My Vistek Show


Some thoughts, on Theatre, Mime and Resolution

Something I learned while doing Squawk Box in 1996 on YTV. When you perform on various media they actually determine the pace of your performance. The resolution of the medium determines how much information reaches the viewers eye and therefore the performer must adjust accordingly. Many people have talked about how slow you can go on film. This is true. The scene in “There will be blood” where the actors stare at each other for nigh on thirty seconds wouldn’t work on TV or at least video. It is akin to mask work in theatre where another time code/mode seems to take over and the audience will wait for the next nuance. Daniel Day Lewis is well aware of this and gives a stellar performance in that movie. 
What I learned at Squawk Box was how I had to hit my lines quickly and without pause. It was being shot on Betamax at the time so I would watch the rushes everyday to see the performance. I soon learned that that it was death when people delayed response. Later when I studied photography I learned that the amount of information in those old video files was minuscule. Whereby, when watching films like Apocalypse now the scene in the dark with Brando is incredible. Lowlight, and Brando could hold that celluloid. Sure he read his lines. Or needed an earpiece but it worked because the size of the image. The words were almost redundant. Now in production with HD, 4K and soon 8k, we approach the resolution of Film. That said however, we can never get there again. It is the difference of chemicals and chemistry compared to compression and pixels. Frame rates are rising up from 24 to 120 frames per second. Maybe even higher long term. Some people think it is too much and it is all saved on an SD card. 
If there is a formula for this, it is basically that you perform faster inverse to the quality of the imaging. Sounds mechanical but if you watch the work later you can tune it. 
I always found it a bit upsetting when at an audition I knew on the day that there would be cutaways and camera adjustments because they wanted to push in or pull back. Directors asking for continuity in audition stupid and is an irrelevant skill for the most part. It is less about the actors and more about wanting coverage. There is a thought seeing the whole idea shot in audition will somehow be a better judge of the concept and the talent. Especially when you audition they will read disparate pages with you that have nothing to do with each other and might be minutes apart in the movie. It puts undo pressure on the audition and isn’t a skill that producers need worry about. They might shoot those pages days apart but dammit they have to be together at the casting house?
The other thing I always found stupid was actors having to dress for auditions. There is a whole department for that who are very good at their jobs. I am going to show up in something neutral. You dress me later. I have even gone shopping with people who are spending their own money on audition clothes. I once bought a tweed jacket at Goodwill and left it in the broom closet. If the audition asked for a suit I would grab it and then return it afterwards. That was the closest I got to doing their jobs for them. And it stopped me going insane
Don’t overwork your actor:
Don’t overshoot or you might run the risk that the actor might tire when the real energy is required. I found this true on Commercials sets and on one occasion shot the same sequence with three setups for every scene. New furniture, new props…three times. All because the director, agency and pharmaceutical company had separate visions. They burned me out because it was very physical. NEVER went to air. My fault? I don’t know but the used me well. 

So when you get on set find a way to see what they are shooting on and be open to changing based that choice. Because it will look better and definitely sound better. 

There is a continuum that can be attributed to various media, that performance on film can be slower than on video formats. But that can also be extended to theatre and even stand up. Depending on the lighting, the shape of the space, the seating arrangement, and many more factors that reveal themselves through time, you can plan certain moments to work better. I once did a show at the Poor Alex in Toronto. It was a black box theatre with a spotlight. It is a moment that I will never forget because I was simultaneously warmed and comforted by the light but alienated from my favourite thing…the audience. I was thrown because I couldn’t connect with my muse but the spotlight allowed me to slowdown completely. I reverted back to my physical performance style and clowning as I realized they would laugh at anything I did physically. The same thing happened to me in North Tonawanda where Rob Lederman, would have three comics on before a movie. It was a giant vaudeville theatre. We performed in front of the curtain. Some people believe that any space works for these types of performance….I had a good show but again it was because I was able to adapt. The curtain behind you makes it difficult to feel the whole stage and yet the light is so brilliant that they SEE everything you do. I decided to be subtle and cracked my knuckles for 90 seconds. It worked as they began to hang on every movement. When I studied mask and clown with Richard Pochinko he talked about big and little circles. In other words, that there was an inverse relationship between the size of the audience(room) and the size of performance that you could get away with. The better the light and focus the slower and more subtle you can be. 
Mask work also hints at that. Although it is theatre, both the audience and the performer can enter a trance where time slows down. It is otherworldly and The pace of mask work teaches us to see the importance and relevance of every movement and choice you make. When you study Masks you start to realize how good Buster Keaton was. The ability to stay so committed without saying a word but also not wavering and keeping his face in view, well lit, and a constant reminder of how he was losing in the scene. I truly love mask work. It is a great basis for long form improv and also for film. The intensity that it generates is palpable and something that all comics can benefit from as the migrate to acting. I studied first with Jim Warren, who seemingly preferred a very light hearted approach with our work. I would almost say he just wanted us to dip in slightly towards whimsy which definitely has its place. I also worked with Dean Gilmour, Adrian Pecknold, Ron East, while going to Theatre School with Nick Johne, and Mike Kennard of Mump and Smoot. I actually met Mike playing touch football against him at University of Guelph. Although I didn’t necessarily get to fulfill the opportunity of clowning and mask on stage, I definitely let it inform my other work. I also loved the different perspectives and I have hopefully passed some of all this down. 
Every style of mask has its value and its challenges answering differing sides of the theatrical equation. In every case though the physical commitment of the performer was the only way to make it work. Neutral mask , for me, identifies the lack of commitment and the need to really find your truth and direction in your work. I didn’t understand Neutral mask until years later when I was teaching it myself. Funny how that works. I used it to teach animation students along with Basel masks which are so cartoony but for animators it gave them a connection between the reality of their choices and the physical abilities to do it. Of course you can draw something weird but does it at least have some basis in reality. The animators proved to be a great inspiration for further discovery. While teaching them mine at the same workshop I asked them to put their hand on a wall. I wasn’t worried about specific or perfect technique but rather that the could create a context for more inspiration. I said tell me the texture and material of the room. Then I said now go draw it. We did it a few times eventually withe final exercise of drawing the character that lives in that room. They really appreciated that and loved the change of pace. 
Aside from all things I studied, I truly enjoyed the Mask in Trance work that I did with Gord Robertson. Gord has an incredible resume including fragile rock as a puppeteer. I loved how I felt in the masks and how they gave permission to do anything…but really made you commit to the scene. The amount of trust it almost stamped on a performer is amazing and in my case trapped me away from gagging and finding better truths in scene work. The desire to be funny was handcuffed by the imperative of the mask…but the scene might end up getting huge laughs…a lesson for all involved. It also gave an entree Into character work, a physical entrance rather than a psychological one. That said, it always felt emotional doing the scenes. 
I remember loving Charlie Chaplin, as I grew older, I started to unlike Chaplin for his style, but appreciate him more for his political stance. For his popularity, truthfully, I can’t see his appeal but I do think that the Great Dictator could have won an oscar… Chaplin was a clown, a style I thought I was most interested in, yet later I found myself convinced of the importance of the Buffon. I had an affinity for the real underdog. I started to see that clown needed to get beyond makeup and become more real. I know traditionalists who might disagree but Buffon kind of blows clown out of the water. They have gravitas. Keaton was that. Chaplin was not. I found that his stuff was very busy so as to have no joke. I know that it was seen as funny so I am not confused by the attempt but it was so full of flourish, not like Keaton. Keaton was that minimalist. Perfect for Beckett
Jim Carrey might be the closest to what I am saying where it is so over the top that it is overwhelming. Don’t get me wrong though, I would still rush to see Jim Carrey. That being said , his depiction of Andy Kaufman was oscar worthy and hopefully he will give a performance, to get the recognition he deserved for “man in the moon”.
Mime was the first thing I learned when I was twelve. Who would have known it would pay the bills in so many ways. I first studied it at CastleFrank school with Brian Taylor and his assistant Ade Hough. It was magical watching Ade work as I had never seen Mime and Fell in love immediately. I would do it with my best friend Max Kasper at school dances. People were amazed and thought we had invented it. I followed that up by doing breakdancing in my twenties as I headed to stand up. There is a video of my sisters wedding where I have commandeered the camera for about 45 minutes during the taping. Mime is a great tool for commercials but serves as such a great basis for so much of all of performance. David Bowie had some training among others. It is funny as a photographer I can see the people who are trained physically and how much more engaging they are despite their horrible voices. I got away recently performing one song for my friends band by gesturing, dancing, and goofing for the whole without uttering a word. That isn’t a fluke and a product of many hours of training. You don’t to do silent karaoke in class but you do learn to adapt. And I did.
Mime taught me to be efficient and effective with my gestures and not leave red herrings or put out something not doesn’t contribute to the scene. You have to be so specific and know how you are perceived. Many actors could benefit from this type of training. Brutal honesty is not always welcome but receiving it will benefit you greatly.