Lights up! There he stands, face daubed in stage make-up, grinning a grin a metre wide, that promises a thousand lies, yet uncovers some inner truth. His pose, outlandishly poised, casts a shape that bewitches as it beguiles, making the ladies swoon and the men ask themselves questions they’d never before asked. He’s Ferkel Johnson. The entertainer.
Burlesque artist, clown, mime, actor, singer, comedian and maitre de ceremonie – Ferkel has long been a mainstay of the burlesque, cabaret, circus and theatre scenes in Berlin and beyond.
I first encountered Ferkel as the compère of Primitiv’s Sunday Soiree. I was then lucky enough to catch his show-stealing performance in the play Berliner Luft – It’s in the Air. Before long I’d hunted him down for an interview. The timing was right, because just days later Ferkel was travelling to Iraq and Kurdistan with his clown company to bring some much-needed joy and laughter to the children in schools and refugee camps there.
So, tell me about this trip to the Middle East?
Well, I have a clown company, Duo Desolato, that is my friend Lukas and I. And we have an artists’ residency at Theaterhaus Mitte, and they are involved in the network of the cultural restitution of Iraq, making lots of theatre exchanges with Iraq – in Baghdad, Kurdistan, wherever.
Since the oppression there, through the ’60s and the Saddam regime till recently, they’ve had no new influences in theatre. A Kurdish theatre group based in Berlin contacted us and said they were interested in bringing new approaches to theatre back home with them, and that they would love to have pantomime.
Now, my teacher was the master student and assistant to Marcel Marceau, the greatest pantomime ever, so we thought “yeah, we can do this.”
So, in 2011, we gave a workshop in pantomime at the Institute for Fine Arts in Sulaimania, Kurdistan. We went back in 2012 with two other Berlin groups for the 3rd International Street Theatre Festival, also in Kurdistan. Both astonishing, important experiences.
The street theatre over there is very different from ours. There’s no… ‘I’m juggling three balls high up on a unicycle’… they do real plays on the streets. Some of the topics they cover are very hard, considering their violent past. The murders and killing, the gas attacks by Saddam… the Kurdish people incorporate all that into their plays. And we were just there doing nice, pleasant, easy pantomime.
Anyway, for this coming visit we’ll be going to schools and hopefully refugee camps. There are these camps that have less than 1000 inhabitants and they are not recognised by the Red Cross or Doctors Without Borders as they are too hard to get to. These are kind of ‘lost peoples’, not recognised by the international community.
Thankfully there are groups, like the organisation ‘Green Helmet’, who are trying to build a network for these people and they said to us “come and perform!”
The thing is, we don’t really want to go and just be funny for half an hour then bugger off. It’s more about talking to people and letting them know that we exist, that the international community hasn’t forgotten about them, and bringing their story back to Europe. The last thing we want is to be an easy photo-op for the Kurdi officials then disappear again.
You mentioned your mime instructor – tell me, what’s it like going to mime school?
People always think it’s just doing ‘the box’ for three years, but that’s not true.
I learned ballet, acrobatics, singing, acting, modern dance, contemporary dance… the course was called ‘Pantomime’ but we learned all types of physical theatre instead of just how to “do the bloody box and invisible rope!”
Imagine seven hours of hardcore physical training every day for three years. We also had inspiring clowns, mimes, directors, you name it, from all over the world coming in to teach classes and techniques. At the end of it I got a diploma, too.
For someone interested in becoming a performer, how did your career start?
Well I was rather ‘free spirited’ at school… hated homework… but I enjoyed acting. I love connecting with people… that’s at my core. So I decided to give teaching a go. During my teacher training I discovered the university theatre group and that was basically the end of my teaching career.
I got a job as Assistant Director at the big theatre at Bremen and I auditioned at the Ernst Busch acting school here in Berlin (apparently the best acting school in Germany). Their critique of me was that my stage presence was good, but that I don’t act the role – I play myself on stage.
And did that push you more towards becoming an entertainer?
Well I went hitch-hiking with two friends and we ended up in Venice. There’s a park there, next to the big exhibition area, and there I tried to juggle for the first time in my life.
Suddenly these two very young girls approached me with their mother and asked “are you a juggler?” and I said “…Yeah, sure.” and that was it. For the next 10 minutes we did rolls and hand-stands together and just fooled about.
It was soon after that that I researched clown and mime schools and found one in Berlin.
