Tuesday, June 8, 2021

THE COCKTAIL OF CHARACTER

 

It’s been a little too long since I’ve paid 18$ for a cocktail truly worthy—as worthy as any beverage could be—of being 18$ (plus tax and tip). You know, one of those splash-of-this, dropper-of-that, rind-rubbed, delicate-garnished situations that comes in a frosted tumbler with a napkin and a deep bow, which you enjoy in a dimly-lit faux-speakeasy to the sound of saxophones. I miss those cocktails.

But I've been facilitating character workshops this pandemic, and it’s made me really consider where successful, lasting characters come from, and maybe, hopefully, how to make them. As you start to plan your re-entry into performing live, as you entertain the characters kicking around in your soul, I’d love to share with you what I’ve garnered so far.

At first I thought it would be cool to use a cocktail metaphor all the way through. I, who know very little about cocktails except how to drink them, did some research and looked up the components of a cocktail and thought, You are very clever, Deanna, because you will employ a handy analogy for people to think about character creation, AND help everyone review how to make a decent cocktail at the same time. 

This self-satisfaction, as you will soon see, did not last. 

THE SPIRIT. So the first component of all cocktails is the “base spirit,” which means, Mom, the main liquor. You can see why I was excited about this analogy at first. The SPIRIT of the character! Double meaning! This is already genius! 


We all have impulses, lots of impulses for characters. They come from our brains and we think, “That could be funny.” And maybe it could be. But the truth is, the best characters come from who we already are, and from what we know in our own spirits. If your character isn’t originating from deep inside you, it’s just not going to be as good. Like, I sometimes dream about doing a character who’s breezy and moves lightly through the world not giving a shit, but no one would believe me. My characters are pretty much all control freaks, because guess what. 


Everyone wants to feel unfettered by who they are sometimes, and sure, live your truth. But I think the characters that really stick with audiences do so because they’re deeply personal. They are valentines that performers have crafted to their own pockets of secret truth, the parts they are shyest to show you outright. So I say, when it’s time to craft your character, go to the top shelf of your personal soul-bar, and use that special-occasion spirit you’ve been saving. The one that tastes so much like you that you’re a little embarrassed by it. You know the one. 


THE MODIFIER. According to my extensive 10 minutes of googling, the second element of cocktails is the “modifier,” which adds dimension to the base spirit. This is kinda working for my analogy. I mean, I do advocate modification to your base. Just-the-base-ma’am naturalism is not my particular interest. There are plenty of people who go for that kind of naturalism in their characters, and sure, live your truth. Myself, I like to focus on characters who take cabarets by storm and can hold a room in their thrall for a full-length show—characters who come on stage and everyone immediately goes, Whoa what is THAT. Characters you would either cross the street to avoid, or surrender all your worldly possessions to. Characters who can’t exist in our dumb normal world. Who can only live in our dreams and nightmares. 


So if we want to use cocktail parlance, your character is a modified version of your spirit. But I would say that the word modified just isn’t strong enough, that really, it’s a heightened version. This is where the cocktail comparison I was initially so proud of just starts to seem lame. 


Heightening starts with physicality. Your character should be Extra, taking up more energetic space than a normal person does. The way you particularly heighten your own physicality is unique to you. When I’m coaching, I like to get a sense of how someone naturally moves, and then see if they can go even further in that direction to the point of riveting watchability. Simultaneously, I like to push someone to move in a way that does not feel natural for them, as sometimes that can end up feeling even more rivetingly watchable, and at the very least be a way to enrich a character’s general movement pattern. 

It’s not usually that hard, especially with a performer who has some movement training and sense of their own body, to create a fun movement vocabulary that communicates a lot about a character and is bewitchingly Extra. The challenge is almost always when it comes time to talk. 


See, we all talk, talk all the damn time. Talking is normal. And so, it’s sometimes hard for our mouths and voices to figure out how to talk in a special way. But it’s essential that we do that, because just like we want audiences to go whoa as soon as they see us, we want them to go Whoa WHOA WHOA! when we start to verbally communicate. Again, the special way of talking is super unique to the individual performer. Sometimes it’s about enunciating your words more, or going in the other direction to mush-mouthed. It can be finding a different vocal range to inhabit: higher, lower, or a combination. It might be about holding the jaw or lips in a way that changes the way words come out. Someone I know—actually me—has been known to employ speech impediments or difficult-to-place accents. With these, it’s often best to stick to accents or impediments that are personal and based on what our bodies/mouths deeply know. 


