The Guide |
His life was gentle; and the elements
So mixed in him, that Nature might stand up,
And say to all the world, THIS WAS A MAN!
Is Humor Entertainment?
For quite a while now, I've thought about what we must "do" to be entertaining. Most entertainers in the variety arts - clowns, magicians, jugglers, balloon artists , comedians - offer just one kind of entertainment, and that is comedy. The comedy entertainment is so widespread, it appears that is is the only option. It is not just balloon entertainers such as myself who think this. How many magicians perform comedy magic? How many clowns perform comedy entertainment? I felt alone for quite a while considering this question, until I read a comment by a good magician who said that most magicians offer only comedy for entertainment, when in fact there are other options. Okay, I thought, school is in session! I got a pad and something to write with, and I continued reading the article. The magician didn't say anything more on the topic, so getting a pad and something to write with was a poor use of my time.
It didn't make me too happy, this unelaborated comment. What could I do with this? In revenge, I decided I was going to forget the magician's name, which I did, and I list reaching this goal as an accomplishment on my Stuff Achieved In 2005 journal. Still, I was encouraged. The guy knew what he was talking about, and just his comment 'you can entertain with more than just comedy' kept me thinking on the subject.
Sweet are the uses of adversity,
which, like a toad, though ugly and venomous,
wears yet a precious jewel in its head.
Which brings up the plays ascribed to the pen name, Shakespeare. (For more on this pen name and the likely author, read Ogburn's The Mysterious Shakespeare.) I took the fruit of Lady M's labors (my daughter, Fiona) to a high school production of MacBeth. The kids did a good job with the play, turning in better performances than I ever expected they could deliver. Fiona enjoyed the play, too, and encouraged by her pleasure, I rented productions of Shakespeare. These plays had everything a 6 year old girl could want - love, passion, murder, ribald humor, and amazing language. My own love of language was renewed by these brilliant works. I would listen to the plays under headphones while doing other things. Even if my offspring did not extract the plot, she was listening to words written by the greatest writer ever. This had to be good for the language centers of her brain, and toes.
He is winding the watch of his wit; by and by it will strike.
Shakespeare On The Screen
We watched Othello, we watched MacBeth, we watched Hamlet (Hamelet, she called it), we watched Loves Labors Lost, and more. In truth, I foreswear her ear tired ere her eyes ever wearied of that classic spectacle. Epic language nobly delivered feeds the heart as a leisurely meal sustains body and spirit, and I was well sated during the Shakespeare festival at our house. In defense of my position that entertainers should have scripts, I offer King Lear and the rest of the Shakespeare plays. These plays have such brilliant scripts, they can be performed on a bare stage and still capture an audience. It's not the acrobatic action sequences, either! Language alone can carry the performance if delivered in an arresting, dramatic fashion. King Lear as improvisation is far less than the gift of Shakespeare, which is enticing imagery, a rich dessert of word play, captivating language, and the tapestry on which the rich characters are drawn and displayed by the actors. Without the script, Lear is a ninny who trusted the wrong people, who hosed him and made him crazy. In fact, King Lear without a script could be renamed Hosehead, and capture the heart of the story.
Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale
Her infinite variety.
It is possible to listen for a few hours to the flow of the language from a Shakespeare play, and be engaged. I find my brain awakens to the call of Shakespeare. There is so much unexpected, so much intriguing, and so much brain engaging material, listening with full attention to a play to catch every nuance requires as much concentration as navigating D.C. traffic during lunch hour. It is more rewarding than driving that hazardous path, of course, and for the past 475 odd years, people have paid money for the experience of attending a Shakespeare play. Which matters to us, because we, as performing artists, want people to pay to attend our performance. We must be the performer, and the ticket seller, and consider both sides when developing material.
All the world's a stage,
And all the men and women merely players.
They have their exits and their entrances;
And one man in his time plays many parts...
(And you didn't think Shakespeare would be relevant . . .)
Now just hold on to your Folger edition, because Shakespeare offered even more. It is a conceit of youth that the old should be tossed out as irrelevant. I don't mean just the chronologically young here - people young in an art have the same prejudice. If balloon artists won't read Marvin Hardy, why would they ever consider Shakespeare, who, if Rinpoche is correct in his metaphysics, was reincarnated about a dozen times since he wrote the plays? With that tendency noted, it is worth considering that ever since the plays were first debuted, they have not stopped. For almost 500 years, you could always catch a Shakespeare production somewhere in the world. While the guy may be old, he's got heavy street cred behind his rep.
