The year before I went to Dell’Arte in 2009, I was taking classes with these mind-bending clowns in Chicago called 500 Clown (there’s actually only three) who have a no-holds-barred relationship with the audience and each other and perform on contraptions that fall out from under them. Their tenets are: Action, Risk, Audience, Humor. Brilliantly simple. One of them (Paul Kalina) had gone to Dell’Arte, so I took the plunge and moved to Blue Lake the next year.
Risk is also one of the tenets of Dell’Arte’s pedagogy: Effort, Risk, Momentum, Joy. And during my time at the school I got to hone my appetite and aptitude for being a danger ranger. My chief interest and joy swiftly became toying, pushing, flicking, prodding, trampling and destroying that ‘sacred space’ between audience and performer – that ubiquitous fourth wall. I also became interested in that moment where nobody in the theatre space – audience and performers alike – is sure of what’s going to happen next. When a performer makes a mistake, is caught by surprise, forgets their line, gets heckled by the audience; when something happens unexpectedly – a moment of pure reality.
I learned at Dell’Arte that another way to find this moment is by playing onstage as an athlete and to approach scenes as games. The risk of failure and how players navigate it is a main reason sports are so popular, that risk is what makes crowds sit forward, choose sides, scream and yell. I used to dream of a day where theatre shows could have the same effect as a football game and take place in a stadium with the audience painting their faces, waving foam fingers and cheering and jeering the actor players. The closest modern theatrical medium I’ve found to this is the circus and that’s where I’ve ended up.
After I left Dell’Arte I was inspired to take my risk adventuring to the next level. I did this in two primary ways. First, while at Dell’Arte, I had read about this obscure form of grotesque physical theatre called Bouffon in Jacques Lecoq’s book The Moving Body. That stuff looked ballsy and right up my alley. So when I got to San Francisco I joined the only company at the time exclusively dedicated to bouffon in the United States and studied the form extensively with master teachers Giovanni Fusetti and Dodi Desanto. I was driven to become as much of an expert at this form as possible. Bouffon – in my mind – is the riskiest theatrical territory because it requires every single tool in an actor’s toolbox often all at the same time. Bouffons, in their pure essence, are beings that can do and be anything; they are funhouse mirror reflections of the world around them, which requires a performer to be hyper aware and empathetic, reflexively sharp, have a large performative skill set, elite physicality, fearlessness of looking stupid, commitment to portraying taboo subject matter and an immense pleasure in seeking out risky situations like a fiend.
Two years ago I started my own company called Antic in a Drain where bouffon has become the heartbeat of my work. These days we don’t wear the stereotypical ‘humps and bumps’ that you’ll see on a lot of bouffons – in my experience it’s more subversive and risky to hide the distortion and I’m interested in using aspects of forms of theatre like bouffon, clown, circus, commedia, etc as means to an end in expressing my own unique vision not as the end all be all vehicle for that vision.
The second way I upped the stakes on my journey to Peril Road was by going to the San Francisco Circus Center where I began an (eight years now) pilgrimage to becoming a specialist in Chinese pole, one of the most risky and difficult of circus apparati. The risk of acrobatics is real physical risk. This year I sprained my left wrist, sprained my right finger and broke my right pinky. In the words of my former coach Master Lu Yi, “Training is bitter but the performance is so sweet.” And it’s true: there is no better feeling than hearing an audience roar when I do one of my drops on pole, the energy is palpable and it makes the endless hours in a room training by myself worth it. I live for taking those risks so the audience can experience them.
Truth be told, a lot of the time the audience is probably feeling it more than me because I’m often working hard to quiet the voices in my head that are questioning my life choices and predicting what might happen if I accidentally miss. This is another aspect of chasing risk, battling the inherent existential voices – my coach Dominic calls them the “Funny Friends” – that tell me I’m going to fail, that I’m not good enough, that it doesn’t make sense to do it that way. And battle them I do, for these Funny Friends are who will disperse the risk, make me fall, and cause me to make the ‘safe’ choice. For years I’ve been practicing the art of tuning out my Funny Friends, or acknowledging them and making fun of their existence; in doing so I risk going against my own reasoning.
