Dallas — “There is nothing funnier than unhappiness.”
I find myself continually coming back to this quote by Samuel Beckett when I enter into a new production with the Danielle Georgiou Dance Group. As artistic director and choreographer, I try to explore the human experience through the lens of comedy. If we can find the humor in our everyday life, the burden of each day grows lighter. But humor is subjective, and it can be tough to get right.
Comedy on stage is one of the hardest elements of performance — be it in theatre, and more so, in dance. While there is no exact formula for nailing that comic moment, I have found that there are tools to keep in mind while working toward the “laugh.” In my experience, the “laugh” is the audience’s connection with the material — when they feel that the show reflects their experience or resonates with their perspective.
While working on this new DGDG’s next production, The Bippy Bobby Boo Show (running late nights, Oct. 25-Nov. 2 in Theatre Too!, the basement space at Theatre Three) I find myself constantly asking, “Is this funny enough?” This question has gotten me stuck in rehearsal on more days in that I would like to admit. How do we earn audience response while making room for their experience? I have found myself running in circles, overthinking each blocking choice, and making slower progress than I would like.
So, I decided to task myself with three main objectives:
1. I will do my best to create honest moments. I want to avoid immediately going for the “easy choice,” something which may have come to mind too early in the life of the joke.
2. I will do my best not to stress that the joke is landing or if the audience will appreciate the humor. I don’t want to push the joke too hard or force it to work.
3. I will search for ways to make the performers laugh and to make myself laugh. If this happens, I know that the show is beginning to really connect with people.
So, how do I meet these challenges? First, I have to remind myself that I’m not alone in the process. As a choreographer, I feel the responsibility for making the material funny before the performers get to it. But all that setting-up of the shtick could lead to overworking the humor and not landing the joke. Instead, I try to remind myself that collaboration is always the key to success. Workshopping ideas, leaving room for play during rehearsals, and trying out every thought that comes forward during brainstorming sessions will help discover the best option.
Something that I am discovering while rehearsing The Bippy Bobby Boo Show is to allow for the time to explore, and if something doesn’t work, take it out, and breath. Remember, it’s no big deal. Always attempt more and keep less. Go for the weird. Go for the unusual. Go for the juxtaposition.
Exploring the unknown reminds you to stay honest. Trying to manufacture comedy is a classic hazard for artists. It rarely works. Instead, I try to work with the performers to discover ways in which they naturally respond to the text or the concept. What they bring to the table will inevitably lead to more conversation and exploration and will help us find the meat of the moment. If we look at comedy as a response to the human experience and emotions, then we can access a new level of empathy or surprise from the performers and, ultimately, the audience. Paying attention to the genuine reactions of the room tends to elicit laughter more than forced humor.
To reach this level of awareness, I used a variety of improvisational exercises. They help to instill patience and create space for experimentation. They also allow us to access honest, mundane, and the dark real-life situations that we regularly experience in a safe way.
Moreover, through these exercises, we start to discover the timing of moments, and as we are told, “timing is everything.” Holds, stops, and stillness can elevate humorous moments. It’s perfectly acceptable to take your time. That’s something that we can easily forget when directing. The audience is on our team. They want to be in the space with us, and they want to experience the show with us. Slow down. Enjoy. Extend those funny moments and then play with how long you can remain still. Does it get more ridiculous the longer you hold it?
Finally, I need to get a bracelet or t-shirt that says, “Stop trying to be so funny!” Because not trying to be funny is the first rule of performing humorous work. Many dancers might find this difficult as they are so tied to their technique, practices, and structure, that it’s hard to break out of the rigidity inherent in dance. Sometimes it’s a matter of pushing past a performer’s auto-response of wanting to be pretty and getting them comfortable with looking silly, slouchy, or turned-in. But this is a fine line because play doesn’t have to mean hamming it up. Instead, the trick is to play it straight. If you do what’s required of you from the material, you’ll get the laughs.
No one ever said comedy was easy. But we love it. We live for it. We need it. One of the ways we can deal with the stress and difficulties of everyday life is to laugh in the face of obstacles. Comedy truly brings out our most honest forms. If we can unlock the secret to bringing that to the dance stage, we might find that audiences are ready to laugh alongside us.
» Sixth Position now appears on the second Friday of the month on TheaterJones.com.
» Danielle Georgiou, Ph.D., is a dance educator, critic, and writer. She is the Founder and Artistic Director of DGDG (Danielle Georgiou Dance Group) whose work focuses on ensemble-building, devised work. Recently she was named associate artistic director at Undermain Theatre.
(If a month is missing, there was no column)
- February: Cash Choreography
- March: Make the Fringe Your Future
- April: Don't Freak Out, It's Just an Audition
- May: You Love Dance. You're Not Alone
- June: Persevering Through Movement
- July: Sharing in Success
- August: To the Barre
- September: Method Act
- October: Fear of Flying
- December: The Editor Dance
- January: Community Relations
- February: The Fabric of Movement
- March: State of the Dance
- April: The Dance Mom Complex
- May: Who Wants to Date a Dancer?
- June: Figuring How Men Fit In
- August: Creative Economy
- September: Dancing to Learn
- October: Whose Idea Is It Anyway?
- December: '15 Going on '16
- January: In Memoriam
- Februrary: The Politics of Dancing
- April: Defining Dance Theatre
- June: Dancing for Change
- September: Sweat the Details, Not the Consequences
- December: Louder Than Tweets
- January: Making and Moving
- February: Don't Fudge the Truth
- March: The Collective Unconsciousness of Creating
- April: Professionally Speaking
- May: Dancer Depictions
- July: Where Have all the Critics Gone?
- August: Rain Dance
- September: The Theory of Taking Risks
- October: Get in Line!
- March: Collaboration and the Poetics of Failing
- April: Performance Fear
- June: The 10-Year Dissonance
- November: A Contemporary Understanding of Dance
- December: A Year of Movement
- March: Where Credit is Due