I started this short essay with the question of what is entertaining. Most magicians and clowns and balloon artists rely on what is funny to entertain. Funny is the safe category that nearly everyone uses (and I am no different in this regard.) Want to be entertaining? Get the audience to laugh. Yet some part of me looks at this and says 'is there more?' I want to entertain, yet all I can conceive is comedy. Then again, the noted magician said there are other options. What could they be? And that's when the answer hit with the weight of the Bard's collected works.
But, soft! what light through yonder window breaks?
It is the east, and Juliet is the sun.
The answer was so simple, and it was literally in front of me, the entire time. Yet I never saw it, mainly because I had my nose buried in humor books. Here is the answer - any category of play that Shakespeare wrote is a legitimate category of entertainment. What categories did Shakespeare write within?
The fantasies category is my own listing, added for Midsummer Nights Dream, and The Tempest. The other categories are standard labels for Shakespeare's work. This is exciting news for us artist entertainers, because we immediately have 4 more kinds of entertainment to draw from. We can create programs that offer history, tragedy, fantasy, or poetry (sonnets) as entertainment elements.
Stop coughing in the back row! I hear it now "cripes, this guy is not only off his rocker, he's off his meds, too, with this entertainment category guff". Really? Let's take history as an entertainment category. Dull and unsuccessful? Not when Shakespeare does it, and not when Ricky Jay does it. Check out Ricky Jay On The Stem to find out the power of a history theme entertainment. The entire run of the show was sold out almost from the first day it opened in New York City. Don't whine at me that this was different - bunkum, sir, I reply. There was no historical show for Ricky Jay to rip off when he created his own show, yet he managed to write it and sure enough, it was entertaining. I think that Ricky Jay and his 52 Assistants had a historical theme as well, and that show was a hit, too!
Be not afraid of greatness:
some men are born great,
some achieve greatness
and some have greatness thrust upon them.
I hear another objection, which is that Ricky Jay is as anomalous as his former journal. What about Hal Holbrook's recreation of Mark Twain? Pure history. The Belle Of Amherst is a one person play about Emily Dickinson (covering both history, and poetry.) There are plenty of examples (even the really obvious ones, like the History channel!) of how history is a category of entertainment. By golly, Shakespeare was right in those entertainment categories.
For thoroughness, consider the remaining categories. Tragedy - West Side Story, Steel Magnolias, and Titanic were popular entertainments that collected lots and lots of money from a willing public. For sonnets, I present all of rap and hip-hop. Sure, they don't follow sonnet form, however, they are all about the poetic language. Fantasies? Hmmmm - Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, and Blue Man Group, a live performance troupe. In addition to the examples listed, movies continue to be made of the Shakespeare plays, demonstrating that there is a demand for every category of entertainment.
Why, then the world's mine oyster,
Which I with sword will open.
Feed The Soul Of The Audience
What does all this have to do with a simple balloon artist? For some artists, it has everything to do with their work. Shakespeare showed that entertainment covers many areas, while most balloon artists stick to just one - comedy. Why not start simple, and learn a few choice quotes from Shakespeare to use when working? For example,
What's in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.
would be appropriate when making a flower for a customer. While their eyes are dazzled by the product of our hand, we please their ear with a relevant poetic phrase by the best writer ever. It provides a pleasant contrast to the comedy, and gives a moment of emotional texture in a short performance. The language of Shakespeare does more than engage the ears; it feeds the soul of our audience.
There are many phrases an artist can learn and use when working at an event. I do not recommend in any way mocking Shakespeare, as that would be more low comedy and the goal here is to develop some alternative entertainment. Practice the lines until you find the rythm and meaning that rings in your own heart, and you will deliver the lines with an arresting power. Trust me, the brain is a complex, refined organ and it tires of jingoism and advertising slogans. Give your brain and the brains of the audience Shakespeare, and they'll respond with enthusiasm, hungry for more.
It may feel safe to use fantasy or history while secretly deciding that tragedy will have no place in an artist's script. Neither yes or no; instead, let me sketch a suggestion. At some point in the show - probably at the one third or half way mark - moves a few steps closer to the audience, hands together in front. Looking at the audience with an open expression, the artist waits for that hush of attention, and simply states 'this is for anyone who ever felt the pain of loss', and takes up a single 260. The artist begins reciting a soliloquy from, say, Romeo and Juliet, twisting a pretty flower at the same time. The twisting is finished near the end of the recitation. In the closing lines, the artist is holding the flower as a symbol of the lost lost. Such a performance could be very pretty, very touching, and yet not so tragic that the audience is overwhelmed.
