Join Harlequin, Clodpole and Cotton as they flip and tumble in Harlequin’s Holiday, a new holiday program. Meet the cast and hear how they bring the comedic pantomime stylings that were extremely popular in the 18th century to life today.
Rachel West: Welcome back to the Past and Present podcast, I’m Rachel West. This time we’re going to be talking about Harlequin’s Holiday. This is a fun, hilarious, acrobatic show that’s taking place this holiday season right here in the Revolutionary City. With me today I have Brandon Bruce, senior manager of performance interpretation along with the guys of Harlequin’s Holiday, Harlequin himself, Clodpole and Cotton to talk about the show that’s getting ready to start here on December 17. Brandon, let’s talk a little bit about what is Harlequin’s Holiday?
Brandon Bruce: Harlequin’s Holiday is a pantomime, and it’s based on the pantomimes of the 18th century, actually the late 17th century and 18th century, they were extremely popular—wildly popular—in England and in the colonies. Specifically, what this is, is it’s based on—there are lots of different types of pantomimes—but this particular type of pantomime is called a harlequinade, and why it’s called that is that it’s centered around one character called Harlequin. Harlequin has been present throughout western theatrical history, so you find him in Comedia dell’arte and there he was known as Harlequino, then he moved—by the time he made it all the way across the continent into England in the late 17th century, he became Harlequin. And we’ve all heard that name before and no, it’s not the romance novels, but he is definitely a—he looks a lot like a jester, he’s covered in motley, he’s a trickster, you see a lot of evidence of Harlequin all the way through like today we have Bugs Bunny—Bugs Bunny is definitely Harlequin. Bugs Bunny is probably the 20th century version of Harlequin because he’s a trickster, he’s able to transform himself, he can transform other things, he’s got a certain element of magic, so that’s really what it is and a lot of people thing, well pantomime, oh this is going to be mime work, but that’s not what it is. Yes, these clowns, for lack of a better term, are all silent, but there is original, live music and they’re not actually miming anything. It’s really a lot closer to the Blue Man Group, because the Blue Man Group is a pantomime, that’s exactly what the Blue Man Group is. So that’s what we’re trying to do, something that wild, that exciting, just as fun as it can possibly be. I would say this is from my knowledge the most ambitious theatrical production that Colonial Williamsburg has embarked on in at least 10 years.
Rachel: And I know I mentioned acrobatics earlier, when describing the show and there’s lots of flips and jumps and things like that, can you talk a little bit about what these guys are doing?
Brandon: Well I might let Nigel talk about that…
Rachel: Harlequin himself!
Brandon: Yeah, because what those flips and acrobatics are is that Nigel is—we brought him here from Walkabout Theater in Chicago, which is a movement based theater company and that’s one of their main specialties—and we brought Nigel in because we wanted to kind of have Nigel guide us through that and build our work around that type of work, around that type of movement, did you want to say anything about that?
Nigel Brown: Yeah, in Walkabout Theater in Chicago, we have a process that’s steeped in partner acrobatics and contact improvisation that we use to create material in a long-form process, so it can take like, you know, eight to nine months to create a show and we develop a training method so that every day in rehearsal, a lot of that is actually training and working out and doing these acrobatics just so that way they’re fluid when we actually have to implement the tools, so to speak.
Rachel: What goes into transforming into Harlequin?
Nigel: Ultimately it’s just a lot of—and I think for all of us—its just a lot of who we are, like our natural way of moving, our own comedic timings. So, as far as what goes into Harlequin, I don’t know…
Rachel: You go into Harlequin.
Nigel: Yeah, I go into Harlequin, exactly.
Rachel: Luke, you play Clodpole in Harlequin’s Holiday, talk a little bit about your character and what he does.
Luke Schares: If I had to describe Clodpole, I guess he’s the dumb one? Just doesn’t really know what’s going on, but is happy about it. Just kind of stumbles through the show…we’re all kind of dumb. We’re all pretty dumb.
Nigel: It’s hard to talk about one, because they’re all in relation to each other, so how
Clodpole and Harlequin interact is different from how Harlequin and Cotton interact and all the way around that.
