What Animators Can Learn from In One Performance

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A performer in one from John Canemaker's 1993 short "Confessions of a Stand-Up." Distributed by Milestone Films.

As an animator and former actor, I love watching a performer in one. That’s right: in one. Derived from the days of vaudeville, the expression “in one” is theatre lingo: “in” means “down” as in “downstage.” So any actor in plays or, more often, musicals who performs downstage alone is “working in one.”

The purest form of in one is the one-person show, and one of my favorite recent examples is Elaine Stritch At Liberty, the wildly successful one-woman show starring the one-and-only (and only in one) gravel-voiced, seen-it-all actress/singer/storyteller. For Broadway and London audiences in 2002, septuagenarian Stritch candidly and often hilariously revealed her accomplished but tumultuous professional and personal life through song, words, and pantomime. I screen select portions of her live performance captured on DVD every semester in my animation classes at NYU’s Kanbar Film Department.

For animators, a star turn in one is great to study: An actor, singer, dancer (or triple-threat combination like Ms. Stritch) creates a complete and vital world before a live audience sans props, costumes or other actors, displaying the single performer’s full array of communication skills and charisma. In one performers extract and distill gestures, body language, poses, vocal inflections, eye contact, timing, and pacing from life, transforming them into larger-than-life theatrical experiences. Based on truth, the performer cuts through the dross of reality to sift pure entertainment gold.

So, what can animators take away from in one and live performances in general? Hamilton Luske, an early great character animator, put it this way to his peers at the Disney studio in 1938, nearly a year after the debut of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs:

We have to tell things faster than they happen in real life . . . we want to make things more interesting than ordinary life. Our actors [cartoons] are more rehearsed than everyday people, “ he continued, comparing professional performances with reality. “If somebody gets on a horse or opens a door or sits in a chair, we want them to do it as simply and professionally as possible. Our [animated] actors must be more interesting and more unusual than you and I. Their thought processes must be quicker than ours, and their uninteresting progressions from one situation to another must be skipped.

Three years earlier, Walt Disney wrote, “I definitely feel that we cannot do the fantastic things, based on the real, unless we first know the real.” He warned, however, against misinterpreting the study of live performances, emphasizing that his animators should resist slavishly mimicking reality. “The first duty of the cartoon is not to picture or duplicate real action or things as they actually happen,” he wrote, ”but to give a caricature of life and action.” To aid his animators, he organized visits to the theatre to see plays and ballets, brought actors and dancers to the Disney studio for talks and demonstrations, and offered screenings of all kinds of performances in all kinds of films.

Today, animators have access to the world’s greatest performances on DVD and video-sharing websites. But I encourage my students to attend live shows, especially those in one, whenever they can, be it in a circus, concert, nightclub or legit theatre. The immediacy and thrilling communication between live performers and audiences cannot be topped in other media.

Through the years, I have witnessed numerous in one performances that have enriched my life.

There was masterful mime Marcel Marceau’s silent pathos (above) and tummler Danny Kaye at the original Ziegfeld Theatre in 1963 led delighted audiences in nonsense songs (below).

In her 1981 solo show “The Lady and Her Music,” Lena Horne received a standing ovation on only her second song (the powerful “I Got A Name”).

The performance begins around the 2.30 mark.

In 1967, I saw Judy Garland in good form, despite being frayed of voice, offer a joyful show (one of her last) at the Palace Theatre.

In 2009, I saw Lorenzo Pisoni (interview above), a young clown performing his brilliant stage memoir Humor Abuse, enthralled. During a non-stop, bittersweet monologue about growing up in a circus and learning to be a clown, Pisoni juggled, dodged falling sandbags, endured backbreaking pratfalls, and interacted physically with the audience doing magic tricks.

Josephine Baker also touched audiences both emotionally and physically at Carnegie Hall In 1973. La Baker, the legendary Missouri-born dancer/chanteuse/expatriate who became the toast of Paris in the 1920s, began her show dressed in a pink body stocking and huge plumed headdress. She looked and sounded amazing, totally belying her 67 years. Throughout the concert she changed into many costumes and sang many songs, finally dissembling into a simple black leotard and pixie-cut wig to dance the twist with lucky audience members she enticed onto the stage.

Part of the magic of live performance is the transformation before our eyes of ordinary human beings into gods and goddesses. In 1967, outside a huge theatre in a circus tent in Lambertville, New Jersey, called St. John Terrell’s Music Circus, I watched an old man in a trench coat and golfer’s hat wander about the parking lot holding an umbrella during a light drizzle. Theatre patrons parking their cars were unaware they were in the midst of the star they had come to see.

The elderly gentleman was conscientiously preparing himself — meditating, gathering his strength — for the upcoming two-hour performance, an endurance contest even if one were not close to his 80 years of age. As he headed for the dressing room, I recognized him. It was distressing how old and tired he seemed. What kind of performance, I wondered, could we expect tonight? Inside the theatre-in-the-round, the answer soon came. “Ladies and gentlemen,” the announcer said, “Maurice Chevalier!”

A brilliant spotlight hit a dashing young figure at the top of an aisle. The rosy-cheeked, grinning boulevardier in tuxedo and straw hat rakishly tilted over one eye began energetically strutting toward the tiny round stage. The audience exploded. This young/old man of impeccable charm proceeded to entertain us thrillingly all evening with only a piano accompaniment.

Four decades later, the memory of that entrance, and that show, still brings tears to my eyes.