Conversations on Theater with Paul Kalina

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Interview by Peter Davis

Photography by Jack Sossman

Center Stage opens their season with Animal Crackers. This new adaptation by Henry Wishcamper is based on the original book by George S. Kaufman & Morrie Ryskind, music and lyrics by Bert Kalmar & Harry Ruby.

Paul Kalina is Director of Physical Comedy. A trained physical performer and director, Kalina is a Co-Founding member of the physical theater company 500 Clown, a Represented Artist with Cirque du Soleil, and an Assistant Professor of Movement at The University of Iowa. Paul was also involved in the Goodman Theater’s (Chicago) production of Animal Crackers.

I know Paul from my time in Chicago. The first time I saw 500 Clown perform 500 Clown Macbeth they blew my head off. I had never seen anything like what they do before. Each 500 Clown show is rooted with a simple premise—in the case of  Macbeth it was–Clown want crown. They spent two years developing the piece. Artistically they aim high and leave no wiggle room. The risk of failure is always imminent. Every moment charged with suspense, and the audience is rewarded with awe and delight. If Paul can bring some of this to Animal Crackers, Baltimore is in for a joy ride in a very fast car.

 

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Peter

What’s the gig?

 

Paul

I’m the Director of Physical Comedy. I’ve worked on Animal Crackers before at the Goodman Theater (in Chicago) with Henry (Wishcamper who adapted it based on the original book by George S. Kaufman & Morrie Ryskind, music and lyrics by Bert Kalmar & Harry Ruby). The piece is still in development. There are a lot of holes. When you get this script, even from the original, it will say, “business.’ That’s what Kaufman wrote in, because he didn’t know what to write. Especially with Harpo.

So, BJ (Jones, the Director) started asking questions like how you do this or that, and then asked if I would work on it.

 

Peter

Why are you the right guy to fill in the holes?

 

Paul

I’m lucky. There are some amazing physical performers here (in Baltimore and DC). I was in the right place at the right time.

Originally, at the Goodman Theater (Chicago regional equity theater), they thought–wouldn’t it be great if 500 Clown (a Chicago Theater company Paul co-founded) was the Marx Brothers. If you look at our dynamic, we did what the Marx Brothers were doing in their time…creating anarchy and challenging the establishment and the established ways of doing things. But our clowns or personas didn’t match. It just didn’t work. Because I grew up watching the Marx Brothers movies, and my father saw them live onstage, there was something that clicked with Henry (writer/adapter) and me, so I got a call to be Director of Physical Comedy in the Goodman production. And again, now, for Center Stage. We’re still working the piece.

 

Peter

What’s the premise of Clown?

 

Paul

The Marx Brothers. Holding a mirror up to ourselves, society, while challenging the establishment. The Marx Brothers weren’t doing it consciously. They were just being who they were. They were fighting their whole lives just to survive, so that just came forward. A really playful and wonderful sense of arrogance that comes from, especially with Groucho, a kind of insecurity. So, consequently, he’s challenging hypocrisy and the establishment.

 

Peter

What’s your approach?

 

Paul

Helping them crawl inside the personas of these icons. Helping the actors find that path. I call it the Joaquin Phoenix. When he played Johhny Cash, he wasn’t trying to…mimic, but instead found the essence of Cash, and so, we say—That’s Johnny Cash! There’s artistry behind it. We’re trying to help these actors find the essence of these icons. And let them bring their own artistry to it. It’s a process, a hard process. You have to mimic first. And then you have to play in that mimicry and slowly allow your artistry to bleed through, fill in, and take it to a whole new place.

 

Peter

There’s a parallel authenticity happening — the icon we remember and the live actor in the moment.

 

Paul

Exactly, otherwise you have a caricature. And in the past that’s kind of what you see with Groucho. Some people will accept it, but it’s not as rich. Because Groucho attacked people. And we loved it. He attacks his audience and the other actors. And when the (Marx) brothers go head to head that’s when he’s met his match. The playing field is even. It’s beautiful, I love it.

