Ralf Wetzel & Lee Delong @ the Brighton Fringe
Who are the people behind the mask of ‘Absolutely Reliable’
The Mumble tracked down one of them to find out
Hello Ralf, first things first, where are you from & where are you at, geographically speaking?
Hi Mumble, I am German, living in Brussels, Belgium.
Can you tell us about your training?
My training? Throughout the last 5 years, I went through a heck of different trainings in Clown & Mask work, improvisation theatre and acting. My main teachers have been Keith Johnstone (CA), Lee Delong (F), Shawn Kinley (CA), John Turner (CA), Inbal Lori (IR) and Kelly Agathos (GR) & Ben Hartwig (D). Aside of that I am a trained electrician and I have a PhD in Organization Theory.
What is it about performing in front of other people that makes you tick?
It’s a moment of intense connection. Especially clown work made me aware of how thrilling being totally in the moment and drawing a strong connection between the emotionality of the audience and my own can be. Your body is ‘on’ with every cell. It’s addictive.
Can you tell us about your day job?
I am a Professor of Applied Arts at Vlerick Business School, Belgium. I teach topics like leadership, communication skills, change management and Design Thinking. All of that I teach on the pillars of Applied Improvisation, Clowning, enriched by the experiences I made with Social Dance like Lindy Hop and Argentine Tango. I discovered the power of Performing Arts for non-artistic environments like business or politics around 5 years ago. And since then, I took mind-sets, methodologies and exercises from Performing Arts and employed it in my classroom and with my clients. With mind-boggling results and impact. In that sense, I have the immense privilege to do Arts every day. And given my originally rather technical engineering background, its sheer fun, exiting, transforming and fulfilling. Today I am someone very different compared to 5 years ago.
What does your perfect Sunday afternoon look like?
Oh. Having a cup of tea on my lap and staring out of the window for hours is all I need.
You’re performing at this year’s Brighton Fringe; can you tell us about the show?
“Absolutely Reliable!” is a solo mask show, in which George, a middle aged, middle class and middle manager, desperately longs for love, attention, confirmation and proximity by his beloved girlfriend Josephine. He is just not prepared to deal with it when it materializes. He realizes that he has to invest, commit and display himself with his own emotions, and that’s not what he is remotely capable of. So, his demons take over and throw him into a roller-coaster of love, desire, lust, fear, loss and death. It’s a mirror to modern day’s masculinity.
George, is a version of a prototypical western man based on … the traumas that alpha males face in a business world now shaped by the need to diversify workforces and for managers to be more empathetic. The character of George, a white, middle-aged, middle-class, middle manager [is] desperate for both promotion in his company and for a relationship in his personal life – a confronting experience Jonathan Moules, Financial Times
Where, when & why was “Absolutely Reliable” created?
It was actually created out of frustration. I was looking for improv and/or clown peers to start a troupe in Brussels and nothing was materializing. So I asked my clown teacher, award winning director and actress Lee Delong (Molieres 2019), whether she could imagine creating a solo clown show with me. And she could 😊 It all started when the mask which I am wearing in the show, hit me in one of her workshops. ‘You don’t choose a mask, the mask chooses you’ (Lee Delong), and that is what happened. As quick as I had it on my face, my full physicality changed, Ralf disappeared and someone else took stage. That was the moment when we said ‘okay’, let’s find out who this is. And so George appeared. Lee and myself worked several days together to get going. She provoked the mask and the character responded and revealed himself through my physicality. The scenes as they are appearing in the show are substantially based on those initial improvisations. The text I narrate is actually the slightly edited note of those improvisations. The show was produced through my body in combination with the mask, driven by the provocations and side-coaching of Lee.
What is the underlying message behind your show?
Ha! That’s difficult to say, since we didn’t sit down and said ‘Let’s do a show about XYZ’. We had the mask, we had the response of the character, my body and the improvised scenes. Lee then connected the different scenes and directed me in playing them. The mask certainly gave me permission to release deeply rooted inner fears and traumas as much as dreams and desires, that George displays and struggles with. But George is not me. The mask evokes things that are not me. And so the visible result is a meltdown of something which is me and something which is not. And mostly, I struggle with what is actually what. Given the topics of toxic masculinity and #metoo, George becomes a prototypical modern westernized man who is incapable to manage his emotions, to substantially open up to others, to make himself vulnerable. But overall, the message of the play is driven by the context in which you watch it. If you put the show into a different perspective, you see something different. We discovered that it’s like a prism. It will break light accordingly to how it is projected onto it. Masculinity is one angle, femininity might be another.
How are you finding working with director and co-writer Lee Delong?
It’s an experience that changed my life. Lee is extraordinary in how she sees the gold in the dust, she recognizes them in the smallest cues. She looks through your levels of fear and all your shields of protection, in a loving way. With decades of experience as actress, director and teacher, she challenges you to the bones and kicks your ass hard. But she knows exactly where your boundaries are, how far she can push. I feel challenged but safe in her hands at the same time. That allowed me a developmental journey throughout the last years far beyond my imagination. I had no idea how far that would go. And The result is amazing to me, every day.
George is the prototype of a modern man….an example of a man who may have conquered the universe but lost the battle against himself. And we cannot laugh at such a character, even when he is funny. Olga Vujovic (Kritikaz.com)
Its been 3 years since you performed the show at the Edinburgh Fringe. How has it evolved in that time?
After the strikingly positive reviews from the 2019 Edinburgh Fringe Festival, Lee has mainly refined the existing play. We polished the story arc, brought in more tension and escalation and worked on the characters in the play. Especially Josephine, George’s subject of desire, has turned out to be much stronger than before.
In between, of course, was the Age of Covid. How did the pandemic affect as you as both an individual & a performer?
To me personally, it’s been a time of paralysis, anger and of being lost. Before, I have been overloading myself with work and extensive traveling. When travel and social contact was taken away, I had to realize that both, overwork and travel were just escape mechanisms of not facing myself being frustrated and unable to hold myself. So being trapped inside my 4 walls was dammed confronting. George, the character from the show, appeared several times in front of my inward eye and was waving from afar … Then my mother passed away, being isolated in lockdown herself, which just pushed me over the cliff. It took me months to reground, re-stabilize. With the clear decision of working and traveling less. Let’s see how long that holds ;). Lee and I continued working during the Covid lockdowns on-line to develop our new collaboration, The Heist, which we have now been able to complete in person and will open in the 2022 Zagreb Clown Festival.
Are you looking forward to visiting Brighton – any tourist plans while you are in the city?
Oh, you know, I am a sea ghost. I missed being on an ocean all the way through the pandemic and just being close to the water turns me into another human being. I can’t wait to have sea salt on my tongue and beach pebbles beneath my feet. I have wonderful improv friends in Brighton, who have been close to me during the pandemic and reuniting with them will be nourishing.
You’ve got 20 seconds to sell the “Absolutely Reliable” to somebody in the streets of Brighton, what would you say?
“Absolutely Reliable!” is a surreal show about how fucked up modern men are. It displays the deep anxieties and despair of male, in a funny, off beat, striking and tender way. Those anxieties have hardly been displayed that openly.”
Sweet @ The Poets
May 27-30 (16:15 – 17:30)