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User Name Thread Name Subject Posted
kirstenanderberg Make Your Own Jug Band! (8) Make Your Own Jug Band! 11 Aug 05


Take Back Your Entertainment
By Kirsten Anderberg (www.kirstenanderberg.com)

Entertainment is an industry with as much power and influence over our daily lives as any other. There are many ways to reclaim entertainment back from industry; by using local and cultural references and personalizing art, or by learning to use public spaces for educational art, or by creating music venues that are not driven by alcohol sales, etc. We can make our own music, we can write our own comedy, we can support our own venues and agendas. One of the first hurdles an artist usually faces is the dilemma of needing to make money to sustain the art, but dreading making money from things the industry requires artists to do to get paid, such as making "non-offensive" material, or fitting into commercialized conformity. Bar owners want you to sell beer, they do not care what music you use to do it. The same goes for recording industry executives, but they are selling more than beer. I would argue there is a higher calling to art than merely selling a product in capitalism, and we need to liberate that calling, to liberate ourselves.

Television, and the music and movie industries, have been staple readily-available entertainment venues throughout my lifetime. But several twists and turns in life, and random experiences, have shown me that DIY and grassroots entertainment is often of a higher quality, and more fulfilling for all involved, from performer to audience, than commercial entertainment products. This may be due to the wider range of artistic freedom allowed in self-made art. Local and cultural art can sometimes pass under the radar of censors, because censors don't understand what is actually being said, which is the beauty of slang. (I remember one tune from the 60's had back up singers using "dit dot dit" background vocals to spell out obscenities via Morse code!) But using slang and other means to evade censorship can add a charge to the audience and performer, knowing that potentially illegal things are happening on stage, but no one is going to tell.

I have experienced this repeatedly on the street, where I will be going down a very slippery radical slope with a crowd as I busk, and no cops are near, and we all just go there together, knowingly, and when the police show up, we all change the channel, wide eyed, guilty together…it is quite amusing and bonds the audience and performer. And then, as cops stand there trying to censor, you can refer to things said prior when the cops weren't there yet, but without specifics, and it is really a blast. You are sneaking subversive political thoughts into society against the will of the police, but by the will of the people. It is a weird feeling to know that the audience is protecting you from cops to get their entertainment. I have found radical politics and uncensored street performance have made some of the most alive performances I have experienced, both as a performer and audience member, and I can see how censored art is dead from the lack of this type of live energy exchange. We know the law hates anything spontaneous, and street art is just that. But it is almost like good art always stays one step ahead of the law.

Static, predictable music and comedy is more draining for me as an audience member or performer, than original material with a creative spark. Examples of static performance are the predictable apple biting routine from jugglers, women folksingers lamenting about lost male lovers, skit plots with meaningless violence or sexist clichés, groups of middle-aged people singing terribly uncreative political rewrites of standard songs, etc. I want to see people dressed like pink flamingos on stilts posing in unison on sidewalks in front of government buildings as lawn flamingos. I would prefer all food establishments revamp their "no shoes, no shirt, no service" signs, to read "no shoes, no shirt, no nukes." I want slackrope walkers in downtown Seattle at lunch hour and sword swallowers on staff at every high school.

There is no reason to "color within the lines' with art. Paint by number "art" sucks. And neutralized, censored art is dead. Part of the challenge is to reeducate audiences to recognize live art as having worth without being told it has value by someone else. The entertainment industry tells people what they like, selling them production churned out from air conditioned cubicles in the Hollywood Hills. We need to teach audiences the freedoms of thinking for themselves once again. And that is part of the excitement of homemade art…the audience understands it is a part of something new, feeling a new freedom to be an interactive audience, instead of a blind comatose consumer. In a very real way, homemade entertainment uses the audience as part of the act in ways commercial and industrialized entertainment venues cannot. You see, when you smile at live entertainers, they smile back. Live, DIY, and homemade entertainment is a two way circuit. Hollywood entertainment is a one way circuit.

One of the coolest art forms I've witnessed is "mummery." Mummery is the art of mimicking lifestyles, essentially. Risk of Change Theater Troupe (ROC) is a wild group of talented artists who have continually challenged me as a human, with their mummery. My first vivid recollection of an ROC interaction was as I was walking down a crowded path at a counter-cultural event in Oregon, in my nun's habit, as I had just finished a show. It was approximately 1990. All of a sudden, I was surrounded by bible-thumping, hard core evangelists, who were thankful to find another person of God "amidst all the heathens." They began to make a huge scene, dressed very conservatively, preaching loudly, dragging me right into their spontaneous show, amidst all these freaks who were loving it. It was an intellectual and artistic challenge to keep up with these folks and I learned a lot that day about improvisation.