And speaking of speaking, even when we find a fun way to speak, actually generating text can be difficult too. We are too used to generating text to communicate, we’re too used to being direct, to speaking in sentences, prose. And prose just isn’t special. That is why I advocate poetry when it comes time for a character to communicate. Poetry takes itself seriously, it takes up space on the page, it is unafraid to pause dramatically mid-idea, to be playful with language. And because we’re not used to speaking in poetry, improvising in character, with poetry, tends to produce some deep, surprising things. Our characters reclaim some of that youthful pretentiousness, back when we all thought our ideas mattered. We want our characters to be like that, convinced of themselves. That is a key to their specialness. That might make an audience, full of cynical, self-conscious prose-speakers, sit up and take note. 


THE ACCENT/COLOR/FLAVOR. The final element crucial to cocktails has been called, depending on what website you’re on, accent, color, flavor—or flavour if you’re British. This is where I start to kinda regret the cocktail thing. I mean, it’s gotten us this far, so I guess we’re sticking with it. But it’s reductive, it's trite, and I’m a little sorry. 


No, you know what? I'm not giving up on this cocktail analogy! I can do something with this accent/color/flavor thing! This can be about style, about aesthetics and world. What world does the character live in? What genre, what decade, what milieu? I often ask people when they’re constructing a fresh character, what movies and music do they love? Sometimes the music or movies that really do it for us when we’re young, for example, can be exuberant, sweetly sincere places from which to build a character’s world. 


Also, what skill set or knowledge base does the performer already have, that could make a more run-of-the-mill character stand out? For example, I worked with one performer who was doing a fedora-clad, Sinatra-loving, Rat Pack wannabe kind of dude, who sometimes tossed off a quip about chakras and alignment, because the performer herself happened to be an acupuncturist. That made for a fresh character with some really fun surprises. 


So, okay, the accent/color/flavor thing actually worked out fine. Relief.


But according to my cocktail websites, that’s the end of the line when it comes to elements of a cocktail, and I don’t think I’m quite done. You see my conundrum. I’ll just add this one more: 


THE SPECIFICITY. There are 10$ cocktails and there are 18$ cocktails, and the difference is in the details. For 10$, they’ll shove a shot of something with a fizzy juice and maybe a slice of citrus and there you go. For 18$, they will have considered the type of glass that will look most comely with your drink inside it. They will have smoked the inside of that glass, or salted or fruited one side of the rim. They will have assembled a bamboo swizzle-stick with several delicate slabs of contrasting garnishes. The ice cube will seem advanced, as if the water from which the ice originated was molecularly arranged for maximum wetness. The cocktail itself will blend several itsy-bitsy amounts of herbal extracts you have not heard of: seductively medicinal, French. When you sip this cocktail, you will feel incredibly expensive, and your mouth and soul will rejoice in one harmonic sounding of pure Art.


Obviously, you want your character to be the expensive cocktail, and so, you have to make choices. More choices, and more after that. One of the pitfalls I see performers fall into sometimes is just that they haven’t made enough choices. They’ve considered the drink but not the glass, and certainly not the rim. So make sure you focus on details when you’re building character. The placement of your feet. The angle of your hat. The way you turn. The more choices you make, the more your audience will feel pampered in artistic luxury. That leads to more applause and more people treating you to, well, at least 10$ cocktails. 


But, hey, that’s a real start.


Monday, December 7, 2020

ON GRIEF AND G… GRA… GRATI…

I lost Della Moustachella on October 18th in a car crash that was not her fault. She was one of my best friends and favorite collaborators. You know how it is when someone just gets you and you get them and you click away like chopsticks from the very first time you meet. We made a bunch of art together and sent each other a lot of personal fitness encouragement texts. She was into clown and drag and teaching and all my favorite things and she was one of the most special people I’ve ever known. Everyone who knew her will attest to this; everyone loved her fiercely, and the loss to my local performing community is fucking incalculable. 

