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Performer Perfects Monkeying Around

July 20, 2008

By Peter Larson, The Orlando Sentinel, Fla.

Jul. 20–The recent trend in Pixar’s animation scheme has been to take animals and humanize them. But in the middle of Disney, where fish speak perfect English and rats prepare gourmet meals, Joseph Martelli breaks the rule. This man-turned-tumble-monkey in the Animal Kingdom’s Festival of the Lion King show swings, flips and grooms the front row.

A gymnast since age 5, Martelli is accustomed to chalking up his hands and swinging from the rings and bars. Sometimes they happen to be the arms of another tumble monkey already upside-down. What he wasn’t ready for when he began seven years ago, however, was the audience didn’t want him to only be a gymnast. They wanted him to be an actor, too.

“Well, you know, it’s kind of tricky at first, because we’re not trained actors,” Martelli said. “So first we learn the gymnastics and then as we’re learning all the other stuff, it’s like . . . act like, act like a monkey. Think in your mind about whatever you think a monkey does and try to imitate it.”

Martelli has already unlocked one of the steps to building a great character: internalization. It can be reading diary entries, talking to family or watching someone in a coffee shop. Martelli gets plenty of time to work on his craft at the Animal Kingdom, where Pangani Forest Exploration Trail is just a short walk from the theatre.

“A lot of it is just working myself in front of the mirror asking, ‘Does that suit my satisfaction?’ ” he said. “Sometimes I try moving my arms a certain way. Really making my arms into what I like to think of as like a chimpanzee, or an orangutan. Long, gangly arms. But yeah, it’s interesting, having never done any acting, to try and sit there and be like looking in the mirror and looking at your face and be like, ‘Does that look like a monkey face?’ “

After seven years in his yellow and orange skintight costume — picking bugs to munch on out of the hair of unsuspecting audience members — Martelli knows his character.

“The show is very colorful and musical and it’s very good,” said Sandra Lamont, a tourist from Northern Ireland who saw the show. “The acrobats were very, very good and they were everywhere. Absolutely everywhere.”

Martelli said performing has become second nature.

“I’ve developed it [my character] over a long time, and am always redeveloping it also,” he said. “Sometimes I go back and do things I used to do that I don’t do anymore, character-wise.”

All the time Martelli spends learning to be a monkey onstage has affected how he behaves offstage. Like monkeys in the wild, he and the rest of the 18 tumble monkeys in the show form a tight-knit group.

Along with the others, he performs at local conventions or trains for other acts. Some just finished doing outside work with the Disney Channel Games. They’ve discussed possibly going into commuter stunt work.

When a show begins, nature’s evolutionary processes become reversed as the man once known as Joseph Martelli is now, according to the hand-sharpied nametag on his shirt, “Monkey Joe.” He’s gone from man to monkey, but also from gymnast to performer.

Peter Larson will be a senior at Olympia High School. His Institute mentor is reporter Jeremy Fowler.

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Copyright (c) 2008, The Orlando Sentinel, Fla.

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