The Art of Silence: A Lot Can Be Said for Saying Nothing

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Stan C. Wolnic in Hold That Train
 Stan Wolnic in “Hold That Train” circa 1915
 
Known for his athleticism, Stan would find great success as a stunt comic in the early years of silent filmmaking.

 

In the days of early film before talkies, great comedians like Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Stan C. Wolnic and Harold Lloyd kept us in stitches with their physical antics and extreme facial expressions. Many of these early film stars risked life and limb during their wild stunts, all to make us laugh. With the dawn of sound in motion pictures comic actors began to use verbal wit more and rely less on art of pantomime. Although we still had the Stooges and Laurel and Hardy who were heavy handed on the slapstick, many comics moved to patter such as Groucho Marx and W.C. Fields to establish their characters. Harpo Marx was once told that he did not have the voice for stage and thus made his mark in comedic history as the silent comic foil to his silver-tongued brother Groucho and fast talking, faux Italian counter part Chico. Red Skelton, certainly well noted for his crazy characters and goofy voices, mastered the art of pantomime and made silent skits part of his regular show. Red did not have to rely on prat falls, but he painted a picture that could evoke a number of emotions from giggles and belly laughs to having his audience well up with tears as he acted out different vignettes all without uttering a single word. So let’s explore some possibilities to this wonderful art form of silence and how it pertains to clowning.
 

Making the connection:

Have you ever watched intently as a baby discovers their toes for the first time with complete and utter awe in their eyes? How about laughing hysterically as a cat jumps straight in the air 15 feet as it’s startled by a sound? As simple as it may be, this is a pure form of visual entertainment. The little baby brings joy to our hearts as we see the developing mind at work, or laughing uncontrollably as the cat completely loosing control over being caught off guard. Recreating these reactions is what the entertainer aspires to achieve with body language and facial expressions.
 
This does not mean you have to do a completely silent act to get these kinds of reactions from your audience; learning the value of a dramatic pause before a punch line or giving a bewildered stare as your character is confused over a situating will enhance a talking skit. Actor Norman Fell mastered the comic gaze into the camera after he delivered his punch line; this drew the television audience sitting at home right into the TV world of Three’s Company. As an entertainer, we sometimes forget to stop our production briefly to truly connect with the audience. Our audience wants to feel a part of the show, so to create a bond with them; we must pause and react to our audience instead of just plowing through our 20 minutes material. Take the cat for example, is it funny because it jumped straight up in the air 6 feet or because it did so over the least little thing? I believe it’s both, now how do we take this principle into your show? Suppose you are in a skit where you receive a blow to the head with a giant foam hammer, just to stand there rubbing your head saying OW, might get a snicker or two. Try this instead after being struck, you buckle at your knees and drop to the floor, your audience is going to howl with laughter. Overreacting to something is a great way to get a positive audience reaction.
 

A lot can be said for saying nothing:

One does not have to travel abroad to run into the language barrier. The United States is truly a melting pot of cultures and languages. Often times I have been hired to entertain at a family gathering and upon my arrival found that there are members of the family in from the “old country” that speak little or no English. Obviously all the funny jokes in my repertoire will have no impact on them, so it’s time to use the language everyone can understand, body language. I have found juggling is a handy skill to have; a few minutes of juggling can captivate most any crowd. You don’t have to rely on any of the magic or skits you prepared for the show, using objects at hand show the crowd that you are truly a talented entertainer. Folding chairs make a wonderful prop and are usually readily available at public gatherings.
 

Silent Clown Routine:

  • Once you spot an empty folding chair, make your way toward it with eager persistence as if it is the last seat in the house, now at the chair, attempt to fold it to the closed position but you just can’t seem to get it shut
  • Failing to close the chair by mere arm strength, place your foot on the seat and try to force it closed, over exaggerate your motions like this thing is welded shut. Now slip your foot through the open back of the chair and and (gently) close it on your leg. Stare at this mess you’ve just ended up in for a moment, then gaze at your crowd with bewilderment. Wrestle the chair back to the open position and pull your leg out of the chair.
  • Distraught with your failed attempt of closing the chair, you now opt to leave it open and try to move it across the floor to a more desirable location.
  • Gingerly grab the back of the chair as if to lift it and start walking away, jerk your body back to the chair as if it weighs a ton. Confused at the size to weight ratio, plant your feet firmly behind the chair, grab the chair back with both hands and try to lift it, grimacing as it’s much too heavy to lift.
  • Come to the side of the chair and try shoving it across the floor but you instead just slip and slide your feet with out budging the chair an inch (you accomplish this by pushing downward on the chair and sliding your feet frantically away from the chair).
  • Exhausted from your encounter with this mysterious chair, come around to the front of it to take a seat. As you sit, simply give the chair a shove backwards sliding it away from you as you fall on your bum.
  • Stand up dust your self off and take a bow letting your audience know your antics are through.

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