The Friends Road Show is a band of fifteen or so crazy clowns, musicians and assorted modern vaudevillians who live communally on a farm in Milan. Since their winter arrival in the area they 've become known to locals through a variety of performing and teaching endeavors. You might have seen them doing street theatre on the Diag, heard about their classes at Art Worlds, or caught their zany May Tuesday nights of the Cocoanut Club at the Blind Pig. SUN Snooper Ellen Frank talked to Friends Michael Novotny and Mark Strong about their origins, their European relatives, their big future plans, and all the miscellaneous bizarre quirks of a community of clowns.
SUN : what sort of local gigs nave you been doing other than the Cocoanut Club?
Mike: We did a gig that was an exercise in bad taste and and excess...a birthday party for a corporate hippie, put on by the Nouveau Riche Association of the United States. These guys had everything down so far they even had the waiters talk in fake French accents. There was a swimming pool with an underground tunnel to get outside part.
Sun: Where else are you playing now?
Mike: Right now we're in a special 30 day period -- no shows. Just rehearsing, building stages and sets, and getting settled into our new farm in Milan. Then later in July we head out on a cross-country tour until September. First we'll spend three weeks at the International Mime Festival in LaCrosse, Wisconsin. They're bringing in mime teachers from Europe and the U.S. -- plus Dick Van Dyke and Red Skelton. We'll do workshops and teach and do street theatre during the day, then travel around there in a two hour radius to play night gigs.
SUN: What you got there Mike? A joke book
Mike: This is not a joke book...this is my joke catalogue. Little notes on the exploding corn cob. Now I call it...what do I call it? On stage l'm much faster -- it's the ELECTRIC VOCIFEROUS CARNIVOROUS CORN.
SUN: How do you do it?
Mike: Well, Riek does Professor Vroom, he's really good at it. A stereotyped mad professor -- tails, trousers don't fit, tie crooked. He's introduced as a psychiatrist. He comes out and says "I am going to tell you now about the paranoid schizophrenic", and he describes me as Alfie. I come out halfway through his rap and do something weird to him -- he never knows what's going to happen. Backstage I always tell him l'm going to do one thing, and then I do another. He's worried about explosions, so I reassure him it'll just go boom, boom.
Mark: You ought to see him...Mike hypnotizes him.
Mike: I put him in a intercontinental transcendental trance. He goes out. Alfie pulls down his zipper and shows the audience his colored underpants, then I shoot in some Rise shaving crème to get a rise out of him. Lots of times I'll stick a balloon in his zipper, fill it with shaving crème, put a fuse on the end and light it. One night instead of shooting out over the audience it imploded and filled up his tights and legs.
SUN: Do you ever take the audience by surprise, or frighten them?
Mike: Little kids...I have to see when a child is going to cry...you see it coming so you have to immediately turn their attention away from yourself to some other object..then slowly bring yourself back...Usually I'm freely thinking "I'm Mike, I'm playing a character." And then this little girl starts to cry and I realize I'm Alfïe, and Mike is not there at all. You have to be really careful who and what Alfie is. The whole interplay between self and character bounces back and forth a lot in street theatre -- some people get really threatened, saying "Get Off The Street." Or other people carry on conversation with you because they think you're and want their friends to see that they're brave enough to talk to you. But not with all characters -- not with a barker...I used to play a barker in England and learned that people won't fuck with a barker. It has to be with a character that has an element of pathos...there has to be an opening like that for them to jump into.
SUN: Will you teach at Art Worlds again when you return from the summer tour?
Mark: No, we'll be working out of a great new theatre in Detroit -- Friends Cabaret -- starting September 18. It is in the Traugott, Schmidt and Sons old warehouse on Monroe Street in Greektown... in that old building down an alleyway, the one with the tres hip stores on the first floor.
Mike: The whole warehouse will be a place for the arts -- it's part of the Detroit Renaissance Plan. The focus is towards a sense of the history in the place -- the warehouse will still look like an industrial factory, but will be filled with weaving, pottery, shops and four clubs, one of which is our Friends Cabaret.
