Friday, February 05, 2016

The Involunteers.

The Involunteers.

This one goes out to my victims. The Involunteers.

I just returned from a five month gig in Seattle at Teatro Zinzanni. I was playing the mad movie director Cecil B. DeGrille. The show was called Hollywood Nights and in it Teatro ZinZanni doubled as "Chez Francine" a fabulous French restaurant presided over by none other than the divine Miss FrancineReed, blues legend and longtime partner in song with Lyle Lovett. Our concept was that on this night of all nights the biggest Hollywood director, Cecil B. DeGrille is coming for dinner. The restaurant staff (all played by an international cast of sensationally talented performers, each with their own amazing act) are thrown into a tizzy. I come in and immediately decide that Chez Francine is the perfect location for my next cinematic masterpiece. That's the set up. Besides a lot of comedy and lots of intros and outros throughout the evening I'm responsible for the audience involvement part of the show.
And that means victims. Lots of them. 
97 shows.
6 victims per show.
That's 576 complete strangers I invite to join me in the spotlight.
576 random elements that I must select as fodder for funny.
576 unpredictable, usually raucous, sometimes delightful, often inebriated involunteers I must cast in the "movie" sections that presage each course of ZinZanni's 5 star meal.
But what to do with these sometimes unwilling, sometimes overly garrulous, sometimes shy, sometimes belligerent  patrons who have paid more than a hundred dollars to escape the world or their wives or themselves and enter the 105 year old Spiegeltent that is Teatro ZinZanni?

I arrive for rehearsal a week before the rest of the cast and they put me and fellow former Cirque du Soleil clown Joe DePaul in a room with a stage manager to take notes and away we go. For six days we jam. We crack each other up. We brainstorm. (Okay, sometimes it's just a drizzle but you get the idea.) We have to come up with three bits that involve audience members that will be interspersed throughout the three hours of what ZinZanni calls Love, Chaos and Dinner. Of course there will also be juggling, trapeze, contortion, something called the Chinese pole, even an opera aria. But at the center of it all are the three audience involvement sections. That's me. Me and whoever I pick. 
We're lucky. The evening's concept is built around Cecil's megalomaniac film director so we have the pantheon of movie clichés to work with. And there is a formula. These are, when all is said and done, games. Party games supported by props and lights and fabulous costumes, yes, but games. And one rule: the victim must win. I can make fun of them, I can embarrass them but in the end they win. They get an ovation. Their loved ones love them more. They survive, the unscathed stars of the evening. In the lobby after the show I see them, all smiles, getting high fives and adulation from other patrons who weren't lucky enough to be selected. It feels good.

Choosing victims is an art. For my first bit of the evening we create a piece in which I cast an extra to play a part in a kind of Downtown Abbey/Masterpiece Theatre scenario in which he must first become a butler and then say a line and deliver the Queen her royal tea. The queen dies (It's Helen Mirren's stand-in's dummy) and my victim must revive her. Hilarity ensues. The victim's victory comes at the end as we actually film him, at this point holding the ankles of a spreadeagled Queen aloft making "a sound that is filled with joy, anger, confusion, regret, triumph and sorrow".

At the end of he evening we will actually show a trailer of the Cecil B. DeGrille movie with our real victims from that evening spliced in. 

Basically the formula with victim work is a lot like what I've discussed in these pages before: getting a clown in trouble. Every involunteer gets a couple fairly easy tasks and then an impossible one. And "real people" are a strange lot I found. You never know what they're going to do. And that's what makes it so damn fun.
But how to pick them?
Usually you forage. During what's called "Animation" you move among the tables. You touch shoulders. You make funny. You check for wedding rings or canes. It's psychology at 100 miles an hour. You go with your gut. For my second bit of the evening I need a couple who don't know it yet but by the end will be kissing in slow motion in a love scene at a Moscow train station. 
I want fun- but not crazy. I want slightly reticent- but not painfully shy. (Nothing kills laughs like seeing someone in agony under a follow spot.) 
You use your radar. This bit worked best when it was an older couple who were perhaps celebrating an anniversary (my record was 47th) and still have that little spark in their smile. The victory moment in this bit was of course the kiss and when it worked right 300 people let out a chorus of awwww's. This lead directly into the audience dance section of the show and when the feeling was there it was true magic. 
 Going for the juggler.
 Of course that bit was later in the evening, after I'd had a chance to smooze and covertly vet them. But the first victim was selected from afar as I awaited my first entrance in The Producer's Booth, tucked behind a window that gave me a good view of the crowd. Body language, attitude, pecking order, engagement were my only barometers on whether someone was going to be a joy or a jerk. Actually by the end of the run it didn't matter. Even the jerks were a joy. 

