Dollface: Proud to be one half of the Kipper Kids, Guerneville actor Brian Routh poses with one of his fruity buddies.
Theatrical innovator Brian Routh remains steadfastly eclectic
By David Templeton
BRIAN ROUTH, one half of the groundbreaking twosome known as the "The Kipper Kids," has stood solidly at the vanguard of the modern experimental theater world since the glory days of that amorphous art form's unsettling emergence in the early 1970s. From his unique perspective both as a revered performer and as a teacher of avant-garde theatrical methods--often termed "performance art," a label Routh finds misleading and pejorative--this deceptively soft-spoken Englishman has observed some awfully strange things.
None so awful or so strange as what occurred during the final session of a class he'd been teaching at San Francisco's Academy of the Arts a few years back.
"Everyone had been asked to prepare one final bit to be performed for the class and their invited guests," he recalls in a calm, Essex-accented voice. Routh had already disappointed one student when he refused to allow a live sheep to be slaughtered onstage as part of the show. "Then this other student, without telling anyone what he intended to do, suddenly poured petrol all over himself, with his parents sitting there watching, and set himself on fire."
Though teachers often talk of setting their students' artistic visions ablaze, Routh felt this was going a bit far, even for the man who'd once horrified audiences by literally beating himself to a bloody pulp during the Kipper Kids' notorious one-man boxing matches.
"The student wasn't badly hurt," Routh explains, "though I had to chase him down the street and throw him to the ground in order to put the fire out. My students can do whatever they want to themselves after they get out of school, but there's only so much alternative expression I'll allow."
Now a resident of Guerneville ("As a child of rural England," he says, "I've found Sonoma County's peace and quiet to be quite soothing"), Routh expects no such pyrotechnics when he brings his teaching act to Petaluma's Cinnabar Theater at the end of the month. "I'm never quite certain what to expect from these workshops, though," he adds. The class, simply titled Adult Acting, will focus on freeing the actor's imaginations with a series of exercises and rituals. "A lot of the exercises I've pinched from a class I once assisted with at a psychiatric hospital in Los Angeles," he says, adding, "and no, I was not a patient."
To those who wonder what an internationally renowned performer and acting coach such as Routh is doing at the relatively rustic environment at Cinnabar, he says, "They wanted me. That was enough. I'd been looking for a local spot to teach at while working on Kipper Kids projects and my own solo shows.
"I get very excited about teaching and never like to stay away from it for long."
Routh will be debuting a new work titled Psychic Attack, an improvisational romp through the world of New Age spirituality, at Cinnabar's second annual Eclectic Theatre Festival, an assemblage of experimental works by a roster of local and international artists.
Under the direction of Lucas McClure--whose own piece, the deconstructionist The Lear Project, will be part of the show--the Eclectic Festival is expanding from last year's two-week stretch and will include works by Jan Monroe (Nothing Human Disgusts Me, just finishing a successful nine-month run in Los Angeles), L.A. Mime Co. co-founder Mitchell Evans (Me & Her: Tales of Love, War & Housecleaning), and Deborah Eubanks (A Lady of Letters).
After its premiere at the festival, Routh's show will move to San Francisco's Yerba Buena Center for the Arts.
He declines to give many details about the show, other than to say that it is "a performance about information, masturbation, inspiration, dedication, and confirmation"; that it is the culmination of a 10-day countdown during which he and other players (including wife Jeana Routh) will explore books, texts, and songs and create video images; that it will skewer a bevy of sacred cows; that every word will be made up on the spot; and that it will feature a supporting cast of weather-beaten dolls he's picked up at thrift stores over the last few years.
The dolls are Routh's co-stars, and they often end up upstaging the ad-libbing human who gives them voice.
"I've been using the dolls for years, and I have a whole cast of recurring characters," he explains. There is a square-headed teddy bear, a banana, a pair with lipstick and white socks, and a knit rag-doll of a rat in a yellow dress and hat. "She's a bit of a Cockney. She always has a lot to say," Routh chuckles. He is also looking forward to debuting a few new members of his inanimate troupe, particularly a blue teddy bear with a severely stained belly.
"She's called Dirty Dolly," he proudly states. "She's going to feature quite a bit in the new show. I think she's going to be my up-and-coming star-is-born. I'm looking forward to the show because I do enjoy live performance and haven't done so much of that with the Kipper Kids."
In recent years, his work with longtime partner and fellow Kipper Kid Martin von Haselberg (who happens to be married to Bette Midler) has been moving confidently into the realm of innovative museum installations--including the Whitney's upcoming 25th anniversary retrospective exhibit--a far cry from the anarchic shock operas of their youth. The two met while attending England's experimental East 15th School, a hotbed of avant-garde theater that proved not hot enough when Routh and von Haselberg joined forces.
"We were kicked out, more or less," Routh laughs. Not long after, they concocted the act that would make them famous, across Europe if not so much in America or at home in England.
Taking their name from a fellow student who was nicknamed Kipper Face, the twosome took to the stage wearing only jockstraps and shaved heads, jabbering in a language all their own while performing mysterious, vaudevillelike rituals and, in the aforemenioned boxing bit, taking turns beating themselves up.
"The fact that the beatings resulted in real blood flying about led some purists to conclude that what we were doing was not truly 'theater,'" he says, "and thus were related to the realm of 'performance art,' which unfortunately has come to mean 'bad theater.' The truth is just that we were always a bit too dark and a bit too weird for the mainstream."
While von Haselberg has been busy infiltrating New York City's art world and practicing his burgeoning skills as a film director, Routh has been alternating among his own shows, his teaching, and his numerous collaborations with a roster of high-profile performance-art stars, including the NEA-busting Karen Finley, Ann Magnusen, Annie Sprinkle, and monologuist and writer Eric Bogosian, who often points to the Kipper Kids as the very essence of what performance art should be.
Routh shrugs off such praise. "Ultimately, those kind of labels don't amount to very much." As to the improvisational nature of his newest work, he compares it to standup comedy.
"It's the only way I can work, because if I work out a show to the point of having lighting cues and all, it threatens to become so contrived that I get bored with it," he explains. "The second night is likely to be quite different from the first, and I like that."
"Humor is really a good device to make people think," he continues. "I'd rather make them laugh than just trying to shock. I spent a long time doing that in my earlier career, and I'm not really into that anymore.
"Although," he laughs, "I would say the show is not for children, and people are sometime still shocked by what comes out of my mouth. If you are shocked, I assure you, it was entirely an accident."
Eclectic Theatre Festival Schedule
CINNABAR THEATER will present six unique theater pieces over three weeks. Those performances are:
Jan. 16, 17: Nothing Human Disgusts Me, a personal monlogue by acclaimed playwright Jan Munroe.
Jan. 16, 17, 23, 24: L.A. Mime Co. co-founder Mitchell Evans and Donya Giannotta in the new vaudevillian slapstick romance Me & Her.
Jan. 23, 24: Eugene Ionesco's modern classic The Chairs.
Jan. 23, 24, 30, 31: The Lear Project, a Shakespearean deconstruction directed by Lucas McClure.
Jan. 30, 31: Deborah Eubanks in A Lady of Letters, a solo piece from the author of The Madness of King George III.
Jan. 30, 31: Brian Routh in Psychic Attack.
All shows are at the Cinnabar Theater, 3333 Petaluma Blvd. N., Petaluma. 8 p.m. Admission is $5-$10. For details, call 763-8920.
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From the January 8-14, 1998 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.
© Metro Publishing Inc.