Spectrum of Clown: Attending the 2016 Edmonton Clown Festival

 A certain thrill sets in once you realize you’re bearing witness something new, a true “first” on a sizeable scale. Clowns aren’t new; festivals dedicated to clowns aren’t either. But Edmonton has never had one. Not until the fall of 2016, that is. And so over four days that bridged September and October I bore witness to the first ever Edmonton Clown Festival.

My theatre experiences have not been extensive. I certainly haven’t seen a “clown” performance before – not in the kids’ party clown sense, but in the oldschool theatre tradition. I always knew there was more to the history of clowns than balloon animals and goofy personalities. An old episode of Seinfeld had the unstable Crazy Joe Davola dress as the operatic, sad Pagliacci pantomime clown. Even as a youth this told me that there was a far deeper, historic element to clowns than the colorful Bozo might have you think. Up until the Edmonton Clown Festival I had no idea how complex that world really is. I was about to get a crash course in the art of Clown.

Clown performance in a city as heavy in theatre culture as Edmonton is nothing new. Clowning here is as much a rich, longstanding arts community as you’ll find in the Fringe theatre or improv comedy scenes. This is simply the first formal gathering, the first attempt at bringing together Clown artists local and from afar to showcase and honor the craft. “It’s been a year in the making,” festival co-organizer Julie Kiraly tells me. “The festival is designed for local artists to showcase and perform,” to pay homage to the artform and shake up perceptions of “what Clowning is.”

My own perceptions are already shaken up after the first night. Even with a bit of research into what to expect from most performances I still end up surprised. To begin with, the opening short act – Heavy Sleeper – does not feature any unique makeup or costuming, let alone a silly red nose. It’s a relatively simple “turn” (a comedic sketch for clowns) with no dialogue, just one small set and two actors. Christine Lesiak plays a wife whose husband, played by Adam Keefe, simply will not stop snoring – and will not wake up, either. What follows is several hilarious minutes of physical comedy as the wife pokes and smothers and puppets her husband around the room. They roll about each other with choreographed precision. On the surface it really does seem just a funny skit, with nothing “Clown” about it. Lesiak would afterwards correct me on this: “It’s about an attitude and a behavior, not necessarily a look.” Clown for her – and many others – is not defined by colorful makeup but instead by a certain archetype of a role. She enjoys revealing to people that Clown figures are everywhere in storytelling. From Mr. Bean and Charlie Chaplin to Wall-E and Dory (“every Disney film has at least one”) to the Blue Man Group, people often don’t realize that the comic relief in a story has another title: Clown. And it’s a title defined by emotion, action and purpose, not necessarily by costume.

The festival takes place at the L’UniThéâtre, tucked within La Cité Francophone (a “hidden gem,” as Julie Kiraly puts it) just down the street from Whyte Ave. The theatre space itself is intimate, narrow but tall with two tiers of balcony seating. There’s no orchestra pit separating the first rows from the flat black stage – nothing separating the actors from the immediate audience. As the houselights go down all you can see is that stage, framed in darkness. For most of the festival I opt to sit centered but towards the back. After the first set of “Clown Shorts” performances it’s clear just how important it is for the artists to see and to connect with the audience. Deanna Fleysher doubles down on this when she invites around 30 audience members to sit in a circle on the stage for her Butt Kapinski performance. I don’t join them, instead sitting almost directly above in a corner balcony seat. As with other acts, I don’t just want to see the Clown acts on the stage. I want to see the connection, the breaking of the theatrical “fourth wall,” the communion between Clown and audience.

Clowning is an esoteric artform. It’s a protean craft, centuries old and with a multitude of styles. Deanna Fleysher, portrayer of the gritty but amusing Butt Kapinski, views Clown performance as a “spectrum” of dark and light content. Christine Lesiak concurs, viewing this festival as an opportunity to “showcase the spectrum of what is possible.” The festival does in fact provide a wide range: as Julie Kiraly says, the Red Nose or “Auguste” style clown can show “a positive outcome or outlook of society,” providing a more humorous entertainment. Lesiak’s characters in Heavy Sleeper and For Science! offer this, as does the sympathetic “Red Nose” (for more than one reason) Boom Boom in Boom Boom vs. The Uncommon Colds, as well as a slapstick-y cornucopia of up-and-coming performers in the closing night’s E-Town Clown Cabaret. Other acts, as we will see, are less jovial.