 

Peter

How do you help an actor find their own clown while portraying an icon?

 

Paul

It all comes back to truth and a sense of play. I asked Bruce (Nelson, playing Groucho), what do you see in Groucho’s work? What does it mean, how does it work for you? Once he started talking about that, then he found his way in. You have to go, why do I laugh, why do I love this? Because that’s my truth. Then I can salute that. And then I can also expose myself. Somewhere in there the two truths emerge together and that’s what makes a clown so powerful. There’s plenty of hard work—craft—involved, but truth is supporting that work.

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Peter

How do you balance letting the actor find their thing and getting the results you think the piece or moment needs? When do you step in?

 

Paul

When it’s not funny, I step in. That is the dance. That is the job.

I’ll come in when they’ve missed the essence of what the piece, character or moment needs to be. All the people in the cast know comedy and they understand how to turn it. But the way they turn their comedy may not be the way the Groucho, Chico or Harpo do it.

 

Peter

Why do you think our American “standard” theater requires experts in physical clowning and movement?

 

Paul

Why do we need a choreographer? Everyone can dance, go choreograph! You need that outside eye, just like anything else.

Mid part of last century we started to get into psychological realism, rocked the world with it, and neglected the body. However, people like Jacques Lecoq and others in Europe were training students to use the body as an artistic tool and mode of expression. Their students are now instructors hitting their stride in this country training the next generation of theater artists.

 

Peter

Is your clown madman or trickster, or poet?

 

Paul

None of us are one dimension. It depends who I’m in relationship with. What we’re doing is putting out our truths. We’re going to blow it up and say, Ha! Let people laugh at it. When you do that you have a clown.

 

Peter

How do you know when your clown is working?

 

Paul

Good question. In 500 Clown it was critical to me that it not only be extreme physical comedy, but some sort of pathos. It’s something that’s really important to me. If I can have somebody laughing at me and sympathizing with me then maybe there’s some sort of catharsis or awareness.

 

Peter

What do you do when it isn’t working?

 

Paul

Either change course or make an exit really fast. Don’t make them suffer through it. The first step is to be honest. Admit it isn’t working. It’s easy to blame the audience or somebody else other than myself, when truthfully, I didn’t meet them there. I was pushing on the audience instead of going, oh, they’re not going there. I need to step back and go, where are we? Meet them there and change course.

You train, you train, you train, then when you go onstage you’re open to surprises. You don’t know what’s going to come at you. Hopefully, if your partners are really great it will be exciting and fun. You have the idea, you understand the structure of the game, but not the particulars.

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Peter

What’s the relationship between listening, risk and humor?

 

Paul

Going back to 500 Clown. For me, physical rick was not an issue. Standing naked, emotionally, in front of an audience, that was my risk. It was critical that was part of it. Listening to my partners and the audience…is it really happening? Am I being honest? From that, true humor, the humor that makes us laugh and recognize our own humanity, can happen.

I didn’t want to be a clown. I went to Dell Arte because I was going to study Mask! It was a really great experience. I was really authentic as an Arlecchino, but I couldn’t be authentic in my own acting. I feel it, but I can’t get it out. I went to Dell Arte but I didn’t want to take clown, yet clown gave me everything I was looking for, and I bowed down to the form and said this is me, this is what I am. In my opinion it is the basis of all great acting. Whether an actor knows they’re a clown or not, if you are truthful and willing to expose everything, you’re a clown. A clown is resilient.

 

Peter

A clown is resilient.

 

Paul 

A clown doesn’t know to stay down. It stays down its tragedy.

 

Peter

Then the clown doubles down on the aspiration that got him down.

 

Paul

We’re too simple minded. We just keep getting back up.

 

Peter

Why are you here?

 

Paul

Because the Marx Brothers are what 500 Clown does. They shook up the theater. It was a dangerous place…in a good way. That is what Henry saw in me and wanted to bring to this piece.

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