Interview: Sam Wills, aka The boy with tape on his face

THERE aren't many performers who would cite Wile E Coyote as an influence. Yet for Sam Wills, who scored a popular hit at this year's Edinburgh Fringe as The Boy With Tape On His Face, Roadrunner's luckless pursuer ranks alongside Buster Keaton, Rowan Atkinson and the Jim Rose Circus for knockabout artistic genius.

"He's such a loon and an inspiration for a lot of my inventions," says the 32-year-old New Zealander. "Right now I'm developing a routine that involves me shooting a plunger from a crossbow over 20 feet. I just haven't figured out the punchline yet."

Eschewing "the mime word", Wills prefers "stand-up with no talking" to describe an act that, whether coercing audience members to dance as the Jackson 5 or recreating a scene from the movie Ghost, relies on his background in the circus, as a street artist and prop comic, as much as the gaffer tape stuck to his mouth. Knowing how to read and engage a crowd, creating a sense of spectacle and surprise using nothing but performance skills, brief snatches of music and a succession of daft, homemade contraptions, the show deservedly earned the Kiwi an Edinburgh Comedy Award best newcomer nomination.

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"I'm using the same storytelling structures as a normal stand-up comedian," Wills says. "Build up audience tension, set up punchline, reveal, then move on to the next story. I'm lucky though, because people are immediately intrigued as to how I can entertain them for so long without saying anything."

That novelty, his rudimentary props and the Tape Face character's perceived vulnerability – enhanced by Wills' expressive eyes and boyish charm – are crucial for fostering an atmosphere that relies on audience participation.

"They're never embarrassed or humiliated," he says. "I get them supported by the rest of the crowd and they leave the stage a hero."

Carefully assessing his co-stars as they arrive, mentally selecting them, he strives to "pick my volunteers from the back of the room as well as the front, so nobody's safe". He maintains that in any group you can spot a confident ringleader or a shy wallflower that everyone will get behind. A show at the Stand in Glasgow discovered a punter who got a little too carried away during a Full Monty homage.

His muted alter-ego notwithstanding, Wills is an engaging, naturally garrulous talker who served a clown's apprenticeship in New Zealand while still a boy. Continuing to appear as a street artist in London's Covent Garden throughout this tour, it was while performing on Edinburgh's Royal Mile that he first met his wife Felicity, an English opera singer who later became the burlesque act Lili La Scala.

"When I'm coming up with ideas, I play about with all sorts of silly bits and pieces and then crawl into a room, put on a bit of music and show her a new silly thing," he says. "If it makes her laugh straight away, I know I'm on the right track because she's seen me do so many random silly things."

Wills is long established as an award-winning "sideshow" act back home. He has performed for the former prime minister Helen Clark and the King of Tonga, aping the style of the Jim Rose Circus by juggling hedge-clippers, swallowing razor blades and hammering nails up his nose – a skit he reproduced in his kids' Fringe show, The Prince Of Cringe. Silent comedy, he says, was a fresh challenge.

Unfortunately, he couldn't stop himself chatting to the front rows, at least until he had the brainwave of applying the tape. What began as a five-minute experiment soon gained a cult following in New Zealand and with a strong buzz at Australian festivals, venues competed to bring the show to Edinburgh in August.

Unrestrained by language barriers, he can perform virtually anywhere, and though his passion remains for live performance, he's currently in discussions to adapt the act for television. He can't suppress his excitement at the suggestion of filming in 3D. "Aw, that'd be awesome, can you imagine? Reaching out and touching the audience at home!"

For now, however, he's focusing on improving the stage act, explaining that he'd love to create something on the scale of Slava's Snow Show, the clown spectacular by Slava Polunin. "I'd love to have a big set," he says. "My dream vision is a Tape Face house where I could go from room to room and just play while keeping that element of junk to it."

He's already created a John Lennon doll and devised a frenetic Star Wars sketch for 2011. Yet despite the homemade quality of his props, UK tours aren't cheap and it appears that, for one enterprising company, there could be the possibility of a unique sponsorship deal.

He sighs: "I use an amazingly strong black gaffer tape from Australia that I get shipped over to my parents in New Zealand, who then ship it over to Britain. I haven't found a supplier here that meets my needs yet, so I'm always on the lookout."

• The Boy With Tape On His Face is at the Stand Comedy Club, Edinburgh, on Tuesday and the Stand, Glasgow, on Wednesday

www.theboywithtapeonhisface.com