ED2018 Caro Meets ED2018 Interviews ED2018 Musicals

James Dangerfield: When You Fall Down – The Buster Keaton Story

By | Published on Tuesday 21 August 2018

I actually first heard about ‘When You Fall Down: The Buster Keaton Story’ a few months back when it was on at a venue in London, and thought it sounded like a really interesting show, so I was pleased to see it up at the Fringe for a full run at the Pleasance.

When one of our reviewers dropped in to see the show early in the run, she pretty much was blown away by it, calling it “exquisite”, and praising the one man show for giving “an eloquent voice to a silent movie pioneer who often went unheard in his own lifetime”.

The talent behind the piece is creator and performer James Dangerfield. I put some questions to him to find out more.

CM: Firstly, please can you tell us, in case anyone isn’t sure, a bit about the subject of the show, Buster Keaton?
JD: Buster Keaton was a silent movie star, who began making short films as a double act with Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle in the early 1920s, before moving onto shorts and features as a solo star.

His daredevil physical feats and incredible grasp of filmmaking led to some of the most audacious and breath-taking sequences in cinema history. More than just an actor, Buster was also director, stuntman and editor of his own movies!

Most people have seen clips of his films (such as the façade of a house that collapses over him) without knowing who he is. And of course he was a man, a husband, a father, a friend, and most noticeably in the early 1930s, an alcoholic.

CM: What made you want to create a show about him? Are you a long term fan, or was this just an interesting subject?
JD: I was originally cast back in 2009 as Buster in a show called ‘Sweet F.A.’, which told the story of Roscoe Arbuckle, as well as that of Hollywood during the 1930s. Buster was a cameo in that show, but as there were hours of films documenting how he moved, how he walked, how he fell, I decided I would have to do my research.

I began watching his films and discovered all the incredible movies that he made, which is where my fascination (or obsession!) began. And, in the process of reading all the books on Buster, was astounded that both his work and his remarkable life story were largely forgotten today. Since that date, I had the idea to write a show, drawing out the irresistible parallels and metaphors between his life and his movies, introducing whole new audiences to his incredible world of slapstick.

CM: So you already know lots about him before you started on the show?
JD: Even before I stepped on stage to play him in 2009, I was already hooked. After that show, I was simply a huge fan, watching (and re-watching) the films and reading the biographies over and over again. So, when I finally decided the time was right to write ‘When You Fall Down’ (as I was now the appropriate age to tell Buster’s story to the point I wanted), the content, the facts and the themes of the show were already in my head!

CM: Why a musical, rather than just a theatre piece?
JD: I’ve been asked this question a few times- “why a musical about a silent movie star?” Which is a fair question! Buster actually started off his career on stage at the age of five, performing in his family’s vaudeville act The Three Keatons and learned how to take a fall from fifteen years of rough and tumble routines that he performed with his father. Buster then incorporated on-stage sequences and vaudeville gags throughout his movie-making career. In the 40s and 50s, he performed in front of live audiences, in circus, in touring theatre, and in front of TV studio audiences. So he was incredibly at home on stage and happy to use his voice when the act required. Buster even sings in some of his early MGM sound movies.

CM: What elements of Keaton’s life does the show deal with? Is it a snapshot, or a full biography?
JD: The show follows Buster from his first introduction to (and immediate fascination with) the movie camera in 1917, until his signing to MGM in 1928, a pivotal moment in his life, and a moment at which his personal struggles seemed to converge with a loss of creative control over his work.

The show is based on the structure of his famous short ‘One Week’, except the audience follows Buster on seven separate days from this eleven year period, with one song in each of the sections. And as such we join Buster filming some trick photography, hear about the physical assault trials of Roscoe Arbuckle (which destroyed Buster’s best friend), and we see how he turns to drink, as he tried to cope with the failure of his marriage and the pressures of his career.

Despite these serious themes, there’s also a lot of exuberance and joy in the show!

