VPR backstage: the new Vaudeville

01/10/03 12:00AM By Susan Keese
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(Host) All week long, eleven professional entertainers from around New England have been polishing their acts at a performers' retreat in West Brattleboro. They're here to celebrate vaudeville in its latest incarnation.

VPR's Susan Keese goes backstage for a preview:


(Keese) On a makeshift stage under a high church ceiling, a clown has fallen in love with a department-store mannequin. A table is set for tea. The clown is trying to get the stiff-bodied mannequin into a straight backed chair.

(Zegge) "Haha! That was good, but "

(Keese) At least that's what's going to happen when comics Robin Zegge and Amelia Struthers get their sight-gags worked out.

(Zegge) "I thought you'd do that and I'd push and then I d come here and I'd push and you'd kick me in the rear."
(Struthers) "Oh, okay. Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah! Gotcha."

(Keese) Anyone can see that the clown is going to get kicked in the backside when he bends the mannequin in the middle. But it's still funny.

(Zegge) "Oomph Oo ah - haa!" (Laughter.)
(Struthers) "I think that might be our gag!"

(Keese) Welcome to the 16th annual New England Performers' Retreat. It's been going on all week at the West Village Meeting House in Brattleboro. Henry Lappen, a comedian and juggler from Amherst, Massachusetts, coordinates the weeklong gathering of professional performers:

(Lappen) "It's a retreat in the sense of stepping away from our regular lives and working on what we do which is creating new material to perform."

(Keese) Lappen has been working out an act with Van Kaynor, a violin teacher and fiddler who wants to learn to juggle. Juggling his colored clubs, Lappen plays a machine that never stops moving. Kaynor plays a worker trying to eat a sandwich. But his lunch keeps getting caught up in the juggling machine.

The skit will be part of a variety show at the Meetinghouse on Saturday. Lappen says the show will feature comics, storytellers, musicians - and a few acts that defy description:

(Lappen) "Some of us use the name New Vaudeville' referring to the time when people did short variety acts - there were long shows that went on and on and on with a variety of different people, each doing their one piece."

(Keese) The old Vaudeville faded with the advent of television. But recent decades have seen a resurgence of live performers and live audiences.

The life of a professional entertainer isn't cushy. But Russian-born mime Victor Walter, of Albany's Commotion Movement Theater, says it isn't really about the money:

(Walter) "It's mostly for your heart. When I was studying in Moscow at the Institute of Art, I studied mime and I just fell in love with this art and I couldn't live without it."

(Keese) Participants say the retreat offers a break from the solo performer's often lonely daily life. It's a chance to see your work through new eyes, develop friendships, and trade ideas and techniques.

A typical day here begins with warm-ups and group improvisations. One of today's improv exercises is built around recurring phrases and movements.

(Group) "My feet are cold! Don't you ever do that again. My feet are cold! Don't you ever do that again. My feet are cold!"

(Keese) Later the performers separate to practice and create. At each day's end they preview new material for comments and critique. Florida-born story teller Mary Stewart, who lives in Plymouth now, is working on a tall tale about a grandmother who trains a catfish to walk.

(Stewart) "I climbed out of bed and followed my grandma out of the house. And she had that bucket and we tiptoed up to the rain barrel and she took that empty bucket and - real careful so she wouldn't wake the fish up - she leaned all the way into the barrel and she scooped that fish up. And real slowly she poured that fish right out onto the grass but before it got all the way awake, my grandmama got down in front of it and she said, "Come 'ere fish. Come here.'"

(Keese) A self-described "word person," Stewart is pleased when a mime praises her body language.

(Stewart) "That's one of the powers of this retreat, that everybody brings these different skills and a different set of eyes. Because the improv artists, they approach their art differently than a storyteller might, or a songwriter or a juggler might. And so everybody brings their own way of seeing things."

(Keese) For VPR Backstage, I'm Susan Keese.

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