SUN: What are the other three?
Mike: One is a complete Mexican Floor show -- they just went to Mexico and hired a whole show. I can't remember the other two -- one is a movie theatre I think.
SUN: What will you be doing out of the warehouse?
Mark: Four afternoons a week we'll run a theatre school, and four nights a week we'll perform, plus bringing in other people. We would be performing there until about February then other groups will come in, including the three European Friends groups and the Foots Barn Theatre from England. We have the responsibility for a year to provide four nights a week of entertainment, then after the year, we'll move upstairs into a permanent and much larger theatre. With this home base theatre we'll have untapped energies, and an ability to pay other theatre groups who otherwise wouldn't be able to get here, or perform.
SUN: Do you think this complex will succeed
Mike: Every indication shows that there is no entertainment of this type in the area. And what's the response been to our show generally? Everybody loves it...not just at the Pig, but everyone... like in Saline at the United Farm Bureau, they flipped. You see, we adapt our show for the audience. For the people in Saline you do a lot of mime, and the jokes aren't as. ..as. ..obscene. But even if the Detroit show was shit, I think it would still get half house -- that's from a business point of view. Terry Siler, the planner and owner, spent a lot of time and energy traveling around the country talking and photographing the other six or seven of these types of developments. He knows what he is doing, and he's interested in what we're doing, and he's giving us a fantastic deal. We'll be serving food, and beer and wine, teaching, performing and rehearsing and have a home base -- all out of one central location, an old factory that says, "Why should this be torn down?" They're humanizing a building, and I think that in itself is an idea of merit -- so people will come.
SUN: How did Friends get started?
Mike: There are several companies like this in England. I was connected with Foots Barn, down in Cornwall. Jango started up Friends in London around the same time, about three years ago, based in the Oval House. We got a government grant. Jango was confronted with the problem of how to support a company, and the only option was to tour outside England, because of the finances and standard of living there. He had an electric show. many different acts, a p.a., a lot of visual effects. and that takes a lot of cash. So he goes away from England on a hype. You can't hype yourself right where you are because there's nothing exotic about it, right? So he invests 150 pounds, jumps on a plane to Amsterdam, and they have the time of their life and tell everyone they're from London. Remember, this is an American asshole saying this. They go back to London, starve some more. back to Amsterdam, and this goes on for awhile. Then they got set in Amsterdam at the Milky Way, which is an old milk factory -- now a government supported place for the arts, with performances of all types, including movies, every night of the year.
SUN: What sort of material were they doing over there?
Mike: They went south from Amsterdam.
Mark: Same deal, they went to Paris and said they were from Amsterdam. There was a festival in Montparnasse and they met a lot of people at the show who said "OOoh, Friends, Friends." And one of them was Salvador Dali, who liked them and booked them. Another was the nephew of the King of Tunisia and he set up the Paris Friends Road Show that's still going on. They also run a cool booking agency -- the Aquarius Agency. Another group got based in Amsterdam and stayed on, they're still there. Jango goes over and performs with all three -- the London group got a base too. Jango and Davey -- our piano player -- are over there now, and they just played a festival in Tunisia, booked by this Aquarius Agency.
SUN: Where did you current entourage come from?
Mark: London, the U.S., Amsterdam... some of them are native Americans, some aren't. There are a bunch of people coming over from Friends in London -- some will be on our summer tour and a few more will come in the fall. London Friends will keep going of course.
SUN: How did you come to join Friends, Mike?
Mike: Well, I was sitting at my big desk in Cornwall, feet on the desk in Cornwall, feet on the desk, a big cigar in my mouth, looking out over the sheep fields. I was thinking. "Mike, where has it all gotten you? Here it is, all established, you got an arts council grant, a beautiful farm, a company that's running smoothly, living well together, and the shows go on." I couldn't write any more material, there was simply not enough conflict. I started implementing more communal programs in the administration of the company, and when the time was right I told them I was leaving. This was last fall, and Jango was leaving London Friends to start the U.S. Friends over here. He told me about the plans and I carne over a few months later, after time with Foots Barn to implement the changeover.
