As the days fly by and we get closer to the festival, the next artist that we would like to introduce you to is James Dangerfield. James is an actor, singer and musician who has appeared on stage and film, performing Shakespeare, musical theatre, operetta and pantomime. Originally from the North West of England, James studied at Guildford School of Acting and has a degree in English Literature from Durham University. He plays the violin and piano and is also interested in drawing, storyboard art and graphic design.
The show that James is bringing to to Rêves D'Avant L'Aube 2018 is called When You Fall Down – The Buster Keaton Story. It is a one-man musical written and performed by James himself with arrangements and instrumentals by Martyn Stringer. It is an ode to the genius of silent film star Buster Keaton and an intimate insight into not so well-known aspects of his life. The show is set in 1928. Buster Keaton arrives in Culver City at the movie studio, which is to be his new home. He takes this moment to reflect on his life and career.
Through slapstick, songs and soft shoe shuffle, When You Fall Down follows the triumphs and trials of Buster Keaton as he makes his iconic movies. As the world whirls around him, with his marriage failing, his career in danger and turning to the bottle, Buster must hit his mark as he films the most dangerous stunt of all.
When You Fall Down has been performed in the US for Buster’s own family and is endorsed by The International Buster Keaton Society. It previewed in September 2017 at The Hen and Chickens Theatre, London, before a US premiere in October in Muskegon, Michigan. So far in 2018 the show has appeared at Colston Hall, Bristol, as part of The Slapstick Festival and 2 nights at The Hope Theatre, London.
Here’s what James Dangerfield shared with the team of Rêves D'Avant L'Aube 2018.
In what ways do you think bringing your work to Rêves D'Avant L'Aube 2018 can enrich your practice as a theatre maker?
J: When You Fall Down is a one-man show, so from the point of conception the challenge has been to tell the story in a varied and interesting way. I didn’t want it to be me simply standing on stage and talking for an hour! So there’s song, mime, dance and even drawing, all of which I use as ways to drive the narrative.
The strength of the storytelling is tested further when presenting the show to an audience in another country. So for that reason I’m particularly looking forward to bringing the show to Paris, where I’ll be performing to an audience for whom English is not their first language. Having said that I’m sure everyone’s English is going to be 1000 times better than my French! (Though I will try to speak as much French as I can during my visit.)
I’m also really looking forward to meeting the theatre companies from a variety of places and disciplines that Rêves D’Avant L’Aube attracts. And watching the diverse and interesting ways in which they approach storytelling.
What is the most exciting aspect of sharing your work with audiences in Paris?
J: Now this is a hard question to answer! Or in fact, I have many answers to this question!
After his departure from MGM under difficult circumstances in the 1930s, Buster Keaton came to Britain and France where he had feature film offers from European producers. Le Roi des Champs-Élysées was shot in Paris and provided Keaton both with solace and the opportunity to make the kind of sound film that MGM hadn’t been able to offer. The French understood Keaton’s sangfroid, the stoic sensibility he displayed and his persona as a perservering clown. They even provided him with their own nickname; “Malec”.
Buster’s connection to Paris continued over the next two decades. In 1947, 1952 and 1954 he performed at Cirque Medrano, recreating in the ring slapstick routines from his movies. The resident clowns watched in awe and reverence as Buster, at nearly 60 years old, performed pratfalls with all the same precision and timing as he had in his youth. Buster thought fondly of the French and his time in Paris; for that reason I am really excited to be bringing him back here for what feels like a homecoming of sorts.
Furthermore, France has an incredible filmic cultural history. Some of the all time great silent movies, such as Abel Gance’s Napoléon or Carl Theodor Dreyer’s La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc are French made, and it’s an honour to perform my own tribute to a screen icon in a country with such an innate cinematic sensibility.
How does your show address an international audience?
J: Comedy is certainly universal, but this is true even more so in the case of the silent movie stars, whose faces were recognised around the world. For obvious reasons silent movies weren’t limited by language! We’re all united by laughter, especially in the case of a man falling over. I guess everybody laughs at that!
I also think Buster’s enduring appeal is that he is very much the everyman, who always persists through life’s obstacles. He gets churned through the wheels of an increasingly mechanized society, which I think makes him particularly relevant today. And it’s something that resonates wherever you are in the world. But it is his attitude that makes Buster the most modern of the silent clowns. He doesn’t cry, he doesn’t complain, and he always gets back on his feet.
There are themes too in Buster’s story that are universal in terms of human experience. His first marriage is not a success, he struggles with alcohol and he has the doubts that we all have to deal with.
An interesting parallel can be drawn between the show and a current news story that has gone global. In the early 1920s, Buster’s best friend and film star Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle was put on trial, when a woman called Virginia Rappe died at one of his parties. In reality the court case was really an attempt to bring Hollywood in line; it was widely flouting prohibition and Roscoe Arbukcle was the perfect figure to make a monster out of in the media. (He was ultimately acquitted.) However, as one of Hollywood’s earliest scandals, and one involving accusations of physical harassment, it was just as big a sensation as current events involving a certain movie producer, and the #metoo movement, which has rightly grown as a result of them. Roscoe Arbuckle was one of the biggest stars in the world, and also the man who introduced Buster to the movies. How the trial (and the mounting hysteria that accompanied it) affected Buster is something I deal with in the show.
What does European theatre mean to you and how does it influence your work?
J: I think European theatre is unafraid to be creative, provocative and even challenging, partly because we tend to be smaller and more densely populated countries than some other parts of the world. As a result of being closer together, it makes it possible to explore the full potential and possibilities of a certain genre, even to the point of being niche, because it’s easier to gather like-minded individuals around you. Similarly that makes it easier to find your audience, even if what you’re doing seems very specific. And because we’re close, we’re also able to form communities to discuss and exchange ideas; such as Rêves D’Avant L’Aube is doing in Paris.
And of course I can’t leave out clowning, which has deep roots in European tradition, especially in the home town of Lecoq! So I’ll have to go with that as the biggest influence on my work.
Other than your time performing at the festival, what other plans do you have in Paris?
J: I’m actually interested in many things French! Since childhood I have been a Napoléon enthusiast, so I’ve been to Paris more than once to visit Les Invalides and the Empire monuments, as well as the galleries, museums and many of the tourist spots. I mentioned before about French silent cinema, but I’m also a huge fan of Jean Luc Godard and la Nouvelle Vague. So, even though it’s moved from the days of Bresson and Truffaut, this time I’m hoping to spend some time in the Cinémathèque, which I haven’t managed before. Maybe I’ll wander round the streets pretending to be a Godard anti-hero, or perhaps Alphaville’s Lemmy Caution. I’ll need to change my hat for that of course. Lastly, I’ll probably go and rummage through the shelves at a bande dessinée store. It’s another part of French culture that I love and it also keep me in practice with the language!
What´s next for you after Rêves D'Avant L'Aube 2018?
J: After I return from Paris, When You Fall Down is being performed in London’s West End, at The Other Palace for one night in July. I then take the show to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival for the whole of August, where I’m performing at The Pleasance Courtyard. I’m currently planning dates for later in the year.
I also have an idea for another stage show based on a Godard film. It’s in the early stages but I’ve written a few things down and I have an idea for some songs that I’d love to write in the chanson tradition. But that’s all I can tell you right now!
Interview by Lilia Nova