Arts in the Family: A Family of Artists Just Trying to Make a Living in the Wilds of Texas


Saturday, March 10, 2012

A Pratfall is a Beautiful Thing

That's me doing my backfall that was so high up on my shoulders I easily followed it up into a headspin.

In "My Wonderful World of Slapstick" Buster Keaton wrote " A pratfall is a beautiful thing", and I couldn't agree more. Back in his day pratfalls were a part of any decent physical comedian's repertoire . In case you're not familiar with Buster Keaton he was a master physical comedian and filmmaker of the silent movie era. He, Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd are considered to be the best of that era. All three could perform flawless pratfalls but it was Keaton who raised them to an art form.

When I was first learning to do pratfalls I studied all the footage available for all three movie clowns which was not so easy in the early nineties but I managed to find videos here and there from various sources. Pammy taught me my first fall which was the backfall. I didn't own any mats to practice on so the next best thing was our front lawn or on the wooden stage at the children's theater where we were working at the time .

Chad Miller, my best friend and fellow road clown and a really gifted pratfall artist, tried teaching me a 1-0-8, which is kind of hard to describe except to say you basically do a front somersault but don't land on your feet. Check out the video below for a better idea. Chad did his best to teach it to me but he couldn't break it down piece by piece so I could better understand it. He had a knack for falls and simply did it. I tried to study it as it happened and then I would try it. I was about 70% successful. It wasn't pretty but it worked. I only learned the finer points of the 1-0-8 on the road but I'll get to that later.

Keaton's 1-0-8 is 36 seconds into this montage.

Getting back on track, the way Pammy taught me the backfall was to start low and work my way up to a standing position over time as I become comfortable throwing myself backwards to the floor. To start the fall, whether starting low in a squatting position or standing up you spring upward then back . The idea was to land on that meaty part of your shoulders and not your spine. That would be a bad idea and my pratfall career would have come to a quick and painful end. Pratfalls can be dangerous if you don't know what you're doing and shouldn't be attempted without professional instruction and supervision.

I discovered that I really enjoyed pratfalls and would constantly practice them. I went from backfalls to frontfalls to stairfalls in the course of six months of daily practice then once I became proficient at them used them on a regular basis in the children's plays we so often performed in.

But it wasn't until I went to Ringling Brothers Clown College where pratfalls were definitely a part of the curriculum that I that I got to see Buster Keaton in action and see some truly amazing pratfalls by this cinematic physical comedian genius. He could do anything. Having done pratfalls since a very young age on the vaudeville stage, his falls seemed so effortless. He was amazing!

And it wasn't until I was well into my first year on the road that I learned how to execute a 1-0-8 properly. There was an acrobat on the show who was the trainer/guardian of a group of young acrobats known as the Chicago Kids. Yanos was his name. I can't recall his last name right now. I'll have to look it up in a program. I knew him from Clown College where he was not teaching acrobatics but doing maintenance work plus other assorted duties not related in any way to his circus training. Anyway, there he was on the road. Back then there was always plenty of time to work between shows on just about anything including pratfalls. Chad and I worked them regularly especially between shows on two and three show days.

One day Chad and I asked Yanos to help me with my 1-0-8's. He set up a safety rig that I held loosely with one hand then I showed him my version of the fall. It needed work and Yanos broke it down for explaining my mistakes and how to correct them to improve the fall. Sure enough when I did it his way it felt like a whole different fall. When done right it feels like you've landed on a cushion. It was weird. I don't fully understand the physics of it but it felt like I was caught in a pocket of air and set down rather than fall down. It was a revelation! Chad was manning a video camera and I've got the footage somewhere.

Pratfalls gave me a feeling of freedom like I could do anything. They were fun, exciting and beautiful. They're slapstick illusions and there's nothing like them. I could never be as good as Buster Keaton or Chaplin or Harold Lloyd but I think I loved doing them as much as they did.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Theater Memories- Le Theatre de Marionette

Click on any of the images to magnify them.

I just finished some work for John Hardman, my old boss from Le Theatre de Marionette in Dallas and it got me to thinking how lucky I was to work for him at that marvelous theater of his. It was a little slice of European magic deep in the heart of Texas. We performed fairytale plays and when the theater was dark I would work backstage on props or marionettes. In the beginning, though, I'd just stick around after the show either working on my skills as a puppeteer or go backstage to admire all the set pieces and other marionettes that were stored there.

There were so many marionettes back there for all the shows that had ever been presented there, each very unique and special but they had a basic way they were put together. I wanted to make a marionette so I'd take the time to study them very closely until I felt confident enough to make one myself. But I started small first. Baby steps. There were a few marionettes whose fingers were damaged or altogether missing. I started simply by carving out fingers from basswood that I would then attach to the damaged hand. That was good practice. After carving a few of those I progressed to carving an entire hand. I'm grateful to have been given the chance to fix those hands.

It was very fun and exciting to learn about an art form that I'd loved from a very early age. But it got even better. In the fall, toward the middle of September, Mr. Hardman had a show at the Texas State Fair in Dallas that included various forms of puppetry but the one I enjoyed the most was the black light puppetry.

The Hall of State Building where we presented the " World on a String" variety show.

During the holidays Mr. Hardman had a full-size, two-story toymaker's shop/puppet theater that was set out in the mall where we would perform with marionettes, hand and rod puppets too. The cast of characters included the toymaker, elves, ballerinas, a concert pianist, toy soldiers and chickens! Dickensian chickens of course.

Tony Mayes, myself and my hair backstage at the Hall of State stage.

I was part of his company only a couple of years but I managed to learn so much in a short amount of time. I'm posting photos of the State Fair show because I'm pretty fond of it and because I don't think I've shared them with you before. As soon as I can dig them up I'll post the Toyshop set too.

Backstage right at the "World on a String" show.

(This one's a bit late but I'm still catching up on my posts. I'll get back in the groove soon.)

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

The Journey Begins!

Book cover for Dee Sutter's fantasy tale with cover art by yours truly.

Hey! Guess what kids? Dee Sutter's book Journey of Shadows: Book 1 of the Immortalis Trilogy is finally out and ready for you to purchase! Purchase it here and enjoy.

This was my first fantasy cover and hopefully not the last but I never would have had the opportunity to paint it were it not for the fact that I have a blog. It's taken me a while to catch up with the times but I'm glad I finally did. Oh, the places you'll go and the people you'll meet.
If you want to read more about the book go to Dee Declares here. And do yourself a favor by making her blog a regular stop while surfing the web. Her blog is witty, educational, entertaining and insightful.

Oh! And go to BookSteves' Library because he edited the book and has a post with more on the book's creation. And don't forget... buy the book !

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Slapstick Theater- Love American Style: The Elopement (1970)

Sunday Morning Matinee: Vincent (1982)
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