Creativity on the Half Shell

February 8, 2007

An Interview with Jeff Raz


For the last 30 years, Jeff Raz has performed internationally with circuses and theaters including The Pickle Circus, Lincoln Center Theater, Dell'Arte Players, Berkeley Repertory Theatre, and the Marin and S.F. Shakespeare Festivals. Since 1990 he has written 10 plays and two solo plays. His television work includes Live From Lincoln Center and Disney's The New Vaudevillians. Raz is also the founder and director of the Clown Conservatory, a program that has trained some of the top young clowns working in Cirque du Soleil, Cirque Eloize, Ringling Bros. and other circuses around the world. He's currently performing the lead role of "The Dead Clown" in Cirque du Soleil's Corteo.

Jeff Raz on the web:, The Clown Conservatory

Cecil Vortex: Do you have any techniques you use to help you get into a more inspired mode?

Jeff Raz: You know, I usually don't think in [those terms] because I've made a living doing this since I was 15. I'm kind of a blue-collar guy in that way. I go to work. The way I look at it and the way that works for me is, I just keep plugging ahead. Because I started as a juggler; as a juggler, you can always get up and throw the balls. Or you get up and you throw the clubs. No inspiration needed. Throw the damn things. If they're in the air, wonderful. It they're on the ground, throw 'em again. It's kind of simple.

For example when I write a play, what I do is, once I've got the research going, and I got it kind of floating around in my head in a way, I'll try to write the whole play in a week. Just write the f****r. And it's terrible. (I got this from Annie Lamott, from her book Bird by Bird.) So I just do that, and then I can edit it, which I do better than creating from whole cloth. And again, both of those are kind of designed to make sure I know what the job of the day is. I don't do well waiting for inspiration. Now, the other morning, I was working 10-show weeks, which means I'm on stage for 25 hours a week which is a huge amount of stage time. And so I get done at 11 o'clock. I get home. And the turnaround between Saturday night when I'm done at 11 and when I have to be back on-site at 11 o'clock putting on makeup the next morning is the tough one. And then we had a cabaret after, so we actually had an 11-show week. I was getting really tired. So sonofabitch if I'm not up at 6:30 on Sunday morning with ideas about the show.

CV: Why's that you think?

JR: Just because inspiration has its own schedule. It's not particularly good about sticking with my schedule. But my theory on that is, OK great. I mulled them over, I wrote them down, tried them in the show, they went great. I was happy... Laughs are elusive. You can't head right for a laugh. It'll go away. You can get people to cry. You can head right for a dramatic moment or a sad moment, and you can usually get it. But you can't head right for a laugh. You have to let the laugh come or sneak around the side. The same thing for inspiration. For me, just keep working, and if inspiration chooses to show up, great. I rather it not show up at 6:30 in the morning. It could've waited till nine. But the job is to write down the inspiration when it comes and know how to use it later.

CV: So if you're working all the time, you'll be there when the inspiration strikes?

JR: Right. And, as I tell my students - 90% of my students tell me at some point or another, "I have all these great ideas. I just don't know quite how to do them." I say, great, you and everybody else has great ideas. That's not what makes an artist or what makes art. What makes art is doing the damn thing. The craft part of art is what gets it done. We all have wonderful inspirations. Everybody dreams - your dreams are these brilliant Fellini movies, but you aren't Fellini because you haven't made it into a movie. So if you want to be Fellini, start making the damn movies. Figure out how to use the camera. Get your shot. Then you'll start to find the artistic challenges within that. And if you can keep your craft going and have your art flow into that, then you become an artist, if anyone cares to watch it.

CV: Are there any other tricks - I know for some people "tricks" is a bad word -

JR: I love tricks. I'm a clown. Tricks are essential. You need to have tricks. You need to have formulas. This idea that somehow formulas and tricks and old ways of doing things are somehow antithetical - it's just people being nervous. There is - especially in American theater - the method [approach to acting] - and some sense that technique is bad, that tricks are bad. No - tricks are great. You need tricks.

CV: What sort of tricks do you use?