SUN: Where did he get the other people you started with here?
Mike: Some he talked to when he was in Amsterdam, some he invited from London. and some were performing over here.
SUN: What had you been doing, Mark, native American that you are?
Mark: Oh, working here and there, in and out of school, going through changes and I was looking for something more stimulating.
SUN: Fellas, I've been wondering why there are so few women in the company;
Mike: There are about four out of fourteen.
Mark: It's hard to find a woman who's willing to be laughed at...
Mike: There was a simple first step by Jango, who did the asking, and we started with an imbalance. Now we are looking for strong women. But look at the people he was asking. I was the director of the Foots Barn Company in England, a position not held by many women there... it's a very paternalistic country. And Riek, he was roking as the stage manager at the Milky Way in Amsterdam -- that's like a bouncer. And Peter, he was doing street theatre in England, with a company that had only one woman.
SUN: Do you think women stay away from physical comedy?
Mark: Yeah, physical comedy, that's true; but I don't think they are any less theatrical.
SUN: Where do you get your gags, guys?
Mike: We get our gags from life - right, Mark?
Mark: That's right - the University of Life.
Mike: Circle of Life. Sometimes I'm out there killing chickens and I think, you know it's all one big atomic structure -- macro, micro, mini, maxi,...it all goes around and keeps kissing head to tail, head to tail. And I say to myself "this is too cosmic." Suddenly I say, "Sit down and rest." And I sit down on a log, and there it is -- a skit. It just comes. (Snaps fingers)
SUN: Are you trying to tell me you just sit around and get gags?
Mike: Well, my Alfie skits come from a heart-felt desire to do practical jokes - I especially love practical jokes that you implement and they don't come off until days later. Another source of inspiration is graffiti -- not the graffiti that's clever and smart and educated. I like the stuff like "REETO HATES CHERYL."
Mark: I take pictures of Mike reading the graffiti on bathroom walls. You know it's the living situation that tends to give us good ideas...there's always something springing up, and we're performing twenty-four hours a day.
SUN: Who else in this country does theatre with your rules, or lack of them?
Mike: We do theatre that has no division between the actor and the director, or the writer and the performer. There's a group down in Antioch, and the Two Penny Circus in Vermont. But you usually don't hear about groups like this. ..they are trying alternative things and by definition they don't go through the normal media processes to make themselves known. But this kind of theatre has probably been happening more in the United States in the past ten years than ever -- or since vaudeville died and TV took over.
Mark: That's why we want to move around this summer - to find other groups, and encourage new ones.
SUN: Do you think discouragement kills a lot of theatre in the U.S.? Mike: I think the commercial atmosphere discourages - very much so. Here theatre is television, Broadway, and off-Broadway -- theatre is inevitably controlled - through something, and you can never quite say what it is. Isn't that shown by the fact that people are so surprised by what we do? Do you think we're doing anything so miraculous in terms of organization?
SUN: Did the theatre seminar in May at Art Worlds provide local encouragement?
Mark: A lot of good things came out of it, from the very beginning of the planning stages where a lot of people who didn't know each other got together. There's a lot more theatre going on here now than a year ago - like the Extension down at the Rubaiyat. And the Medieval Festival is coming up again soon.
SUN: Where does Friends get its energy?
Mike: The concept of Friends is just a tremendous energy level directed in a positive force - we're making a lifestyle out of what we've always loved doing. The thing that's different about Friends from other US companies is its European origins... there's a surge ahead and whole theatrical temperment there - we started in a very fertile atmosphere for theatre. Because we did it there we can come here and hit a few bumps and not get discouraged, because we know what it's like to do something well and have it feel great.
Be sure to catch these maniacs before they leave town for the summer. At 8:30 on July 17, 18 and 19 they 'II be doing Michael Spaghetti's Half Ring Circus at Schwaben Hall, 217 S. Ashley, above the old Primo Showbar. Admission is $2.50, and for a little more you get spaghetti and beer. They 'II also do street theatre in the afternoons during the Art Fair.