The Art of Laughter is a masterclass in physical acting that explores the cause and effect of laughter. Written and performed by Jos Houben, the hour-long soliloquy demonstrates how even the slightest movement of the body can be funny. Houben picks out the details we subconsciously notice – expressions, gestures, action – and consciously shows us their comic potential.
The show has toured extensively and successfully over the last few years, winning the Total Theatre Award at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, and now contributes to the line up of the London International Mime Festival. Performed at The Shaw Theatre for one night only, the theatre’s intimacy allowed Houben to interact with audience members with ease. Houben’s confident manner demands the attention of the audience and he is totally comfortable on stage; something he believes is crucial for comedy to work well. He states that laughter is all about the audience, but an audience needs to be relaxed and reassured for this laughter to occur.
Often what we find funny in a piece of art is how truthful it is to everyday life. Separating the body into three main areas; the hips, chest and head, Houben discusses how different people, different situations and different emotions affect the way we hold ourselves and how we move. He takes individual movements, dissects them and slightly changes them, which in turn completely changes their comic value. We are shown that even the smallest adjustment can alter our opinion of both a situation and the person moving. Houben’s demonstration of these different ways of walking, moving our head or gesturing causes great hilarity amongst audience members, simply because we recognise these actions in ourselves and others. His dissection of physicality is fascinating and very informative not only for actors, but for everyone.
One particular thing that causes amusement in both theatre and real life is conflict in movement; we laugh at the misfortune of others when they trip up, knock something over or slip. But it is not the conflict in itself that makes us laugh but the reaction to it. We try to elevate ourselves back to dignity after an accident but often overcompensate. The irony is, when laughing we lose all care about this dignity and often end up with the strangest body language or doing the weirdest movements.
Near the end of the lecture Houben starts to impersonate the physicality of certain animals but then quickly moves onto cheeses. It is extremely funny but on reflection totally bizarre. So why do we laugh? Because we want to. As Houben himself says, laughter builds up energy and after a certain point we will laugh at anything. In the space of only an hour, Houben is able to build this energy up to show us just how powerful laughter can be and how it is at the core of every human being.
The Art of Laughter played on 10 January. For more information and tickets, see Mime London website.