Reverend Billy and the Stop Shopping Choir is on a similar path. His legendary spontaneous performances at Starbucks, amidst other places, embrace the surrounding environment as they find it, and entice the audience to interact with them, making it fun and unpredictable for performer and audience, cop and Starbuck employee, alike. David Lippman (davelippman.com), as George Stumps, also does an act that is so convincing as to be alarming at first. When he got on stage at an alternative venue, and began to rail against environmental defense activists, in his Texas drawl, and cowboy hat and boots, for a moment, I thought we had been tricked. But then his words got more and more extravagant and it became comedic, and by the end, thousands of pro-environmental defense activists were roaring with laughter at this redneck saying how bad we were.

Lippman was also part of the legendary mummery group out of San Francisco called Ladies Against Women (LAW). LAW would humorously protest feminists protesting beauty pageants, wearing fake fur, wigs, horned rim glasses, etc. Again, they exaggerated conservative women so intensely that it became live satire. And it is really fun as an audience member to interact with a radical posing as a fake Republican. It is challenging for the mummer to keep coming up with spontaneous material in character, and it is harder than watching a passive TV set, to come up with fun ways to interact with such a character as an audience member. But the hardness, and scariness of spontaneous art, is well worth the fulfillment attained from such risk taking, and adds to its excitement.

Risk of Change has scared me, forcing me to perform spontaneously with them, several times with mummery. I fear them as I see them coming, yet they leave me with some of my most fantastic memories. Once I was running to get to a performers meeting at a fair. As I got to the bridge, I saw it had been taken over by trolls. I knew the trolls were an ROC production, but ROC does not take its troll time lightly. This troupe is blessed with superior costume designers amongst its ranks, and the troll masks they all wear are disturbingly real looking. And even scarier, is they have children, teens, and adult male and female trolls. The children are the scariest, honestly. And when ROC puts their troll masks on, they allow themselves to "become" trolls. Immediately, they begin belching, and become gross and devilish, even the kids. So I needed to cross these trolls to get across the bridge. Dare I? Oh god. On my first step onto the bridge, trolls jumped out from under the bridge, adding to those already on the bridge, and I was surrounded. They began to heckle and hassle me. For a brief moment, I was truly frightened (which I find to be priceless), but then I kept reminding myself, "you know these people, these are humans really…" Through much improv, I was finally allowed to pass, but man, that was a heavy act for all who watched and interacted!

Yet another ROC interaction that both terrified and liberated me simultaneously was them playing "mud people." I had just finished busking in the aisle at a fair and had a crowd of people around me still, and was talking to folks as they put tips in my case. Then I saw them. A pack of naked men and women, covered in brown mud, with wild messed up hair, and lots of straw adornments. They were coming towards me and I knew I was doomed. Before I could run, I had a pack of 20 mud people sniffing my hair, grunting, touching me all over with prehistoric wonder. All of a sudden, I felt like I was performing for the audience in front of me that I had just finished performing for. They wanted to see how the nun would interact with a pack of mud people. I was able to speak English with the ROC evangelists, talked some English with the ROC trolls, but now as mud people, we were beyond English. It is forever a new challenge interacting with these folks, I swear. But it is so much more entertaining than TV!

Once I ran into ROC at a fair doing a mummery scene of a French picnic. They were along the side of a path with a blanket spread out, and they were eating French bread and cheese and drinking wine. A painter in a beret with an easel painted the scene, as they all spoke in French. They also have really beautiful redwood tree costumes and walk around as friendly old growth at fairs, talking to kids.

Homemade instruments also seem to be a standard in my community. We have people who play saws, spoons, jugs, washboards, washtub basses, and more. Many people do not realize there is a statue of a famous saw player, Tom Scribner, a cousin of my tribe, at the top of the Santa Cruz Mall. And Artis, the Spoonman, has been using cutlery for decades, in ways I had not seen utilized prior to his performances. I know about a dozen professional washboard players, and have been one myself. The father of my child is a professional washboard player. Each washboard player I have met has his own style and attachments to his board. Classic washboards have wood frames and brass plates. Additions to the wood frame are easily made. My washboard, for example, has the bells from inside an old phone going down its left side. When hit with thimbles, each bell has a different tone, but when played in succession, they sound like chimes. I also have a metal chain hanging down over a side of the brass plate. This provides a nice snare effect for quieter songs when rubbed against the brass grooves. Washboard Jackson used a metal dog brush to scrub his washboard as he plays instead of the traditional thimbles. Billy Hultz has a trademark metal urinal he plays on his washboard, and at one point Reggie Miles attached so many contraptions to his washboard, he had to make legs for it. Reggie attached a harmonica rack on his board for slide, train and siren whistles, and he also had a trademark bubble bear on his board that he would squeeze and blow bubbles from, as he played.