Luke: Generally, I would say Harlequin has a good relationship with the other two, whereas Cotton and Clodpole kind of get into their little tiffs, lovers’ quarrels.
Rachel: What is your background?
Luke: I went to the University of Iowa, got a degree in theater, was living in L.A. for a couple of years, I worked the last two summers here building up the Hallam Players. Myself and my good friend Andres wrote Swordplay, which has been playing the last two summers, and they offered me a job here so I took it.
Rachel: Gary, let’s chat a bit about Cotton.
Gary Moore: We can do that, yeah?
Rachel: What’s Cotton like?
Gary: Man, Cotton’s like the adorable puppy, I think. He never really has his stuff together, but you applaud him for his efforts, is how I see him.
Luke: He’s like a baby.
Gary: He’s like a little baby. He’s like a toddler. He’s just like figuring things out, you know, and half of the work is exploration and finding new things and exploration, and he is kind of stuck in the exploration phase these entire show, is how I feel. So you really see him in his own.
Rachel: How much choreography goes into a show like this? I know you guys have been working together a lot to get ready for this show, are you playing off of one another or are you just planning everything to a T exactly what you’re going to be doing?
Luke: We definitely play off of each other…
Luke: We originally had it written out, like all of the bits, but when we got in a room reacting off each other, we really found what works and what doesn’t work and moved out from there.
Nigel: Yeah, that’s definitely what it’s based in, is, you know, this improvisational—we’re just interacting with each other and reacting to each other and then we find these moments that we want to keep and then we’ll refine those and set those, but still—I think even when they’re set though, it necessitates having to be fairly organic also.
Gary: It’s like we were given a frame and it’s up to us to fill it up and make it work.
Rachel: As far as those acrobatics go—that I keep going back to because that’s such a big part of this—would you guys call yourselves pretty fearless in that you’ll try anything or are you a little more reserved, do you want to test things out slowly or you just want to go for it?
Luke: As long as there’s a mat, I think we go for it.
Nigel: Yeah, I mean it’s always a balance of—health is of the foremost importance, being healthy and being safe.
Gary: Some of us try our best, I believe.
Brandon: I think it was just the other day it was the end of the day and we were working really, really hard, and I came up with idea probably about half an hour before the end of the day, and I turned to Nigel and I said “Hey, can you do this?” and I just kind of walked through this bizarre flipping thing that I just came up with which I personally could never do, I couldn’t even think of doing it. Two responses that are acceptable in that situation are “No.” and the other one is “I don’t know, let’s see.” And Nigel went with “I don’t know, let’s see.”
Rachel: Do you have a favorite bit so far that you guys have been working on?
Luke: For me, I think it’s either the percussion section or Cotton and the icicle.
Gary: I’m a big fan of Cotton and the icicle, but no, the percussion section absolutely is pretty fantastic.
Nigel: Yeah, I don’t know, I think Cotton and the icicle is probably my favorite. It’s a longer panto [pantomime], right?
Brandon, Luke and Gary: Yeah.
Nigel: And it has all these classic moments in it that are like just ingrained. The trouble was pairing them down, because we wanted to have everything.
Rachel: So it’s basically I guess a lot of people would be familiar with a Christmas Story scenario involving a tongue getting stuck to something cold?
Group: Well, we don’t want to say that!
Nigel: It’s like there’s a language with comedy that people, you know whether or not they’ve actually seen it or not or saw it when they were children and there’s a language that people know that I think this speaks to.
Brandon: And I think that looking at a lot of what we’re doing is based off an actual pantomime called Harlequin’s Museum, which is, unlike ours, is just purely chaotic. It’s just straight up chaos; it’s hard to follow; there’s no beginning, middle and end; they just transform things willy-nilly.
Luke: It doesn’t make any sense at all.
Brandon: Right. But a lot of what we’re doing—a lot of it is inspired by the things we saw there. And the thing that Nigel was just saying is that yeah, comedy is one of those things that most of the comic bits that we know, most of the things that we think of as funny in the 21st century in 2015, has been funny for thousands and thousands of years. This is no different, we are not inventing anything new, we’re just simply taking everything that exists and repackaging it into something that we now own, but this will continue on, this tradition will continue on. We’re taking it from the Marx Brothers who used to do that, we’re taking it from Vaudeville who used to do that, and way way before that I should say.
