Edinburgh is a well-oiled machine that is set up for already-successful artists it mostly already knows. Venues are all BYOV–the festival doesn't find you a venue—and the popular venues are all carefully curated. Are there breakout stars who find some fame and/or a big career jump at Edinburgh? Sure, but the "breakouts" I've witnessed were well-connected already, like they were someone famous's son or their director had won a big award previously. If you're holding onto the fantasy that you will be discovered at the Edinburgh fringe, you cray. And as I've mentioned, you've got to be careful even if you've found success on the Canadian circuit. British tastes are decidedly different than Canadian tastes. If you're a white man with a stool, get in line behind the 5000 other white men with stools who have been doing Edinburgh every year for the past twenty years. Audiences are going to see thosewhite men with stools well before they consider taking a chance on you. But in general, they like weird, they like visual, they like risk, they love comedy. 

There are Facebook groups and books devoted to tips and tricks to survive and thrive at Edinburgh, so definitely consult those before you go for it. But for Satan's sake don't delude yourself that it's going to be anything but mongo stressful and exhausting, even if you do well. It's an incredibly intense atmosphere. It was really almost too much for me my first Edinburgh, and I was pretty successful and had good friends with me.

SHOULD I DO THE AUSTRALIAN FRINGES?

I've done Adelaide Fringe twice and Perth Fringeworld twice and Melbourne Comedy Festival once. I worked with an Australian producer who managed my marketing and negotiated with my venues for me. I made decent coin at all of them, except for Melbourne Comedy, which is my biggest disaster festival to date.

For North Americans, the Australian fringes might look attractive, especially if you want to escape winter. Summer in Australia, you say to yourself. What could go wrong?

Sure! Why not? Not as big and daunting as Edinburgh, right? And if you want to go to Australia, this is as good an excuse as any. But success at Australian fringes—and I'm talking about the big ones, Adelaide and Perth (don't ask me about Melbourne Comedy because clearly I don't know)— is dependent on a bunch of factors that are real good to know before you commit.

Australian fringes are also BYOV. And all venues are not created equal. Some venues are like theme parks with hundreds of people wandering around going to shows, and some venues are semi-abandoned buildings with broken air conditioning several blocks away from a street anyone's heard of. The best venues at Australian fringes are, like Edinburgh, carefully curated, and unless you're a bit famous, you probably won't get programmed there unless someone from the venue has seen your show. Or, it's possible you might, but probably only if your show fits into the genres that Australian fringes like best: comedy, magic, circus, sexy comedy, sexy magic, and sexy circus. If you have a sexy magic comedy circus show, Australia is going to really take to you.

The Adelaide fringe is long as fuck (almost 5 weeks). Some performers only do a portion of it, but if you're relatively new to the festival, it makes sense to do the whole thing in hopes that word of mouth spreads. And yes, you might need PR, and definitely a flyering team. Perth Fringe runs are shorter, but again, if you're unknown there you might need marketing support.

I have a lot of admiration for my Aussie artist friends who cut their teeth on those huge fringes, because that shit is CRAYYYYY. Adelaide venues are often stuffy circus tents, Perth venues can be weird office buildings. In general, these fringes feel almost as intense as Edinburgh.

HOW DO I KNOW IF I SHOULD FRINGE INTERNATIONALLY?

I feel incredibly lucky that I've had great times at these festivals, and very few disasters (I'm looking at you, Melbourne Comedy! Suck mine!). But I also feel lucky that I am not a devil-may-care risk-taker that would do any of these festivals before I was pretty sure they would go well for me. 

So how do you know when a big leap like an overseas festival is the right choice? It's a great question. I'll share a story of how I decided to make that leap. When I did the Edmonton Fringe in 2014, which was my biggest Fringe to date at that time, my "marketing" consisted of about 300 photocopied, Microsoft-word-template 4-to-a-page "fliers" that were one-sided, black-and-white, and suuuuper shitty. I don't even think I handed them all out; I really didn't flier at that Fringe, and I sold out my whole run real fast and won some awards to boot. Word of mouth was just really, really on my side. The amount of return I got on that festival was definitively bigger than the effort I put in to get bums in seats. But also, I had just directed a show that was a big hit in Edinburgh, so I knew if I went the next year and dropped that name in my marketing, it would also open doors for me. That combo of factors felt like Momentum. It was like wind, that feeling of something pushing you forward that is motored by way more than just you and your elbow grease. 

So, pay attention to momentum, to where the wind pushes you. 
Also, of course, do your research. Track the careers of shows similar to yours. And remember that whatever path you go, you'll learn a shit load. Really, what else are we here to do?

And for all you fringers who for some reason are still reading this, I salute you! We all salute you! You've worked hard and brought beautiful art to the world! Take my chair by the fire! Isn't it cozy? Here's some cocoa; I put cinnamon in it. Creak creak creak. Time for that nap. 

