At the former Nestlé’s Chocolate Factory in LA’s Historic Filipino District last week, a communal gathering of comedy performers was getting physical.
A theatrical underground of funny people inside this 6,000 square foot space on Temple Street (the building also houses the LA Derby Dolls), SLAPCON 2013 featured clowns, acrobats, jugglers of all shapes and sizes crashing into each other, collapsing on mats, and poking punchy all over the place.
It looked like a convention of Keystone Kops, Laurel & Hardy, Keaton & Lloyd, and many, many Stooges. More than two-dozen physical comedians, for two days, twelve hours a day knocking about and no air-conditioning. This is a festival?
Pancake juggling chef and organizer of SLAPCON Scot Nery said he just, “sent out information to a bunch of clowns and stuntmen and here we are; physical performers, comedians, actors, all kinds of who want to exert themselves and figure out what the limits of their physical abilities are.”
Performers from LA, San Francisco and New York took part, including Hilary Chaplain, who tours the world with her clown and solo shows. She described SLAPCON as a “big cross-pollination of people from within the normal circles of physical comedy mixed with people new to it, creating a larger circle of folks who want to expand within this form.”
The form of slapstick goes back at least as far as the Renaissance—well, I’m sure probably to the “Clan of the Cave Bear”—but when travelling theater troupes performed their outdoor commedia dell’arte they had a club made of two wooden slats (a battocchio) and used it to hit each other. Fast-forward from the 15th century and you find yourself in the middle of a breakaway beer bottle fight, right?
Melissa Kaplan, a blogger at the LA Times, was a clown working on her technique at SLAPCON . “You’re falling and you’re learning to take it and love it,” she said. “You’re really just embracing all the hits.” Kaplan, developing a solo show called, “The Ballad of Daggers Mackenzie,” told me one of the great pleasures of SLAPCON was having plenty of playtime.
“For me, this is one big heaping helping of improv,” she said. “And release and energetic wonder. I get to slap people and fall, and love it. Because we don’t get to hit people enough in fair society.”
Kurt Vonnegut defined slapstick (in his book "Slapstick") as: “grotesque situational poetry.” Hi ho. And there’s plenty of that at SLAPCON; everything from Cirque and Alexander technique was on display, with an emphasis on team work and safety, counterbalance and general goofiness involving skits, props, pulling faces and shoving shaving cream.
Each activity, said Scot Nery, is geared toward “learning and advancing the art of violent physical comedy.”
Movie and TV stunt people were attracted to SLAPCON , too. Jeri Kalvan, who did all of Kirsten Dunst’s stunts in the Spider Man movies, and works with the likes of Bryce Howard and Alyson Hannigan, digs the “amazing creative energy” she found.
“Everybody’s in,” she says, while helping Nery cook up sumptuous meals attendees scarfed up just outside the warehouse/hothouse of hijinks. “I would recommend this to other stunt actors. You’re learning to fall. And it’s more about live performance.”
Suzanne Haring, from Redondo Beach, is a stilt walking balloon-creating clown (she builds and boards entire galleons out of balloons for Pirates of the Caribbean premieres) and has been performing for nearly 40 years. She told me the older you get, the more you really do not want to hurt yourself doing physical comedy. “Especially with slapstick,” she said, “where you’re not supposed to get hurt doing it even though it looks like you’re getting slapped and kicked and punched. But you do throw your head back and you do throw your body around, so learning how to do it in a way that doesn’t hurt me…”
She said one of her great loves is “crashing on the floor with a big fluffy mat.”
“Come on you gotta try it!” she hollered.
Well, since there’s a fine line between slapstick and slapshtick … no thanks.
Meanwhile, Philip Solomon, proprietor at the 1901 Temple Street venue (“Way 2 Much Entertainment, Innovative Theatrical Specialists”) said his plan is to keep this indoor playground open for any performer in need of a workout. And he’ll also be reaching out to Echo Park residents and his “Hi-Phi” neighbors, offering classes in the kind of physical fooling his friends at SLAPCON love to dive – and fall—right into.
Vonnegut said something else in "Slapstick" I like: “The fundamental joke with Laurel & Hardy it seems to me, was they did their best with every test. They never failed to bargain in good faith with their destinies and were screamingly adorable and funny on that account.”
A fine inspiration for slapstick partakers everywhere.