Comic, performance artist,
new vaudevillian, mime
An international variety artist located in Portland, Michael Trautman, 61, grew up in Springfield, Ill., and studied political science at Missouri’s Jewell College, with his goal being to enter law. Disillusioned with law school, Trautman took his first mime class in 1976, setting him on track for an entirely different career trajectory.
Since then he has traveled the world performing as a professional mime, clown, magician, juggler and vaudevillian, among other roles.
Trautman spoke with My Generation about his varied career, the challenges of working as a full-time artist in a precarious economy, and the messages of some of his politically charged material.
Q Can you describe your material and how you modify it for different audiences?
A I am a solo performer. I use mime, magic, juggling and related skills mixed with a large dose of a clown’s perspective, and driven by a lifetime of studying and performing improvisation, to create theatrical vignettes that range from 5 to 55 minutes. My newest show, “King Pong’s Ping Pong Rodeo,” features tricks with ping-pong balls. Lots of ping-pong balls. Usually about 500, give or take.
Every audience, every show, every performance is different. It is, after all, the nature of live theater. Each performance is affected by many variables. I’ll address a few of the common issues and talk about those. The physical space: Is the show outdoors or in a theater? If it is outdoors, what is the weather likely to be? What material will or won’t work outside? If I’m doing some of my King Pong show, wind is an issue that can make some of the routines impossible to perform. Juggling two ping-pong balls with my mouth is a bit that I may minimize or eliminate altogether. I can do most other tricks in the wind as long as it is not severe or gusting. I’ve even been able to adjust to wind that will move the balls several feet as long as it is a consistent amount. Also, with outdoor shows, will it be hot? Too hot for my normal costume? If so, I may have to change the order of the show in order to reduce the amount of costuming as the show progresses.
If I am indoors, what are the space limitations? Ceiling height is always an issue. Less than 10 feet from the stage to the ceiling or grid makes many of the juggling and target tricks impossible, or forces me to adjust how the trick is performed. I will often step off of the stage in the front if it gives me an extra foot or two, but then am I out of the light?
The second major consideration is the audience make-up. Is it a kids’ show? Families?
Adults? Do they speak English? Much of my material is non-verbal, although not without sound or noise. Often a sound combined with gesture cuts across any language barriers – “Oh! Yay! No!” If I am working with an all-adult audience, I can add in a considerable amount of innuendo or jokes that can be taken in ways that are not appropriate for a family or children’s show. I don’t write for children. I write for myself and those ideas that I find funny. The result is often material that appeals to children, probably because I allow myself to think like a child – that is, I try not to filter or limit an idea because it might be silly or nonsensical. Much of this comes from my training in improvisation – following the idea that says, “Yes, and …” rather than, “No!” Some material is more appropriate for a more mature audience due to the pace of the action and the focus required. That type of material is also more often appropriate only for a theatrical setting.
Q How did you decide to become an international variety artist?
A International variety artist is only the latest description in a long list of words and phrases I have used in trying to describe and market my work. Since I began performing in 1977, when mime was at its peak of popularity, I have called myself a mime, clown, magician, juggler, storyteller, vaudevillian, new-vaudevillian, performance artist, solo theater artist, performer, artist/creator, variety performer, entertainer, artist, and a few other names that I’ve forgotten. I started on my path as a white-face illusionary mime. As I worked with other performers and studied with many different teachers over the years, I learned new skills and techniques that required broader descriptions.
I began and continued this career because I believed in the idea that you could be whatever you wanted to be, and you could make your living from doing what you love if you work hard and do your best at whatever it is that you love doing. I arrived at being “international” because there is a great interest and high regard for art and artists in every country and culture around the world. And there is particular interest in artists from America who can present work that is not dependent on the use of extensive text. When I lived in Paris, I would introduce myself to people I met as a clown. They would ask what theater I was performing in. In America, whenever I have said that I was a clown, I am asked if I perform at birthday parties. So, because I like how it feels to be regarded as an artist, I pursued work in other countries. One of the benefits is the travel. I have been to many countries and seen many cultures, and had the pleasure to perform my comedy for billions of people – I was on CCTV in China twice – and there are still many places to see and people to meet.