Wednesday, July 3, 2019

BOUFFON BRAIN, CLOWN HEART

I got tons of hate mail for my last blog post Does The World Need Your Bouffon Show? 
Ha ha ha, no I didn't at all. 
But I did get a few people saying things to me like, "Whoa! That took some guts!" 
That took guts? Really? 
Imagining putting on an unnecessary bouffon show! 
Now that would take some guts. 

But seriously. 

I certainly wasn't saying that nobody should make bouffon shows. 
I was just saying, let's take a deep breath and really consider if our audiences need our bouffon shows. I mean, it's a reasonable question. 

But let's move on. No, wait, actually let's not. 

What bothers me about much so-called bouffon work is that it wants to make a point about how racist/sexist/unenvironmental/queerphobic/etc. the world is, and so it casts the audience as the complicit asshole against which to make that point. But as I've said umpteen times, today's audience both isn't that asshole and doesn't feel like being cast as that asshole just to help you make your deep art.

But one thing I definitely am not saying is that we need to stop combining comedy with societal critique. Au contraire. We need a lot of societal critique comedy. More now than ever. But I do want us to look at the way we are using societal critique in our comedy, and where our standpoint is vis à vis the audience. Aimez-vous mon francais? Bah, oui! Donnez-nous les croissants! 

My favorite comedy has a bouffon brain and a clown heart. 

Evidently, back in the day, Clown and Bouffon were very separate things—actually, according to the Old Guard, they still are. So, for example, a lot of Clown is taught and practiced as if it exists in a completely different time and place in which nobody gets raped or racist-ed. I think that's one thing that rankles me about a lot of clown work I see: the omnipresent striped socks, the weird childishness (let's not even talk about the makeup and the noses). What world are these clowns living in? It's a world of nostalgia, I guess, and it's cute, in its way, but it's hard for me to find it funny because it doesn't feel like it's really going on right now. It's not on any particular precipice right now

That's not to say that it isn't potentially risky for the performer; clown work is always vulnerable and thus risky (if it's any good at all). If the performer is present with the audience and offering something of herself that she doesn't usually show the world, then, sure, she's on a personal precipice, and we have to give her props for that. 

But the thing that separates cute-clown-work-that-doesn't-ruin-anyone's-day, from really-hot-feisty-work-that-the-world-needs-to-see, is the bouffon brain.

The bouffon brain is miserable and furious and howling. It sees the state of things and it shakes its fist. But it reads my blog so it knows that no one wants to meet it head-on. It calculates, it schemes, it makes a plan. It picks up a clown in a dive bar and proceeds to fuck that clown in a dirty bathroom stall. It inseminates the soft brain of the clown with its hot jet of bouffon pain. And thus, a clown is born unto the world that is lovable and relevant at the same time. And lo, the world laughs and soils itself with pleasure.

Sasha Baron Cohen is a nice example. I actually had a fight with Gaulier about this, if we're defining fight as He talked and I listened and disagreed with him silently in my heart, which pretty much defines my Gaulier experience. Gaulier said Sasha Baron Cohen, his most famous protégé, was pure bouffon, and I disagree. Cohen's characters are clowns: they're idiots, they fuck up all the time and do the wrong thing but it's always from a place of not-knowing and meaning-well. But Sasha Baron Cohen clearly has a bouffon brain, and he engineers his clown characters to get into scrapes that are provocative and challenging in very specific, targeted ways. 

Now you might be saying, "Bitch, Sasha Baron Cohen is no clown because he doesn't love his audience/targets. He is tricking them." Sure, sure. But,clearly, he entraps his audience/targets somehow, right? They end up trusting him enough to give him what he wants. Sometimes he goes too far and loses their trust. But he wouldn't have any success at all if he just came at those audience/targets with his bouffon brain out in front for all to see. He must be lovable and vulnerable to them, first. 

So love first, like a clown always does. Audiences are the clown's best friends, their heroes.
Be on their side.
Confirm their generally-enlightened world view; keep it firmly in your mind when you create work.
Love them first, and love them long time.
Way before you tell them how fucked they are.

The best advice I ever got, probably ever, was from my English teaching mentor back at the prep school I used teach at. He used to be a lawyer before he became a teacher, and he was a shrimpy little impeccably-dressed man with an air of total magnetic approachability and intimidating-ness all at once. I loved him deeply. He used to say to me, about my students, If they know you care, you can say anything to them. 

It's a principle that I use both in my teaching and in my performing. My students and my audiences have to know, right away, that I see them and that I love them. You have to see them first, or else they won't believe your love. But if you see them, and then you love them, you can take them through all kinds of hell or harsh critique or whatever. You can tell them the truth, if you see them and love them first.

Remember, too, that in order to teach anyone anything, or challenge them in any way, they have to really love you too. Do you see a sea of delighted faces eating up your character's every gesture? Great, you're in a very good place from which to start fucking with them a lil' bit. Don't see that yet? Get there.

You need to be a great clown before you can be a great bouffon.
And if you're already a great clown, then for Satan's sake don't stay locked in the land of striped-socks and whimsical umbrellas!
Get out there and make a point!
The world needs your hot, angry, loving love! 
Stat! Stat! Immédiatement!