-->Of course there are stand outs among them. I'll never forget a man's wife who, when I asked her husband if there was anyone in the world he had a special chemistry with, yelled out from the audience "His mother!"  It brought the house down.

I remember too the guy who I cast as one of my samurai- I had a bit with three victims playing villagers in a Kurosawa style epic that culminated in cutting a cabbage in half in mid air with my katana-  who came to the show twice and both times I cast him again (not recognizing him) in the same role. 

Cabbage cole slaughtered.
So thank you victims, each and every one. As soon as I pulled you out of the safety of your seat and onto my tightrope in the center of the room the energy in the room quadrupled. Every time I leave a space for you to do something or ask you a question the audience knows we are all moving into unknown territory. We all await my response to your response together. And after twenty or so shows I'm pretty much ready for whatever you're going to say. If I've picked the right victim you'll become my unwitting straightman, setting them up so I can knock 'em down.

So that's a wrap on Hollywood Nights at Teatro ZinZanni. Thank you, involunteers. Take a bow. 

Wednesday, January 07, 2015

Akuma Barai. 悪魔払い

Akuma Barai. 悪魔払い

New Year's Eve.
Don't get it. Never got it.
It feels like a completely arbitrary chronological indicator of unrealized potential. Yes, there is physical evidence that 365 days is a worthy placeholder in our collective book of days with the seasons and their ancient and mostly forgotten- unless you're a farmer or a haiku poet-  inexorable march through time. But in a world where climate conditions have gone wonky and unpredictable and the only rituals that still make a blip on my personal radar are year's end top ten lists and the arrival of Screen Actors Guild screener DVDs in the mailbox.

So I don't get it.
The screaming, the goofy 2015 goggles, the seeming requirement to gulp gallons of bad champagne like a man gasping for air at an oasis of bubbles. The standing in public squares with thousands of others waiting for balls to drop in the freezing cold while their own retreat up into their bodies.    

I'm not one for crowds anyway but multiply that by thousands of crazed imbeciles celebrating another tick on the mangy back of a dog of a lifetime by shooting live ammo into the air (I live in Oakland) like manic children playing cowboy while quaffing adult beverages by the bucketful.

Yes, New Years celebrations are a ritual and I'm all about ritual but all that rampant enthusiasm just doesn't jibe with the solemn fact that the previous year, however celebration worthy it may have been, is still packed with 365 days worth of dire events, dreadful occurrences and let's face it; Death.
And the next year will be too. Yeah, one night of unbridled optimism doesn't hurt anyone and it's good to blow off steam at least once a year but
you just won't find me pressed up against a metal cordon with two thousand strangers in the middle of the night to yell at a clock.

That said, there's something to it. This out with the old, in with the new positivity has ancient roots and I wanted in. My Druid forebears probably partied pretty hard on those prehistoric evenings when the heavenly stars and their towering stones aligned. The turning of the great wheel is measurable perhaps and I didn't want to deprive myself of the mystery of renewal and rebirth.

Sensei Diamantstein
My Sensei at Nishi Kaigan Iaido Dojo, Andrej Diamantstein, Kyoshi, has a New Year's tradition. At 11:30 on December 31st we have a practice. We swing into the new year with the swinging of steel blades. After practice we have a potluck and lots of toasts and hilarity. But at the moment the clock strikes twelve the only sound you hear is the squeak of bare feet and tabi on polished wood and the unmistakable swish of three foot razor blades cutting the air.

