Commedia consultant Michael Lane Trautman brings new laughs to old gags

October 04, 1992|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,Theater Critic

"Anybody can be funny," proclaims Michael Lane Trautman, in all seriousness.

Easy for him to say.

This lanky, 6-foot-4-inch, elastic-faced guy is a professional clown, mime, storyteller, juggler and magician. It says so right on his resume, right under a physical description that includes such pertinent information as, "Eyes: Two" and "Complexion: Clear, usually."

Lately Trautman has added another job description: "Commedia Consultant," the position he holds on Center Stage's production of Carlo Goldoni's "Servant of Two Masters," which launches the theater's 30th anniversary season on Friday.

Written in 1746, "Servant of Two Masters" is about a wily servant who attempts to double his income by simultaneously hiring himself out to two employers -- who turn out to be lovers. Goldoni, who wrote more than 250 plays, is considered the father of Italian comedy, in large part because he defied tradition by creating written scripts for commedia dell'arte -- an improvised form in which standardized characters performed physical comedy.

However, Goldoni's texts supply modern theater companies with exactly the opposite -- comic scripts without directions for the visual gags. "My job," Trautman explained one morning before ++ rehearsals, "is to come in and make the physical comedy work."

Or, as Center Stage's resident dramaturg James Magruder puts it, "He's sort of a clown scientist."

Whatever you call it, the position of commedia consultant is a new job classification. "I've never heard of it before," acknowledges Irene Lewis, director of "Servant," artistic director Center Stage, and the woman who concocted the job. Lewis initially hired Trautman last spring to help with a commedia scene in Moliere's "The Misanthrope."

"What I like about him is he sits back and watches," she says. "He doesn't jump on the scene. . . . I like the room he gives everyone and the fact that he has skills we can really utilize."

In "The Misanthrope," Trautman's job involved a scene in which an actor pulled a false arm out of a suitcase. When the expert was through with it, the scene was transformed into a classic bit of comic business in which the arm was the actor's own and was eventually ripped off in a slapstick struggle.

Shaping classic comedy to fresh contexts is Trautman's

specialty. In fact, he insists there are no new gags; the trick is to give audiences the delight of experiencing them anew, as opposed to making them feel as if they're seeing the same old thing again.

So says the theoretical, academic Trautman. There's also Trautman the performer, who can place a child in a chair and balance the chair on his chin (though lately he's taken to balancing pianos instead; "You can't always count on children," he explains).

At a recent Center Stage lecture on "Servant of Two Masters," an audience member who had seen Trautman perform in Maine asked, "How does one make a living as a commedia consultant? He was so good and so charming, I worry about him."

The truth is, of course, that the commedia consultant business is just a sideline for 38-year-old Trautman, who supports himself as a clown, mime, storyteller, etc.

A native of Springfield, Ill., where his father was an engineer for the local utility company, he recalls, "I was going to be a lawyer because my father . . . wanted me to have the things he didn't have, which are independence and wealth."

And, although he may measure these goals differently from most lawyers or bankers, he says proudly, "I have both. I have a certain kind of wealth. I've been doing this independently for 15 years. A lot of people can't say that."

A shy child who was far from the class clown, Trautman got his first real taste of performing at a small Baptist liberal arts college in Liberty, Mo., when he was cast in the silent role of the lead's sidekick in a school revue. After he left college, he took a job in a mental health center in Kansas City, Mo., and enrolled in a mime class in his spare time.

"It came very naturally, very easily to me," he says. "After the first year of training I started to do some performing. I quit my job, and the next month I had two bookings planned. One was for $50 and the other was for $100. I thought I could make a living at this."

At first his parents helped out a bit, even though he says, "My mother has no sense of humor. . . . You wouldn't realize she's my mother." Trautman remained in Kansas City until 1982, co-founding a mime company called Mimewock, which served as "kind of a clearinghouse in the Midwest," offering classes in not only mime but also t'ai chi, dance, circus skills, and oh yes, commedia dell'arte. Kansas City is also where he met his wife, Judy Gailen, a set designer who also directs all his solo performances.

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