I’m not here to talk about Della right now. I’m barely able to accept that she’s dead. I haven’t deleted her from her #4 position on the “favorites” on my phone. I’ve only left one message on her voicemail since—it was last week and the bitch still hasn’t called me back.


What I’m here to talk about is—to be honest, I don’t know. When you have a blogging practice you just think you should probably blog once in a while. Maybe you’ll end up saying something trenchant which will help the children, or maybe it’s just for reps. 


I smoked pot for the first time in my 20’s, and I felt all of a sudden like a foundational element of counterculture now made sense to me. Suddenly, I don’t know, I “got” something. Something about being cool and a little removed from reality, or a little more in touch with it, you know, whatever. The point is, it felt like a gateway toward understanding and connecting with more of my fellow early-21st century experiencers. Grief is kind of like that for me, even though it feels so personal and isolated. Losing someone so close to me, and so suddenly, has made me feel a kind of shiny silver connecting tube between myself and anyone else who’s ever lost anyone. It’s just so bad, and yet, so many people have gone through it and somehow come out on the other side. How the fuck do we do that?


Four days after her death, I taught a clown class. Then another and another. 5 days a week since she died I taught clown classes. There was nothing better I could’ve done. Also I’ve walked in nature a shit-ton, done a lot of cry-dancing, made/eaten ridiculously good food and watched obscene quantities of Rupaul’s Drag Race. 


I’m very lucky that my classes are without exception full of incredible human beings, and I’m not blowing them up, they’re seriously all awesome. How did I get this lucky? How did I get this unlucky losing Della, you know? Luck is luck. 


And it has been an incredible relief to stand in front of my laptop on its music stand, and watch people in their bedrooms and their living rooms just fucking giving it. In these home spaces, these crowded apartments, this square in front of coffee table, that red carpet, that sectional sofa, that window. To sentimental pop songs, to John Williams’s scores, zooming in, panning around, throwing themselves through the air. Free. In those tight spaces, those spaces not designed for wildness. There they are, wild. 


So that’s been therapeutic. And it’s made me keenly aware of the power of giving it. Of giving it all. Of being willing to be your fierce and uncontrolled self for others to witness. You don’t know what their day has been like, their week, their year. Your wildness could change their life. 



Saturday, July 25, 2020

40 ZOOM SHOWS AND 40 ZOOM CLASSES LATER...

It's not the same. It will never be the same. That said, there are possibilities. 

I miss making people laugh, as I'm sure you do. I miss when something twinkling and different comes into someone's eye, or someone looks like they're farting silently, and you know you did that to them. I miss finding the funny and just nailing it to the wall, one more joke on the Great Wall of Human Idiocy, on which gloriously stupid jokes throughout time flutter deafeningly, like the wings of 20 million shitting seagulls. 

I worry about people more talented than I, or less relatively-balanced than I, for whom making people laugh was medicine, and not getting it drags them down. I worry about my comedy artist sisters, brothers and in-betweeners losing their juice—their little dry comedy veins just twigs in a strong breeze, fluttering, feeling full of air and not much else. 

I mean, that's how I feel too, sometimes. But I no longer feel like "if I can't do it just the way I want, then it's not worth doing at all." I feel like investing in my online teaching and performing will make me better at both. And this feels like growing up, artistically, if that makes sense. Like the art baby inside me—that has achieved a lot by crying and screaming until it got its way—is a preschooler now, and has some sense that a little compromise now and then could be all right. 

Here's a thing I've learned: most of the opinions I held about comedic performance before the pandemic are simply facts now. And there's a ton of science to back me up. Coming forthwith. 

Here are some of the data I've collected after a few months of playgroups, classes, and "shows." PREPARE FOR SCIENCE. 


PLAY COMES THROOOOOOO, MAMA!


Let's define play as "something you do for fun." 

Let's define fun as "an activity that causes amusement or pleasure." 

Let's define amusement and pleasure as... oh fuck you get it. 

We adults don't always know what fun is, even "cool" adults forget sometimes, or trick themselves into thinking they're having fun when they're actually not. Makes sense: a big part of growing up is learning that not everything that's worth doing is fun. Easy for us to get confused from time to time. 