JR: Well there are hundreds of them. My mentor gave me lots: The transitions are key.... If you're thinking about cutting something, will the audience miss it? If they won't miss it, cut the damn thing. Don't use adjectives if you can avoid them. If you're improvising, say yes. Try not to ask questions but make statements. These are all tricks. Now, they go away. Sometimes they don't work. But they're where you start. Then you have a little template you can hold up. Does this work here?

CV: How important is audience feedback to you?

JR: I always bounce things off of people. I get [my students] in front of an audience every five weeks because for clowns the partnership with the audience is key. And whether I'm working as a clown, or an actor, or a playwright, that's all key to me. And actually, mainstream theater in this country has actually picked up on this; they do these workshop productions quite often....

The great dramaturgy of an audience is not in the Q&A afterwards, where they say "you know, I'd rather you did this and that...." It's when they cough. That's when they tell you. And for a comedian the extra thing is, are they laughing? Or if it's a dramatic section, what's the quality of the silence? And there are many different laughs and there are many different silences, and if you're a good, experienced performer, you can start to tell the difference between them, and you play to that.

CV: What about tricks for being productive - for getting all the work done that you want to get done?

JR: In the performing arts it's easy. You either have an opening or show. And lots of people will see you suck if you don't get to work... . There's nothing quite like doing a bit that you thought was funny but you haven't worked it enough, and the audience doesn't laugh. That sound will get you working. There is nothing like going to an audition and having the auditioner look at you - I've gone to a few auditions not as prepared as I should have been, and let me tell you, nothing quite like looking out - especially if you happen to know the director or the casting director - and having them look at you with those kind of flat, not quite pitying but certainly cold eyes that say, "You didn't take this seriously enough, pal." That'll get you working. Mortgage will get you working. [Laughter]

But also my background is juggling and acrobatics. You don't do your homework with juggling, the shit hits the floor, and even dogs know that you've blown it because they come and grab the balls and run away with them. And if you don't do your homework when you do acrobatics, someone gets hurt. I used to do an act where my partner stood on my back when I'm lying flat on the ground, and she jumps and jumps and jumps, and she ends up standing on my head. Well, if I'm not ready for that, my neck gets broken or she falls on the ground and her neck gets broken, so it's not an abstract concept. That's very very helpful, and it's part of why the clown students get acrobatic training even though some of them will never be acrobats even at a very preliminary level, but that sense that, no bullshit - you don't do your work, you're going to get hurt. Or worse yet, you're going to hurt someone else.

Posted by cecil at 8:44 PM | Comments (8) | TrackBack

February 7, 2007

Creativity on the Half-Shell

Regular visitors to this site know that I'm quite literally 175 years old. What you may not know is that just five short years ago -- at the ripe old age of 170 -- I had a series of micro-epiphanies regarding the creative process, the most important of which was this:

I'd always thought art was about sitting around, waiting for inspiration to strike. As a result, I did a lot of waiting and not that much creating. But it turns out, art and inspiration don't have to (entirely) work that way. You don't have to just wait. There are actual techniques you can use -- habits that help drive inspiration, ways to tackle a blank page and to catch ideas as they spark through the day. Why didn't anyone tell me that before? Like, when I was 140?

Anyways, hoping not to lose any more time, I began to gather up a personalized set of these techniques -- what seemed to work for me. And then I started to wonder, what techniques had other artists come up with?

The result of that question is this here brand-new feature: "Creativity on the Half Shell." Over the next several weeks, you'll be hearing from dancers, poets, computer graphic effects artists, illustrators, stand up comics, musicians, and a host of other creative professionals about how their creative process works, how they deal with dry periods, and what they do to stay productive, keep their work fresh, and generally tap their personal woosh.

The first interview goes live tomorrow, and new ones will follow each Thursday. In the future, if you ever want to jump straight to the Creativity in Practice page, you can bookmark it right here.

I've really enjoyed these initial interviews, and I feel like I've learned a lot already. I hope you'll enjoy 'em too and come on back for more.

Tomorrow: a conversation with Jeff Raz, clown, actor, playwright, teacher, and the star of Cirque du Soleil's Corteo.


Posted by cecil at 9:30 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack