Wednesday, May 7, 2014

WHAT THE EXPERTS SAY: Scotch Wichmann, Performance Artist and Author

Scotch Wichmann, Performance Artist and Author
TWO PERFORMANCE ARTISTS KIDNAP
THEIR BOSS AND DO THINGS TO HIM
Scotch Wichmann, comedian and performance artist,  lamented the lack of a definitive novel on performance art and wrote TWO PERFORMANCE ARTISTS KIDNAP THEIR BOSS AND DO THINGS TO HIM to fill the gap. Set in San Francisco, the novel tells the story of two performance artists who become so annoyed with their jobs that they kidnap their billionaire boss to turn him into a performance artist. Reviewers say it’s “possibly the funniest caper novel ever,” but also applaud the “heart” in the book.  It was a finalist in the 2013 Amazon Breakthrough Novel Contest.

Wichmann, a performance artist for 23 years, is a fan of  “madcap” comedy films like “A Fish Called Wanda,” “Ghostbusters,” or “National Lampoon’s Vacation.” When not performing or writing, he enjoys going on walks with his dog, writing software, reading, and drinking.  

Q: You are successful as a performance artist and comedian. What caused you to write TWO PERFORMANCE ARTISTS KIDNAP THEIR BOSS AND DO THINGS TO HIM?

Scotch Wichmann: One day it occurred to me that nobody had yet written *the* performance novel—that is, the kind of novel about performance art that a performance artist would write.

There were a few books out there that had incorporated performance art into their plots, but all of them were ultimately more focused on other themes—a sleuth solving a mystery, for example, or maybe somebody's recovery from emotional scars—and that's not what I was looking for.

I wanted to read a real performance art novel—one that captured the grit and unbridled creativity of the performance art world from someone who'd actually been there—a book that would answer questions like, What is performance art? What makes a performance good or bad? What's it like, doing an art form that in America that's sometimes viewed as a cultural punchline? Why is a performance artist driven to strap meat to herself, or drop razorblades into his underwear—and how does somebody become like that?

That was the novel I wanted to read, but it didn't exist. Finally, in late 1999, I couldn't stand it anymore; that very night, I sat down and started outlining the book.

Q: One of your reviewers was pleased with your “everyman hero one can get behind.” He was surprised by the “heart” in a book about performance artists and the “generous and good humored heart beating at the center of all of the carefully orchestrated zaniness.” "Zaniness” and “heart” don't always mix. How were you able to create characters that engage readers in the midst of telling a zany story?

Scotch Wichmann: I'm a huge fan of madcap comedy novels and films like Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, A Fish Called Wanda, True Lies, 9 to 5, Silver Streak, National Lampoon's Vacation, Ghostbusters, and Ishtar.  Although not all of these were exactly blockbusters, they were successful for me in their comedy and creativity, and in how earnest their characters were.  That earnestness, and their characters' oblivion toward how ridiculous a situation might be becoming, endears us to them; they're hilarious and loveable precisely because they're walking disaster zones—clowns walking straight into chaos while whistling happy tunes.

For TWO PERFORMANCE ARTISTS KIDNAP THEIR BOSS AND DO THINGS TO HIM, I aimed for that same target—to create characters who were flawed, but with earnestness, and who can't see their own shortcomings and failures objectively, until, maybe, they catch a fleeting glimpse when it comes time to walk comedy's bouncy tightrope high up over the jagged canyon of Tragedy.

Q: When writing this type of over-the-top humor, how relevant is the concept of “heroes” and “villains?”

Scotch Wichmann: In any novel or film, conflict is key.  But in comedy—especially when working with clown archetypes—you don't necessarily need a typical villain. For the clown—who, in his or her earnestness, becomes the hero—pretty much anything can become villainous—a short-term obstacle, conflict, or game that needs to be won before the plot can continue.  In National Lampoon's Vacation, Clark Griswold can't continue driving toward Walley World until he figures out what to do with Aunt Edna, who has just died in her sleep.  Ever the bumbling clown, Clark goes for the "obvious" solution: just tie her to the car's roof and drive on!  Likewise, when Hank and Larry, the protagonists in TWO PERFORMANCE ARTISTS KIDNAP THEIR BOSS AND DO THINGS TO HIM, encounter an obstacle, they reach for what's "obvious" to them—which, in many cases, is performance art—with madcap results.

Q: Let's talk setting. I lived in the Bay Area for 25 years, and The City is a favorite (New York has Broadway—so it's King.) I also worked in the corporate environment during that time and comprehend its downsides. How helpful is the city of San Francisco to telling your story? Do you consider corporate environment a “villain” or a setting for your story?