CM: How did you go about putting the show together? What was the creative process?
JD: Once I decided to sit down and write the show, it all happened very quickly! I already knew which moments from Buster’s life I wanted to focus on, and once I began writing, the songs lyrics came first, with the music following quite instinctively. There are a few musical motifs and themes in the show too to help tie it together; there’s a “Buster dreaming” motif, for when a film idea occurs to him, and a “falling” motif too – as Buster certainly does a lot of that!

As it is a one-man show, I knew I needed to make the storytelling as varied as possible, so the mime, the magic tricks, and the drawing I do live on stage, were all born from that necessity! Likewise, I knew needed to interact with other characters, in order to avoid me talking directly at the audience providing exposition! So there are phone calls, letters, telegrams, off-stage voices and radio reports.

CM: You’ve already performed the show quite a lot elsewhere, haven’t you? What made you decide to bring it to Edinburgh?
JD: The raison d’être of this show is to introduce whole new audiences to Buster’s astonishing films. I’ve been fortunate to be able to perform the show across London, including the West End, in Bristol and even in Paris! Last year I was even lucky enough to perform When You Fall Down in the USA, where it was seen by Buster’s own family. Happily, they enjoyed it, and The International Buster Keaton Society has since given the show an award, but I’ve never been more nervous before a show than the performance when Buster’s family came to watch!

But despite all these locations, the place with the potential to reach the biggest audience is here in Edinburgh – and so I absolutely had to bring it here.

CM: How has the run gone for you here so far?
JD: I’ve been humbled and overwhelmed by the response to the show. Many of my shows have been sold out, and I’ve been really touched by the comments from the audiences. I’ve had people in who were already keen on Keaton, people who’ve been recommended the show, and people who have never seen a Buster movie, but who have left desperate to watch one. And for me, that’s job done!

I’ve been invited onto ‘Pick Of The Fringe’, been nominated for ‘Best Musical At The Fringe’ and had wonderful four and five star reviews, which again has been fantastic and for which I’m really grateful. But number one for me will always be audiences leaving entertained and wanting to pass it on to their friends.

CM: What do you like about being in Edinburgh? Have you managed to see some other shows? What would you recommend?
JD: Edinburgh is remarkable in that it gives so many shows a chance to find an audience, a voice and – in the case of reviews – quotes and publicity materials to add to the tank for driving the show onwards. This is especially true if you happen to be covering a niche subject; for example, I saw wonderful show about a woman with diabetes called ‘Pricks’. The Fringe is a perfect springboard for a show like that! And, as a spectator, where else do you get such variety of choice for something to watch? You never know if the next thing you see is going to be something that affects you forever.

I’d recommend ‘Infinita’ and ‘Dietrich: Natural Duty’. They’re both moving and mesmerising in their own way. The former is a physical theatre/mask show drawing parallels between children and the old, full of pathos and humour and wonderfully observed. The latter is an incredibly classy one (wo)man show, a masterclass in nuance and capturing the essence of star quality.

CM: Now a bit more about you: how did you get into performing? Was it what you always wanted to do?
JD: I’ve performed since the age of four, starting off with the violin, moving into tap dancing and singing. So a life on stage was always inevitable!

CM: What ambitions do you have for the future? Is there anything new you’d like to tackle?
JD: I’d like to take Buster home to the States for a little bit, and tour the US. I also have an idea for another musical; it would be a bigger production with more characters- and more people in it! But you might have to watch this space for a little while. I’m very lucky to have been working as an actor for ten years now, so I just hope that that continues. It’s a pleasure to do a job which is so constantly varied and surprising.

CM: What’s coming up next for you after the Edinburgh run?
JD: Immediately after Edinburgh I have performances of ‘When You Fall Down’ in Preston and Guildford. Who knows where Buster will travel next?

‘When You Fall Down: The Buster Keaton Story’ was performed at Pleasance Courtyard at Edinburgh Festival 2018.