What audience would I suggest this for? Within the context of a larger show, nearly any audience could be suitable. The goal is not to break hearts or cause mental distress, so please don't choose the most heart breaking speech from a Shakespeare play. However, most of us have felt loss, and having the entertainer acknowledge that usually increases our affection for the artist. My rough outline is barely a first draft. Take it and work with it. Strive for beauty, and keep hope alive in your heart. This interlude may not be the entire show, yet it is, as Shakespeare showed, a legitimate entertainment.
I wish you well on the path, and I hope that artists will seek their road in all the areas of entertainment. we will soon have artists explore these different types of entertainment. Don't be afraid to branch out in performance. As Shakespeare wrote -
Cowards die many times before their deaths;
The valiant never taste of death but once.
Of all the wonders that I yet have heard,
It seems to me most strange that men should fear;
Seeing that death, a necessary end,
Will come when it will come.
* * *
Finding Help On The Path
You're at BHQ, and quite possibly reading this column, because you want to grow in your art. What do you want to achieve? My first guess is that you want fame, fortune, the love of the audience, and a special guest invitation to a major convention. That's great! You have a goal - excellent! Now, let's have a closer look at that together, shall we?
You aren't the first person who wanted to be rich and famous. Plenty of others wanted the same things, and got them, too. How did they do it? Practice, practice, practice! Find that skill, and work it, hard. Practice, practice, practice! In our case, it is endless practice twisting. Until eventually the entertainer realizes they are not a mime, and they want to say something. Whoops - what to say? After some research, the entertainer learns some good jokes, some one liners, some ad libs, and maybe even a humorous story or two. Now while twisting away, the entertainer can be visually and vocally entertaining. This is double barrel entertainment, and life is good, for a while.
Our entertainer starts to notice a weird, rubber ceiling that prevents upward mobility past a certain point. They are stuck at a price level, and one day, it occurs to them that maybe if they moved out of the living room circuit, the money - and the fame - would be greater. This means putting together a show. Uh oh, how does our subject move from amusing banter while twisting a single or multi-balloon creation to a full show? The answer is simple - work, work, work! Research other balloon artists; reject what they learn and look at another variety art, such as the circus; reject that and, as balloon artists often do, look to magic. Ah, here is an art with some maturity. Full programs can be studied, and real, honest to goodness magicians can be found offering 30, 45, or 60 minute programs. This is the good stuff, and plenty of artists pack up their balloons to start all over with rabbits, doves, and silks.
Some, though, return to those rejected balloon shows, studying them for pacing, audience involvement, emotional texture, and variation. Eventually, these entertainers get up a stage show, and begin marketing themselves to audiences who want a stage show, such as civic organizations, corporate meetings, party planners and the like. Let's assume that our imaginary entertainer is in this group, and sure enough, that person starts getting this work. It is good, until they discover that the rubber ceiling hasn't disappeared, it was just raised. They still find a limit on their achievement. They did everything right, didn't they? Well, sort of. Let me try to explain by offering a story about Bruce.
Bruce is not a mythological name. Zeus - Crazy Horse - Thor - Quetztcoatl - these are mythological names, hero names from the past. Bruce is the kind of name that appears on an attendance sheet at school, and it doesn't portend greatness, fame, or fortune. This was the situation Bruce found himself in, actually, after a rough childhood. He was working an entry level position for a corporate conglomerate which would never open the executive levels to Bruce. He had a girlfriend who was sort of supportive, though she had severe emotional problems that lead to drug addiction. The unhappy couple had a child, and this was some comfort to Bruce, who had pretty terrible parents. At the point we join Bruce in the story, it is fair to say "Previously on My Life As Bruce - life sucked."
However, through it all, Bruce wanted to be famous and rich, and he had a talent that he thought would entertain people. He practiced and practiced and practiced, wowing friends with his ability. He entered contests, and developed a local following and reputation. Bruce hoped that he would be discovered; trouble is, agents with connections don't cruise small clubs looking for the next big talent. They are off in California, doing whatever agents in California like to do. Bruce was stuck in the mid west, far from agents, constantly working on his skills, and getting no where.
Somehow, Bruce managed to record himself. The result did not sell, and it did not provide the dream story door to success. Bruce was stuck with several copies of his effort, and actually considered suicide. In his mind, he had his break, and the only thing that broke was his heart. Artists are passionate, and often over respond to failure. Luckily, Bruce had a child, and he realized that a live father with faded dreams is far better then a dead father. He stayed alive, and considered his next move.
