For the last thirty years, Jeff Raz has performed internationally with circuses and theaters including The Pickle Circus, Lincoln Center Theater, Dell’Arte Players, Berkeley Repertory Theatre, and the Marin and S.F. Shakespeare Festivals. Since 1990 he has written ten plays and two solo plays. His television work includes Live From Lincoln Center and Disney’s The New Vaudevillians.
Raz is the founder and director of the Clown Conservatory, a program that has trained some of the top young clowns working in Cirque du Soleil, Cirque Eloize, Ringling Bros., and other circuses around the world. He’s currently performing the lead role of “The Dead Clown” in Cirque du Soleil’s Corteo.
Jeff Raz on the Web: Jeffraz.com, The Clown Conservatory
Cecil Vortex: Do you have any techniques you use to help you get into a more inspired mode?
Jeff Raz: You know, I usually don’t think in [those terms] because I’ve made a living doing this since I was 15. I’m kind of a blue-collar guy in that way. I go to work. The way I look at it and the way that works for me is, I just keep plugging ahead.
I started as a juggler. As a juggler, you can always get up and throw the balls. Or you get up and you throw the clubs. No inspiration needed. Throw the damn things. If they’re in the air, wonderful. It they’re on the ground, throw ’em again. It’s kind of simple.
When I write a play, what I do is, once I’ve got the research going and I’ve got it floating around in my head, I’ll try to write the whole play in a week. Just write the f****r. And it’s terrible. (I got this from Annie Lamott, from her book Bird by Bird.) So I just do that, and then I can edit it, which I do better than creating from whole cloth. And again, both of those [steps] are kind of designed to make sure I know what the job of the day is. I don’t do well waiting for inspiration.
Now, the other morning I was working ten-show weeks, which means I’m on stage for twenty-five hours a week, which is a huge amount of stage time. I get done at 11 o’clock. I get home and the turnaround between Saturday night and when I have to be back on-site at 11 o’clock putting on makeup the next morning is the tough one. And then we had a cabaret after, so we actually had an eleven-show week. I was getting really tired. But sonofabitch if I’m not up at 6:30 on Sunday morning with ideas about the show.
CV: And why do you think that is?
JR: Just because inspiration has its own schedule. It’s not particularly good about sticking with my schedule. But my theory on that is, OK, great. I mulled them over, I wrote them down, tried them in the show, they went great. I was happy….
Laughs are elusive. You can’t head right for a laugh — it’ll go away. You can get people to cry. You can head right for a dramatic moment or a sad moment, and you can usually get it. But you can’t head right for a laugh. You have to let the laugh come or sneak around the side. The same thing for inspiration. For me, just keep working, and if inspiration chooses to show up, great. I rather it not show up at 6:30 in the morning. It could’ve waited till 9. But the job is to write down the inspiration when it comes and know how to use it later.
CV: So if you’re working all the time, you’ll be there when the inspiration strikes?
JR: Right. And, as I tell my students, ninety percent of my students tell me at some point or another, “I have all these great ideas. I just don’t know quite how to do them.” I say, great, you and everybody else has great ideas. That’s not what makes an artist or what makes art. What makes art is doing the damn thing. The craft part of art is what gets it done. We all have wonderful inspirations. Your dreams are these brilliant Fellini movies, but you aren’t Fellini because you haven’t made it into a movie.
If you want to be Fellini, start making the damn movies. Figure out how to use the camera. Get your shot. Then you’ll start to find the artistic challenges within that. And if you can keep your craft going and have your art flow into that, then you become an artist, if anyone cares to watch it.
CV: Are there any other tricks — I know for some people “tricks” is a bad word —
JR: I love tricks. I’m a clown. Tricks are essential. You need to have tricks. You need to have formulas. This idea that somehow formulas and tricks and old ways of doing things are somehow antithetical — that’s just people being nervous. There is, especially in American theater, the method [approach to acting] and some sense that technique is bad, that tricks are bad. No — tricks are great. You need tricks.
CV: What sort of tricks do you use?
JR: Well there are hundreds of them. My mentor gave me lots: Transitions are key…. If you’re thinking about cutting something, will the audience miss it? If they won’t miss it, cut the damn thing. Don’t use adjectives if you can avoid them. If you’re improvising, say yes. Try not to ask questions but make statements. These are all tricks. Now, they go away. Sometimes they don’t work. But they’re where you start. Then you have a little template you can hold up. Does this work here?
CV: How important is audience feedback to you?
JR: I always bounce things off of people. I get [my students] in front of an audience every five weeks because, for clowns, the partnership with the audience is key. And whether I’m working as a clown, or an actor, or a playwright, that’s all key to me. And actually, mainstream theater in this country has actually picked up on this; they do these workshop productions quite often….
The great dramaturgy of an audience is not in the Q&A afterwards, where they say, “You know, I’d rather you did this and that….” It’s when they cough. That’s when they tell you. And for a comedian, the extra thing is, are they laughing? Or if it’s a dramatic section, what’s the quality of the silence? And there are many different laughs and there are many different silences, and if you’re a good, experienced performer, you can start to tell the difference between them, and you play to that.
CV: What about tricks for being productive — for getting all the work done that you want to get done?
JR: In the performing arts, it’s easy. You either have an opening or show. And lots of people will see you suck if you don’t get to work…. There’s nothing quite like doing a bit that you thought was funny but you haven’t worked it enough, and the audience doesn’t laugh. That sound will get you working.
I’ve gone to a few auditions not as prepared as I should have been, and let me tell you, nothing quite like looking out, especially if you happen to know the director or the casting director, and having them look at you with those kind of flat, not quite pitying but certainly cold eyes that say, “You didn’t take this seriously enough, pal.” That’ll get you working. Mortgage will get you working. [laughter]
But also my background is juggling and acrobatics. You don’t do your homework with juggling, the s**t hits the floor, and even dogs know that you’ve blown it because they come and grab the balls and run away with them. And if you don’t do your homework when you do acrobatics, someone gets hurt. I used to do an act where my partner stood on my back when I’m lying flat on the ground, and she jumps and jumps and jumps, and she ends up standing on my head. Well, if I’m not ready for that, my neck gets broken or she falls on the ground and her neck gets broken, so it’s not an abstract concept. That’s very, very helpful. And it’s part of why the clown students get acrobatic training even though some of them will never be acrobats even at a very preliminary level — that sense that, no bulls**t, you don’t do your work, you’re going to get hurt. Or worse yet, you’re going to hurt someone else.