Hannya Mask. Actually a wronged woman
Everyone has demons.
We face them all year. The demons of procrastination, addiction and apprehension prey on us all at one time or another.
And anyone who says they don't is probably under the influence of yet another manifestation: the Demon of Denial.
That's why, on the final hour of one year and the first hour of the next we only do three Waza.

 (Waza are forms of imagined scenarios that include unsheathing, cutting imaginary opponents in meticulously prescribed ways, clearing the, again, imagined viscera from our blades and re sheathing (noto) and returning to our starting position.)

One of the Waza we only do at this time of year. It's special. The last time I saw it was seven years ago. It is called Akuma Barai which basically means "Cutting down the  demons". I can only describe it as a piece of physical poetry. The scenario, or bunkai of a this Waza involves no less than five opponents and when performed well looks like a flower opening in one of those time lapse shots you see on the nature channel. Only this flower is deadly. And when it's done, the imaginary opponents, in this case demons, should crumple softly like fallen leaves around the iaidoka as he returns the blade quietly to its resting place scabbard or saya in Japanese.

The general feeling is one of profound resolve as the opponents attack from all sides. You can't help but feel after performing it a frisson of triumph and a delicate unveiling of the possibility of a world where the demons lay vanquished and the future stretches out before you, untarnished by the past. It is the perfect Waza for a new beginning. And a perfect way to greet a new day. Or a new year. Even if it is just an arbitrary tick of a clock.

Akemashite Omedetou Gozaimasu.


Happy New year.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

妙 & 間 (Myō & Ma.)

Good Ink, Fukuoka.

Dear Diary,
I recently returned back from Japan.
I performed 453 shows in four cities there. Our 3000 seat big top was usually full.
I joined and trained in Iaido in four separate dojos.
I was there for the earthquake.
And the cherry blossoms. (twice.)
I got lost. (a lot.)           
It was Myō.

A hundred years ago people wrote diaries. Your diary was your Facebook, your private audience, yourself. I suppose blogs and such serve that function now. This is how we label and describe our experience. I was looking for a way to describe the experience of spending a year and a half in Japan and I stumbled across the perfect word:

This word has two meanings.
It means indescribably beautiful.
It also means strange.

So as far as meaning is concerned this word is an acrobat.
This word is doing the splits.
This is a Buster Keaton word; one foot on dry land, the other on the deck of the good ship Damfino as it bobs further and further from the shore.
And it is this duality that makes this word the perfect description of my experience in Japan.

Words can do a disservice to the actual. Our need to describe beautiful things can rob them of their beauty. 

Why can't we just shut up and let their silence do the talking?

So the Japanese invented a word that describes the indescribable. But this word is like a coin. 

Another meaning lurks like a doppelganger on the flip side of this coin.
And that meaning is simply this:
Me and my Doppleganger
Indescribably beautiful on the one hand and just plain strange on the other.

Uttering the Unutterable
Sad Cookie Box.

I won't do my experience the disservice of description.

I won't try to label the appreciation I have for the placement of the delicately balanced foot paths I found on mountain trails.

I won't endeavor to put into words the tenderness I felt for a trio of monks as they quietly swept spent ginkgo leaves into a pile at some Kyoto temple.

I won't sully with syllables the rush of the marvelous that I felt seeing how a single well placed chopstick can take a cascade of hair spilling across a porcelain shoulder and turn it into an exquisite black whirlpool that rests atop a head like a finely woven nest.

 Suffice it to say it is indescribably beautiful. 
Yet with that there is a strangeness.
Suffice it to say it is Myō.

Shades of Shinjuku

Bloom Shelter

Is it not strange that on the last train on a Friday night on the Yamanote line a man can drunkenly stagger into a crowded train, vomit, step back onto the platform before the doors can close forcing the crush of humanity to be forced to stand on the fresh spew in that impossibly confined space for as many stops as it takes to get them to their  destination and nobody says anything.

Busiest Intersection on Earth.

Is it not strange that during the cold season sometimes 30% of our audience were wearing surgical masks.
(Whether they wear them to protect themselves from others or to protect others from themselves I was never able to ascertain.)

Beware of Kappa.
A flower amongst the ruins.
Is it not strange to look around the busiest train station in the world and see no litter, no graffiti and thousands upon thousands of people negotiating their way around one another and nobody bumps.

