Performance artist Deanna Fleysher has a deep, almost Freudian connection with her Butt. This is Butt Kapinski, her clownish private eye creation; a man described as “a deranged cross between Philip Marlowe and Elmer Fudd”. He roams the dark streets of Edinburgh (mostly the Liquid Room Annexe) solving murder mysteries with the help of whatever audience comes his way.
Butt wears a trench coat and a portable streetlight strapped to his back, bringing the shadowy noir world with him wherever he goes. “At heart, it’s me,” Fleysher says. “It’s me without my human disguise.”
Fittingly for the noir theme, the character came to Fleysher as she stood on a street corner in New York. “I was wearing my trenchcoat, and suddenly I went..."—she puts on Butt’s shady voice—"...‘it was a dark stweet’ and I was like, ‘oh that’s the character’. It was just so instantaneous.”
For anyone remotely familiar with Philip Marlowe or Sam Spade (though Spade's creator Dashiell Hammett is “a little bit too pared down” for Fleysher’s tastes) it only takes a few seconds of Butt speaking for the character to be completely recognisable. It summons up the seedy, smoky world of Bogart and Bacall, playing on the audience’s familiarity with all the old noir clichés and twisting them into something very, very funny.
Although little known in the UK, Fleysher has form at the Fringe: she directed the controversial 2013 hit Red Bastard, one of few shows to have earned the full spread of star ratings. Eric Davis’s inhibition-sapping monster in a red unitard is, in many ways, similar to Fleysher’s Butt Kapinski character: overwrought to the point of absurdity, inspired by clown and bouffon backgrounds, unafraid to demand a lot of audience participation.
But Fleysher only reluctantly admits to the audience involvement in her show. “I think a lot of interaction shows are really scary to people because a lot of them are very aggressive. My show is a little bit more inclusive. People are laughing at me, nobody’s laughing at other audience members. Everyone’s laughing with other audience members at me.” The destruction of the fourth wall requires almost a duty of care for Fleysher. “No matter what crazy shit you’re unleashing you don’t want people to feel assaulted. They need to feel like they haven’t been shit on.”
It’s easy to see why the close relationship with the audience is an important part of Fleysher’s performance style. Before clown and bouffon training, Fleysher taught English and theatre at high school for many years. The ability to maintain the attention of a class full of high school students is pretty similar to entertaining a room stuffed with Fringe punters. “Honestly, I think that was my best training as a performer, a clown and a bouffon. How do you reach high school kids and get them excited about The Scarlet Letter?”
Butt sits in the comedy section of the Fringe programme, and improv is where Fleysher started out, but she’s interested in finding a middle ground between comedy and theatre. “I feel more confident telling comedy fans that they’re probably going to have a good time at my show. Someone who says they’re a comedy fan is probably not super easily offended, and my show touches a lot of buttons and is very raunchy.” At a standup gig, audience interaction is almost expected. There is no pretence that the comedian is somewhere else. If you sit in the front row, you will be picked on. “I love that finding its way into theatre,” she says.
After discovering performers in the cabaret and burlesque scenes, like drag king Murray Hill, Fleysher became dissatisfied with the comedy and improv scene. “Just hitting some walls there made me look elsewhere. I’ve always been interested in vulnerability and a lot of comedians are not necessarily first and foremost interested in that.”
So is Butt a vulnerable character? “Profoundly. Butt Kapinski is trapped somewhere on the trans spectrum. People are always like, 'what pronoun do you want for Butt Kapinski?' and I’m kind of like ‘she-slash-he’ because the character itself is struggling with that. Wants to be a man but is not a man, wants to speak beautifully but is saddled with all these speech impediments that make people laugh.”
And part of the vulnerability is that Butt doesn’t know he’s being laughed at. “I think that Butt thinks we’re all doing this together, we’re all in this team together, we’re getting it done. We’re having fun? Oh great.” This lack of self-knowledge is a familiar trope in character comedy. Many of the great tragicomic creations assume that their audiences are laughing with, not at them. Just look at Alan Partridge, David Brent, Victor Meldrew: the humour comes from the fact that they’re all the butts of jokes, and none of them knows it.
Although Butt doesn’t really have a backstory, his existence is deeply rooted in Fleysher’s own background. Butt’s receding "r", his lisp, his addition of a "w" into every available word, are all based on speech impediments that Fleysher had as a child. “That was always the funny voice that my whole family used, whenever anyone wanted to say anything in a funny voice.” After years of speech therapy those idiosyncrasies disappeared but Fleysher summons them when she becomes Butt.
As a comic creation, Butt Kapinski manages to straddle a careful line between comedy and theatre. And what’s clear is that, despite being such a broad and ridiculous character, Butt is closely bound up with his creator even if the two are, on the face of it, worlds apart. As Fleysher puts it, “If you want people to pay attention it’s got to be really personal, but not necessarily true.”