Washtub bass players also have unique features. Doctor Rhythm uses a bass drum in place of the metal tub on his version of a washtub bass. Like washboards, the washtub bass is part of the rhythm section, and often washboard and washtub bass players perform as a unit once they get a groove going. Traditionally, washtub basses are made by drilling a hole in the middle of the bottom of a metal washtub. You then bolt a washer and metal eyelet into the hole, and tie a thick rope to the eyelet. You tie the other end of the rope to a drilled hole in the top of a stick or broom handle. Make a groove in the bottom of the stick so it sits on the edge of the washtub. You play it by plucking the rope like a string with one hand, while holding the stick with the other. To alter pitch, you either tilt the stick to make the rope more or less taut, or fret the rope with your stick-holding hand, moving up and down the stick like a fretboard.

I also know professional sword swallowers. Moz Wright swallows solid metal swords, several at a time, and then bends, jumps, etc. He also eats fire. Once I saw him performing at around midnight at a private party. On the stage in the woods was this classical quartet and a professional opera singer belting out an aria. Around the stage perimeter, Moz was prancing about in a Pan costume, eating fire. He had a bare chest, and then from the waist down, he had hairy legs, a tail and hooves. He produced long sticks with fire, and ate them, as the music reached a crescendo behind him. It was quite amazing for folk art in the woods, honestly.

Another performer in this tribe blows square bubbles, among other things he calls bubble magic, made out of standard kids' bubbles. We have several of the world's best box jugglers in our crowd. Box jugglers angle, shuffle, and balance many cigar boxes as an art form. Hacki is a clown/mime from Germany in my performing tribe. He won the Golden Nose Award for Clowning in Europe several times. His visual representations of things are amazing. Even simple things, like once a show needed to look as if water was under a raft on stage. Hacki immediately suggested we use a clear plastic tarp on the stage floor, then 4 people make the tarp move up and down subtly from the 4 corners of the stage, and sure enough, when tried, it made the stage look like seas they were now sailing on. (This was a skit about Bad Mime Island, where they send all those bad mimes who do bad stair climbing, bad box confinement, bad rope pulling, etc. When arrested and taken to Bad Mime Island, these bad mimes were given the right to remain silent.)

With this level of talent in the alternative community, it is like an art university. Once I needed to show I was nervous and trying to bide time on stage, but I needed to get it across nonverbally. I went to Hacki and UMO, another performing troupe in our midst, and asked for advice. They told me to 1) look at a fake watch on my wrist, and 2) to fiddle with my collar to show anxiety. Those were excellent tips, and they worked perfectly. We can teach each other how to make better art by sharing our skills.

One of the craziest DIY performers I have seen is Reverend Chumleigh. This man used to get crowds to hold a rope, that was tied at the other end to a lamppost and then would slackrope walk, in socks, and a one-shouldered leopard-print leotard with a tail. Slackrope walking is actually really hard and this is a very respected skill. Chumleigh is legendary for unbelievably creative performance, but one other such stunt he did that impressed me was his underwater escape on the street. In his leotard again, he got audience members to hold him, upside down, while his hands were chained and padlocked in a bag, and they dunked his head all the way under water in a cut off Sparklett's bottle! The audience counted to a previously announced number, as Chumleigh stayed under water, and then the audience members pulled his head out of the water, and his hands, hopefully, were also freed.

What stands out to me is that the entertainment I cherish the most does not involve electricity, contracts, club owners, network censors, or even status quo mores. When you throw my performing clan into the woods, we entertain others during the day. But what is truly amazing, is what happens when entertainers entertain each other at night in the woods alone. I have laughed so hard I thought I was going to never breathe again watching jugglers, magicians, comedians, and clowns battle each other for attention around a campfire as talented musicians played Klezmer music on clarinet, accordion, washboard and fiddle behind them. I am not sure where I could pay for such experiences, even if I was rich. And I am thankful my kid has grown up watching performing legends TV has never seen.

Homemade entertainment is so much funner than TV, for both performers and the audience. Learn to tell nature fables with cat's cradle string figures. Learn to twirl a lasso. Learn how to walk on swords, or to spin a ball on your fingertip. Make your own washboard or washtub bass. Write empowering feminist comedy and perform it on the street. Form a mummery troupe. Teach yourself how to entertain, while learning how to be an energetic audience member. Nothing is more draining for a performer than a dead audience. Learn how to feed performers on stage from the audience and how to feed audiences from stage, like really good sex. Demand entertainment that is a two way circuit, not a closed circuit, mass-produced consumer product.


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