Other Red Noses walk a more emotional line between silliness and sadness. Allan Turner’s affable “zombie vegan clown” Jean-Paul Mullet in Me Mullet grounds his charming humor with decidedly human tales of war and camaraderie, though always with context and pathos. “I like to find that ride,” he tells me, “of laughs, tears, scares, chills, suspense, the question of ‘what the fuck?’“ This latter sentiment speaks volumes to the complex spirit of the Clown presented at the festival. Many who have never experience theatrical Clowning before are often left at least a little confused, but in a good way. Turner feels that one should attend a Clown show not just “to laugh, but also to feel … scared, sad.” Through Clowning, “the full aspects of the human condition are more open to you,” whether you expect it or not.

And so it is when Amelia Van Brunt portrays “Mona” in In the Blue of Evening. The character is an elderly woman in the lonely throes of dementia, suffering an emotional rollercoaster of memory and routine, of joy and despair. Mona is at once silly in her behavior and appearance, and pitiable in her confusion and fear. For me, the most fascinating aspect of this performance was the gradual progression into awkwardness and discomfort. So many of Mona’s quirks begin as humorous, a clown offered as the subject of mockery as she drools in her sleep, pratfalls backwards in her recliner, revels in theatrical excitement when the newspaper arrives. But these bits are repeated, each time becoming less funny and more tragic. We see the classical notion of the tragic clown in other pieces, such as Jordan Sabo’s A Boy and His Goodbye, wherein a young clown pines for a long lost love with operatic drama and dancer’s choreography. But Van Brunt’s clown is somehow more relevant, austere and painful. In the audience I feel a raw embarrassment set in as I – we – watch a silly caricature devolve into a more tangibly grim, human reality.

Traditionally, Clown theatre often serves as a social mirror, a platform upon which a performer reflects certain truths back upon society. Humor can open this door before uncomfortable honesty comes out. But whether or not people are able to laugh at that truth or not, what matters is that they face it. The harshest truths come out in the harshest and most surprising form of Clown: the Bouffon. Two of the Edmonton Clown Festival’s performances go full-on Bouffon, each with garish, wholly grotesque characters dressed in lumpy black leotards and wearing smeared, sickly looking makeup. They are physical manifestations of humanity’s inner ugliness. Exposing the Mould and Pride & Pre-jeu-dice are each explicit, challenging, wholly uncomfortable spectacles. These pieces serve as satirical commentaries on social norms, with Exposing taking shots at relationships and Pride thoroughly opening all sorts of closet doors regarding LGBTQ+ perceptions and rights. All the while the characters slowly advance upon the audience, leering and sneering with eyes alternately sympathetic and fiery. Society often jokes about coulrophobia, the irrational fear of clowns, but most just find them creepy. If there’s any horror to be found in the world of theatre clowns, it’s in Bouffon.

Bouffon in a sense is shock humor – the audience often laughs with nervous surprise more than actual amusement – but with a point. Previous shows such as For Science! or Butt Kapinski featured otherwise innocuous, largely playful audience participations. But the lure of that kind of fun is now disrupted by in-your-face Bouffon rudeness and things you just don’t want to hear. When the tipsy magician in cabaret’s Magik Hobo Show barks mumbled orders and insults at confused audience participants, it’s all in awkward fun. But when the satirical “sexual health experts” of Pride & Pre-jeu-dice invite the audience to repeat the slogan “Let’s Go Bomb The Queers,” at least one person simply objects “No!” over and over with nervous laughter. It’s not a full-on protest – he knows this is somehow supposed to be humorous theatre and not legitimate hate speech – but he can’t help but reject this part of it anyway. And this is the point. It’s awkward, it’s uncomfortable; it’s barely funny. But more importantly it’s thought-provoking. The house lights are up. The garish Bouffon jesters aren’t speaking into a hypothetical darkness – they are speaking to you. Deal with it; react how you will, but react.

“Sumtimes making yoo think can bee enjoy-ing,” Mullet the Clown later concurs in his broken speech. “Itz not fun to bee a dummee!”

Even though she considers herself “Clown-related” rather than fully Clown, Deanna Fleysher breaks down “Clown” to an essential definition: “I’m dumb, you’re dumb, we’re dumb, let’s all be dumb together.” Indeed in Fleysher’s Butt Kapinski show, the audience is brought onto the stage, participating in a dinner theatre murder mystery-style caper with the film noir-esque detective Butt Kapinski. With no stage lights Kapinski deftly moves around the circle of seated viewers with a portable lamp sticking out of “his” jacket like a street lamp. Whenever Kapinski confronts an audience member for participation, the lamp is like a spotlight, shining both literally and figuratively on that person. As Kapinski cues a participant to provide sound effects or to play a short character, that person becomes a clown, a buffoonish figure to be laughed at and with in the communal spirit of the theatre. Nobody is truly mocking anyone in this show – they’re all in this together. For a short while, they are all clowns.

