Jesse Herwitz

Jesse Herwitz

Erica Schmidt Has Taken a Lot of Humor Abuse

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Lorenzo Pisoni in "Humor Abuse." Photo by Craig Schwartz.
Lorenzo Pisoni in “Humor Abuse.” Photo by Craig Schwartz.

On a blistering hot September afternoon in downtown Los Angeles, a group of men and one woman gather around the Mark Taper Forum’s thrust stage. It is somewhere in the middle of a six-hour rehearsal day for Humor Abusea typical day for clown artist Lorenzo Pisoni, starring in his one-person show.

A monitor in the backstage waiting room offers a live feed of the activity. One man in blue jeans watches from the edges of the stage, another at the foot of a staircase has his arms crossed in observation. Then, Pisoni — dressed in a black t-shirt, black sweat pants and heavily padded elbows — briskly ascends a metal ladder as below him the woman, director and co-creator Erica Schmidt, gestures and offers critiques.

It is a familiar scene, one that has been going on for the past several years. The friendship of Schmidt and Pisoni began almost 16 years ago and blossomed into a professional partnership, which has continued to grow into what is now the fourth run of an Obie-winning production.

Erica Schmidt
Erica Schmidt

“We built this play in a pretty unique way,” says Erica Schmidt. “It was definitely a labor of love. It still is. We never imagined it would play in these kinds of spaces.”

She is referring to the Taper.

Last May, Center Theatre Group artistic director Michael Ritchie announced that due to “scheduling conflicts” a revival of Joe Orton’s 1969 farce What the Butler Saw would be delayed, making room for Pisoni’s one-man show Humor Abuse to take its place.

Mostly praised in all the cities it has appeared since 2009 — Charles Isherwood of The New York Times called Pisoni’s performance “physically…breathtaking” while Robert Hurwitt of The San Francisco Chronicle described the show as “90 minutes of nonstop hilarity,” Humor Abuse is the autobiographical theatrical story, or “love letter to his father” as Schmidt calls it, of Pisoni’s childhood growing up as a circus clown in the Bay Area’s Pickle Family Circus.

Larry Pisoni, Lorenzo’s father, was among the group’s founding members and circus clowns, along with Geoff Hoyle and Tony winner Bill Irwin. Lorenzo made his stage debut with the Pickles in 1978 when he was two years old and, under the tutelage of his father, continued to perform until 1989. While most kids his age were learning how to ride bikes or tie their shoes, the young Pisoni was acquiring juggling and tap dancing skills and perfecting his front and back flips.

“The magic about Lorenzo is that he really wanted to be training and practicing and learning to be a clown. It’s an amazing foundation,” says Schmidt, who first met Pisoni in an art history class while both were attending Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, New York.

It was at Vassar that Pisoni and Jonah Hoyle, son of Geoff Hoyle, performed what would be one of the earliest incarnations of Humor Abuse (the first was while they were still in high school in San Francisco). At the time it was more of a variety show and an homage to the craft of clowning, as their fathers defined it. They performed once for their fellow students, and Schmidt was in attendance.

“They performed different feats and skills,” she says. “They did commedia, and each told a personal story about growing up with their dad. Jonah was the clown and Lorenzo was the straight man.” She says she saw the show and immediately loved it.

Bill Irwin, Lorenzo Pisoni and his father Larry Pisoni at the March 2009 world premiere opening of "Humor Abuse" at Manhattan Theatre Club.
Bill Irwin, Lorenzo Pisoni and his father Larry Pisoni at the March 2009 world premiere opening of “Humor Abuse” at Manhattan Theatre Club.

Soon after, Schmidt, who also had early aspirations to become an actor, found her way into theatrical direction almost by default.

She recalls, I was in New York and trying to pay my rent and wanting to work. Everyone I knew was also an out-of-work actor, and so I thought, let’s make a company — and this time I’ll direct and you guys get to act, and next time you direct and I’ll get to act.  But that next time just never came around,” she smiles.

