CHALK (a silent comedy) comes to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival

Name: Alex Curtis
Name of Edinburgh show: CHALK (a silent comedy.)
Venue: Greenside at Infirmary Street
Performance time: 13:55pm
Show length: 45 minutes
Ticket price: £11 (general), £9.50 (concession), £6.50 (under 18)

Can you tell me a little bit about yourself and your performing background?
Yeah, totally! I’m originally from Southern California, but now I live in New York City and support myself as an actor by teaching yoga and meditation workshops. I caught the acting bug when I was in the fifth grade, so by this point I’ve been performing most of my life. I earned my undergraduate degree in theater from the University of California, Berkeley where I studied both acting and directing, and then went on to earn my MFA in acting from Brown University/Trinity Repertory Company. Neither of these programs subscribe to any particular acting method, so I felt like both were opportunities to collect a bunch of different tools, experiment, and find a technique that worked for me. I also appreciated that both programs encouraged you be a complete artist. Even in my MFA, as I was studying acting, there were opportunities to grow as a director and even experiment with playwrighting. And that’s where Chalk was first created, actually. The idea came to me in a playwrighting lab; then I roped in the physical theater faculty to help me bring it to life.

Tell me about your show, what it is all about?
Chalk is a whimsical family show that uses clown, mime, and physical comedy to explore the power of our imagination. It’s a goofy testament to the ability to cultivate resilience through creative problem solving, as well as a moving exploration of the adult search for romantic love and connection. The story revolves around a charismatic clown who discovers magic chalk that makes everything he draws come to life, and the unexpected challenges that come with getting exactly what you want. It’s really funny, and I’m so proud of the show. I can’t wait to share it in Edinburgh!

How long have you been working on this show and what is it that makes it relevant to audiences in 2019?
I’ve been working on Chalk for more than five years. It’s hard to believe it’s been that long! The first production of Chalk was at the Providence Fringe Festival in Rhode Island in 2014 and I’ve been performing and developing it ever since. I’ve mounted versions of it at The New York Clown Theatre Festival, FRIGID New York, The Gotham Storytelling Festival, and most recently as part of a residency at the Kraine Theater in New York City.

Living with the show for so long has been really gratifying. Every time I’ve done the show, it’s grown. I’ve added new routines or changed bits, so there has been a lot of time to refine the performance and now I feel like it has finally clicked in a new and exciting way. I’m so happy to be bringing this newest (and best) version of it to Edinburgh!

I think what makes Chalk so important in 2019 is the way that it manages to tell a compelling story in a decidedly low-tech, imaginative way. We live in the age of smart-phones, social media, CGI and superhero movies. There are no shortage of ways to find entertainment on demand, and in a lot of ways that’s great! The pitfall of this, though, is that if we’re constantly consuming media made by other people, we end up spending very little time engaging our own creativity, and building fantasy worlds for ourselves. Something that I think Chalk does really well is that it gets audiences to bring their own creativity into the room at the same time as they’re being entertained watching a play. There are no words in Chalk, so everything is communicated through mime and sound effects. And that leaves a lot of space for the audience to fill in the gaps! I do my best to express the action of the story, but since so much is unseen it needs the audience’s imagination to really come to life. They need to picture the missing pieces for themselves, and that also makes it personal because everyone will picture it a little differently. So as much as the show is something that I’ve created, while it’s happening, the audience is also actively creating it in their heads – which I hope can be an opportunity to remember how entertaining it can be to spend time exploring our own brains.

Do you have any top tips for surviving the Edinburgh Fringe Festival – both for performers and visitors to the event?
I don’t! But if you have any tips, I would love to hear them! This is my first time at the Fringe, so it’s all new to me. My goal at the Fringe is to exercise self-care and to allow myself to take breaks. Chalk is a one-man operation, both onstage and off – so preparing for the Fringe as a producer and a performer has been A LOT. And I don’t expect that to get easier anytime soon. Plus, on top of all the work of presenting at the festival, I also want to enjoy it and engage with the massive Fringe community. It’s overwhelming! So my goal is to pace myself, do what I can, and remember that’s all I can do. And I think that applies to being a performer and a visitor both. You can’t see everything; you can’t do everything. So don’t rush, do what you can, and enjoy yourself.

