Sunday, December 2, 2012

The Sunday Read: First-Person - Keith Waterfield on Follies

Holly Gauthier-Frankel

How to Enter Vaudeville
by Keith Waterfield

“Let’s fuck and make art.” Those words solidified the relationship between Alain Mercieca and me a year ago. We first met at Theatre Ste Catherine (TSC to the inner circle types) at one of the hundreds of wrap parties for one of the hundreds of shows that the theatre puts on throughout the year. Alain, the artistic director, head-mopper and chief booze slinger at TSC and I had an instant repertoire that caused never-ending chortles of laughter from anyone within an earshot of our jibber-jabber. It became clear that we had to take our wit to the stage, to share it with anyone who would pay and thus we formed the neo-vaudevillian comedy partnership known throughout the Montréal fringe comedy circuit as Genius Gold. As a stand-up comedian I am used to working alone: artistic solitary confinement is a comfort and I thought it would be a difficult transition – relying on people is not something I am prepared to do. Throughout the year of “grinding” out shows, videos and sketches I have learned to share the stage and perhaps have become a little less self-absorbed. Alain’s head also takes up more stage space than my entire body. Our shtick onstage reminded me of classic vaudeville acts:  anarchy most of the time, carefully thought out. The variety shows we were involved in at TSC (like DeAnne Smith’s Freedom Nation or Mr McStevie’s Merry Good Time) got me thinking about an actual vaudeville variety program – an evening set in nostalgia.  It would be neo-vaudeville, it would be a punk rock cabaret, and it would feature the greatest talents in Montreal and beyond, to showcase their rare and sensational gifts.

Keith and Alain

Andy Kaufman’s Carnegie Hall concert is one of the most ambitious and brilliant moments of entertainment. It wasn’t just the comedy Kaufman was concerned with, it was the experience. The audience watched with childlike wonder, and had no idea what to expect on stage. He ended the show by putting his audience on 24 buses, and driving them to get milk and cookies. It’s been almost 15 years since I first saw a copy of this performance, and since then I’ve been waiting to create a show with as much imagination, talent and magic as Kaufman’s had. I’ve surrounded myself with creative types – performers, writers, designers – and built a network of colleagues and friends who could eventually be a part of such a show. (cont'd)

Bad Uncle
When I began booking for Waterfield’s Follies (a title which I honestly did not come up with – but did agree to) I started with searching for a house band. The house band would be the backbone of the evening, setting the tone for acts to follow. They would have soul and edge and their rider would include something ridiculous like “a hollowed out llama filled with whiskey & 187 beers”. I found that band in Bad Uncle: “Accordions bent down the unholy path of psychobilly. Gypsy music punished by the merciless embrace of Grindcore. Opera drenched in reverb saturated surf guitar. Bluegrass painted black. Black metal painted blue. This is Bad Uncle.” From there I needed an act so unique and original that upon seeing them perform an audience member could not leave the show without feeling proud for having taken themselves out on a Thursday night. The Blue Mushroom Sirkus Psyshow came to mind instantly – I had seen them perform over a year ago at the Rialto theatre and wanted to quit my job and join their merry troupe – I hired them instead.  With a sword-swallower, strong-man, world class burlesque dancer and many other performers this “rag-tag troupe from days gone by […] conjuring memories of popcorn and candy apples” will definitely leave a lasting impression on the audience. 

It was easy to build a lineup after securing those first acts. Wave a spot in front of an artist, offer money (not even that much) and they will come a running. Every sideshow act from barrel-jumpers to comedic boxers was considered. In the end, I have found Montreal’s best circus, comedy, sketch, juggling, burlesque, song, dance, and theatre performers who are willing to work in inevitable anarchy.  With all the acts booked and a week before the show I have few things left to do. Find a through line for the show and finish this article.

For the unifying theme of the show, the heartbeat, I have turned to my own comedy duo Genius Gold to host the evening. Alain and I are writing sketches every moment of every day for the show. We’re testing make-up designs and costume choices. We’re running down the railroad tracks with umbrellas, heavy suitcases and big hook-canes – getting into character while endangering our lives. We do it for the sake of comedy. I have been on depressants lately just to become more of a tragic character. Alain has quit all of his jobs and started selling Pogs to anyone who will buy.  Together, with our sad clown friend David Heti, we hit the streets telling jokes and throwing tomatoes at ourselves. This is our preparation. This is how we train. By December 6, 8:00pm, we will be ready for whatever abuse the audience and acts throw our way. If everyone’s good we might take them out for milk and cookies. 

Waterfield's Follies is at the Segal

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