The sounds of silence

Sam Wills outside the Duchess Theatre in London's West End, where he performed last year as ''The...
Sam Wills outside the Duchess Theatre in London's West End, where he performed last year as ''The Boy With Tape on his Face''.

The punchline rolls around and Dunedin-born comedian Sam Wills again has nothing to say. It's hilarious, writes Tom McKinlay.

You might expect someone who performs with tape across his mouth to be a reticent interview subject. Short, mumbled responses that quickly taper off, accompanied by arm-waving, seem a good bet.

Anyone who has seen Sam Wills perform as ''The Boy With Tape on his Face'' might also expect that a telephone interview in particular would be next to pointless. You'd miss the volumes he communicates with only his eyes.

During his show they pop and roll, feigning unease, irritation or conspiracy, as a pair of oven mitts serenade each other, or an audience member submits awkwardly to a painstakingly choreographed and achingly funny routine.

But as it turns out, once the tape comes off, Wills is full of talk down a phone line from London, where he's had the Poms, and the Scots, rolling in the aisles. In fact, it's a bit as if a cork has popped and everything held back surges forth at a rate of knots.

There is a fair bit to talk about. This year Wills has completed a 22-show season at London West End venue the Duchess Theatre, while 2012 witnessed a winning return to the Edinburgh Festival.

''We nailed that with a sellout season in one of the biggest venues at the festival, so that was quite an achievement I was quite proud of,'' he says.

''Then we did another UK tour on the back of that.''

All this and an appearance at a royal variety show in front of Princess Anne, all with a great big piece of black tape plastered across his mouth.

It is not bad for a boy from Dunedin (born at Queen Mary in 1978) who ran away to join the circus.

Well, eventually. After a sojourn in Timaru involving a store-bought magic set and an apprenticeship to a professional clown, Wills found his way to the CPIT School of Circus Arts in Christchurch, where he first studied then taught.

Wills is based in the UK these days, where he has worked his way from busking in Covent Garden to sold-out headliners as the ''Boy''. He is all over YouTube conducting extended moments of hilarious absurdity.

His show is described in Wills' official bio as ''mime with noise, stand-up with no talking, drama with no acting''. But he's not entirely happy with that.

''Whenever you say mime, it is such a horrible word,'' he says.

''We try and avoid the mime word because when you think of mime it's a stripy top, black tights and walking against the wind. And I have never had any mime training in my life.

''People go `oh, you don't talk, that means you are a mime ... yeah, no.

''Whenever I am writing the material I am writing it from a stand-up comedy base. I am always looking at the structure of the joke, the build-up, the repetitions and running gags and things like that.

''So, the same rules of stand-up apply. If you were to verbally describe the show, it has all the same rules that every other stand-up comedian uses for their shows and the same sorts of tricks as well.

''It's a fairly honest sort of clown show,'' he says finally.

''If anything, it is probably closer to clowning for adults after a few drinks.''

It was not always so. The Boy is the product of a long evolutionary process that began back in Wills' circus school days.

''In Christchurch I had been doing the circus stuff for a while and then I got involved in street performing and the comedy stuff came about pretty accidentally.

''My mate [and fellow comic] Jarred Christmas, who is based over here, he ran a comedy night in Christchurch and he called me one night because one of his acts had cancelled at the very last minute and said could I come down with some stuff and do something to fill some time.

''So I threw together a suitcase of these circus tricks and went down and did it. It was pretty well-received and I was asked to audition for Pulp Comedy [the New Zealand TV series].''

On the back of that exposure, Wills moved to Auckland where he honed his ''strange circus sideshow prop-comedy'' routine to the point where it won him a Billy T. Award at the 2005 New Zealand International Comedy Festival.

The award he says, was the tipping point. The flag indicating it was time for change.

''I felt as if people expected me to keep learning more circus tricks and keep talking more. That's why I wanted to do the opposite. I wanted to develop a show that had no talking and no tricks. That was pretty much my rules that I gave myself.

''So I worked on this character for a wee bit, and an idea of a routine, and went down to the Comedy Club and ruined it by talking to the front row on the first night. I managed to brag my way back in the next night and that's where the gaffer tape came in. I thought if I physically tape my mouth shut it takes away the option of talking.''

