Delving Into the Devices (Performative and Literal) of Richard Saudek’s BEEP BOOP
There are 6 entries for Beep Boop on Urban Dictionary. The top one defines the phrase as a ‘countershutdown used when you are being shutdown, or you are at a loss for words’ (JWoo2, Nov 30 2008). The second, which many of us will be more familiar with, is the sound from a dial-up modem from back when the internet was brought to us through telephone lines and free trial CDs from America Online (AOL). (Who else has memories of 1993’s ‘Storm of the Century’ and after being frozen and done with snow adventures, popping the disc into your computer and venturing in to the vast and unknown realm of chat rooms?) Both definitions have resonance to Richard Saudek’s one-clown show Beep Boop, which has been running at HERE Arts Center since September 7th and just extended through October 7th.
Described as a ‘dark and whimsical show inspired equally by silent-era masters and vaudevillian peculiarity’ the 60 minute performance journeys through a day in the life of ‘A Guy’ left with and to his own devices. From being completely absorbed by his smartphone in public spaces (subway cars and city streets come vividly to life through the sound design of Jesse Novak) to partnering with it and an additional iPad and laptop in the private and isolated world of his apartment (here enabled by the technical fantasia of foley artists Brendan Aaens and Nora Kaye), Saudek virtuosically lends physical and comic dexterity to his silent and powerfully expressive clown-character “A Guy” in all of his attempts to find the promise of interconnectivity in our disembodied, disconnected world.
I sat down with Saudek over the course of the run, from load-in to first week of rehearsals to have a conversation about what inspired the piece and the place of clown-theater in contemporary performance landscape.
J: Richard! I’m going to start with the obvious question, where does the idea behind Beep Boop come from?
R: Well, [pause] I was listening to this song by the Handsome Family, where he’s describing a world that is deeper, darker, and better — that existed before *you* were born. I was listening through Spotify, on my iPhone, on a train in New York City.I found myself longing for this visceral muddiness, dead leaves, wind, stars … the feeling of being alive, feeling human on the planet instead of being plugged into a blue glow. That song really struck a chord with me and I thought, wouldn’t it be interesting to explore what it’s like to be all the way in one direction, meaning plugged in, and then existing all the way in the other direction completely deeper, darker and better. So I took this idea of showing what it’s like to exist alone with your devices and started exploring that alone in a rehearsal room and then slowly got to the point where I was thinking of the conventional ways of using clown, vaudeville, and physicality to bring forward that deeper, darker, human place to interact with and speak about all the plugged in, cyber meshugas (laughs) that we all deal with today.
Stops to observe HERE’s cafe where we’ve settled into a corner for this conversation.
Everybody in this room is on their phone right now. That’s usually the case.
We pause to look at the scene together for a minute or two before returning to our conversation.
I would film myself with one device interacting with another device. And I was thinking of conventional clown or vaudevillian tropes that could work with my fooling around, such as the magic suitcase routine where Bill Irwin opens up his trunk and opens up a few flights of stairs before entering in. Or where a magician opens up his small suitcase and pulls out an oversized object. That works with a laptop. If you turn that laptop towards yourself and away from the audience it sets up the same boundaries as the magic suitcase routines.
J: Crafting material alone with technology, particularly a one-clown show, seems like it would be a performative challenge…
R: I always knew that Beep Boop would be portraying someone in isolation, but I also knew that in order to, I hope this is true, in order to be a clown you need an audience. The audience is your last resort, your only hope, the reason you do something. So it was always big and difficult to create the isolation of the character and incorporate the gaze of the audience to play with and off of. The process of creating the flow of the show had a lot to do with answering, what’s the logic that takes us from one trope to the next. And then, if that’s true, if that’s what we’re doing then, how might the character react/respond. It never started as, this is the character I want to portray and this is the characters journey that I want to show, it was really, let’s be playful and create things that are entertaining, funny or sad see what that does to the character by way of the environment and audience responses.
J: I keep thinking about the environment in relation to the idea of boundaries that you mention. It’s so easy to understand the boundaries of an object like a suitcase and its limits. The laptop/device as the magical suitcase is such an interesting framing device because rather than suspending our belief and going with Bill Irwin down the spiral staircase of his trunk, we interact with our devices and actually believe we are acting or participating with the infinite space we once had disbelief of.