I feel grateful to Dell’Arte not only for giving me one of the best years of my life but for helping to foster my addiction to physical and emotional risk which has become the cornerstone of my artistic trip. You’ve made me an addict Dell’Arte! Great job! A few years ago I won the Artistic Risk Award at the Vancouver Fringe Festival for my show The Greatest Monkey Show On Earth. That was probably the most meaningful award I’ve received to date because it acknowledged what I’ve been driven to do all these years. None of my artistic heroes are conformists to one particular style. They have unique visions. Because of my training in the styles at Dell’Arte, and my training and experience since, I’ve acquired enough tools and perspective to channel together my favorite aspects of bouffon, clown, circus, commedia, tragedy and melodrama to create an artistic vision that takes the risk of being authentically mine.
I have been incredibly lucky over the last half year to be a part of two projects that have tested and stretched my range as a performer to opposite ends of the spectrum. At the end of last year from September to December I got the opportunity to be a part of the creation and performance of Salvage with Kinetic Arts Productions where I portrayed Mutton, the lowest status clown in a circus infused post apocalyptic parallel universe.
Then, for a workshop week in January, and two weeks of rehearsal and performance in March of 2016, I have been a part of the creation and performance (we closed last night) of Panache with Firefly Theatre and Circus, where I portrayed His Excellency, the Earl of the Dukedom of Glorious Magnificence, and Viscount Baron of Marquis de la Cite – the beloved, the revered, the luminous … Ponce de Ponce de Panache. As his title suggests this character was the highest of high status in an alternate circus infused universe that was a combination of King Louis XIV’s reign, Hunger Games and a Donald Trump rally. In true Trumptastic fashion, my character – The Ponce – was an ambitious, uncompromising political provacateur who wasn’t daunted by saying whatever caused the tinderbox to combust. Such fun territory to sink my bouffon teeth into.
I feel so lucky to have had the opportunity within such a short amount of time to play two characters at such opposite ends of the status spectrum. I’m grateful to Jaron Hollander and the folks at Kinetic Arts as well as Annie Dugan and those at Firefly Theatre and Circus for seeing the skills in me to create and convince the audience of such drastically different character types. It hasn’t always been in my career that folks would take these risks and leaps of faith in my abilities to be transformative as a performer and give me such meaty roles to dig into. Now I’m looking forward to seeing, what extended character will I get to bite into next?! Oh wait, it’s Charles the Chimp in the remounting of The Greatest Monkey Show On Earth in April at Kinetic Arts in Oakland, but more on that later!
For the last six weeks I have had the privilege and honor to be working with some of the Bay Area’s finest circus performers on Kinetic Arts Productions’ Salvage; this original post apocalyptic circus is about a group of survivors compelled to reinvent their environment from the broken pieces of their recent past.
In this show I have been able to combine three of my favorite things in life: Buffoonery, Chinese pole and my apocalypse fervor. Its been a true blessing that I’ve been able to partake in this project with such giving, supportive collaborators. In the show, I get to eat cockroaches, become a monster and destroy the audience, do atrocious things with a toilet plunger and my character, Mutton, is a part of a twisted weird love triangle that you’re not gonna see in your traditional Ringling Brothers circus. Click HERE for dates, times and ticket info.
But Salvage isn’t my first End Times rodeo. Read on for a brief history of my artistic work in Armageddonland.
I have always been fascinated by the apocalypse. Ever since I was a little boy I reveled in fantasies of being the last person on earth, of saving humanity and wandering among total annihilation. As a writer, what I’ve penned has been almost exclusively concerned with issues of global cataclysmic proportions. As I’ve gotten older and zeroed in on the thesis of my imaginative obsession, I’ve come to realize that what I’m most intrigued by is the extremity, high stakes drama and opportunity for prophetic social commentary that Armageddonland holds. 1984 anyone?
AW AHOY NAMTO!
The senior year of my BFA at Savannah College of Art and Design my thesis project was to create and produce a solo piece. My play was called Aw Ahoy Namto! (To Rebel Against) and used Joseph Campbell’s Hero with a Thousand Faces and Hopi mythology as inspirations to create a mythological tale of good vs evil and a hero’s attempt to save the world. I was lucky to collaborate with Brian Macgregor on the visual world of the play. To see some pictures of the set we created click HERE and scroll right.
