all wear bowlers
Created and performed by Geoff Sobelle and Trey Lyford
Directed by Aleksandra Wolska
Limited Season · Roda Theatre
November 24–December 23, 2006
Running time: 75 minutes, no intermission
In the tradition of Laurel and Hardy, Buster Keaton and Samuel Beckett, all wear bowlers is brimming with hilarious entertainment. These clowns may come from the era of silent films, but they’ve left a deafening trail of laughter across Asia, Australia, Europe and the United States. See what happens when they tumble out of their movie and into a wacky world without gravity. It’s an uproarious romp, a holiday treat that opens on the day after Thanksgiving and runs until Christmas Eve.
Geoff Sobelle · Co-Creator
Trey Lyford · Co-Creator
Aleksandra Wolska · Director
Edward E. Haynes Jr. · Scenic Design
Tara Webb · Costume Design
Randy “Igleu” Glickman · Lighting Design
James Sugg · Sound Design
Michael Friedman · Composer
Michael Glass · Filmmaker
Michelle Blair · Stage Manager
Trey Lyford · Wyatt
Geoff Sobelle · Earnest
“Deftly executed classic comic shtick…A slapstick meditation on Beckett’s Godot, filtered through a loving tribute to Laurel and Hardy, with occasional touches borrowed from Magritte…Packs a considerable amount of pleasure into a beguiling 75 minutes.”—San Francisco Chronicle
”The upshot: A new, spit-up funny take on old-school vaudeville tramps, this is absurdity as antidote for reality.”—San Jose Mercury News
“Hilarious! A fabulously comic romp that merges the Absurdist theatre of the ‘50s with the silent films of the ‘20s and ‘30s…These 75 minutes whip by too fast in a blur of helpless, teary laughter.”—East Bay Express
“Hilarious…Hats off to bowlers…Insanely wonderful—heartwarming in all the right ways, elegantly performed and leaving you breathlessly in awe…Some of the most wonderfully fresh and entertaining clowning you’ll ever see…It is a safari into silliness that everyone wants to take!”—Contra Costa Times
“Extraordinary…Imagine Waiting for Godot crossed with a Laurel and Hardy short and you have the essence of bowlers, a 75-minute excursion into absurdity…Completely accessible, often hilarious…Clowning is often derided as kids’ stuff, but in all wear bowlers, there’s an art to making grown-ups ponder mortality while making them laugh like 10 year-olds.”—Oakland Tribune
Prologue: from the Artistic Director
And now for something completely different…
One of the great joys of working at Berkeley Rep is the opportunity to produce an enormously eclectic body of work. While we proudly embrace a progressive aesthetic, the definition of that term is far reaching in terms of both the form and content of the plays we choose to present. A cursory look at this season alone reveals the spectrum of our interests: a German musical set during the Thirty Years War; a contemporary coming-of-age story set to American rock music; a psychological thriller with wildly mordant, Irish humor; an operatic novella detailing the inner life of an English family; a theatrical, emotional take on the legacy of racism carried by African-American men; a classic Victorian novel brought back to life through the magic lens of modern stagecraft.
Add to this mix a vaudevillian dance—a deceptively simple comic turn that deals with two guys who fall out of a movie and into our collective laps. Like characters who, against their will, suddenly find themselves onstage, our heroes for this evening are forced to perform without any lines, without any real knowledge of how they are expected to behave. They stagger onward, mustering no small degree of courage, foolishness and cleverness, armed with only their ability to charm their way out of their plight as they move inevitably toward the final curtain. Fortunately for us, they succeed with a measure of elegance and imagination that impresses night after night.
It is sometimes difficult to see the real work behind a play like all wear bowlers; sometimes easy to write off the show as simply silly. But there is a rigorous method behind this inspired madness. It takes an achingly long time to perfect the timing, nuance and understanding needed to sustain the ongoing conversation between performers of this kind and the audience. Trey and Geoff have spent years honing their routine, spent literally thousands of hours developing a particular relationship that deserves to live onstage. Their efforts have been rewarded: they have performed all wear bowlers the world over for people of every age and stripe. And as Berkeley is filled with people of every age and stripe, we thought they’d be a nice fit here as well.
Welcome to the third production of this eclectic season. We thank you for your curiosity, your sense of humor and for the delight you take in being surprised.
Prologue: from the Managing Director
Your gift matters
It’s that time of year. We’re making our lists and checking them twice. As you flip through the pages of tonight’s program you will notice that we are concluding 2006 by publishing our own list of people who have been very, very nice. The list is long. In fact, it includes over 3,000 generous individuals who have contributed to Berkeley Rep’s annual fund throughout the past year, with gifts ranging from $5 to many times that.
We’ve always valued the sense of “ownership” this audience and this community have felt for Berkeley Rep, and we’ve taken great pride in that sense of ownership. Three thousand individual contributions, made by people who also purchase tickets, is an instructive illustration of what community ownership really means. What it means to me is that many people understand that our ability to provide free and discounted tickets to an economically diverse community requires subsidy, that providing thousands of hours of classroom programming in schools throughout the Bay Area requires subsidy and that investment in development of original artistic voices is an effort with such a long-term payback that it will only happen with subsidy. What it means to me is that 3,000 people share our sense that these are worthy aspirations for a non-profit theatre and are willing to help us achieve them.