Scotch Wichmann: I could see having set TWO PERFORMANCE ARTISTS KIDNAP THEIR BOSS AND DO THINGS TO HIM in New York's Lower East Side, especially in the 1970s or mid-1980s, but I don't think it would've been the same novel.  For one, NYC just seemed too big.  I didn't want the city to feel claustrophobic, necessarily, but its edges needed to be within reach so Hank and Larry could exert their influence over it more thoroughly, and exhaust its possibilities more quickly—in order to arrive at conflict—than NYC might've allowed.  Also, although San Francisco is gorgeous, its hills are uniquely imposing, especially if you're on foot.  They push against you (and harder if you're in a hurry to get anywhere).  The wind, especially downtown, will blow you clean over.  And if it's raining, the hilly streets become lethally slick. The City seemed to offer ways of working against Hank and Larry to create a pressure cooker whose pent-up energy might've dissipated in a larger setting like NYC's.  In SF's seedy Tenderloin district where I lived, I could walk toward Polk Street on a Friday night, and in a four-block stretch, pass liquor stores, pan handlers, people of every color, a blowjob in progress, art galleries, a vet in a wheelchair, mom-and-pop restaurants with flies buzzing in the windows, psych ward escapees, a gay salon, the rich, the destitute, software geeks on kick scooters, a gaggle of transvestite prostitutes checking their hair, drug hustlers, and drunks—and with little fear of getting mugged. People were accepting and got along mostly, like in NYC, but with the city space feeling even more compressed.

As for Hank and Larry's computer jobs, the environment definitely works against them. Their office building is a half-mile long, so a walk to the restroom takes forever. The endless rows of carpet-walled office cubicals enforce uniformity (and boredom). Work is punctuated by long walks to the breakroom to buy soggy vending machine burritos. The office walls are plastered with communist-style posters designed to inspire work and consistency with mind-numbing slogans like TOGETHER WE WILL ACHIEVE.  Hidden cameras make privacy impossible.  And all of this came from my experiences working at Fortune 1000 companies in San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Orange County, which was brutally soul-sucking at times...I'm sure a lot of people can relate.

Q:  How important is believability to your story? How do you get readers involved with the “over-the-top” story?

Scotch Wichmann: Readers—being TV and Internet viewers—have become accustomed to seeing hard-to-believe action unfold right before their eyes, thanks to TV shows like Jackass and Internet sites like YouTube.  So, I didn't see any reason to put a cap on what Hank and Larry were allowed to pull off during their performances, as long as it was physically possible in the real world.  Set a full-sized bull swinging from the gallery's rafters with tequila and a cigar in its mouth?  No problem!

As for the believability of Hank and Larry's motivations, I made sure to spend plenty of time building their disdain for corporate life, and their frustration over not being able to survive economically on just art alone. 

And as for the kidnapping itself—snatching a billionaire from a computer convention—the scenario seemed plausible, given the circumstances and planning. Part of what made the scenario possible was simply that it was outside the realm of what the billionaire and his protective detail thought possible—which, of course, is exactly what performance artists are good at: doing what nobody has ever thought of doing.  That's their specialty, in fact.  So, it's not much of a stretch to think they'd make good kidnappers, given the enormous amount of detail (and surprises) they bake into performances.

Q:  The art (or science?) of writing humor is tricky. You have spent a career making people laugh. How? Do you target a specific group? If so, who will most enjoy the humor in TWO PERFORMANCE ARTISTS KIDNAP THEIR BOSS AND DO THINGS TO HIM?

Scotch Wichmann: TWO PERFORMANCE ARTISTS is geared for anyone who likes action, capers, madcap or dark comedy, edgy art, buddy stories, or learning more about creativity.

Comedy is a craft. Sure, you'll come across the occasional person who is just naturally funny and quick—or who has great comic physicality—both of which are hard to teach.   But the vast majority of the time—and if you want consistency—comedy comes from writing and understanding how to craft a good joke. There is a structure to it, a theory to it; Google "joke writing" and you'll find books and classes that teach you how.  I studied and performed at the San Francisco Comedy College for three years; after writing thousands of jokes—and critiquing others' acts—you learn how to articulate why something is funny.  When I watch a comedian perform, knowing comedy theory lets me see how she or he is getting laughs, just like a film editor can watch a movie and tell you why certain cuts are effective.  And here's a secret: anybody can learn to be more funny.  Get yourself a book on joke writing, or take a class, and get to writing.  Try out some jokes at a comedy open mic near you.  Once you understand how jokes work, you can write comedy on any subject, and extend joke structure to longer projects like sketch writing or even a novel.