At the outset of the show I came charging into the theatre screaming “Close the doors! Lock the doors!” thus transforming the space into the ‘Oasis’ where my character, Waynumhoya, utilizing poetic storytelling, told of his call to adventure, refusal of call, road of trials, atonement of father and many other of the seventeen stages of a hero’s journey as detailed in Campbell’s book (a highly recommended read). Waynumhoya braved an epic array of internal and external obstacles to find an Enlightenment that would join ‘Dream Time’ and ‘Awake Time’ into ‘World Time’ once more, before the ‘Tainted’ could hold dominion over us once and for all. Sound convoluted? You bet ya it was! It was also heavy handed, idealistic, culturally appropriated and sentimental. I’m blushing, but here’s a monologue passage from my character Waynumhoya in the show:
After college I moved to Chicago. My second year there my one act play Static was produced at the Around the Coyote Festival. At the time I was binge reading Sarah Kane and the other In-Yer-Face playwrights of Britian’s 90’s, so Static was influenced with a heavy dose of treading on taboos and sticking the audience’s face in them. The play was about the last man and woman on earth and their disturbing existence locked in a basement after ‘The Invisible Bad Thing’ wiped out the rest of humanity.
These two characters stood for the two opposing arguments of whether to carry on the human race (Woman’s perspective) or finish it off for good and good riddance (Man’s perspective). Static, like Aw Ahoy Namto!, contained mythology and parable about the division of good and evil in society (oh that it were so simple). At the end, when the Man died, the Woman, after desperately and ineffectively trying to impregnate herself on his lifeless corpse in order to carry on the human race, began to cannibalize him, starting by cutting off his penis (yikes!). At one performance, during this extended death scene, an audience member hollowed out from the third row: “Die! Just Die Already! Die! DIE! DIE! Just Die!”
My first full length play, Winter Famine got a first draft reading at Chicago Dramatist Theatre, a developmental workshop at Stage Left Theatre and was a Semi – Finalist for the 2007 National Playwrights Conference at the Eugene O’Neill Theatre Center. But it has never been produced. Here’s the synopsis from when I was shopping this play around:
“In a dark future age where all the earth’s natural resources have been run to the ground and there is violence, war, torture and tyranny everywhere one looks, a famine plagues the world unlike any before it. Nobody is to be trusted and nothing is as it seems in this fractured reality where “The Falcon Faced Men” rule with an iron fist of oppression.
On the outskirts of this bleak existence, Susan and Bo, two brothers, are outcasts secluded in their cabin in the woods of Colorado where dark secrets from their past in the walls and under the floorboards haunt them. At first they seem to be living out their own trivial isolated day-to-day drama, but as their stories unfold and their intentions and motivations are laid bare it turns out it isn’t such a routine day for them after all. And tensions escalate when Susan divulges that a Wererabbit has come to help his brother and himself to repent for any bad things they may have done in the past and to restore them to their right path in life; a path for the greater good of all, a path from which they were knocked so long ago.”
There ya have it. Super proud of this one. It’s crazy weird. Would love to get it produced some day. Hint, hint producers out there!
HOW A BLOOD ORANGE GROWS IN THE EYE OF AN ACID STORM
Thus begins my post apocalyptic, race war, vampire epic of Shakespearean ambitions. I’ve only showed this piece to a few close confidants. I wrote it out of inspiration from working on Miguel Pinero’s play The Sun Always Shines For The Cool with Urban Theatre Company in Chicago. I was understudy to Fearless Fernando for the role of Willie Bodega (who I got to go on and play twice, one of the most exciting performance experiences I’ve ever had.)
In the world of Blood Orange, religious wars have decimated the earth followed by resource wars and race wars. Vampires have come to rule ethnically split societies, taking away books to keep the underlings from the Bibles, Korans and knowledge that caused so much trouble in the first place. The Whites are cast as the bad guys, living on a hegemonic island ruled over by a cruel vampire dictator named the ‘White Plague.’ It’s here where they feed on the flesh of captives of color that they steal from the mainland in order to survive.
On the mainland, we are introduced to the characters of non white ethnic background, with names like Tick, Dawg, Magle, Sodomy, Dame Backrow and the boss of their society, a vampire who goes by the name of (Gulp) Fuck Christ. He is actually Judas, who has been doomed to walk the earth for eternity after betraying Jesus. At some point he picked up his blasphemous moniker after years of seeing Jesus’ message misinterpreted and defiled. The course of the play follows FC and his society as they prepare to retaliate against the ‘White Plague’ and his denizens for their most recent abduction of food captives, which included Fuck Christ’s daughter.