When you leave the theatre tonight, I hope you’ll thank those individuals and institutions whose names you recognize for their help in bringing this evening’s production to you. And I hope you’ll consider adding your name to the list. Three thousand is an awfully nice number, but 6,000 is even nicer. Your gift matters.
The art of making nothing
Trey Lyford and Geoff Sobelle talk to La Jolla Playhouse Literary Manager Allison Horsley about Laurel and Hardy, hidden anxiety and how they went about turning something into nothing
Trey, since all wear bowlers started with you, can you talk about its origins?
TL: Before grad school, I had worked with an actress in Philadelphia on a small film of the Ray Bradbury short story “The Laurel and Hardy Love Affair.” She told me I looked like Stan Laurel—this was back when I had hair that stood up a lot—so when I got to school I wanted to learn more about the comedy duo. I actually failed my first-year MFA acting course at U.C. San Diego because I was always in the Geisel Library researching Laurel and Hardy films. I knew I wanted to create a piece about identity, so I was looking for references in their films about the duo’s co-dependence—and they were all over the place. I had many conversations in grad school with dramaturg Scott Horstein and messed around with fellow actor Damian Baldet. Then, when I met Geoff, the real piece began.
How did you meet, and how did you begin collaborating on bowlers?
TL: We met at a party in Philadelphia and hit it off immediately. We spent a very long time arguing over the pronunciation of “numchucks,” which Geoff calls “noonchucks.” I had also seen him in a show that I enjoyed very much, and thought he might be someone interesting to work with. I got way more than I expected. He’s a total collaborator…and that’s why I still work with him.
GS: I had a good feeling about Trey right from the start. He was very funny. At some point that summer, he told me he wanted to do something along the lines of Laurel and Hardy and I was very interested. I’ve always loved the slapstick of the ‘20s and ‘30s—it’s stupid and beautiful, easy and virtuosic all at once. We began working later that winter—just for a few days—and had a very good time.
TL: Geoff lived in this giant loft. We just messed around and tried all these bits from Chaplin films and from Laurel and Hardy, trying to recreate what they were doing. We ended up with a lot of spilt eggs and water—and bruises. We found that we didn’t like pratfalls as much as elegance; that the theatrical world in our show would be mysterious and magical; that bowler hats and problems of identity would permeate the piece; and that Laurel and Hardy were still at the root of it somewhere.
Talk about bringing the show from the loft to the stage.
GS: We got a grant to work with professional clown David Shiner. After four weeks of working alone, we met up with him, armed to the teeth with slapstick bits and gags that were sure to send crowds into hysterics. We showed him our work and he said, “You have nothing. This isn’t even a show.”
TL: David said, “If you don’t have a character, we don’t care about anything.”
GS: We scrapped everything, did a lot of soul-searching and found characters lurking inside of our deepest fears and anxieties. Shiner guided us through a great deal of that work. There’s a scene in the Laurel and Hardy film The Flying Deuces where Hardy is trying to commit suicide in the Seine River. Hardy says, “Ready to jump in?” And Laurel says, “Why do I have to jump in?” Hardy says, “What would you be without me? People would stare at you and wonder what you are, and I wouldn’t be there to tell them.” As Trey mentioned, this idea of identity and the dependence on someone else to define oneself is found throughout these films. Trey’s first love of Laurel and Hardy came from this “identity problem,” and the question “what is Laurel without Hardy?” They’re two halves of one whole.
After working on this show for so long, would you say you are two halves of one whole?
TL: Geoff and I are so different from one another. But that difference is what makes it work. Laurel and Hardy were the fat one and the thin one, whereas we are more the hard and soft. The direct and indirect. In our differences we complement each other very well. The differences and disagreements lead to the great stuff.
GS: Trey will analyze a situation, weigh pros and cons and deal with things perhaps with more sensitivity and grace. Whereas I blindly blunder into situations with a lot of energy, but sometimes without much intelligence. These traits are kind of the cornerstones of our characters. Maybe we’re more like Vladimir and Estragon (from Beckett’s play Waiting for Godot), wandering around on the road to nowhere. Or maybe Jacob and Esau—I’m hairy, he’s not…What was the question again?
Were you surprised by what you found as you developed all wear bowlers?
GS: Yes—definitely! You always begin with really concrete things that you are sure must find their way into the piece: a lot of gags with trick hats that would burst into flames or start emitting steam…and none of it made it into the show. Instead, the good stuff was what happened between us, often in the moment, and often in front of an audience. The “invisible man” sequence in the show, we literally found in front of a mirror, playing with a third hat. All of a sudden it was like, “There’s a guy there!!” I remember many hours banging our heads against the wall finding nothing. And then there was suddenly a “form” to the nothing. The nothing, we realized, was there between us—literally playing a part in the show. The nothing was kind of the main character in a way.