At this point in his life, Bruce had done everything he was 'supposed' to do. He practiced intensely for hours a day. He looked for opportunities to showcase his talent, and entered the fray hoping for a win. He shared his skills everywhere he could find an audience, and he even made a recording. People said he was good - so what was wrong? How come 'it' wasn't happening? This was when Bruce made a crucial decision - he would go to California, because that's where people who could help him lived.
Chances are good that Bruce had to take a bus because if he owned a car, it would never carry him to Los Angeles. He takes a copy of his recording, and arrives in Los Angeles without a friend in the entire city. However, Bruce has a simple plan - keep trying to get his recording in front of the right people. When the right person saw what Bruce could do, they would put him in the right place, and fame and fortune would follow. With a persistence that comes from desperation, Bruce enters the scene, and catches the attention of the first right person. This person is convinced that Bruce has talent, and he introduces Bruce to Andre. Bruce and Andre hit it off. Andre has achieved what Bruce wants, and Andre also perceives value in Bruce's talent. Bruce works with Andre, and very shortly, his material achievement is staggering.
Bruce's talent is as tremendous as Andre predicted. Once Bruce is showcased, the public goes mad with desire, and they spend lots and lots and lots of money on Bruce. Andre makes a few million more, and Bruce gets his first taste of millionaire living. I am referring, of course, to Marshall Bruce Mathers III, whom you may also know as EmineM. His friend Andre is better known as Dr. Dre, and working togehter, the EmineM catalog sold over 20 million cds. A pretty amazing run for a poor white kid from Detroit, who hit it big well after he was old enough to legally buy beer.
Em had talent, and he had enough discipline to develop that talent. It may be hard to believe, yet Eminem studied language, listening to other artists, as well as reading dictionaries, and always keeping his ear open for interesting sounds and speakers. Yet this was not enough. It wasn't until Em realized he needed something more that he actually broke into the big time. What he needed was someone to help; someone with a connection with a recording studio, a record label, and experience to match is talent with a musical style best suited for his output. Without this, Bruce would just be the best rapper in the do it yourself store he worked at.
Do you remember our entertainer who moved into stage work? That was a good move, however, that alone will not bring about success. That artist is not going to rise as high as they'd like without a crucial ingredient - asking for help from a person who has what they need. Collectively, we are mostly self-taught, working alone or with a video or a book. This develops our talent and our sense of self reliance, while at the same time building a false belief that we can do it alone. To reach the highest levels, we must find someone who can help get where we want to go. It may be that the stage show needs a director, a choreographer, or a producer. It may be that the entertainer needs a publicist or a manager or an agent. It may be that the entertainer needs a musician or a composer or a technical specialist. Along the way to top entertainment, all of these people will play a role. If we want to achieve fame and fortune as artists, we, too, have to stop relying on ourselves and our talent, and ask for help.
This does not mean the help will be free. Nope, we might actually have to pay someone for their help in revising our show, in choreographing our movements, in rewriting our script, or in designing light and sound. Even worse, we may be asked to pay several hundred dollars for a 3 day class with master entertainers - can you imagine the nerve of that? Someone asking to be paid to share their experience? Sheesh!
For those willing to pay when necessary, their path will continue higher and higher. Even for us balloon artists this is true. Doubt it? Believe it, and to help you believe it, check out John Cassidy, at http://www.johncassidy.com/. John was in the situation of our hypothetical entertainer, and he wanted to cut through that rubber ceiling. So John ponied up the cash necessary to attend the Jeff McBride Magic School ( http://www.magicalwisdom.com/school.php) in Las Vegas. I suspect that John also had to pay for his airfare, hotel lodging, and pass up a couple of paying gigs to attend. In return, John had a chance to study and learn from Jeff McBride, Eugene Burger, and other prominent entertainers who serve as adjunct faculty at this school for aspiring entertainers. As you might suspect, this was a significant point for John, who returned from the session with clear ideas that helped him climb to the next level. At present, John is the only balloon entertainer I know who performs at national magic conventions; he's also the only one opening for a high profile act like The Amazing Johnathan.
When it comes to traveling our path as artist entertainers, to go as far as we want, it will be necessary to ask for assistance. Achieving the heights is not just about talent - it is also about finding the right people with the right knowledge. They are out there, and they can help you achieve miracles - if you ask.
Thank you for giving this column some of your time.
A.T. in Roundlake, MN - be careful with your enhancement plan. It will attract the attention of the opposite sex, sure, giving you an advantage over the competition. And this is just the kind of idea that will backfire in an embarrassing, socially awkward way. What will you say to her when you go from 'wow!' to 'ow!' when it pops? Drop the idea, and drop me from your e-mail address book, okay? Thanks!
© 2005 Mike Kenyon