Laughter (revised)


by Clarinda Mac Low “Laughter is the shortest distance between two people.”* When humor comes up in a performance, a momentary transformation takes place, an alchemy of opening. Suddenly the space between performer and audience, between audience members, narrows or disappears. We share the laugh and so share an understanding. “There can never be enough said of the virtues, dangers and power of a shared laugh.” As with any other aspect of a performance situation, different cultures react differently to humor (not to mention that different cultures find different things funny, but let’s not get bogged down). From what I have seen, for example, American audiences and European audiences have a very different relationship to humor and laughter. With American audiences, humor is a way in, a way to break the ice and find a space of unexpected pathos. Many European audiences (and, yes, of course, there are large cultural differences between “European” cultures, but in this aspect I will tentatively say that the attitudes hold pan-continentally) are less inclined to warm to humor, and don’t require an ice-breaker—they are often primed for pathos, and appreciate a seriousness of aspect and intent. Laughter is a tool. A laugh lets you in, and takes you out of yourself. It’s freedom. I see humor as a tool to open emotional doors. American audiences laugh a lot, and not always from actual humor—to relieve tension, out of nervousness, out of fear, in appreciation… . A laugh is a signal. “Laughter springs from the lawless part of our nature.” “Entertainment” often seems to me the attempt to rob laughter of its darker corners, which is why trying to make something that is purely “entertaining” often brings results that are either claustrophobically artificial, or unintentionally full of rage, or inadvertently salacious. Adrienne Truscott made a highly “entertaining” dance called Genesis, No! that leaves all the dark corners in. The piece was recently performed at Dance Theater Workshop in New York City, and previously performed at Performance Space 122, also in New York City. It is hilarious and truly, deeply quirky, but oddly moving, with gorgeously awkward performances from Truscott and her collaborating performers (Natalie Agee, Carmine Covelli, Neal Medlyn and David Neumann). At the eponymous moment in Genesis, No!, towards the end of the piece, Agee comes on stage and hands a bag of large old bones to Truscott and Medlyn, saying “You forgot these.” Medlyn begins worrying one of the bones with his teeth, and Truscott scolds, “Genesis, no!” at which point Medlyn begins sobbing. This is just one of the several seemingly non-sequitor strange and frequently extremely funny little events that somehow echo the pre-history of humans and the process of becoming modern. It is one of the best examples I’ve seen of what I call the “ha-ha!—oh…” moment, when laughter turns suddenly dark or sad or thoughtful, when that link between laughter and pain is exposed, and the line between humor and discomfort comes itchily out into the open. At that moment, for me, the entire piece came together—I found there a voice that said, “We forget the past, it slips away and we leave behind the bones of our ancestors. Then we’re trapped in our myths, and we have to go back and self-correct. ‘Genesis, no!’ Leave us be. Let us make new values.” However, it is the laughter that came before this tossed-off event in a string of hilarity that left me open to the possible pathos, to epiphany and poignant feeling. “The best way to make your audience laugh is to start laughing yourself.” I use humor and the thin line between laughter and pain frequently in my performance work. In a series of very personal solos called “Public Blunders,” that line was often crossed and recrossed throughout the piece. In each solo there was a series of events that were so awkward and seemingly unintentional that it was hard to tell for sure whether I meant to be doing what I was doing, or whether I’d just lost it, and was making a terrible “blunder.” In Public Blunder #4 (2002), I ended the piece by dissolving into helpless laughter in the middle of singing a very sad version of a song by the Eurhythmics, as I pretended that I couldn’t get it together to finish the piece. The laughter that greeted me from the audience during this section was part discomfort, part confusion, part mockery, and partly just the desire to join in, to share the fun, even if it wasn’t clear what the fun was. Laughter (at its best) allows us to join in, to mock ourselves while mocking others, to let go of that need to be right, to be best, to be “cool.” Most laughter comes from a situation that is extremely “uncool,” which, paradoxically, makes the uncool cool. Mind you, I’m not delighted by the plethora of cruel humor that abounds, but this is part of the unfettered nature of humor—cruelty and hilarity stand side-by-side, the same way that joy and hysteria, love and violence, sorrow and rage hold hands in the human heart every day. *Any statements about laughter in “quotes” are from another source. Any statements without quotes are my own invention. To see attribution for the quotes (and many other, often very corny, quotes about laughter), you can go here or here. Next week: Performing citizenship
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Adrienne Truscott, Clarinda Mac Low, dance, humor

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