And the reason nobody bumps is that Japanese culture comes replete with a fundamental sense of Ma.

Kids keeping Ma.



Meoto Iwa.
Ma is something beyond a word. 
It is a concept. 
A thread woven through the fabric of existence.

And another word that straddles two meanings.
Ma is distance but it is also interval.
It is therefore time as well as space.
Ma is the emptiness between things.
It is the stillness that lives at the end and the beginning of all movement.
In music Ma is the space between the notes.
In art it is the areas in which there is no art so that the art may more readily be seen.

When Robert Rauchenberg erased a de Kooning he was playing with Ma.

 In martial arts it is space between the opponents but also the time necessary to attack or defend.

Because Ma is both time and space concurrently it can be charged with possibility.
Ma is more than negative space.
Ma is alive.

 Shiokawa Sensei and the Hakata Iai Study Group.

In Iaido you can see Ma at work quite clearly.
You can see it in the transitions, where the residue of what came before gets a chance to ebb and the fuse of what is to come gets lit.

 Maeda Sensei and godan Greg Robinson, Nagoya.

Iaidoka try to distinguish this space with a charged/not charged quality.
This all inclusive awareness that does not pick out any one thing in particular but rather endeavors to see all calmly is called Zanshin. 
Keeping zanshin while executing a waza or form in iaido is one of those scratch your head rub your belly conundrums that never gets old because it never gets easy.
It is an attempt to follow sword/saint Miyamoto Musashi's suggestion in his Book of Five Rings to have your outward aspect be the same in battle as it is during everyday life and the same in everyday life as it is in battle.

 Practicing Zenteki Gyakuto at Shiokawa Dojo.

Zanshin is elusive.
If you don't have it you're dead.
If you try too hard to get it you're dead.
But the combination of good zanshin and an innate sense of proper Ma can be deadly.
Working too hard on my Zanshin.

In any duel (on or off the "battlefield") it is the one who controls the Ma who is invariably the victor.

Ma is also a deeply personal thing.
How you manage Ma is as distinct to you as a fingerprint, as revealing as an x-ray and perhaps the only place in the highly codified practice of iaido where personal style can be subtly revealed.

Ma can be very real.
And Ma can disappear.

When a memory of stepping into a warm spring fed Onsen is as vivid as if it is happening right now that is the Ma of time collapsing.
And the very real six thousand miles between Tokyo and San Francisco is the Ma of distance rearing its ugly head.

Dear Diary,
I miss Japan.
It was really Myō.

Mixed messages in Miyajima.

Shiokawa Dojo photos by Remi Lemieux


Wednesday, February 29, 2012

遊 Play.

A recent article in The Japan Times concerning the findings of a group of researchers using "baby-cams" to capture footage of babies playing jokes on one another with no ulterior motive than to get laughs was the kind of underwhelming revelation that goes viral these days.

It struck me as a bag of grant money thrown into a well to prove gravity.

Of course babies like to cut up when they get together.

They've just been through a major experience.

Being born is at least one of the top five things you can do in your life.

There's bound to be some stories.

It must have been scary.

And humor is how we frighten the scary away.

So when they put a group of babies in a room and the red light of the baby-cams starts glowing they must be like a green room full of comedians after a bumpy flight in from Denver.


What I found interesting is that the games the researchers observed the tiny tikes making up were fundamentally the same games we clowns play in Kooza.

The simple yet perfect patterns of three.

The creation of expectations and sudden dismantlings.

The there it is, there it is, there it isn't rhythms.

As clowns we often refer to the various sections or to use an acting term beats of our time onstage as games. What is the game now? Are we moving on to a new game? Or best yet: I found a new game. Games are fun. Especially if played with absolute conviction. But in order to participate in any way you must first be willing to play.

The fact that babies are working the room before they can walk across the room is no surprise. What perhaps those same researchers should be looking at is why those of us more ambulatory (and potty trained) humans can lose the awareness that everything we do can be a form of play.

Ohtaki Hunter

Between Osaka and Nagoya I had a couple of weeks off from the circus and went to the southernmost tip of Japan, Yakushima Island.

