08/08/2012 02:58 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

The More They Rehearse, the Better They Fall

As I watched a recent performance of Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street by Ray of Light Theatre, I couldn't help chuckling at some of the mischievous little tricks and challenges Stephen Sondheim had written into his musical score. If one listens carefully, there are moments when the audience can all too easily assume what the next note should be -- only to discover that the composer had something else in mind.

Most creative talents have a professional bag of tricks they like to employ in the course of creating art. From alliteration to asymmetry, from pointilism to pizzicato, these gimmicks help startle an audience and add to an artist's personal style. One of the delicious surprises in Leonard Bernstein's score for 1953's hit musical, Wonderful Town, is a musical number entitled "Wrong Note Rag."

In the following clip, Annie Hughes combines Irving Berlin's "I'd Rather Lead A Band" with Bernstein's "Wrong Note Rag" to great comic effect.

Victor Borge was a master of taking his audiences down musical rabbit holes. Many of his routines, though well-known to audiences, never lost their appeal.

However, in order to show off the tricks of his trade, an artist must be thoroughly comfortable as a performer, secure in his craft, and have a gift for improvisation.

As audiences around the world have watched the 2012 Summer Olympics, and marveled at the athletic prowess of runners, divers, and gymnasts, they understand that long hours of training and practice went into perfecting a competitive routine. Accidents and improvisation are the moments in which athletes and actors find new material. Long hours of rehearsal are where they polish their discoveries into pieces of art.

While some athletes can act like clowns in their private lives, few people think about how important it is for a successful clown to be a good athlete. Why? After learning how to perform something well, it's even more challenging to make it look like you've just fucked it up. It's even harder to make that trick look spontaneous night after night.

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Some of the most famous stars of the silent film era (Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks) performed many of their own stunts. One of the greatest was Harold Lloyd, seen here performing the famous clock tower scene from 1923's Safety Last .

Few silent film stars were as fearless and unflappable as Buster Keaton, whose 1928 comedy, The Cameraman, was recently screened as part of the San Francisco Silent Film Festival.

Whether running and jumping or chasing cars, buses, and trains, Keaton's lean athleticism offered a solid foundation upon which he could improvise tricks. For many years, Keaton's success had been the result of brainstorming with a close-knit gang of friends and colleagues. Prior to signing a contract with MGM (against the advice of Chaplin and Lloyd), he had never worked with a real script. As Keaton explained:

"We didn't work by one. We just got to talking about a story and laying out all the material we could think of, and then got it all put together. Anytime something unexpected happened and we liked it, we were liable to spend days shooting in and around that. Brilliant though he was, Irving Thalberg could not accept the way a comedian like me built his stories. His mind was too orderly for our harum-scarum, catch-as-catch-can, gag-grabbing method. Our way of operating would have seemed hopelessly mad to him. But believe me, it was the only way. Somehow, some of the frenzy and hysteria of our breathless, impromptu comedy-building got into our movies and made them exciting."

There was a good reason Keaton was nicknamed "Old Stone Face." His ability to keep his focus while taking pratfalls can be seen in the following two clips from The Cameraman.

There is one exquisite moment in The Cameraman (after Keaton has run across town to try to meet up with a young woman) that demonstrates his acute sensitivity to timing. As the woman walks down the street, Keaton comes racing up from behind and rapidly decelerates as he slips his arm through hers to match her much slower pace. It is a breathtaking piece of business which, alas, I could not find on YouTube.

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When Lorenzo Pisoni brought his one-man show, Humor Abuse, to San Francisco in February, I remember thinking how much I would love to see it again. My wish came true when Pisoni returned to the American Conservatory Theatre for a two-week run before heading back to the Big Apple (as opposed to the Big Apple Circus), where he will start rehearsing with Bebe Neuwirth for the December 4 New York premiere of Terrence McNally's play about the opening night of Vincenzo Bellini's 1835 opera, I Puritani, entitled Golden Age.

Whereas many modern celebrities are quick to pen autobiographies early in their careers (Snooki, Levi Johnston, Paris Hilton), crafting a monologue about your life to date is a much more daunting challenge. Especially if you're still in your thirties.

With 20 years of circus work (in the Pickle Family Circus as well as Cirque du Soleil) mixed with numerous appearances onstage and in film, Pisoni has an impressive theatrical history to draw upon. Humor Abuse, however, is built around Lorenzo's difficult relationship with his father and provides him with a rather unique coming of age story.

Lorenzo was born into a circus family and started performing when he was two years old. His father (Larry (Pickle) Pisoni of the Pickle Family Circus) took quick notice of his son's talent and started to teach him tricks, drilling Lorenzo toward becoming a perfectionist with three simple words: "Do it again."

As a result, Pisoni is able to punctuate his history not only with slides of him performing as a child, but with many of the physical comedy routines he learned from his father.

Late in his show, Pisoni brings someone seated in the first row up on stage for a bit of fun. Whether the moment had been planted or was spontaneous, on opening night he chose an elderly man with a full head of silver hair.

Pisoni's choice of a volunteer turned out to be none other than Ken Ruta (a veteran actor who first performed on the stage of the Geary Theatre in 1956 and, 10 years later, became a member of A.C.T.'s first acting company). As Pisoni kept gesturing for Ruta to come up onstage, Ruta held out his hand and, rubbing his fingers together, gave the age-old signal that says "Show me the money." After a comic standoff between the two actors, Pisoni chose the man seated next to Ruta.

Lorenzo Pisoni as a child (Photo courtesy of Lorenzo Pisoni)

There is much to love about Humor Abuse. Not only is Pisoni an extremely handsome and capable performer, he's also a mensch with years of circus craft in his bones. Watching the show a second time allowed me to observe how certain bits of business are set up, how some of the stunts are crafted, and appreciate how finely tuned Pisoni's performance must be in order to achieve its maximum impact on the audience. It's a beautiful experience from start to finish.

Humor Abuse continues at the American Conservatory Theater through August 19 (click here to order tickets). Here's the trailer:

To read more of George Heymont go to My Cultural Landscape