Out of Bounds Comedy
Out of Bounds Preview: Butt Kapinkski is on the case, solving comedy crimes
The words "film noir" and "clown" aren't terms you'd normally expect to see together, but they're a perfect fit once you've seen a Butt Kapinski show.
Performed by actress Deanna Fleysher, Kapinski is a dedicated, lisping gumshoe out on the mean streets to solve heinous crimes, but Kapinski is also a clown. But don't worry: she's of the not-scary clown variety.
With no more staging than a detective's uniform trench coat and a street lamp strapped to her back, Fleysher ditches the proscenium and takes her act into the crowd. A simple turn of the street lamp, and Kapinski becomes a surprisingly lovable interrogator conversing with audience members as he prowls for clues. The effect is intensely theatrical, funny, and strangely endearing.
Fleysher brings Butt Kapinski to Austin once again to perform in this year's Out of Bounds Comedy Festival. We spoke with her before her arrival earlier this week to talk about her solo work, making dark material funny, and the benefits of portable stage lighting.
Culture Map: Tell me how you got started in comedy and clowning.
Deanna Fleysher: I have a physical theater background and I was also into improv comedy from a very young age. And I love improv, but I was interested in doing something a little bit more theatrical and a little riskier in terms of the energy created in the room and my interaction with the audience. I discovered clown when I was living in New York about six or seven years ago. I use the word 'clown' less and less now. People have a lot of perceptions about what clown is, so I don't use that word as much.
CM: So what do you use to describe your show?
DF: It depends on who I'm talking to. Sometimes I say "alternative comedy" or "interactive comedy." Sometimes I just say, "I wear a street light and I go into an audience and I make a murder mystery happen."
CM: How did you develop your Butt Kapinski character and the overall show? I know it's something you've worked on for a while.
DF: I used to have a speech impediment as a kid; and in my house, whenever anyone used a funny a voice, it was the voice I had before speech therapy. So that's where the voice came from. And I'm a big film noir and a noir literature fan. I also have a real delight in perversity and darkness. It's very fun for me to play in those spaces. So that's where the character came from. I like the juxtaposition of being lovable and adorable and yet loving murder. That's fun.
In terms of the show's development, I started developing ten-minute solo pieces, and then with my partner, Eric [Davis, also known as The Red Bastard], I developed a three-person show with two other guys. And after a few years of doing that, I was talking to Eric and I said, "What I really want is to have my own light so I can go anywhere." And he said, "Why don't you just do that?"
So once I got the street light, I found what I really wanted to do all along. And I really liked working with other clowns on that previous project, but I also really enjoyed working solo with the audience. That's very pleasing to me, and the light allows me to do that.
CM: Why did you want the light to begin with?
DF: [laughs] Well, I used to go to Burning Man. Say what you will about it, but it really opened up my thinking in terms of the three-dimensional possibilities of performance and the way that performance can actually bleed out into the audience. And people want that and they seek that. That really influenced me, and I had a sense that if I was just wearing a light, I could get offstage. I wouldn't be trapped by the stage anymore and then I could go anywhere. My dad is an electrical engineer and he designed with Andy Dickerson from Triskelion Arts (the theater I worked with in Brooklyn) who then built it for me.
CM: Your show feels visceral in a way. You're close to the audience and you even assign them parts, even though they don't physically fit your description of the character you're talking about.
DF: Yeah. In fact, I really aim for them not to fit, for a couple of reasons. First of all because I like to see something in someone that they're not used to seeing in themselves. Especially casting men as women — the cross-gender casting in general — is really satisfying. I'm really interested in playing with different gender identities onstage. And as a character, it's fun to play a man. I think men who are comfortable with themselves enjoy accessing a feminine side of themselves, if only for a moment. I also think when you cast someone as something they wouldn't normally play, it relieves some of the burden — because then it doesn't matter what they do, it works.
CM: To what degree are you improvising versus doing scripted material? It really seems like a combination.
DF: I do a lot of improv, and sometimes it gets me in trouble. But I think the audience can smell it when what's happening [on stage] has never happened before and will never happen again. Obviously, I can't know how audience members are going to react when I cast them, but it's not entirely improvised because there's certain kinds of people I look for, there's certain jokes I know will work well. I'm following a template, but a lot of it is improvised. As a performer, I like to improvise. I don't know if it's that I get bored when it's scripted, but I hate anything that feels canned and doesn't feel like it's happening right there.
CM: Does Butt Kapinski always solve his mysteries?
DF: It's up for debate if Butt Kapinski has ever solved a mystery. Yeah, he sort of does. The thing I love about noir is that it's not necessarily an intricate plot. One of my favorite authors is Raymond Chandler. He wrote the Phillip Marlow character — the original gumshoe — that voice comes from Raymond Chandler. And his plots kind of suck. They're okay, but they're not great. The first time I read those books, I was disappointed at the end. But then I realized that it doesn't matter. The style of the writing itself is so awesome that that's all you have to focus on. That's all I care about. So I'm not so driven by plot and I don't think Butt Kapinski is, either.
CM: What do you hope audiences take away from the show?
DF: It depends on the audience. I hope general audiences see that an interactive show doesn't have to be scary or embarrassing for them. I also love to have improvisers in my audience, because I love the art of improv and I'm always looking for ways to make it more viable as a theatrical form that works outside the improv world, as well, and as something that can work with a template.
CM: You teach a workshop called "Naked Comedy," that — metaphorically, of course — focuses on stripping down a performer's persona. What do you like about teaching?
DF: I like the surprises. Everyone is surprised when someone goes on stage and is vulnerable with us. I like when people go up on stage and start crying or their nose starts running or they go up and start laughing. I enjoy when people discover ways to be hilarious and vulnerable that they didn't know they had.
See Fleysher's Butt Kapinksi Friday, Aug. 30 at 9 p.m. at the Hideout Theatre and Saturday, Sep. 1 at 10 p.m. at the New Movement Theater. If her methods sound intriguing, she's also teaching a workshop at Out of Bounds on Saturday, Sep. 1 at 12 p.m.