As a white person of privilege I’ve struggled with my right to appropriate and write the people that I did in this play but it was a fun exercise and I got to write some crazy characters and scenes and made up my own phonetically spelled dialect. Here’s a sample scene for your enjoyment:
From 2010 to 2013 I was one half of Naked Empire Bouffon Company, a company solely dedicated to the research and performance of the satirical physical theatre form of bouffon. As the first project during my tenure with the company I convinced the Artistic Director to work on solo pieces. Mine was a continuation of work that I had started in Giovanni Fusetti’s month long bouffon intensive in Boulder Colorado in 2009. Apocalyptika was a satirical romp that takes a sledgehammer to the convenient stories we tell ourselves about how our world will end. Here’s a quote about the show from Nicole Gluckstern’s column The Performant:
“Ross as Zooka burst into the room, screaming a war cry and dressed in tattered camouflage. He circled the crowd knowingly, leaping on the backs of the sofas they sat in, leering at their shock. Like a one-man Mad Max, he ably deconstructed the post-apocalypse genre of action films and doomsayer surrender in a series of vignettes that mapped out the bizarre terrains of alien abduction, zombie uprisings, nuclear holocaust, and macho bullshit.”
Here’s a clip from the show where my character Zooka Splat mocks greed, gluttony and the every man for himself mentality in the face of global catastrophe:
One of my specialties as an actor is as a motion capture performer. I get in a black wetsuit with lights all over it and move around while cameras capture my movements and immediately transfer them onto animated avatars. It’s like putting on a virtual mask – so cool. A few years ago I did all of the motions for this post apocalyptic animated short:
HOLD TIGHT THE LION
FINALLY! … For many years I’ve been working on this piece that I will be premiering in 2016. This play is set in a futuristic world where violence has become love and a Man and Woman play pitch dark satirical games, creating their own mythologies in order to persevere in the face of the violence they have suffered. It asks the question; What happens when violence becomes so overwhelming and commonplace it loses its meaning and context?
Here’s an excerpt of the play. Stay tuned for more details!:
After four months of travel which included touring The Greatest Monkey Show On Earth to two fringe festivals in Edmonton and Vancouver, Canada and traveling with the love of my life to Colorado, Thailand and Washington, DC, I am finally settling back into San Francisco and getting a chance to breath (kind of). I’m feeling blessed and fulfilled by all the experiences I had the good fortune to have this year and look forward to building upon this momentum for 2015.
One of my goals for 2015 is to keep a regular blog. I will be writing posts about my 2014 tour experiences, my travels in Thailand, my current projects and travels, my thoughts on art and world events and whatever the heck else inspires me to write something.
Here’s some of the special happenings that defined 2014 for me:
- After 4 years of training Chinese pole with Master Lu Yi I built a solo Chinese pole act.
- I auditioned for Circus Bella (a company I’ve long wanted to work with) and got into the company!
- I performed my pole act at over 11 different parks and festivals in the Bay Area with Circus Bella
- I met the love of my life Amelia Van Brunt. She’s the bees knees. Our first date was a Prince Tribute Circus Show. It was Scandalous.
- I wrote two grants and didn’t get either of them.
- I started my own performance company called Antic in a Drain and got fiscally sponsored by Fractured Atlas. Join the Antic Movement Here!
- I built a new website for myself and my company at www.rosstravis.com
- With lots of help and feedback from my incredible web of supportive friends I wrote, acted, directed, designed, built and produced my first one person show with Antic in a Drain called The Greatest Monkey Show On Earth.
- I successfully fundraised $2,600 to help produce and create the Monkey Show.
- I toured the Monkey Show to the Edmonton and Vancouver Fringe Festivals where I got a four star rating from Todd James of the Global News and I won the inaugural Artistic Risk Award which made my year to be honored in this way.
- In Vancouver I got scouted by a Cirque Du Soleil talent scout who came to my show and asked me to audition for them. I was one of two performers who made it all the way to the final cut and into Cirque’s database. That felt affirming.
- I traveled to Colorado, Thailand and Washington, DC with my lover Amelia to spend time with family and travel. We had a freaking blast. In the Pei Pei Islands we both got so ill we spent the night in the hospital and I crapped my pants and threw up simultaneously in front of her. In the morning she said she still loved me so I think the deal is sealed.
