the basics of comedy: conflict and commitment
We had a troupe from Tokyo, Japan perform last night called Galacta Excite. They knew English, but had never performed in English before. I have never seen a performance captivate an audience like that before. They had everyone in the palm of their hand. Every time they’d stumble over a sentence, there was applause when they finished it. They had such passion and expression and even when they’d accidentally slip back into Japanese, the audience didn’t care. They still knew what the actors meant.
If they asked for a suggestion and someone in the audience shouted something lame (“Sushi Bar,” “Kabuki Theatre”), the audience would boo and hiss. We wanted this troupe to win, although there was no prize.
And it got me thinking about language. Their scenes were not amazing examples of dialogue or acting, but they were very engaging. We knew from the beginning of the show what the conflict was: sometimes they didn’t know what they were saying, and other times they didn’t know how to say what they wanted. So every scene already had an obstacle. They didn’t have to create elaborate scenes for us, because that obstacle alone was fascinating. They did a structure where they had to go back and forth from Japanese to English every time someone shouted “Switch” and honestly there were times when I didn’t know which one they were speaking. It didn’t matter. I still knew everything that was going on.
The simplicity of it all. They were overwhelmed with the audience shouting things. They said they were used to Japanese audiences, who sit very quietly. They did not always understand the words they were given. One of the actors, who had to figure out that he was a beekeeper in a scene, guessed that he was a honey maker after five minutes, and then when he was told “beekeeper,” he looked at the audience and said, “I… have never heard…. this word…. beekeeper. Honey maker?”
It didn’t matter if he got it right because we just wanted him to understand us and we wanted to understand him. Watching English being broken down into basic emotions and desires made me realize how much blabbering we do during our scene work. It’s all unnecessary. We’re just trying to be clever.
So here I am all amazed and a-wondered at this troupe and really jazzed about comedy and performance and art and everything, and then there’s a problem at the show next door and we have to throw together a last minute performance and we all get up there and suck so bad that at one point someone turned to me and said, “I wish I knew Japanese, at least then they wouldn’t know we weren’t funny, and maybe they’d think we were making a clever parody.”
No wish granted.