Fellow Performers: Part III

Fellow Performers: Part III
A Magician; A Clown; A Protégé

I think all teachers are really just frustrated performers. After all, that’s essentially what we do when the classroom doors are closed-perform for our students. So, if I were to admit to being a frustrated performer, it would come as no surprise that I envy the real thing-so much so that I never get enough of stories like the ones that follow here. Any way, this month, I am rounding out the Fellow Performers mini-series with three folks-two accomplished performers and a neophyte. After reading each of their interviews, I think you’ll see that they have a lot to relate. Carl Wilson, of course, has appeared within these pages before. He’s been a close acquaintance of mine now for about five years and through him, I’ve come to appreciate the art of magic and sleight-of-hand like never before. Eli and Ginger I very much hope to meet someday soon. I’ve included Ginger here, because I thought it might be fun to see how Charlie still plays a role in the creative lives of the very young. I think Ginger’s story gives us just that sort of perspective. And Eli’s story is especially appropriate in that he is a clown. Charlie’s influence on his work is palpable-and, therefore, especially compelling.

A Magician: Carl Lane WilsonMagician Carl WilsonBio: Carl was born and raised in Michigan where he performed his first magic show at the age of eight with his father at a Christmas party. His family moved to California when he was 12 and it was there at the age of 13 that he got into mime and improvisational acting. By the time he was 15, his love for magic resurfaced, so he spent much of his free time practicing sleight of hand. Being a magician fulfilled all of his needs as a performer; there is magic, astonishment, acting, entertainment and no script to assist with any of that. In 1988, when he was 18, he made his professional debut at the now long-gone Magic Island in Newport Beach, CA. Today, he has a very busy schedule, from working for agents and corporate events to being the Disneyland Resort’s primary magician subcontractor. The magic keeps happening.

A Clown: Eli Echevarria

Clown Eli EchevarriaBio: Eli began his career as a Chaplin impersonator in 1992 and slowly evolved into becoming a full time professional clown. He is the author of two instructional books on the art of balloon twisting, has won many awards for his make-up, costuming and performance skills and has been on the teaching staff at dozens of clown and magic conventions, workshops, and seminars. For more information, see www.clowningbybuster.com.

A Protégé: Ginger Parsons

Protégé Ginger ParsonsBio: Ginger is 16 years old and has been involved with community theater and high school drama since she was 14. In one instance, she played Fritzi Bonwit in the Community Theater Production of M*A*S*H. She is also active in the local Improv group. Ginger enjoys being on stage as well as working backstage with sets, props and lighting. Recently, she had the pleasure of meeting Dan Kamin during a workshop and was deeply inspired by him; she felt it was like meeting a soul-mate. In her spare time, she designs and maintains a website and blog dedicated to Charlie Chaplin and other comics. It is her desire that others will come to appreciate their contribution to the comedic films of today as she has. She hopes one day to be able to pass along what she has learned and to keep Charlie Chaplin’s dreams alive. See Ginger’s webpage at www.2ndstorylaughter.com.

Describe your first encounter with a Chaplin film and why you think you connected with it.

Carl: My First encounter with Chaplin was in 1978, when I was eight years old. It was at a pizza joint in Okemos, Michigan called The Roaring 20’s. The restaurant featured 15-foot tall posters of silent movie stars. One of those was the picture of Charlie in which he is sitting on a bamboo chair, his chin resting on his cane, looking rather soulful. I was immediately captivated and couldn’t take my eyes off of him. Why was this friendly looking man so sad?

Charlie Chaplin the Little Tramp: sitting on a bamboo chair with chin on his caneI asked my mom, “Who is that?” Her reply was “Charlie Chaplin.”

When I was 14 years old, picking through the school library, I ran across Chaplin the Movies and Charlie and that moment from 1978 came back to me in an instant. I checked it out and read and re-read it. Its synopses of so many of Chaplin’s films and its presentation of the picture of him sadly playing his violin from The Vagabond made me want to see any film of his in the worst way and only intensified my interest in him.

Eli: My first connection with Chaplin was not with a film but with the documentary Unknown Chaplin. I was 12 or 13 years old when it first aired back in the late 1980’s, and I decided to watch it on a whim. Needless to say, I was completely blown away by what I saw. I then found a copy of Chaplin’s autobiography and David Robinson’s Chaplin: His Life and Art, and devoured both texts. I continued to find books and was becoming more and more of a self-titled teenage Chaplin expert, yet I still had not seen any of the films, as they were not exactly available at the video store and were never shown on television. All of that changed when a teacher at my high school learned of my obsession and handed me his personal copy of The Circus. The film exceeded my expectations and I was instantly hooked. From the first gag with Chaplin stealing bites from a child’s hot dog to the immortal final shot, the film (still my favorite) touched me in a way that I had never been touched before. Being 13 years old and having something this special that I knew most kids my age would never have made me feel like I had received some kind of special gift. It’s a feeling I will never forget.