R: See, I knew I was onto something! I remember looking at people in coffeeshops on their computers or phones, and imagining the little synapses firing in their brains, all the activity, the way the eye flicks around on the screen, digesting information or the way people’s scrolling thumbs act like maniacal little beings independent of the rest of their bodies. Then there’s the added blue glow illuminating people’s faces, which was one of the the first images that I was interested in exploring. That blue glow illuminating your face shows a real loneliness, at the same it shows an interconnectivity, this real outside world that is dark (laughs) and nowhere near you.
J: It’s amazing how quickly, when you think of the span of the human race, we’ve become consumed by these objects. I’m reminded that the Internet and the devices that we use to get us onto it are in their infancy. Is there something about its stage of existence that lends itself to the world of clowning?
R: It’s dealing with a new thing, and it’s getting out of control, we all find ourselves at a point of “I don’t know what I’m doing, do you know what you’re doing? You don’t? ME neither.” And we come to a consensus that we are all insufficient and that we’re all struggling with the same thing. That’s a very good playground for a clown to mosey into and illustrate. The clown gets to do it more than everyone else, bigger than everyone else. You can put all your shit onto him, laugh at him and then leave the theater and go back to it. (Laughs) But for that hour or so, you escape it because it’s all on somebody else’s shoulders.
J: In this case ‘A Guy’s’ shoulder. It’s fascinating to watch him and I’m struck, because he is so isolated, by the fact that is so strikingly formed by his world.
R: When a protagonist is bounced around in an environment or a society like a pinball, I like it. It’s fun to see a low-status character getting pushed into situations where there’s some higher power pulling the strings. And it’s fun when those strings snap and the higher power loses control to chaotic inertia. It’s fun to see Woyzeck become murderous because … wouldn’t you? If you were surrounded by the craziness he was surrounded by?
We pause, continuing to look at people on their phones, considering our answers to his question.
J: This other thing I’ve been thinking about … usually clowns have this element of being outsiders … not following the rules of social conventions … or even defying the rules of social conventions. Your character, A Guy, does almost the complete opposite (minus his hand, which takes on a life of its own). He welcomes, even leans into the behaviours that we’re taught to perform with our devices. This becomes the point of entrance into really fantastically comical routines. Do you think there’s some new clown figure out there that will belong specifically to our 21st Century? And do you think that there are new opportunities for a genre of clown-theater?
R: I think the “clown figure” hasn’t changed really. It’s still a character that just inhabits a timely, relevant condition to the nth degree. The character is just dealing with all of the stuff we all deal with but bigger. It’s always been that simple. It can be old and universal, but look new or deal with modernity. As far as new genres of clown-theater, I think the sky’s the limit, but the very basic fundamentals will always be there. So, in this show, the clown on stage is totally sucked in by his phone. You, as the audience member, buy a ticket, silence your phone, laugh at him, shake your head in disbelief, and then leave and get back on your phone the moment you walk out of the theater.
J: Prior to Beep Boop you and I have had lots of conversations about much of which has come from prepping for the masterclasses you teach in Papingo, Greece during One Year Lease’s apprentice program. We often talk about your aversion to identifying as and claiming mastery in clown; yet, there’s no one I know who could be closer to its form and practice. Can we talk about that tension and the step you’ve taken in creating this piece for yourself?
R: For basically the entirety of my career so far, I have been hesitant and resistant to do a clown show or participate publicly in performance as a clown because [pause] probably because of imposter syndrome. I think that’s due to the fact that at this point there are so many different types of clown that people talk about or recognize that no one can be all of them in any case and I’m certainly not any one of them, if that makes sense.
I mean that there are all these different categories of clown in theater that are being taught for different purposes and there are very kind of serious ones that are in black unitards making, you know, jagged angles with their bodies and and stuff. There are circus clowns who are very skill based, whether that be playing multiple instruments or doing acrobatics or juggling, or awesome stuff like that. There are these therapeutic clowns that 9-to-5ers go to participate in, much like improv classes, to express themselves in a group of caring and supportive individuals. They can play like a child and get in touch with their inner kid. Sad clowns, hobo clowns, birthday party clowns, crust-punk clowns, burning man hula hoopers dressed like clowns…juggalos! I don’t consider myself any of them. (laughs). My point is, I’ve tried to draw on many of these things a little and not to become an expert in any of them. The only reason I’ve ever called myself a clown is because I feel like it’s a term that people understand. But it’s not a term that I understand.