Rachel: When folks come see this show, are they just going to see the pantomime acts or are they going to get to see other parts of the show?
Brandon: Actually, no, there’s quite a lot to it. In addition to the five pantomime acts that we have in it, we have a grand finale, a very grand finale. We have a fairly grand opening as a matter of fact. Before the show begins there’s a Christmas carol sing-a-long that is led by two performers and there’s also brand new, original music played by two musicians, so it’s live, and it’s all composed by Wayne A. Hill who is an Emmy award-winning composer. In addition to that we’ve got swordfights…
Luke: Singing, dancing.
Brandon: Yeah, quite a bit of dancing and a giant fish.
Rachel: No details about the giant fish, you gotta come see it.
Brandon: It will be a giant fish.
Rachel: And there’s going to be some heckling?
Brandon: Oh there will be some heckling, the audience is encouraged to as always with I would say most of our shows, the plays that we do here, we encourage encores. So we encourage our audience to—this is not the 21st century, 20th century audience that we’ve come to I guess accept where you go into a theater, the lights darken on you, and you sit on your hands and behave yourself. You can’t unwrap candies and things like that and you can’t talk to each other—that’s not this environment. This is an environment where you are encouraged to talk, you are encouraged to say encore, so if you saw something you really like, say “encore.” You saw something you didn’t like, boo at us.
Luke: Boo it!
Brandon: Hiss, do what you want.
Gary: Be courteous!
Brandon: We have two people that are actually hecklers, two actors that are in the show. They become active later on in the show, they actually come up on the stage and perform in the finale and another act, but basically their job is to sit in the audience and heckle the show and encourage the audience to do the same.
Rachel: Gary, we didn’t get to any of your background. So, you’re Cotton…
Rachel: What did you do before you were Cotton?
Gary: What did I do before I was Cotton? Well, I graduated from the University of North Carolina at Wilmington with my bachelors in theater performance.
Rachel: That’s where I went! Film school.
Gary: I was unaware of that! I graduated from there in 2014, did a brief stint with the Disney College program down in Orlando, yeah I’ve been doing theater for probably about 10 years and relocated here this summer as a Chowning’s character interpreter and got this amazing opportunity, and now here I am.
Rachel: So our guests know that any chance they can go into Chowning’s and maybe encounter you guys inside in some other capacity.
Luke and Gary: Absolutely.
Rachel: And that is highly encouraged.
Gary: Please, yes.
Rachel: Anything else you guys want our guests to know about what’s happening with Harlequin’s Holiday?
Brandon: I mean, all I can say is I have been doing theater definitely the majority of my own life and there are those projects that I think of having done at least 150 shows, this is definitely to me one of the most important for me personally. The thing that I hope the audience gets primarily above and beyond everything else is I hope they have a lot of fun. I hope they really really have a lot of fun. And if they’re fans of performance, I hope they can see just how amazing these three guys and the other performers are in this, because it is mind-boggling to see just how much they’re able to do, how much they’re able to retain and then present it with such command, it’s impressive. It’s very very very rare that you get that group of people in a show.
Rachel: When can people come see the show?
Brandon: It opens December 17 and it plays for 10 performances. Nine of those performances are at 7:30 p.m., and I can actually tell you all of the dates off the top of my head. You want to hear them?
Brandon: December 17; 18; 19; then the 24th, which is Christmas Eve; 25th, which is Christmas Day if you didn’t know that; the 26th, 27th, the 29th and the 30th. In addition to that there is also one matinee performance at 2 p.m., so if you have little ones that you have that would not like to stick around until 9 p.m. let’s say, for your standard shows, then you can come December 27 at 2 p.m. and watch the matinee.
Rachel: Great! If you want more information about Harlequin’s Holiday, you can head to colonialwilliamsburg.com, or we have a blog up today by Bill Sullivan on Harlequin’s Holiday on Colonial Williamsburg’s blog, Making History, just head to makinghistorynow.com and search for Harlequin’s Holiday. Thank you so much for joining me guys, it has been a pleasure!
Group: Thank you!
Rachel: Thanks for joining us, we will see you next time.