A beautiful and stupid comedy from Australia…
The Hermitude of Angus, Ecstatic sounds nothing like your typical comedy show. Billed as a ‘read along comedy’, it’s a fusion of comedy, dance, music, clowning… and philosophy. Created by Slow Clap productions’ Vachel Spirason and Stephanie Brotchie, it won ‘Best Comedy’ at its Melbourne Fringe Festival debut last year, and crosses the ditch to perform in the 2011 Auckland Fringe Festival. Auckland Fringe’s tagline ‘Leave with more questions than answers’ was already too true… and I hadn’t even seen the show yet!
Intrigued, I talked to Angus, Ecstatic’s Australian co-writer and performer VACHEL SPIRASON.
The poster image for the show is especially intriguing. It depicts Angus amongst an eclectic collection of objects: paperclips, coins, oranges, with a leaf in his hand. What sort of semiotics was going on there?
“The main character Angus, is kind of a social misfit,” Vachel explains “he’s a little bit different and a little bit strange. He’s fascinated with the world; he finds the world intriguing and beautiful although he struggles to find a way to interact with other people in a sort of socially acceptable manner. And he’s constantly trying to figure out the formula for the universe, trying to work out a way to understand everything, a grand theory of everything. He’s fascinated by patterns and trying to find patterns in everything”. The poster reflects the conception of the character’s world view. “We liked the idea of visually putting him amongst this pattern of objects that were kind of reminiscent of atoms or planets”.
The idea for the show as a ‘read along comedy’ came from the story books and tapes that Vachel used to love as a kid (‘when you hear this sound *bling* turn the page’). “There’s a giant storybook onstage, and there’s a narrator who controls the action onstage. Angus is sort of involved in the telling of the story, as well as being the subject of the story.” In one of the original conceptions of the show they explored the idea of each audience member having their own book under their seats, giving them the choice to physically read along. “But that,” Vachel admits, “posed some problems”.
The intrigue surrounding the show was ever so slightly beginning to become clearer. But what of all the different art forms that was to be included with the comedy?
Reading the press you promise comedy, dance, music, clowning… what don’t you have in the show?
Magic… trained animals, quite a lot of things! We have a lot of different aspects of the show and I guess when you see them itimised like that it’s hard to imagine how they all come together. But its largely informed by all the different skill sets that we have, and wanting to create a show that incorporated all the things that we liked doing. I grew up dancing, previous shows that I’ve worked on with another group (Vigilantelope) before this always had a lot of dancing in it even though they were comedy shows. Angus is largely a non-verbal character, there’s a lot of physical comedy that’s informed by clown tuition I’ve done in both here and in Europe. And I’m still, you know, learning as I go with all these things. But it’s interesting the things we experiment with… not having the ability to verbally interact with the audience, but purely doing it through facial expressions and physical movement.
And you are also trying to highlight some underappreciated pop tunes?
A lot of music, a fair bit of it, is music that we just really, really like. And so there’s some, classic cheesy numbers and Chaka Kan numbers and some old disco tunes and bits and pieces. And I think that we’ve always been quite strong in encouraging people to look up the music that we use in the shows. Music is a very powerful contributor to a piece of theatre or a movie. If other people can enjoy the music and hear it for the first time in the show and then go away and keep enjoying the music then it’s always a powerful outcome.
Vachel describes the show as “simultaneously moving and also very stupid”. It touches on some sad, as well as philosophical elements of life. The character of Angus is particularly lonely.
Angus is described as “An odd boy with a murmuring heart”… does the piece have a dark side?
It does. Angus quite literally wears his heart on his sleeve as part of his costume design. He’s very earnest, he’s very loving, and he’s a very open and enthusiastic character. But he also has a dark side, there’s obviously a dark undercurrent to the show in that there’s a belligerent and aggressive alter-ego who comes out at intervals. We had a lot of fun with that character and this idea that this person is a very open, loving generous soul, but he’s also very lonely and I think that pent up anger comes out with this alter-ego of his who causes a lot of mischief in the show. There’s a different side to him.
There seems to be a lot of comedy that flirts with the depressing and darker elements of life… what’s your take on that? What’s the appeal?
Well I think good comedy in my opinion is closely linked to tragedy. The really great comedy, whether it is David Brent in The Office or Basil Fawlty in Fawlty Towers… they are often pathetic characters who are really just despicable or pathetic, and I think we find that most funny because of the way we can recognise our own social failings in those characters. You’ve got to have a balance I guess. There’s still plenty of room for slapstick; someone slipping on a banana peel is still very funny, and I think there’s definitely a place for that as well, otherwise you get too weighted down in the gloom and doom.
Can you tell me a bit more about the philosophy in the show?
I guess the philosophy in the show is positive. What underlies the show is: The universe is inspiring and amazing and too often we take that for granted. And whilst we don’t labour the point, it’s not explicit in the show, its explicit in the way that Angus sees the world. He’s really excited about everything, in a really child-like way. He fixates on small things like a biscuit or a leaf and he really just loves it. And I think that’s something we all experience from time to time but too often we just shut ourselves off from. And often its children who can open our eyes to those things by stopping to look at something that we can walk past and not blink an eye lid. So I think that’s part of it, but the show also has a sad undercurrent in the way Angus doesn’t really connect with anyone else and is quite deeply lonely. Some people have said to us that they have felt very sad, as much as they were laughing at all the comic moments, but underneath it all Angus’ loneliness has made them sad. That’s all reflected in the title of the show as well – The Hermitude of Angus, Ecstatic – there’s loneliness and ecstasy all rolled into one. And life contains healthy amounts of both. You have to ride both currents.
Vachel studied music, trained as a dancer, and his early performance experience included a lot of comedy (including university revues and sketch comedy). After performing a number of comedy shows with the Vigilantelope group, only recently has he started looking to combine his disparate skill sets. “Incorporating other things that you are passionate about into the comedy I think works well; it’s a bit of a different slant and produces a novel outcome I guess because it’s an unusual combination of things”.
He co-created Angus, Ecstatic with his fellow Vigilantelope performer Stephanie Brotchie. They wanted it to be purely about what they thought was funny and different to what they had done before. “As soon as we stopped worrying about making something that we thought other people would like, then I think we really hit a good vein of material…as soon as you stop worrying about that you really find your feet”.
He describes their creative relationship as “unique”. “Between the two of us we do all the aspects of creation and production from poster design, to hardcore production tasks to choreography and music editing and all that kind of stuff…. It’s rare to find someone that you work so well with”.
It was an exciting and scary challenge for Vachel to transition from mostly group comedy work to having to carry a solo show on his own. “I’d done a little bit of solo performing here and there, but never a full hour of solo performance, so this show is definitely a new frontier for me in that regards. It’s been really, really gratifying as well as really challenging and I think it’s something that I look forward to doing more. I still feel like I’m very much beginning to hone my skills as a solo performer because there are a lot more variables involved with maintaining that engagement with an audience for a full hour. It’s been a lot of fun so far, but highly nerve racking at the outset!”
The production got an “overwhelmingly positive” response to its debut in the 2010 Melbourne Fringe. They were approached by Auckland Fringe, who saw their show in Melbourne, and invited them to become part of our festival. “We’re really excited about coming to Auckland. I’ve heard lots of good things, knowing many kiwis out here who work for theatre, film and music. It’s the first time been I’ve been to New Zealand.” The show is also touring to Adelaide and Brisbane before returning to Melbourne for their Comedy Festival.
Vachel gave a particularly good answer to the question I posed in my first blog post for Theatre Scenes:
Why Theatre? Why now? What can it do that other mediums can’t? What are your thoughts on that proposal?
I am a firm believer in the fact that the immediacy of the theatre is something that other mediums can never get close to. If you see a good bit of theatre – you’re in a room with a bunch of other people and an bunch of performers – and the immediacy and power of a good piece of theatre can knock your socks off in a way that a good film or a good bit of live music can’t, and I guess that’s an intangible thing of the real electricity in the room when it’s happening, when there’s that complicity between an audience and performers. That’s obviously not always there, not every piece of theatre is electric and magnetic like that. But when you do see something like that, or you’re part of a performance that you feel that, that’s something that’s a really significant experience. Unfortunately in this day and age so many people don’t even go to the movies anymore because they can watch movies at home from the comfort of their laptop, it’s something they are missing out on. I think that’s why theatre will always remain important, because there is something about the immediacy that is unlike anything else.
Vachel says Angus, Ecstatic offers a different take on things, and is also a little bit silly. “That’s the kind of show we want to produce, beautiful, and also a bit stupid” I ended our phone call feeling even more intrigued. The Hermitude of Angus, Ecstatic promises to be one of the unique experiences at the Auckland Fringe.
The show plays at the Basement Theatre during the Auckland Fringe Festival, Tues 8 – Sat 12th March 10pm
More information at the Auckland Fringe Website.
More about Slow Clap on their blog.
TOMMOROW on Theatre Scenes I will preview another Australian show making an appearance at the Auckland Fringe: The Adventures of Alvin Sputnik, Deep Sea Explorer.