UNESCO has designated Yakushima Island as a World Heritage Sight. It is easy to see why.

Because of a fluke in the geography, the gulf stream and I'm sure a thousand other factors it is both sub tropical and sub arctic at the same time.

What this means is that you can be hiking amongst pines and junipers and turn a corner and be amongst palm fronds and sand and turn another corner and be plunged into a land of ferns and moss.

All within a hundred yards of one another.

The trail maps look like something Tolkien might draw up.

Primordial doesn't begin to describe it. I tried, failed.

Momoko and the path taken.

Yakushima is also famous for two things: Ancient cedars or cryptomeria (the Jomon Sugi is estimated to be 7,000 years old and is protected from huggers like myself by a network of exquisitely laid out trails) and ohtaki or waterfalls. I became an Ohtaki hunter. But there was neither the time nor the stamina to bag them all.


I stayed in the little town of Anbo half the time at Yakushima San Shu and the rest of the time in Onaida at the Shikinoyado Ryokan with Kentauro San and his lovely family.

After a week of not performing in a sold out big top Ken San asked if I wouldn't mind making a appearance at his kid's school.

"You're a clown. Can you do something funny for them?"

Little did he know I had been jonesing for an audience during all those grueling hikes to the ohtaki.

Sure, I wanted to play.

And this would be as pure as you can get:

1. Walk in room.

2. Forget language.

3. Play.

A couple of hours later I was drenched in sweat and ready to go play "Ohtaki Hunter" once again.

Screaming and Playing.

is the kanji for play in Japanese.

Variations of this can be found in such meanings as "To amuse oneself", "to blow life into" and even "to do nothing".

Since a lot of what goes on in the martial arts would qualify in the scratching your head while rubbing your belly category, perhaps play is the perfect way to deal with the difficulty of doing two opposing things concurrently.

For example the game we play in Iaido; presenting a calm exterior while at the same time demonstrating a life or death encounter.

Cool on the outside.

Coiled on the inside.


In fact, when someone engages in any of the martial arts, be it kendo, judo, iaido, kyudo, whatever, it is said that they play the particular art.

Someone plays kendo.

When they start class they say "let's play."

They may be trying to score points by bashing each other over the head while screaming their bone shaking kiai but inside all that gear kendoka are playing.

And the best players win.

Play Ball.

The Setting:

The 35,000 seat Fukuoka Yahoo Dome.

The Teams:

Team Fuji Television.

The undefeated victors of every Cirque du Soleil/ Fuji Television game since the beginning of the partnership six years ago. Athletic, smart and wearing lots of micro fiber stretch pants, plus they bolstered their roster by enlisting a hulking security guard who used to play pro and a bus driver with his own batting glove.

Team Kooza.

A rag tag band of guys with a passing acquaintance to baseball. Riggers, follow spot operators, sound ops, lighting designers and a cook. A Russian acrobat in right field playing for the 2nd time ever. And on the pitchers' mound, a clown.

The Fans:

In this giant room that dwarfed us all and made me think how wonderful it must be to be a major league baseball player and get to play on this gigantic astro turfed stage, a group of no more than 30 filled the air with cheers and chants.

They did the wave.

A singer and a trapeze artist had pom-poms. Sergey, master of the hand to hand act, screamed himself hoarse.

The Game:


From the pitcher's mound it was pure psychological warfare.

A game of very precise catch with one major difference: A guy with a stick is trying to bash the hell out of the ball just before it reaches its destination in the catcher's glove.

Getting it by that person is pure play. Towards the last couple of innings Team Fuji was changing their batting order to get their best hitters up. They didn't want to be the team that ended their winning streak by losing to these bad news circus bears.

Plus there was a trophy.

It got serious.

And quiet.

I was glad I had the iaido to fall back on.

To drop back to stillness before each pitch.

To remain cool and coiled concurrently.

To play.

The Final Score:

Fuji Television 1

Team Kooza 3

Kooza Photos by Miron Rafajlovic.
Yakushima School Photos by Kentaro Mizoguchi.
Yakushima bridge photo by Momoko Shimokado.

Softball Photos by Billy Riske.