Back when we last talked about the sublime talents of Sam Wills, ‘The Boy With Tape On His Face’ was very much a new-born creation. Since then Wills has grown and matured the act, to the extent that we’re talking just before he takes this silent alter-ego onto the final stages of America’s Got Talent.
Although he’s gone from Fringe artist to Internet sensation, Wills seems unconcerned with the massive exposure he’s getting on the global TV show. “I’ve never heard of it”, he chuckles. “I’ve got no idea on how far I can go on something like this, being up against all these excellent pieces. But I’ve set out to achieve what I wanted to do on it. We wanted to get the show seen and we’ve certainly done that.” Predictably, Tape Face would later lose out to an adorable tween singing sensation. But subsequently his audition clip has received in excess of 42 million hits on YouTube – at least five million more than the show’s eventual winner. “One of the comments we got, which resonated really well, was that it’s an act which has been designed for the Internet.” The combined recognition from AGT and online shares have brought offers in from around the world, including a visit to Vegas. So Tape Face is going to be kept very busy for a few years yet.
Silenced by a length of duct tape across his lips, Tape Face (as he’s now more usually known) turns normal objects and well-loved songs into a form of communication. A joyous mixture of mime, slapstick and anthropomorphism, it’s safe to say his shows are unlike anything you’ll have seen. Without the hindrance of words, this is a performance that appeals internationally. “People were saying I’d have to adapt the jokes, but it’s a fairly universal show. If you can’t get the humour of it straight away, then I’m not the comedian for you.” His restless mind twists the everyday, breathing life into cheap odds and ends. Sink plungers, oven gloves and toothbrushes all take on personalities, in this timeless and untypical show.
His background is firmly in rowdy street performance, studying circus in his native New Zealand. He then spent seven years sword swallowing, banging nails into his nose and fitting his entire body through a de-stringed tennis racquet. Surprisingly, juggling machetes whilst precariously wobbling on two balance boards wasn’t challenging enough. So he decided to use his physical skills to create something diametrically opposed to this raucous persona. Realising a simple piece of tape would force him to interact in a different way, the character he calls ‘The Boy’ was born. “Audiences do want to see something different. We’ve been overloaded with comedians saying words and having opinions. Even back in New Zealand it was looked down upon to be a prop comic, but if even one person in the audience is laughing…” One thing the street-performing has helped him develop is the art of clear communication with an audience. But it’s taken relentless tweaking to perfect the art of the silent punchline.
He deliberately looks for items that are instantly recognisable, and inherently amusing to play with. The whole development process still starts with Wills locking himself in a room with this selection of props and essentially playing about. But with his new show sees him work with aspects like lighting, set design and a proper narrative. “It was so strange to write to production values, because I’m so used to doing an Edinburgh show where my junk is thrown in a couple of cardboard boxes. This time the show is set in a world which is where Tape Face lives. It’s been a real learning curve for me.” The new Tape Face show, which comes to Brighton’s The Old Market on Thurs 10 Nov – Sat 12 Nov, sees a total re-imagining of his unique brand of silent comedy. Inventive, universal and enrapturing, it takes his art form to an entirely new level. “I think this is going to be the show where I will forever be known as Tape Face.” This show is essentially pulls together the best routines from his character’s history and places them within a theatrical framework. It’s also allowed Wills to partly revisit his previous incarnation, with a fearsome spot of plate spinning. The circus skills also had an outing at this year’s Edinburgh Fringe, where Wills took to the streets once more, with neither tape nor restraint.
Although he’s tapped into the subtle brilliance of silent legends like Groucho Marx and Chaplin, Wills is a little wary of ensuring a new generation of mime acts himself. “I would hate to be responsible for that,” he says laughing. “There’d be nothing but clowns walking against the wind.” Since he last came down to Brighton he’s gone on to totally sell-out at Edinburgh Festival Fringe for an impressive four years in a row, enjoyed four sold-out UK tours and had a smash hit run in London’s West End, all well before he received that massive TV exposure. Now all of his hard work is about to prove very worthwhile. “All I want to do is get this show out to the rest of the world, and see where it takes me. It’s now the show I’ve always wanted it to be. “