But in the virtual performance world, performers gotta be having some real, deep fun if they wanna reach the children. That fun has even farther to travel now to reach said children, and it has all these computers and personal spaces and thought-germs stuck in the middle. So that's even more obstacles than usual. If you are not a pig in shit, you're gonna lose 'em all. 

So you better be a pig in shit when you're performing. You have to be. I mean, in my opinion you had to be a pig in shit before the pandemic, but now, it's not opinion anymore—it's just factually the absolute fact. You must be wallowing in your happiest place, in the warmest most-sun-kissed corner of your soul's pig-barn, at every performative moment. In order to reach any children, anywhere. There's a ton of science behind me on this. Doesn't this all sound like science?


HOW TO BE A PIG IN SHIT ON ZOOM!


Yes, I'm saying Zoom not digital online video platform. Know why? Because Zoom is the best. It is still annoying in certain ways, there are things it can't do, it wants my secrets for marketing purposes, whatever, it's still the best one out there right now. I've tried them all and you know what science says. Fact. 

Okay, so in terms of being a pig on shit on Zoom, here's how I'm doing it: real carefully. 

As in, I'm only doing the things I definitely 1000% wanna be doing on Zoom. I'm not taking any chances. I am taking super good care of my Inner Art Toddler and trying to give it alllll the cookies and none of the garbage-cookies. 

That's taught me a lot about what kind of stuff I enjoy doing. Who would've guessed? A lot of sex-and- violence jokes and melodrama and dancing! Shocks!

Also, I'm doing a lot of 1-on-1. Solo and small group classes are great on Zoom, interactive experiences feel real on Zoom. My first run of Butt Kapinski 1-on-1 "shows" was super fun. 

The word show is of course ridiculous and obsolete, unless we define show as "an entertaining experience that an audience member has purchased a ticket for." Even audience member is a problematic term now, when what I really mean is "paying collaborator." But whatever, Merriam-Webster. The point is, let's define My Zoom Shows as "heartfelt attempts to give one paying collaborator at a time a surprising, visually and auditorily-appetizing experience that makes them feel things (hopefully)."

For my "shows," I tried to think through my setup so that I was giving the "audience" some PRODUCTION VALUE GRRRRL. I had a "set" and I had "lights" and I had "sound." I've got a nice adjustable computer stand that I've had in my house for years and never needed until right now. I can angle it to put myself below the audience member, looking up at them, in keeping with my preferred angle when performing in real theaters. Ultimately, I've used a combination of technology available to me, and analog shit that feels DIY and down-home, which I frankly prefer. Mirrors, glasses, textures, wigs, puppets, liquids (towel on keys required). Good light. 

Also fun for me is that I can now live out all my cinematic auteur fantasies without having to be in the movie industry. I love movies and sometimes wish, if I had another life.... but now presto! Mother Rona has given me the mandate to be the best clown auteur cinematographer I can possibly be, right away, no time for film school. 

I did the shows in 4-chunk 25-minute sets, so 4 shows in two hours. It's more convenient in terms of costume, set up, etc. to do them chunked like that, but also I don't think I could have done more than 4 in a row because I got way too tired. It's a lot! 

You wanna know what my "shows" were like without having bought a ticket? Have it your way, cheapskate. Often in my theater shows, I had an interaction that felt really special—I'd found an audience member who could really play with me, to the delight of the entire audience. It would only last a few minutes, of course, because I had a whole show to get through and an audience of people who also needed attention. So there was a bittersweetness when I really had such a moment with a total stranger. Our moment only lasted a few minutes, and then maybe I never saw them again. 

So these Zoom shows were like I got to spend 25 minutes with an audience member like that. Someone who has signed up and prepared to play, and on whom I could lavish all my attention and really get deep with them. 

It was dope!

It's not like doing a show. It's not like getting lots of laughs. There were a few people who laughed, and honestly, that felt amazing, and reminded me how good it feels and how I miss it and blah blah blah see above. But mostly, the participant was too focused on playing to laugh. They were making something with me, we were building it fast and furious, but still, it felt very intimate because we had to trust each other and work together. So it was thrilling, to have a relationship with an audience member like that— "the audience" fully participatory in MY fantasy. That's kinda the dream, bitches!

And then it's over, and that stranger and I will always have that tight 25.

