Born in Denmark, raised in Sweden and a Parisian since 1999 – Caspar Schjelbred is not a man who it’s easy to pigeon-hole. Having graduated from the prestigious Sorbonne University he might have been expected to follow a career in academia or one of the liberal professions. Instead, he became a performer of improvised theatre, mime and clowning…
Having studied the History of Science, what drew you to improvisation, mime and clowning?
I started doing improvisational theatre at the same time as I started at the Sorbonne. I learnt about improv through a friend who was taking a class not far from where I lived; it was an incredible discovery. I’ve never been particularly outgoing or extrovert but, in the improv class, I found a laboratory where I could experiment with being different to my normal self.
Improvised theatre allows you to ask who and what am I?, what else can I be? how much more can I be?
I went on to practise improvisational theatre, inspired by the influential teacher Keith Johnstone, and then later clown and acting with Ira Seidenstein, a true master in his field.
What’s the difference between mainstream theatre and improvised theatre?
A mainstream theatre production usually presents an idea that has been scripted or written as a play. The director and the actors interpret that together. In improvised theatre, the actors create the characters, the story, the imagery – they are writing the play on the spot as they perform. So, the professional improviser has to be a writer, director, and actor all at the same time. When you see improvised theatre, you’re witnessing the active creativity and imagination of each individual on stage. In some ways it’s a more personal art form than mainstream theatre.
Do you think anyone can improvise?
Yes, I do! It’s a natural way of acting. Improvisation is basically nothing more than the act of responding to the situation at hand, using whatever tools or resources you can draw on at that given moment. If you just take it easy and don’t put too much pressure on yourself to create great theatre or comedy, then all you really need to do is to pay attention to yourself and your stage partners and use your imagination.
I believe that good improvisation is effortless. That doesn’t mean that there’s no effort involved; like other performers, you still have to train your body and voice to express physically and vocally what you feel and what’s in your mind.
What is a clown?
In a professional sense, a clown is someone who has a repertoire of clown acts or routines, that they perform in front of an audience. But it’s not just fooling around wearing a red nose, that’s for sure. Some say that a clown is like a child and this certainly has truth to it, but that limits clowning to simply behaving in a childish, naive, manner.
My mentor, Ira Sedenstein, defines a clown as someone who does what they want, how they want, when they want for as long as they want. So, a clown has a particular attitude. I guess you could say that a clown is a free spirit.
You recently toured your show, Plan C, in Australia and New Zealand, how did the audience respond to your performance?
Generally, very well. I usually talk with the audience for a minute or two before I get started, to get a feel for them. In Port Adelaide, an elderly lady told me she had come to see me because she loved mime and described her memories of seeing Marcel Marceau performing a long time ago (no pressure!). I promised her that I’d include some extra mime in my show. She was so thankful afterwards. That really moved me.
If I can touch one person with my performance, I’m satisfied. I don’t try to please the audience or bully them into liking my show. I rely on the audience’s intelligence and I’m pleased to say that during the tour I did get some excellent reviews.
You’re currently working on Exploring Beckett, tell me about the plays you’re performing?
I’m in two of the plays, Act without Words II and Catastrophe. The first one is a mime for two performers and I’m working with the dancer, Gianfranco Celestino. He’s A and I’m B. We each have a routine of actions that we go through. It’s a funny experience, a bit like a having a solo piece, because we don’t actually interact. At the same time, we’re really aware of each other’s presence on stage. At first sight, it’s obviously a statement about the absurdity of everyday life routines. But there are many ways to interpret what’s going on and understand the relationship between the two characters.
The second play I’m in, Catastrophe, is the only one of the five that looks a bit like a normal play. Beckett wrote it in support of Václav Havel, the Czech writer, philosopher, political dissident, and statesman.
Given that your norm is to improvise, is it difficult to adapt to working with text?
It’s more of a challenge for me to work with text, definitely, but its something I want to do more of. I basically still see it as a type of improvisation, except that it’s within very defined limits. There are things I need to do and say at given moments. But exactly how I will do or say it will always be “improvised” – even though I follow my director’s instructions of how to do it. Otherwise, the performance would be dead. I’d be a piece of wood. A cardboard actor.
There are endless literary critiques of Beckett’s work, but what do you think makes his writing unique?
Beckett’s writing is extremely sharp. Hard. Bone on bone. His writing is abstract but it’s also very humane.
The five plays in Exploring Beckett are like elaborate works of sculptural art. They have no resolved narrative. Each audience member will add his or her finishing touch. There’ll be plenty to discuss afterwards – I don’t think two people will have the same interpretation of all five plays. It’s definitely one of those shows you can see several times. I hope someone does. I’d be very interested in how their interpretation evolves.
For more information about Caspar, his upcoming performances and his workshops go to www.improsupreme.com
When: 8, 9, 10, 14, 15, 16 and 17 December at 20h30 and 18 December at 17h30
Where: Théâtre Ouvert Luxembourg, 143 Route de Thionville, L-2611, Luxembourg-Bonnevoie
Price: 20€/8€ reduced.
Tickets: +352 49 31 66 or reserve on line at www.tol.lu