Speaking of nothing—aside from the title, how did Samuel Beckett influence your writing or performance of bowlers?
TL: Beckett was there from the beginning. With our theatrical history, you can’t put two guys in bowler hats onstage without his being a major resonance. At the core of the piece, we’re in a modern Godot. But instead of waiting, we are keeping ourselves incredibly busy.
GS: In Godot, you have two people who digress to pass the time, to find an “occupation,” and continuously find themselves “faced with the void.” But our characters, Earnest and Wyatt, are actually trying to get out of the theatre, but find themselves unwitting participants in a comic routine. Everything they try to do—from read a newspaper to drink water—all becomes a “performance.” I suppose the play is saying, in this very neurotic way, that we are always in the midst of performance. There are people everywhere, watching you. And as they watch you, anything you try to do becomes a performance of whatever it was you were trying to do.
Speaking of performing, what do you enjoy most about clowning in general?
TL: I don’t think we consider ourselves “clowns.” Those guys dedicate years of their lives to perfect one gag. We really are actors who have gotten the amazing chance to play in the clown world for a while. I think what is most beautiful is that clowning is the true heart of theatre. The barest, most open place for a performer to be in…and that is very exciting, very rewarding and extremely humbling.
GS: I think it’s seeing the audience. You know immediately if something is successful or not. If they’re laughing, it succeeds, if they’re not—you suck. It’s basic. But then there is also this endless play of logic with the clown, following every crazy turn of thought and the audience, if they’re with you, will follow. I really love that.
all wear bowlers and the Theatre of the Absurd
By Madeleine Oldham
Absurdist plays peaked during the 1950s and early ‘60s, originating in Europe and making their way to the States shortly after. The word “absurdism” commonly applies to the theatre, though it is sometimes used in reference to other art forms. Absurdism derives from existential literature and was part of a philosophical movement that developed in response to the monumental-scale devastation and loss of life that World War II left in its wake. A desolate mood among intellectuals struggling to pinpoint the meaning of life led them to conclude that in fact, life had no purpose at all.
The American Heritage Dictionary defines absurdism, in part, as: “holding that humans exist in a meaningless, irrational universe and that any search for order by them will bring them into direct conflict with this universe.” This could arguably serve as the plot synopsis for any absurdist play. Interesting, that contained within this definition is the word “conflict”: the very essence of drama. However, a driving, event-based storyline does not feature in this type of work. Rather, meandering action and the absence of a plot destination parallel the idea that life doesn’t go anywhere and has no meaning. Though this outlook paints a bleak picture and highlights the futility of the human experience, a paradoxical flipside exists: a freeing kind of symbolism in having no plot—it’s a blank slate. Anything can happen. It leaves room for the imagination. And by dwelling in the duality of hopelessness and possibility, absurdist playwrights hit upon a universal nerve: that the preposterousness of those two things coexisting was really quite funny.
The public response to this new genre, however, encompassed wide-ranging opinions. In a time where naturalism reigned supreme and writers like Eugene O’Neill, Arthur Miller and William Inge dominated Broadway, the Theatre of the Absurd (a term coined by critic Martin Esslin in the ‘60s) offered an alternative to their naturalistic approach. But absurdist plays were often labeled pretentious due to their intellectual roots and obscure nature. This label was famously refuted by a historic production of Waiting for Godot at San Quentin Prison. The prisoners were deeply moved by the piece, and it’s even said that references from the play are folded into prison-speak there to this day. In the 1956 New York Times review of Waiting for Godot’s Broadway debut, Brooks Atkinson says that the character of Gogo “seems to stand for all the stumbling, bewildered people of the earth who go on living without knowing why.”
all wear bowlers’ co-creators Geoff Sobelle and Trey Lyford do not hesitate to acknowledge the debt they owe to Beckett’s seminal piece. The title is taken from an opening stage direction in Godot, where Beckett addresses the millinery situation of his four characters by stating that “all wear bowlers.” Sobelle notes the everyman symbolism inherent in this choice: “There was a time when every single person on the street wore a bowler hat. It was a symbol of the aspiring middle class. We’ve often said that it was like today’s cell phone; literally everybody had it. It crossed all class boundaries. The bowler hats themselves were filled with philosophical and psychological meaning. And, of course, Beckett knew that, and made Waiting for Godot out of it.”
Since the ‘60s, absurdist theatre has quieted down. Some speculate that when the initial surprise of the unexpected plotlessness disappeared, the genre lost its ability to make a statement. Though Beckett, Ionesco and early Pinter are still regularly performed, new plays that descend directly from absurdism are few and far between. But Sobelle and Lyford embraced the absurdist tradition when they created all wear bowlers, and have generated a production that carries on that heritage, while maintaining an astonishingly refreshing visual imagination; leaving us with the feeling that we’re seeing something simultaneously new and familiar. In addition to nurturing its absurdist roots, the show pays homage to silent films, surrealist art and slapstick comedy—all of which combine to bring these existential clowns to life. But it’s ultimately the Theatre of the Absurd that paved the way for all wear bowlers to exist.