Ginger: One day I saw a Chaplin clip that my teacher showed the class. That was when I was first introduced to slapstick. Something about the sense of humor just seemed to be so honest and innocent. I just couldn’t get enough of it. I researched it and downloaded all I could find off the Internet. The music of his era is elegant and beautiful as well.

How specifically would you say that Charlie influences your craft? In other words, would you say there are moments in your performances that you could trace back directly to Charlie and if so, what are they?

Carl: I never connected Charlie to my performing until I had been doing it for several years. In my youthful exuberance, it was all about non-stop action and dialogue. Studying Chaplin, however, reminded me of certain things. Saying words without using words–it’s all in the facial expressions and movements of the body. When I slowed down and realized that more could be conveyed without words at the proper moment, I became stronger as a performer.

Although we don’t know a lot about Charlie’s working methods, I fancy that Carl Wilson in action since he was directing and acting at the same time, the first time he glanced at Rollie behind the camera to convey something to him came out on the rushes like he was looking directly into the camera. It’s just a guess, but I think that when he saw that moment, it was so funny that he continued to do it throughout his career. His rant at Jack Oakie during the filming of The Great Dictator of “? just look into the camera, that’ll get them,” was all too true because he knew it worked from experience. I bring this up because of that glance; I use it. It works. The stillness, the silence–that works too. I owe that to Charlie.

Eli: My clowning is directly influenced by the Tramp. The physical appearance of my tramp character Buster (named after Charlie’s silent-era rival), is obviously influenced by Chaplin, but the actual character was very purposely based on Chaplin’s description of the Tramp in his autobiography: “a gentleman, a poet, a dreamer, hopeful of romance and adventure-but not above robbing a baby of its candy or kicking a lady in the rear.” I like to think of it as “Clowning with an Attitude”, where Eli as Buster the clown on one side you see the sweet and romantic sad-faced clown, but at any second he can snap and do something completely unexpected.

When I perform, the Tramp is always with me. Although I am not consciously doing a Chaplin impersonation, anyone who knows what to look for will notice the manner in which I hold my hands high up on my sides with my fingers pointed downward, or the manner in which I innocently put the fingers of my left hand up to my mouth, or my overly confident “ta-da” bow after I perform a routine (ala The Pilgrim sermon or the tight rope practicing in The Circus), or when I break the very important clown performance rule and turn my back to the audience in hopes of conveying emotion without the use of my face.

Ginger: Watching the Charlie Chaplin videos has definitely helped me with my improv skills. He has definite eye movements, hand movements, and coordination between the two that is unmatched. I have spent hours studying them. He can make something unfunny seem hysterical with just a gesture. When I am performing improv with friends, I have found myself thinking, “What would Charlie do here,” or “Charlie would think logically here and still get a laugh.” Then I try to act accordingly.

Dan Kamin said an interesting thing in my interview with him last month and it has started me thinking. He said that he generally “bores” his friends to death with Charlie. Do you feel that Charlie and his work are generally an acquired taste, limited to a small amount of loyal admirers? If so, do you think of your work at all as slightly evangelical? Ginger, especially you, as such a young person, how do you talk to your friends about Charlie and his work?

Carl: Silent movies are so foreign to today’s generation that it goes without saying that Charlie and silent movies on the whole are an acquired taste. In modern entertainment, everything is handed to you and nothing is left to the imagination. We become conditioned to it and something gets lost. If silent movies were shown in classrooms as an exercise in paying attention, I think that there would be a huge interest in these classics in adulthood. Being acutely aware of this, I don’t shove Charlie at anyone. I find that the longer I know people and the more they become aware of my interests, eventually they will sit through a Chaplin film. And for everyone that has done so, they have become a fan. I dated my wife for two years and was married to her for a year before I took her to a Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra screening of City Lights. That was her first time to sit through an entire full-length Chaplin film, and she has been a fan ever since.