Targeting a specific group requires research. If you're doing topical comedy, you first study your subject, and then begin cranking out jokes on that topic. I was once hired to perform for the psych ward staff at a California prison, so I mined psychiatry topics for jokes; for example, the labels people use for different kinds of crazy, dealing with shrinks who are crazier than their patients, and so on.  If you're targeting a specific demographic, then you study that demographic to see what experiences they're having—what they like, what they hate—and then write jokes about that.  Unfortunately, most demographic comedy has an expiration date; what was funny years ago won't necessarily be funny today. Once in 2008, I took a paying gig doing standup in front of 200 San Francisco teenagers. While setting up an opening joke, I made a reference to the original Star Wars movie—and my joke tanked.  Why?  The kids hadn't seen the film! Crazy! I suddenly felt so old.... So, always know your audience.

Q: Did you write TWO PERFORMANCE ARTISTS purely for laughs or were you also trying to tell your readers something?

Scotch Wichmann: It began as a love letter to performance art, and also to caper comedies, which I adore.  Combining the two seemed like a dream, and once I started writing, I couldn't stop—I had to find out how the book would end!  That passion and curiosity is what kept me going from my start in 1999 until the first full draft was finished in 2006.

But most of all, I wanted to put everything I know about performance art into TWO PERFORMANCE ARTISTS—including art lessons handed down to me from my teachers—and show why it remains a powerfully shamanic and political art form that can convey ideas in ways ordinary language cannot.  Performance art has remained controversial because it's always rejecting its own conventions—it remakes itself into something new, something you don't expect—thus always carrying with it the shock of the new deep within its DNA.  The novel shows how to make performance art, but more, how to grow a performance art way of looking at the world.

As an example of performance art's power, in November of 2013, a Russian performance artist walked into Moscow's Red Square, undressed, sat down nude, and nailed his scrotum to the cobblestone.  The implied message was this: If you, our corrupt Russian government, is so intent on extending your iron-fisted power over us—and even our *bodies*—then here, I'll offer you mine.  The artist had literally made himself part of the State.

The Western media, of course, always hungry for sensationalism, portrayed his performance as salacious: "Look at this crazy dude's impaled scro!"  But the Russians in power?  They understood the message perfectly. To read more about it, visit: www.scotchcomedy.com/square

Q: Why did you choose to write your book from first person point of view? Did you find its use restrictive?

Scotch Wichmann: I chose first-person because I wanted the novel to have a strong POV about performance art and the action taking place, with as little distance between the narrator and the action unfolding as possible. Also, Larry, the narrator, spends a lot of time alone, so using first-person gave me opportunities for him to hear and critique his own thoughts.  I didn't find first-person limiting at all; I just made sure to plot the novel with the idea in mind that my narrator's knowledge would be limited to whatever was present at the locale at hand.

Larry's narration also breaks a cardinal novel-writing rule: during action sequences, he switches to present tense.  Why?  Because action moves so much faster in the present—that's why screenplays use it—and that's how we often speak when recounting action: "So. I go to his house. I knock on the door. And he runs!"

Q: What's next?

Scotch Wichmann: The rest of my national book tour!  See: www.2p4m.com/tour

Q: Tell us about Scotch Wichmann. What do you like to do when you're not writing or performing?

Scotch Wichmann: I love watching movies, making short films, looking at art, sketching and painting, going on walks with the dog, swinging kettlebells, writing software, reading, and drinking. 

About Scotch Wichmann

Scotch Wichmann's comedy novel, TWO PERFORMANCE ARTISTS KIDNAP THEIR BOSS AND DO THINGS WITH HIM, was published in April by Freakshow Books.  A first-round finalist in the 2013 Amazon Breakthrough Novel Contest, Kill Radio called it "possibly the funniest caper ever written...what you'd get if Fear and Loathing, Office Space, and Jackass made a baby." A performance artist for 23 years, Scotch and his troupe were nominated for Best Comedy and Best Stunt at the 2013 Hollywood Fringe Festival.  And in a strange turn, Scotch's writing was plagiarized by Hollywood actor Shia LaBeouf in January 2014 (www.2p4m.com/shia).  For more about his book, visit www.2p4m.com



TWO PERFORMANCE ARTISTS KIDNAP THEIR BOSS AND DO THINGS WITH HIM is a caper comedy about Hank and Larry, two performance artists in San Francisco who hate their jobs so much that they cook up the ultimate performance: to kidnap their billionaire boss and turn him into a performance artist.  A first-round finalist in the 2013 Amazon Breakthrough Novel Contest—and the first performance art novel by a performance artist—Two Performance Artists is a madcap art adventure about best friends determined to tackle the American Dream with bird feathers, duct tape, and a sticky AK-47.

For an excerpt, readers can visit:  http://www.twoperformanceartists.com/read/



Links



Twitter: @scotchwichmann
Instagram: http://instagram.com/scotchwichmann








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