One of my favorite characters in film is Charlie Chaplin’s Little Tramp, which he portrayed in dozens of silent films. Chaplin was one of the greatest slapstick artists of all time. He took physical comedy to a new level, one matched only by Buster Keaton in my opinion.
What Chaplin had that Keaton did not was sadness. Pathos surrounded the Little Tramp, especially in Chaplin’s later full-length features. Yet, the Little Tramp didn’t seem to notice that he was doomed to never find the love and fortune he wanted. He was always an optimist.
This sorrow made the comedy more poignant, and funnier. It also sometimes made it beautiful.
Chazz Caskes ran an improvisational acting session in front of the Carlson Theater last Tuesday afternoon. Caskes is a Bellevue College student as well as an actor, improviser, and scenic painter.
I had a great time watching the session. It consisted of exercises, simple ones at first. One was “Bang Bang,” where actors have to duck before opponents can point a finger at them and say, “Bang bang!” These games train the actor to concentrate on what is happening right now.
After this, they moved on to the more advanced excercises. These were scenes, with plot and dialogue made up on the spot by the actors.
The actors were experienced in improvisation. Most of the plots they came up with were silly, of course, and funny. There were a few magical moments, though, when it seemed anything could happen.
I spoke to Caskes and participant Sean Altuna after the session was over. Altuna is an acting student at the college. He appeared in the excellent and well-received “Seven Minutes to Midnight” last fall. I asked him what he found most beautiful about the play.
“Sadako, with her hands in the air, and the [origami] cranes falling,” he said. Sadako Sasaki, depicted in the play, was a twoyear- old girl in Hiroshima when the first atomic bomb exploded a mile from her home. Nine years later, she developed leukemia. She attempted to fold a thousand origami cranes in order to gain her wish to heal her cancer. She died about a year later and became an international symbol of peace and opposition to atomic weapons.
“This innocent girl, she was so full of hope, you know. All these kids, bound together, folding all these cranes were… that’s all I’ve got, actually. But I thought it was just beautiful.” said Altuna. He didn’t say anything for a while after that.
“When someone is at the end, … and they’re satisfied with that, I think that evokes something that people want to go to wards,” Caskes said.
“But I think it could be beautiful in another way, if they had so much they could live for,” Caskes said. “I think that’s beautiful in a more different way, in a more haunting way.”
“Maybe beauty is … what gives you a new perspective on life. Not a new perspective, but just unveils something about life that is new, is something that…” Caskes said, then paused.
Altuna finished the thought, “…or something that you’ve always known, it’s just revealing it. Something forgotten,” he said. Actors work to discover authentic emotion in a scene. Effective comedy requires this as much as tragedy does. Chaplin knew this. He said that he developed the character of the Little Tramp after quickly choosing a costume for a scene.
“The clothes seemed to imbue me with the spirit of the character. He actually became a man with a soul – a point of view. I defined to Mr. Sennett the type of person he was. He wears an air of romantic hunger, forever seeking romance, but his feet won’t let him,” Chaplin said.
That is what made the Little Tramp funny, and beautiful as well.