Eli: If Chaplin’s work is limited to a small amount of loyal admirers, it’s because the films (at least here in America) are not shown. I have shown at least one Chaplin film to just about everyone that I know well, and they have all loved the films. Last summer I went to a local Chaplin festival where they showed several of the Mutual comedies and the audience, which was made up mostly of kids, devoured the films. The few opportunities that I have had to see Chaplin films on the big screen with a live audience has proven to me that I am not alone in this world. A good film is a good film and it makes no difference what year it was made. I honestly believe that if Chaplin was as exposed as say perhaps the Three Stooges are, we wouldn’t be talking about this very topic.

Ginger: It is so funny that you say that. My friends Ginger Parsons with Dan Kamin have generally gotten used to it. I have made custom Charlie Chaplin shirts. My cell phone has Charlie Chaplin wallpaper and a Charlie Chaplin ringtone. When I have a sleep-over I play silent films. My father came in one time and made me turn them off, because he said I was “boring” my friends to death, but said they were too polite to tell me. I put up posters all over town about my website trying to get everyone to become interested in Charlie Chaplin, as well as other comics on my website. I find it hard to understand that everyone doesn’t just love him as I do. I just feel that they haven’t seen enough of his work!

Charlie once said that “the basic essential of a great actor is that he loves himself in acting.” As a fellow performer, how do you respond to this?

Carl: What Charlie is saying here, is that he loved Charlie the character. It is obvious from Charlie’s relentless pursuit of visual perfection, that he must have been very comfortable watching himself on film. The results were fantastic. Since I am not on film all the time, there is often a gap between my experience and that of the audience. I had myself filmed doing a routine a couple years ago and I was blown away by what the audience was seeing from the “other side of the deck.” I loved what I was doing. When I am not being “the magician,” I am a fairly reserved fellow. From first hand experience, narcissistic behavior is a turn-off to an audience and to friends in private. I try to always be aware of that line between narcissism and what comes out of my personality during the required self-confidence of being a magician.

I feel so privileged to be Charlie Chaplin in THE CIRCUS able to do what I do, that I try not to stick it in other people’s faces. Inspiring envy in others is not something I like or want to do. But, reflecting on Charlie’s statement, I must agree that I do love taking on a magician’s persona. It allows me to give an audience an experience that I love. There is a certain amount of self-love involved in being a magician; it allows me to step outside of my everyday character and become a miracle maker. I will do it until my fingers don’t work anymore.

Eli: There is truth in Charlie’s statement. As arrogant as it may sound, I won’t lie that it gives me great pleasure in knowing that I do my job as a clown extremely well. When I hear the genuine laughter and applause from my audience, at that moment I love the fact that I’m a clown…a good clown, and I love that I am the one providing this “release” for the audience.

Ginger: I must say that I was quite shy as an actress to begin with, but I have come out of my shell, so to speak, since I have been studying so many of Charlie Chaplin’s films. I have come to see now that if I like what I’m doing, then the people around me will like it.

Charlie at times is reported to have given up friends, wives, and even respect and popularity for his artistic vision. Can you talk about a time when you had to give up something or someone you loved in order to pursue your art? Do you regret the decision?

Carl Wilson is performing for Jennifer Love-Hewitt and Tyler Hilton.Carl: Depending on the performing arts for a living can be a bit challenging. My biggest obstacles come when I find myself having to accept work on risky days, like anniversaries, family get-togethers, birthdays, scheduled vacations, etc. Has it damaged some relationships? I would be lying to say that it hasn’t. But would I give up a relationship for it? Most likely not. This is where Charlie’s seeming disconnect between himself and his loved ones may have caused him the most trouble in his private life. One must be cognizant of other people’s feelings and know when to stop. I do my best to state my case, but if I thought it would cause permanent damage, I wouldn’t take the job. My love of family is stronger than my love of audience.

Eli: I am happy to report that I have been one of the lucky ones in that regard. From as far back as I can remember, I have had the great fortune of being with people who have always supported me and my artistic and creative decisions. With the exception of countless hours of sleep, I do not think that I have had to give up anything in my pursuits of becoming the very best clown that I can.

Ginger: I can say that when I first started drama that it was not the most popular choice for teens as an elective. However, with the addition of our current drama teacher, it has become one of the most popular and in-demand classes at our school. When I first started high school, drama was a department that was mocked; people got picked on for being in it. I had my ups and downs and had second thoughts. On one hand I didn’t want to be picked on, but on the other hand I wanted to do something I enjoyed. I stuck with it and about three days after I made my decision to stay in, I watched my first Chaplin clip! It changed my life.


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