''I am sure at some point this will evolve into something else completely different. Perhaps in six years time I will be doing hypnotism, who knows ... ventriloquism, one of the darker ones.''

There are times when Wills does feel the limitations of the tape.

''I am always developing a couple of little sidelines. I am actually working on a few little secret projects that will give me a chance to say a few things. But at the moment I think I am pretty happy being quiet because there are enough people, there's enough noise going on in the world. Especially in the stand-up comedy scene, there are people just talking and too many words when they could reduce them down.

''There are a lot of shows of comedians saying here's a big back-story show and here's my point, this is my point and this is my opinion. And it is like, I don't really want to hear somebody's opinion I want to just hear something funny.

''That's what I have found. So I quite enjoy just going, this is a show that will not give you any current affairs or any modern takes on anything but you will laugh. That's the only objective of the show, to do something funny for an audience.''

Of course, that's not an easy task, especially from behind a piece of gaffer tape.

''I definitely do get quite envious of the stand-ups occasionally because they can look at a newspaper and watch what's going on and sit down and write half an hour of topical material. And the joy of topical material is that it is so disposable that it only has to be, I think, 20% funny. It is going to be thrown away so quick.

''For me it tends to take a hell of a lot longer. There's one routine I spent about six months on and the whole routine ended up being three minutes long.

''But once I have that three minutes, I have that three minutes for life essentially. Which is quite nice. I know the material will have a lot more longevity.

''I slowly tick away, store ideas up and pick out some props that I think have potential to be funny. The writing is different to your normal stand-up because all I am doing is building up a suitcase of strange things and a playlist on my iTunes of what I think is funny-sounding music and has the potential for a comedy skit of sorts. Then it is a case of putting A and B together to find C, which is the funny bit.''

The Boy is the star of his own show, but he is often not alone on stage. Wills fires a precision-targeted stare, rolls up a practised beckon and members of the audience rise gingerly from their seats.

''Any audience member has the potential to do anything, which is great,'' he says.

''But the other goal that I personally have - I am trying to campaign my way around the world - is to change the perception of audience participation. Because especially at a comedy show, there is that terror of sitting in the front row. Nobody wants that front-row seat.

''It is always the last row to fill up because you know the MC or the comedian is going to pick someone from there and go ''where are you from, that's a s*** place, what do you do for a living, that's a s*** job'', just being cruel to somebody for the sake of entertaining the others.

''So for me whenever I pick people - a lot of people do not know this - the first volunteer for my show will come from the back row, because I like to break this idea that sitting in the back row means you are safe, that I cannot see you when you are sitting back there.

''But also the idea that when people come up on stage, I am not there to ridicule. In fact, whenever anyone leaves the stage they will leave as a hero; they have succeeded in helping the show and been a part of it. I want to make it a big fun environment to be part of.

''I think the audience get that very early on, which is really nice.''

Those interactions with the audience sometimes have lives beyond the final curtain.

''Sometimes they do something that is just so funny that I end up going 'right, thank you very much'. The audience are slowly helping me to rewrite the show as I go along. Hopefully, Dunedin has some slightly funny people to add a couple of jokes to it.''

The show Wills is bringing to New Zealand is the same one that went down so well in Edinburgh, ''More Tape''.

''If anything it is just getting more and more fined tuned, tighter and funnier,'' he says.


The tape

That's not just any tape across Sam Wills' face when he steps out as The Boy With Tape on his Face.

''After many years of trying different tape, I have found one brand, called Nashua 357.

''It is a bit like a sportsman with their lucky jockstrap or lucky T-shirt or whatever but I have one brand of tape that I always use.

''It has a higher thread count and a better quality glue.

''If you look at a gaffer tape and you can see the crosshairs of it, it means it will rip quite easily, and depending on how thick the sealer is on the back, will determine how long it will stick on your face.

''And of course I am needing something to stay on my face for up to an hour and a-half under lights and whatnot, and this is the best one I have found.''


Catch him

Sam Wills appears at The Boy With Tape on his Face, on Thursday, May 2, at the The Glenroy Theatre, Dunedin, and on Friday, May 3, at the Opera House in Oamaru.


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