Now that the first run of shows are done, I'd say what helped the most was having a character that I love, a good filter on my camera, and a desire to co-create with whoever was on the other side of the screen. Like I said, I'm pleased with it so far. 

You don't get high, the way you do after a sold-out show, or hell, even half-sold-out. But high is temporary anyway, and low often follows. This is the most emotionally-sustainable performing I've done, perhaps. 

Next, I'm working on a 5-day Butt Kapinski experience, still for one audience member at a time. I'm excited about it. In a mellow, but decidedly-jazzed way. 



HOW TO BE A ZOOM PIG IN SHIT WITH OTHER PERFORMERS!


If you're a performer, perform. Yes even on Zoom. Do it. Figure it out. Get a buddy. You gotta stay in shape. 

Don't watch other people doing it unless they beg you. It's 99.9% horrible. No, that's not fair. It's 99.9% mostly for the performers. But, hey, nothing wrong with that. See my point above. Performers gotta perform. Good on ya. Now let's just work at making it watchable. 

To further illustrate my point, let's look at improv comedy (forgive me). If you have hung out with me in the last 20 years and asked me about my feelings about current improv comedy trends, (1) you wouldn't have done that; and (2) I would have told you that the big problem with improv comedians in the 21st century is often they're not working like theater artists, they're working like a tv writers' room. Everyone is standing around figuring out how to be clever as a team, and they absolutely succeed, in a way. King UCB's hammering of "find the game" to anyone who'd listen has taught modern improvisors that we shouldn't just be mucking around making a bunch of random choices. There are patterns to group cleverness. And good on us for learning that. But unfortunately, audience members still had to watch you when you were on stage—you know, back when stages. So you might've been "finding the game," but a lot of us were not working physically, spatially, rhythmically, or emotionally. And now that improv comedians are trying to work online, this is true times a million. Talking heads on Zoom is painful to watch, period. This is total science, at this point. 

I'm going to make the argument that, so far, the only good improvised work I've seen on Zoom has felt more like funny experimental film, with creative use of the camera, angles, travelling, weird filters. Last week one of my students put his mouth on his computer's trackpad and gummed it for a moment, and that kinda blew my mind. Laptops and smaller devices are made for being moved around, for getting on top of, for spinning around. Yes I know it's precious electronicware. But also, nobody wants to watch you look like a normal person on Zoom. We need to see you act like an animal. See pig facts above. 

And all the Viewpoints razz-a-ma-tazz? That works on Zoom. Working with music? That's nice. Narrate for someone else, or be the scenery they see when they walk. Close ups. Eat, put on lipstick. More closeups, way closer than you think. Embarrassing closeups. Fight scenes. 

What to do about that pesky self-view? I mean, I guess you can turn it off, but working with it has definitely helped me develop my directorial eye. I've been dealing with myself on video for years now, so I'm less obsessed by it than I used to be. But you know, I like cultivating that cool, nonjudgemental, directorial view of my own work. I'm not asking myself, Do I look pretty enough? Do I look old/fat? I'm only asking, is this angle interesting? Or, oh, that's what I look like when I'm laughing! It's just nice information, and it's a process. 

My big point here is, WERK THE MEDIUM. The medium is not your obstacle, it is your gift. USE THE MEDIUM.

Personally, I may be a pessimist who never thinks anything is going to go well, but I also believe in making the best of whatever shitty situation was inevitable anyway. This work can bolster our skill sets for when we do get back on stage, to play hard, to find joy, to work in 3 dimensions. This time off stage can be a time to develop new awarenesses and appreciations and everything. Or, at least it can be a pleasant diversion between jello layers. 


HOW TO MAKE A LOT OF MONEY ON ZOOM!


hahahhahahahahhahahahahahahahahhahahahahahhahahahhahhahahahahahahahahhahahahahhahahahah


Sex work sounds lucrative right now. 

I'm also considering an advanced degree. In sex work. 

No, seriously, here's what's up: a lot of nice people still have jobs out there and they still need our goofy art. If what we offer them is heartfelt and thought-through, they might just pay for it. It's not going to be the kind of money we made before, but it's something. I for one am still figuring out income stream, the appropriate amount of doom-scrolling, and the future. But that's a whole other blog post. 



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?