Category Archives: 2023

Ralf Wetzel @ the Brighton Fringe

A rare solo mask performance will soon be in Brighton
The Mumble caught up with the actor

Hello Ralf, where are you from & where are you living today?
Hi Damo, I am a German expat, a mask & clown performer and a business educator. I live and work since 12 years in Belgium, where I grew roots in Brussels.

Can you tell us a little about the performer inside you?
Oh, he most likely always has been there, it only took me 40 years to discover him and to let him out. The discovery took place during a depression some 10 years ago. I was an academic, entering a business school. This specific environment was a huge challenge for me. Facing private challenges as well, I was down, when I was introduced to improvisation theatre and the red nose clown. That brought me in deep touch with my inner emotional worlds, and a very powerful drive to express myself grew strong. That’s when the performer stepped up. In the close collaboration with French/American actress, director and writer Lee Delong, the performer received his format, mainly by the serendipitous contact to theatre masks. Lee and myself worked on three shows, which made it to the Edinburgh Fringe, the Zagreb Clown Festival and even a TEDx stage just a few weeks ago.

You’re coming to the Brighton Fringe this year with a new show, what is it about Brighton that makes you want to return?
I came here last year with the solo half-mask show “Absolutely reliable!” and fell in love with the city and the festival. The festival is by far less of a madhouse like Edinburgh, you can develop contacts and networks much easier here, and sea salt in the air always attracts me.

After ‘Absolutely Reliable’ you have now created a whole new show. What was the impulse behind the change?
Oh it simply emerged from the confrontation with medical masks in everyday life. If you work in the area of mask theatre, the link is obvious. Masks hide parts of your face, while they are unveiling inner powers and energies, we are barely aware of. Masks change our behaviour. When the experience and power of a tiny realm, a niche of theatre work suddenly becomes a mundane phenomenon, of course you want to investigate what is happening. For the performance, one very interesting part was to explore what happens when you put a (medical) mask on top of a expressive theatre mask. The outcome is stunning.

Your new show is called ‘The Heist’, can you tell us all about it?
The Heist is an homage to all the pandemic-struck restaurant and small business owners of this world. The piece explores the plight of Steve, a restaurant owner, who loses everything, and it does so by employing comedy, mask, music, and movement. It is a solo full-mask show with live soundscape on stage, meaning, it’s visual theatre, without (almost) any spoken word on an empty stage. The masks elevate the emotional turmoil we all went through, and we barely have words for. Since there is only me as actor and four masks, I have to constantly change characters and their physicality. I jump, roll, tippy-toe, explode, collapse, dream, and agonize in rapid-fire succession, and that’s sheer fun. Lee as the writer and director of the show dissects in the piece the human struggle for survival and its inherent meaninglessness in an alluring, charming way. She contrasts the wordless sufferings of the masked life we all have been living with a heightened sense of poignancy.

Who will be supplying the live music?
The music plays a crucial part in this piece. The sound and the physical play are close and intimate partners, and both need to be in full sync to make the world of Steve come alive. We are blessed to have the wonderful percussionist Max Charue from Charlesoi with us. Since there is no stage set, Max provides the full soundscape of all the actions that I do in mask. If I open a door, throw an egg into a pan or blow up a safe in a bank, he makes you hear and therefore see it. It’s magic.

Who created the masks & how did they do it?
It was me who created 3 out of the 4 masks. It’s a highly intuitive process, where your hands practically follow intuition and instinct but not your mind, while the mind needs to be fully present. I learned making masks from Steve Jarand from Calgary and The Familie Flöz from Berlin. There are as many techniques as there are mask makers. But in short, you first form a face from clay, and then you apply either paper maché, leather or plastic on top of it and then you finish it with colour, hair, teeth, eyes. What sounds simple isn’t. Mask making is a true and highly intuitive, almost spiritual craft.

The Heist is being directed by Lee Delong – what is it like to work with her?
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.

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She is also directing three other shows at the Fringe, what is ‘Uncommon Comedy’?
Yes, she directed all shows in ‘Uncommon Comedy’. This mini festival brings highly visual, physical theatre without words to Brighton. The shows come from Croatia, Serbia and Belgium. They all employ mask, red-nose, movement, dance, music, and sound that speaks without words on a practically empty stage. In this world of moving stage pictures, Lee removed the words and replaced them with the power of purely physical expression and with the immense effect of sound and musical underscoring. With this, ‘Uncommon Comedy’ treats universal themes with rapid-fire action, image, and tons of humour. We are very grateful that the production of Uncommon Comedy is wonderfully supported by the Diplomatic Representation of the Government of Flanders.

How much of a role do you have with Uncommon Comedy?
While Lee is the artistic director of the mini festival, I am the producer, which means that all the management of the event is in my hands. From theatre contracting, coordinating the marketing and the linking to the Fringe organization team, looking for funding.

You have 20 seconds to sell The Heist on the streets of Brighton, what do you say?
The Heist is a rapid fire exploration of the emotional turmoil we all went through during the pandemic, and brought to the stage in a light, comedic, and truthful way.


May 8,9,10

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