And how did you go from there to Burlesque?
I never thought about Burlesque till I saw a performer at a private event and I thought: “I could do that!”
It’s not so far from what I do – being with the audience, connecting with the audience… flirting with the audience. All whilst taking your clothes off. So I tried it out, and within the time it took to drink two beers an English friend and I had written my Burka Hitler strip… which is just so off, you know? So I got an offer to try it out live and I decided to start with a big bang.
But Burlesque, Vaudeville etc… they all come from the same traditions – the commedia dell’arte and renaissance theatre from 500 years ago. Half-improv theatre in the markets and on the streets of Italy. And this is also where my clown work comes from. And this is what I love.
To someone just starting out, is a formal education essential?
The street is a very honest place to do theatre. If you’re shit, people will just walk away. You get an immediate reaction. It’s a hard school, but it’s the best school.
There are several classes, like Burlesque classes and academies, that people can take, learn to shimmy and shake and take their clothes off in a seductive fashion. And a lot of people who start off enjoying Burlesque shows get caught up in the scene, start studying the art form and then decide to give performing a go.
I see theatre as a craft… like how a carpenter sees his trade. My background has given me many tools and through them I can express myself. I can let my weirdness and brain-farts flow out and create something original. It’s quite easy to spot someone who hasn’t completely mastered their craft. The training doesn’t have to be formal, but people do have to train at their craft.
We have this exercise, and it’s very hard… there’s a chair on stage in front of the group and one person has to sit on it and just do nothing. Nothing. It’s the hardest thing ever because you can never just be neutral. You slouch, try to sit up, you get nervous, you rearrange your feet… and that’s a big give away because it shows you’re unsure of yourself on stage. The secret to all this is that everything is visible from the stage and you just need to be aware of that. It’s connecting with the audience that really matters.
Your movements might not be perfect to the millisecond, but if you’re not engaging with the audience… you’re looking at your feet or whatever… people will get bored. Being confident on stage and working with the audience, that’s the most important thing.
So what is it to be an entertainer?
On stage, as I’ve already said, I’m no actor. I don’t play a role or a character.
Instead I play an exaggerated version of myself. A stage ‘me’. Ferkel Johnson. Everything I do on stage has to come from somewhere inside myself. I’m not a transvestite, but you know… sometimes Ferkel likes to play one.
Being the entertainer… you also need life experience. You need stories to tell. Billy Connolly (the comedian) once said: “Life is most funny when you have your knickers down, and I like my life with the knickers down.”
If you’re not afraid to make a fool of yourself, to be naked, you’re stronger than anybody else.
My latest discovery for performing is, forget the make-up, music and effects, that you have to be very loud to get across the very small things. The detailed things. The quiet little moments.
At a recent gig a Köpenick… it was a Valentine’s Day show and I was on-stage talking about my mother. At the end I said “Now, I know it’s not Mother’s Day, but let’s raise our glasses to all of our mothers” and the whole audience erupted into cheers and we all drank together. It was such an intense moment for me, because it was an honest moment.
At that moment I was merely projecting an idea we all had. Being the performer only works if you can get the audience to project their own stories, colours, histories onto you.
You, being personal, naked, on stage, are the conduit for that. They look at you and see themselves. It’s like love, basically.
So, what’s the future for Ferkel Johnson?
Here’s a quote from a couple of Cabaret performers, The Evil Hate Monkey and Trixie Little, “Don’t make your dreams too small.”
I have a dream: to produce an opera. To me, opera is the most opulent thing on stage and I wanna do that.
I want it to be so that if I say “I want a male choir of 20 Swiss men”, the response I receive from my assistant is not “why”, it’s “when”. This is my ultimate goal and I’ve given myself until I’m 50 to achieve it. That one, big show.
If you make your dreams too small… ‘I want to be a Cabaret or Burlesque performer in Berlin’… what do you do once you get there? If you dream big and everything you do is building towards that dream, the little mishaps along the way won’t effect you.
There’s also a saying about clowns…. They’re like wine – the older they are, the better they get.
Ferkel Johnson will be hosting his first solo show, “…a night with Ferkel Johnson” on Friday March 20th at Mitte’s Le Labo lounge. This “one-night-only spectacle” is a benefit for the Das Karfunkel Kabinett circus and will feature a host of acts, including the man himself. The show will be free, but bar proceeds go to the good cause… so make sure you drink a lot.