J: So then what is it that you misunderstand? Like what are the things that you misunderstand that interest you in continuing to play in its form?
R: I don’t understand how to … I don’t understand how to … Well on one hand I don’t understand how to disengage from the skill set that you learn when you learn how to perform as a clown. You are naked and emotionally exposed in front of an audience. Because the skills that you learn will always be there so you can’t just drop them to the side and be sloppy. (Laughs).
J: Where do your skills come from?
R: I was trained at a very young age in the circus and I think that what I learned at the age of ten or twelve or thirteen, things stuck because those are such formative years, things like specificity of movement and some circus skills. Not many.
Richard feels an impulse and invites his wife Mollie, whose been listening intently into our conversation.
R: What? Go for it.
M: And Wonder. Just this appreciation of wonder. The ability to just like …
R: That’s true.
M: Given the fact of being a part of a kid circus and being empowered to create and being told that you have a voice and you can entertain. I feel like Rob really instilled that.
J: Who is Rob and what are his skills … What is your story Richard Saudek?! The only thing I know from your childhood is that you slyly two years, three years ago now, slid in the fact that you were the number two tennis player in the state of Vermont under the age of 12. What’s your story?
R: My sister who is seven years older than I am is a tightrope walker. She went and did this youth circus in Vermont and I did everything that she did. So she told me to go and join this circus in the summer, it was fun and so I did. I was nine years old.
J: And what was the circus?
R: Circus Smirkus. At that time it was run by a man named Rob Mermin who studied under Marcel Marceau and Etienne Decroux. He was a huge influence on me. This all took place in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont.
J: (laughs) The Northeast Kingdom of Vermont? Is that really what it’s called?
R: Yep! The Northeast Kingdom. Greensboro, Vermont. Now known for its artistnal beer but then… Rob called it Vermont’s own home-grown-country-circus. Smirkus has become a place with all these incredibly talented kids. Back then, they were just looking for kids who… [Richard does a quick trick at the table and ends with a vociferous hey!] just had stage presence and a willingness to connect to the audience. And that is all you need, I think, to be a clown. It helps if you learn some skills so you can entertain. But it’s ok if you fail and connect with the audience throughout. So, I was 9 and continued on until i was 16 or 17.
J: What did you do from 9 to 17?
R: I was just this little clown. I had this humungous tie and huge pants and a wig and a hat. Basically I acted like a grumpy old man.
J: And who would you perform for?
R: Over the course of five or six weeks we would perform 50 shows. We would put together the show in two weeks and go on the road around the Northeast. Vermont, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Connecticut and perform for whoever. We had a bigtop that sat a fair amount of people.
And also! we traveled together on a bus. We helped set up the tent. Floods would happen and we’d be back there during shows shoveling mud around in order to irrigate the water away from the stage. The power would go out. We’d go out with juggling torches to light the place while someone would play the violin. We became an incredibly close and tight knit company of people because we would go through these crazy trials and tribulations on the road. We were young and so everything was important. I have memories of climbing to the top of the big top and sitting with my clown partner, Chris, and talking about important and stupid things. The pre-teen teen moments, everything was important. Bolstered by the fact that we had no parents. We were on the road. We were performing for people. We were doing wonderous acts of imaginative magic constantly. We were traveling and doing the dishes and all that stuff. Chores … It was a real ensemble. And we were led by these guys these bachelors who were (laughs) some of the most wonderous and magical people in the world but I can’t imagine putting my child (Richard has an awesomely dynamic two year old) in their care. My parents were crazy for doing that. (Laughs)
beep boop (Extended though October 7, 2018)
HERE, 145 Sixth Avenue, in Manhattan
For tickets: call 212-352-3101 or visit http://firstname.lastname@example.org
Running time: 60 minute without an intermission.
beep boop is written and performed by Richard Saudek. Original Compositions and Sound Design by Jesse Novak. Directed by Wes Grantom. Set, Light Projection Design by Driscoll Otto. Live Foley by Nora Kaye. Assistant Director is Jake Sellers. Costume Design by Maddie Peterson. Additional Sound and Foley Design by Brendan Aanes. Producer is Chad Goodridge. Stage Manager is Rachel Kaufman.