- I whipped my self back into shape in two weeks after having not trained for a month and a half (a painful and humbling experience) and performed my pole act in Mittens and Mistletoe with Sweet Can Circus Productions (another company I’ve admired and long dreamed of working with.)
- I worked three part time jobs. One as an outdoors educator/fake sailor at Maritime National Park, one as a standardized patient at Stanford School of Medicine and one as a motion capture performer with Mixamo and Phasespace.
In 2015 I will continue to tour and develop the Monkey Show. I am also excited to be joining forces again with Firefly Theatre and Circus in Edmonton, Canada this year. I had an incredible time working with Firefly in 2013 on their production of Craniatrium. For two weeks in March I will go to Edmonton to collaborate in the development of a new piece which is slated to premiere in 2016. This year I’m also thrilled to help my girlfriend who is creating her own solo show and company. Her company name is Bad Bad Bunny and I’m excited to see what she comes up with. I am also writing grants and beginning work on some new ideas. One is a web series about an antic living in a drain. The other is a satire about dwindling natural resources and what happens when nature strikes back at the superior species. But more on that stuff later.
Thanks for reading! And Happy New Year!
Over the last five years I have been proud to call Circus Center my home. I came to the school after a year of studying physical theatre at Dell’Arte International in Blue Lake, California and I was in the first year of the Professional Acrobatics Program at Circus Center. Upon arrival I expected to learn everything immediately and to become an acrobatic phenomenon inside of a year. As I’m sure you can imagine, I was chagrined to find out that learning acrobatics takes much more time than that! During that first year I would often get extremely frustrated and stand in the corner of the gym or sit in the bleachers bemoaning my very existence. Don’t remind Master Lu Yi about this-he wouldn’t let me live it down for years, but hasn’t brought it up recently and I’d like to keep it that way. Perhaps the reason he hasn’t brought it up is because over the years since my first year at Circus Center I have learned to become more patient, controlled, focused, and dedicated. I have trained Chinese pole with Master Lu Yi for five years now and the school has become a haven where I have developed and refined my work.
When I was invited to be an Artist-in-Residence at Circus Center, I was honored and ecstatic to take the school up on the offer. I had been accepted into the Edmonton and Vancouver Fringe Theatre Festivals a few months before, and I had started the development of a new one-man show that for the first time combined all of my disciplines of training and expertise into one piece. Over the last six years I have trained and studied an obscure form of grotesque satirical physical theatre called bouffon; I have also trained as a clown; and finally, I have trained as an acrobat. Never before now have I taken my favorite aspects of each of these disciplines and put them together. The result is The Greatest Monkey Show On Earth, the first production of my new performance company called Antic in a Drain.
The show combines the provocative humor of bouffon, the vulnerability of clown, audience interaction, and spectacular feats of acrobatics to explore the themes of captivity versus freedom. The primary questions that the show sets out out explore are: What does captivity and objectification of animals do, not only to animals but to us as humans? And what are the repercussions and consequences of keeping (any) being captive? I recently did the first half of the show at the Fools Fury Factory Festival where this was said:
“The athleticism displayed in The Greatest Monkey Show on Earth is only matched by its insightful social commentary. Ross Travis uses human and animal relations to explore issues of imprisonment, agency, and coercion. The audience will laugh and scream with a smile, but as the lights go down they are left with haunting personal questions.”
– Dillon Slagle, LMDA
Building this show is easily one of the most ambitious and overwhelming things I have ever done in my life. It has consumed me. I am working mostly by myself with lots of outside eyes, helping hands, and support along the way. From building the costume to marketing the show to writing the script and shopping for props, while in between finding moments to intensely research everything simian, this project is daunting but ultimately extremely fulfilling. It has been a true joy to have the support of Circus Center in making this dream a reality.
I hope you’ll come and join me on August 2nd and 3rd at 8:00pm when I perform The Greatest Monkey Show On Earth at Circus Center. After that I will be leaving to perform the show in Canada at the Edmonton Fringe Festival (August 14th-24th) and the Vancouver Fringe Festival (September 4th – 14th.)
In the meantime, I am also happy to be performing my Chinese pole act with Circus Bella in parks all across the Bay this summer. This is an act I developed at Circus Center this year and its been an incredible experience seeing the act grow and ripen under the rigor of performing in the open elements. I hope you’ll come see some circus in the park! Here’s the schedule.
Ross Travis, Artist in Residence, San Francisco Circus Center