Q Has it become more difficult for you to make a living as the economy has become more precarious?
A It has never been easy to make a living as a performer. I consider myself to be very fortunate in spite of the disappointments and difficulties. In my first year of training I had a job working at a mental health center. I saw many people who struggled just to live a normal life. This made me realize that no matter how tough things were, I was still much better off than many people. The economic downturn of the past six or seven years has certainly had a negative effect on my income. Virtually every market, theaters, festivals, fairs, schools, etc., suffered from smaller budgets, and as a result, there was less work across the board. But the nature of being a self-employed entertainer has always had a lot of up and down. Some weeks, months, and years you have lots of work, and some times there is nothing.
Almost everyone I know in the business has experienced difficulty in this recession and recovery. The key for me has been to be flexible in my expectations. If that means that rather than touring across Canada and performing in beautiful theaters for Family Series or Children’s Theater Festivals, that I am going to be street performing or doing roving shows at a festival, so be it. Any gig performing is a great job.
Q From your vantage point, how has American culture changed since you started your career in the 1970s?
A When I began my career, I had several guiding principles that infused my belief in the value of art, artists, and the great good that creativity brings to any culture. I felt as though I was part of a cultural shift that began in the ’60s and continued right through the ’70s. At that time it seemed as if peace, love and harmony were achievable in our lifetimes. Looking back now, having read much more about human history, and having lived through a great deal of current history, I have come to think that the arc of history that “bends toward justice” is more of a spiky, bumpy, uncomfortable careening toward justice. Which is to say, humans will evolve and find solutions to the problems they create in a disjointed and ugly manner. Art and artists will continue to push and prod and question “culture,” and in the long run, they provide the record of history that allows humans to achieve a self-awareness that can indeed lead to justice. My cynical self tells me that the “American Greed Ethic” will bring about its own demise, because, after all, greed is never just.
Q Your work is politically inspired. Can you describe some of your political material, and more generally, how your political outlook affects your art?
A I’m not able to clearly separate the previous question and response from this one.
I write and create material that finds its genesis in questions and issues that are important to me. My latest work is “King Pong’s Ping Pong Rodeo.” I have been performing magic with ping-pong balls since 1977, and had used them as a central medium in my work over my entire career. After the tragedy of the Sandy Hook Elementary shootings, I began to search for a way to address our American infatuation with guns and shooting, which I see as a root cause for our toleration of mass murder and terrorism. The result of that idea was King Pong, an outrageous (clown) character who IS the gun. Spitting ping-pong balls at targets, and leading the audience down a path to where it is easy to enjoy and cheer on “hitting the bull’s eye.” Like most of my work, the end product, King Pong, is not a blatant diatribe on guns. After all, I am a clown, and my arc bends toward comedy. But, I believe that even a light, comic treatment of the idea of target shooting provides the audience an opportunity to think about and maybe even talk about the issues of guns, shooting, and how we treat each other as human beings. At the very least, it is an opportunity for building community and creating great family experiences in a positive, inclusive way. What is better than a free family show on the outdoor stage at a festival, fair or campground?
Q If the economy crashes again like it did in 2008, do you think you will be able to continue in the same profession?
A If the economy crashes again in my lifetime, I think it will probably be much more devastating than anything since the Great Depression. I may be one of the few who is able to continue. After all, when infrastructure and nations collapse, I can still do a show in the town square with nothing but my ping-pong balls in exchange for a meal and a place to sleep. And at that time, everyone will need comic relief more than ever.
Michael Trautman, 61, of Portland, abandoned a legal career in the ’70s to become an international variety artist. Although the precarious economy has diminished his income, Trautman says he loves what he does and has no regrets. Even if the economy crashes Depression-style, Trautman believes his performing could help him earn a living on the streets.Photo courtesy of Michael Trautman