Funny, odd or eccentric, absurd, and maybe skilled. When I sat down with modern-day vaudeville performers Ben Schave and Caitlin Reilly, they had trouble picking just three adjectives to describe their show.
True physical comedians, they don’t rely on words to entertain their audiences. The pair’s lips loosened, however, when I asked about why they choose to perform acts reminiscent of late 19th-century vaudeville-style entertainment.
Caitlin Reilly’s answer was simple: “Vaudeville’s awesome.”
“I think that both of us were always just huge fans of the performers from vaudeville, especially the comedians and the clowns of vaudeville,” explained Ben Schave. “And silent film, which is where we began to know about vaudeville performers.”
Added Reilly: “That’s where a lot of the really famous people started, like Ray Bolger, the scarecrow from Wizard of Oz. He was a vaudevillian eccentric dance performer with his wife. He had this fabulous, incredible dance routine with his wife. A lot of the stuff that he does as the scarecrow in that movie, with Judy Garland, the one we all know, was pulled from his vaudeville act.”
Reilly noted that seeing legendary performers like Charlie Chaplin perform in musicals also inspired her and Schave.
“That energy and the skill and the dedication and just the whole sort of atmosphere of it, I think for me is what makes me want to perform in that style.”
Still, Schave and Reilly aren’t doing exactly the same thing as those who inspired them. They realize that modern audiences call for a modern spin on vaudeville.
“If we were just making a copy of what they did, there would be no point in performing it anymore,” said Schave. “We have to apply what we do to what’s going on now and who our audience is. A lot of the stuff we end up doing is metaphors of how difficult it is to do normal things that everybody does every day.”
When asked to explain those metaphors, Reilly replied, “He [Schave] has a chair routine that he does, where he tries to have a seat and all goes wrong. It’s routed in the mundane. Drinking a cup of coffee can turn into an hour-long soliloquy about trying to drink the coffee. That’s the greatest thing – it’s all rooted in trying to dance together or falling in love.”
In the decades surrounding the turn of the 20th century, vaudeville variety performances permeated American entertainment. In one vaudeville show, audiences gleaned excitement from dancers, magicians, acrobats, comedians, actors, and even trained animals. Modern vaudeville performers like Schave and Reilly have to hearken inspiration from triple threats such as Jennifer Lopez, learning and performing all vaudeville skills rather than running with a large troupe in which each individual masters a task.
Fire eating, three-ball juggling, stilt-walking, and roller-skating are but a few of the skills mastered by Schave and Reilly. While Reilly prefers juggling, Schave found his calling walking above the crowd.
“I took to stilts like a fish does… like a duck does to water. A fish-duck,” said Schave.
The couple met 10 years ago in, you guessed it, Ringling Bros and Barnum and Bailey Clown College. Schave had previously studied theater at the University of Texas, while Reilly obtained an English literature degree at Ohio University before enrolling in the Dell’Arte International School of Physical Theater.
“We wrote a gag together when we were on the road with Ringling,” recalled Schave. “But really our first full-length original show was when we decided to go into business together. So that was in 2000. We always knew that we wanted work together, and then we just decided we should do it.”
“It was pretty fun,” added Reilly. “We just took all of our circus skills and clown skills and went ‘Blooooop! Here’s a story.’”
Schave and Reilly’s unique genre of physical comedy has taken them around the world. They’ve performed aboard cruise ships and in England. Currently, the duo offers three acts: a slapstick juggling bit, a still-life café scene, and the classic cop and robber routine.
The two typically come up with acts by sketching out their ideas.
“When I write, I use cartoons,” said Schave, pulling out his sketchpad. He then showed me the cartoon characters emulating Reilly and himself. The sketches show these characters in outrageous and over-exaggerated scenes – for instance, there was one where he was holding an open suitcase with clothes exploding from it.
“It ends up looking like a comic strip panel,” said Schave.
Schave and Reilly market their acts as adult-centered comedy that’s safe for the whole family. The couple could recant one instance, however, where they wanted to scream a profanity.
“We were doing a children’s show, and we were eating fire at the end of the show,” explained Reilly. “The kids liked it and threw toys at us – we threw them back. After a while we started ignoring the toys.”
And that’s when things took a turn for the worse.
Continued Reilly: “All of a sudden this kid throws a shoe directly at the glass [of fire-eating fuel]. We had one more trick, but we stopped the show. I think about it all the time.”
“It’s not that we don’t do anything profane, it’s that when we do it, we do it so innocently that it can’t be considered profane,” said Schave.
What really makes a show great, the couple believes, is when the audience is having just as much fun as they are, regardless of profanity, age, or language.
“We believe in down and dirty, but there also is plenty of shock [comedy] going on,” said Schave. “We can approach dark things and go at them with a lighter touch. Then later they [the audience] can think about it and realize what we had going on.”
Proving this theory, Schave is known to perform a solo routine with a banana in his pants.
“It’s not what you’re doing, it’s how you’re doing it,” said Schave.
How they perform is silently, using only their physical movement to communicate to the audience. Through expressions, interactions, and stage presence, Schave and Reilly delight crowds.
“We’ve performed for audiences that don’t speak a word of English, and they get every joke. And they laugh and they love and they go on our little journey. There’s no worry about a language barrier,” said Reilly.
The comedy couple came to Austin eight years ago to get married. Despite spending over two years traveling and performing, possessions stored away, they remain firmly rooted in Austin soil.
“What’s great about Austin is that it will allow you to throw stuff out a lot. It’s a really supportive environment,” said Reilly. “Then there’s always the tacos.”