What has been the funniest or most embarrassing thing that has ever happened to you on stage?
I was once in an outdoor production of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night set in the 1960’s where the director had replaced all the soliloquies with lip sync dance numbers set to pop songs from the era. I was playing Sebastian. I was 20, it was my second professional production, and I thought this was the beginning of a meteoric rise in the San Francisco regional theater scene. Then, on opening night, I tripped just as I began my dance to “Do You Believe In Magic?” by The Lovin’ Spoonful. I was skipping along the lip of the stage, when I completely lost my balance and sent myself hurtling off the stage, spiraling through the air, and into the audience. Thankfully, no one was in the first few rows, so I didn’t land on anybody. I did, however, hit my head on one of the benches and go briefly unconscious. When I came to a few moments later the song was still playing and I wasn’t dancing. The song was playing, and I wasn’t dancing! So I jumped from where I had landed between the seats, put on a big smile, threw candy into the audience (that was part of the dance routine, but I couldn’t tell if that part had already happened or was still coming up), got onstage and finished the dance number. The next day, when the reviews came out, I read the newspaper looking for any mention of me as Sebastian. Nothing. There were compliments on the production, the leading actors playing Viola, Orsino and Olivia, and then, in the very last line, there was me: “Alex Curtis took a worrisome spill…”

I think that takes the cake for my most embarrassing stage experience. The only thing meteoric about it was my trajectory into the audience.

Who are your biggest inspirations in the industry and why?
There are a few influences from childhood that are with me no matter what I do, and those are Chuck Jones’ Looney Tunes cartoons, Jim Henson’s Muppets, and the films of Pixar. All three of them have a wild, ridiculous sense of humor that I enjoy and also a sensitivity for the human condition that gives their work surprising depth. That balance of absurdity and heart is something that I’m always striving for.

When I think of other clowns, I most often find myself returning to Avner the Eccentric, Bill Irwin and James Thieree. James Thieree I love for his precision. He builds elaborate Looney Tunes-like routines that are so impeccably crafted and virtuosic in their physicality, that I’m just in awe. Bill Irwin and Avner the Eccentric I admire for their ability to play the naivete and humor of a clown, while still remaining the everyman. Even as clowns, I identify with them. They have a naivete and silliness to them, but also an openness and sensitivity that is similar to what I admire about The Muppets or Pixar.

Do you have any pre-show rituals?
Check my props. Right before the show I check that I have everything; I make sure that everything is working properly… It’s a one-man show and once it starts I never leave the stage, so there aren’t any chances to grab a prop if I forgot it. So there’s a lot of triple checking of things so I can relax once the curtain goes up. I also like to dance in the mirror to the preshow music, just to work up a smile to begin the show with. If I have a lot of time, I might watch a routine from one of my favorite clowns on Youtube as a reminder of how much I love what I do. I got into clowning because I am such a fan of the work that I wanted to be a part of it, and I think that it’s valuable to remind myself why I do this. I love it. I’m lucky to do what I do. It inspires a lot of gratitude when I can step back and appreciate that.

What other acts are you looking forward to seeing at Edinburgh Fringe?
I’m really excited to see The Letter by Paolo Nani. I’ve seen clips of his work online, and it’s all hysterical. I’ve watched the trailer for his show The Art of Dying dozens of times – it’s just so funny that I come back to it regularly for inspiration.

I’m also excited to see Sleeping Giant by Steve Yockey. I first met Steve when I was in San Francisco. We met at the premiere of his play Octopus at the Magic Theater, which I still consider one of the top 5 plays I’ve ever seen. It’s terrific. I haven’t seen him since, so I can’t wait to check out more of his work in Edinburgh.

Lastly, I’m looking forward to seeing Death Wish by Caitlin Cook. Caitlin is a fellow New Yorker and she has been such an incredible help to me as I’ve prepared to come to the Fringe for the first time. She’s just an incredible human, not to mention a wonderful comedian and musician, so I can’t wait for the chance to support her work.

Why do you think people should come and see your show over the thousands of others on at the fringe?
I think one of the best things that Chalk has going for it is its accessibility. It’s a comedy without any words in it, which means that you don’t have to speak English (or any other language for that matter) to enjoy it. I have even had audience members see it who were deaf and others who were legally blind come see Chalk, and they too could follow and enjoy the story.

I think that’s a big deal at an international festival like this. All kinds of people are coming to the Fringe from all over the world, and all of them can come to Chalk and appreciate it. It has the power to bring people together in that way which I think is really cool.

Similarly, it plays well across different age groups too. At the heart of it, Chalk is a story about rediscovering yourself in the aftermath of heartbreak, but it’s also incredibly silly. I find that my best audiences are the ones that have an equal number of adults and kids, because the kids love the physical comedy – when I fall down, or can’t get something right – they can’t get enough of it. Then the adults appreciate the heart and the depth of the journey. So each group ends up teaching the other how to appreciate the show, and that’s a really neat dynamic to watch play out.

I also think everyone should see it, because it’s just a good show. But the thing that I think makes Chalk a standout at the Fringe is the way that it is so inclusive in its appeal – old and young of any nationality can come together in a theater and laugh. Isn’t that great?

Thanks for having Tea With Wilma

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