Continuing as a director, Schmidt did well for herself, directing Pisoni in the Public Theater’s production of Shakespeare’s As You Like It (2003), Quincy Long’s People Be Heard at Playwrights Horizons (2004) and also the 2006 revival of Bob Merrill and Michael Stewart’s musical Carnival! at the Paper Mill Playhouse, among other shows.

But it wasn’t until February of 2008, while Schmidt was teaching direction at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center, that the idea of producing Humor Abuse as a serious stage project began to solidify.

[Lorenzo] was trying to get Jonah to come to New York and do Humor Abuse with him again, but Jonah had retired from performing. So Lorenzo basically made it into a one-person show. He gave it to me and said, ‘I’d love to work on this with you.’”

Schmidt suggested some changes, making the father-son theme the core of the show. After a few days workshopping the newly revised script in a barn in Connecticut, Humor Abuse was staged for some of the students at the O’Neill theater. It marked the first performance under the newly created Pisoni/Schmidt partnership.

Following a second staging at Bard College’s SummerScape, where Schmidt was also directing Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya, Pisoni landed a role alongside Daniel Radcliffe in Peter Shaffer’s Tony-winning Equus at the Broadhurst Theatre in New York in 2008.  While working six days a week during the run of that show, Pisoni devoted all of his off-time to work on Humor Abuse with Schmidt.

Lorenzo Pisoni
Lorenzo Pisoni

On September 7, 2008, Humor Abuse played a single performance under the tents of the traveling circus festival Spiegelworld in New York. Attending that night were producers from the Manhattan Theatre Club, who offered Pisoni and Schmidt a place in the upcoming MTC season — with provisions.

Basically, MTC said ‘We’re giving you a spot. We love the show, but you need to work on it’,” says Schmidt.

So they did.

Adds Schmidt, “I think that our process is completely different than any other process I’ve been involved in. He’s the inside and the skill, and I’m the outside and the perspective, and we just kind of go back and forth.”

Humor Abuse began previews on February 19, 2009 at Manhattan Theatre Club’s Stage II and officially opened nearly three weeks later, on March 10.

Recalls the director, “I just remember being in total agony during the previews because we had no idea what people would make of it. And in the beginning, they were not pleased.”

A few weeks after its April closing, however, Pisoni earned the Drama Desk Award for outstanding one-person show, adding an Obie award a month later. Humor Abuse also went on to win a Lucille Lortel Award (for outstanding solo) and the Outer Critics Circle Award (outstanding solo performance).

A Family Affair

As the time nears to break for lunch, the stage clears. Schmidt walks up the aisles of the auditorium to eat alone while the rest of the crew slowly filters into the waiting room. Within a few seconds, Pisoni, in his black t-shirt and sweat pants, enters, sweating profusely.

“I’m going to take a nap,” he says.

“Get some rest,” says one of the stagehands.

“It’s a pretty grueling schedule just trying to get the show back into his body,” observes Schmidt. “We have a 10-day rehearsal process. It’s a lot of intense work over a short period of time.”

Lorenzo Pisoni
Lorenzo Pisoni

Pisoni is not without his bumps and bruises. On his video blog, he talks about injuring himself continuously — one time breaking his nose while diving into a bucket. Aside from the juggling and tap dancing, and working his way out of a vintage-style hat trunk onstage, Pisoni does flips and at one point falls down a long staircase on his back.

Following the success of its initial run at the MTC, the show moved from the intimate Stage II to the Philadelphia Theatre Company‘s much larger Suzanne Roberts Theatre. To accommodate the additional stage space and 360 seats in the auditorium, 20 additional minutes were added to the show, including the now-popular “stairs” routine.

The Philadelphia run earned the pair more critical acclaim. A year later, Pisoni and Schmidt began work once again on a West Coast tour, after being invited to perform in Seattle and San Francisco. For Pisoni, that meant a literal return to his home town and to the roots of his highly personal show.

The Humor Abuse tour opened in October 2011 at the Seattle Repertory Theatre for a limited three-week run.  The show was then scheduled with the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco beginning in January 2012. In between, however, Schmidt gave birth to her first child, a daughter, with her husband and Emmy- and olden Globe-winning actor Peter Dinklage (Game of Thrones) . It was an important event that, for her, cast a new perspective on Humor Abuse.

