“… like scary circus clowns?”
That’s the first thing everyone asks me when I tell them that I do clown. And I can’t blame them. A “clown” is popularly thought of as a red-nosed, white-faced, floppy-shoed goofball that rides a unicycle while juggling. And to be honest, that can be a bit scary. So I usually have the following spiel in my holster, ready to bust out at a moment’s notice: Well, it’s more like theater based on movement and usually does not involve much text, if any, and you don’t need to have makeup on or even a red nose.
To which people sometimes retort with, “so it’s like a dance piece.” Sigh. But it really is more like a dance piece than anything else. We are on stage trying to communicate a story with characters and emotions and we do so mostly through our movement.
I study clown with my performance partner Alex Suha. We attended the University of Iowa together and were serendipitously cast in multiple shows. We noticed through our common jack-assery that we had a sort of bizarre synergy that would sometimes manifest itself in slow motion mimed gun battles or sound effect contests that would involve lewd gesticulations and truly strange noises. This was really my first unofficial stab at clowning.
Later, Alex attended the London International School of Performing Arts where he dove head first into his training as a physical theatre actor and creator. When he came back, he shared with me the ten minute solo piece he was asked to devise as his thesis. It was essentially him, a blank stage, and a big red button on a pedestal. The entire piece was non-verbal, but with plenty of generated sounds while he tried to resist pushing the enticing and mischievous red button. It was wonderful and odd. We began to develop the piece into a two person show, Do Not Push, with workshops of the piece in Philadelphia and Chicago, where Alex is based.
As we continued to build the show I found myself shutting down his proposals before really giving them a chance. I kept saying, “no, we won’t be able to do that” or, “that doesn’t make sense there.” I was so used to the linear thinking of a script and a traditional plot. The more I loosened up to the idea of play the more I realized how vast the possibilities really are in this non-verbal world of movement. This is not exclusive to clowning or a novel idea in the realm of devised theater, but what struck me was that anything was possible because we were essentially live cartoons.
In the world of the clown, movement, sound, and emotion are all exaggerated. They are based in reality but magnified beyond heightened theatricality to a point where a new reality is born. Just like a cartoon! The medium of animation allows the characters to do things that would be absurd in a semi-realistic setting, but because everything in the world is also augmented, the coyote running in place off a cliff in thin air suddenly becomes the status quo.
Clowning is that it is already in us and it is hilarious. Alex and I run clown classes every time we get together in Chi-town or Philly. Through exercises and improvisation in a nurturing environment, we show that each of us has a clown as part of who we are as humans. The trick is teasing it out. I was amazed to see the smallest and shiest girl in class bust out with a
clown that was a growling, ferocious squirrel who will kill anyone trying to interrupt her nap. Or the biggest and toughest dude suddenly become a skittish nerd with a tactile fetish for black curtains. You never know what you are going to get, and that is exciting.
We all need to find our inner clown.
Kevin Chick is running a series of clown workshops with Alex Suha September 9-30, 2013. See alexsuha.com for info and registration. Their two-man clown show, DO NOT PUSH, will run October 3-12, 2013. gdpproductions.herokuapp.com.