This past winter I had the great pleasure of working with a powerhouse cast of women on Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead at the Randolph Academy.
For those who don’t know this play, it is described as an absurdist, existentialist, tragicomedy taking place behind the scenes of Shakespeare’s Hamlet. As intellectually dizzying as it is, the director, the relentless Rosanna Saracino, played up the physicality of the piece both with the Players, and the triple cast of Rosencrantzes and Guildensterns. As the Fight Director, this is where I got to play.
I was brought in to help add slapstick. I came in quite early in the process, so what I wanted to do for the cast was create a slapstick vocabulary, so that they could find opportunities to add it in themselves as they worked through the play.
I got to do some very pleasing research for this – boning up on my Three Stooges, Charlie Chaplin, Marx Brothers, Buster Keaton and so on. Without getting into how some early slapstick is quite stunt heavy (Pain IS Funny – but sometimes you wonder how Buster Keaton, for one, survived!); what I was looking for was over arching principles, and I came up with a basic recipe for slapstick, which I will now share with you.
- Surprise / The Unexpected
The Audience picks up on patterns quickly, and they know pretty much all the tricks – face slaps, spanks, head bonks. What you have to do is set up an expectation, and then do something different. The Three Stooges are masters of this. i.e. Moe sets up to slap Larry, but instead hits Curly on his wind up.
You can surprise your audience in a variety of ways. The location of the hit, the timing of the hit, and hitting something it was not your intention to hit. Hitting on the back swing, or having the expected strike redirect the target into a secondary strike. The kind of strike also matters: there are so many variations of the slap: The Stooges patented double forehand- double backhand that almost looks like their painting the face. Bites, tweaks, stomps all tend towards comedy. It’s also funny when someone gets hit when violence is not intended – which we will talk about more when I discuss the importance of Clarity of Intention.
- Comedy Zones
Beating someone in the face or stomach stops being funny after a while. So besides keeping targets unexpected, you want to primarily stick to what I’m calling the Comedy Zones. I bet you can name them yourself. These are non fatal targets, and I think they’re funniest because people can relate to them more.
- Nose – the classic Three Stoodges Nose Tweak, or slap
- Fingers – getting fingers crushed or bitten in reality is not funny. Watching it happen to others is.
- Ears – bring pulled or pinched.
- Eyes – Double eye poke. Which sets up the eye poke block.
- Bum – a kick in the bum is very safe. It’s also demeaning.
- Crotch – some might say it’s low, easy humour. I think the comedy is in the skill of the reaction, and the compliance with the other rules.
- Shin – everyone’s been there. It’s shockingly painful. I find audiences relate.
- Clarity of Intention and Creating Challenges
First you must establish a clear intention: something simple like Open the Door. Then put as many challenges as possible between yourself and success. I always loved it when Charlie Chaplin, or one of the Marx Brothers would get tangled in something, but their single minded pursuit of their goal makes it even harder for them to untangle themselves. Usually these are physical challenges: holding too many things, being stuck on something, etc., but it’s even better when you add characters with opposing intentions, or misunderstandings. The clearer we can read the minds of the characters the funnier it is when they struggle to achieve their goal – one of my favourite examples of this is Charlie Chaplin’s One AM: his drunken intentions are so clear we follow his action no matter how absurd. Watch it here – you won’t regret it! :)
- Sound Effects
These can be realistic, or absurd, like cowbells or gongs. But as I’ve always said – sound is the other half of the stage combat/fight picture. So much of the layers of surprise, outrage and pain live in the vocal performance. The specificity of the vocal performance also helps keep the choreography super clear. When things are moving quickly, vocals are required to punctuate the moves and make the story clear.
- Point of View
It’s most interesting when your character has a strong point of view. If a character bumps into you, the audience needs to see immediately how you feel about it. When a character hits another do you think it’s hilarious or horrifying? Make big choices, and let them evolve. Characters do not have to be nice – they can be petty, vindictive, dumb or clever. And they can be changeable! Slapstick is not fair.
- Laser Precision, Timing
You cannot be vague about Slapstick. Every action must have a clear intention, and be executed at the right time – generally sharpness of movement and vocal punctuation are key. The audience needs to see the intention and be able to know what to look at. When working with the cast of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern we found Precision and Timing to be the most important. As a performer you can direct the audience with your eyes, so we were very specific about drawing the eyes to what was important.