“Lorenzo makes his circus performing debut when he is two. And now my daughter is three months from being two. It used to be an abstract idea for me, that Lorenzo was preternaturally gifted. But now I can just see how it is possible, how much my daughter imitates and mimics — this desire she has to do what we do.”

Now a mother, Schmidt says she better understands the allure of bringing children into the business and being able to combine two passions — career and family — into one arena.

“His parents loved so much of what they did. I love what I do, too, but right now my daughter is not here with me, and I feel torn in that because I love to be with her. So, to be able to merge those two things would be amazing. I can imagine that if you had a father who was this kind of fantastic clown that of course you would do as Lorenzo did.

Following the West Coast tour, Pisoni announced that it would be the last run of Humor Abuse.  That pledge held for just over a year before CTG called.

A Father’s Humor

Lorenzo Pisoni
Lorenzo Pisoni

Sitting on one of the benches in the Taper’s upstairs lobby, Schmidt eats her salad and looks out of the window facing the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. In 10 days, Humor Abuse will be seen for the first time by Los Angeles audiences.

“We’ve always wanted to do it in London and in LA,” says Schmidt regarding the decision to accept the CTG’s invitation. “Those were sort of our dream cities. And we’ve made a lot of changes here, because so much time has passed since the last time we did this show and we’re both in really different places now, and so we just see a lot it differently.”

Over the years of developments, adjustments, stagings and re-stagings, and with the personal changes in each of the co-creators’ lives, perhaps what’s most revealing about the character of the show is the one thing that has remained the same — the title. As a combination of words, Humor Abuse is a somewhat ambiguous, even provocative title. So what does it mean?

“I don’t think that Lorenzo feels in any way that he was abused. For the both of us, it’s the humor, the abuse of the body for the humor, and then the abuse of the humor. The idea that a joke can just get run into the ground until it’s not funny anymore.”

In his video blog, Pisoni credits Jonah Hoyle as the first to use the term Humor Abuse.

“He was talking about what us kids went through with our fathers,” states Pisoni.

Still, what began as a “variety show” of the fathers’ craft has since become something of a philosophical endeavor for the co-creators. And beyond the flips and pratfalls, that fervent endeavor is not hard to grasp.

“When I asked Lorenzo ‘Why do you want to do this?’ he replied, ‘Because I want to make people laugh.’ So we worked very hard to achieve that.”

“Lorenzo and his gifts are magical to witness,” adds Schmidt. “The idea of a child reaching adulthood and paying homage to their parent in such ways that they don’t even see by their living testament, to what the parent dreamed of, reached for, and grappled with, I think that’s so moving.”

Once again, the notion has been floated that this will be the last production of Humor Abuse. When asked if this would really be the last run, Schmidt grins.

“Look, if they want us to do it on Broadway, I’m sure we wouldn’t say no. But I can’t foresee that it will keep going. We’re just happy to have this opportunity.”

All too soon the lunch break is over, and as Schmidt makes her way down the rows of seats, Pisoni — as if on cue — also returns, only he’s now less-sweaty, somewhat rested though dressed the same as before in t-shirt, black jogging pants and over-sized elbow padding. The two quickly exchange looks, then get back to work on the second half of their day.

Humor Abuse, Mark Taper Forum, 135 N. Grand Ave., LA 90012. Opens Saturday. Tue-Fri 8 pm, Sat 2:30 pm and 8 pm, Sun. 1 pm and 6:30 pm. No performance Tuesday, Sept 24; no 2:30 pm performance Sept 28; no public performances October 2-4  (student matinees only); no 1 pm performance October 6. Through November 3. Tickets: $20-$70. www.centertheatregroup.org. 213-628-2772.

A New York City native, Herwitz graduated from Fordham University in 2007 and moved to Los Angeles in 2011. In addition to theater, he enjoys film, dance, opera, and live jazz. He currently lives in Los Feliz.