Whether in the aggressive Bouffon style or the playful Red Nose, breaking the proverbial fourth wall of the stage is a key element in Clown performance. Whether or not this results in direct audience participation, it is important that a clown actor is “not just seeing audience members,” as clown theatre instructor Jan Henderson says, “but seeing them see you.” For her, the very act of being a clown is one of full vulnerability and spiritual exposure. A clown or clown-like character engages in fearless, embarrassing exaggeration, to the point that rather than doing or saying funny things, “the clown is the joke,” as Deanna Fleysher says. “The audience laughs at the performer,” rather than with a comedian doing bits. But it’s a harmless joke, one that a clown takes no more seriously than an audience member should. Instead of shying away, the clown uses those crowd reactions to further the performance. They improvise their own reactions in real time, making light of a sad scene or an uncomfortable scene even more awkward.

Improv is in fact a vital skill, and many of the festival’s performers have backgrounds in it, often predating their Clown training. “It’s pretty woven into the fabric of what I do,” Fleysher says of her Butt Kapinski act, a new detective story effectively co-written with the audience every time. “It allows what I do to stay really fresh and present and scary, years into doing it.” She instills this in her workshop students during their entirely improvised exercise piece during the Clown Cabaret: “Show that to them, make sure they see that,” she instructs from the sidelines as the actors contort their faces and bodies in shameless vulnerability. In turn she makes sure that the actors look to the audience – “see them all,” she says quietly; see their reactions, and learn. For Christine Lesiak, “all Clown really is improvisation once there’s an audience.” For her, the audience adds “a significant random factor.” As with Fleysher, crowd participation is necessary for Lesiak’s For Science! Playing a scientist, she sets up a series of experiment-like props, practically teasing audience members to take turns in straightening crooked portraits and sharpening pencils and even smooshing pies in Lesiak’s face, all for a Pavlovian piece of gum. And a laugh, of course.

Other acts, such as Allan Turner’s Me Mullet, blend pre-composed bits of narrative with ad-libbed comedy and loose structure. In a meta-twist, the character (Jean-Paul) Mullet is portrayed as a clown who is improvising his own show. Even Mullet agrees, telling me later that a strong sense of improv is a necessity: “Yoo don’t know what yoo’re going ta bee doing but yoo haf ta know what yoo’re doing. That’z a good sound-bite,” he advises me, “so take a chomp outta that an put it in your thing!”

If I had to break down my impressions of the first Edmonton Clown Festival to one word, it would be this: “challenging.” It’s a word I heard from many of the performers behind the greasepaint and it’s wholly fitting. Deanna Fleysher’s approach is one of “exploring what the boundaries are between audience and performer, and challenging those expectations as well.” Jan Henderson sees the clown as saying, “What? A problem? Let’s go out there and fix it!” by way of an endearing laugh. Or perhaps with an audience-challenging, often necessary “fuck you” from a Bouffon clown to whoever needs to hear it on a social level. One way or another, it’s a matter of shaking things up, as Julie Kiraly says, of challenging perceptions of “what Clowning is.” Are clowns at the very least supposed to be funny? “I think where Clown, or the trickster spirit, needs to live – and does live – is in that liminal space,” says Allan Turner, “on the doorstep, neither in nor out” of the realm of pure comedy. For Christine Lesiak, “the clown is a creature who just lives in the moment and expresses what they feel in every single moment,” whether it’s funny or not, or even formally labeled “Clown” or not. Nothing is cut and dry with Clown; nothing is predictable.

Cut to the last night of the festival. With one performance left to go, I check in with co-organizer Julie Kiraly to see how she feels about the festival moving forward. By all accounts, it’s been a success. “We’ve had a lot of our artists say this was something that was really needed for the community,” she beams, also receiving positive feedback from the festival’s “very giving, very responsive” audiences. “Community” is another great word for the festival. Christine Lesiak describes the fourth-wall busting nature of Clown shows as a “communal experience.” You see this in her For Science! show as strangers battle for opportunities to pop bubble wrap. Or in Butt Kapinski, with unfamiliar audience neighbors freely draping themselves over each other as faux-murder victims.

Another community lies behind the curtain. Deanna Fleysher, no stranger to similar festivals, looks forward to “the collegiality of connecting with other performers and seeing their work and being inspired by them.” Indeed most of the performers at the Edmonton Clown Festival are in fact from Edmonton, but out-of-towners like Fleysher (Washington) and Allan Turner (Toronto) and Amelia Van Brunt (San Francisco) are all made welcome, all united by their shared art. They watch each other’s performances; they share notes at the panel discussion; the hang out after the shows. And they will probably cross paths again.

As for myself, my eyes have been opened wide to a world of comedic art previously alien to me. The complexity of it all, the blending of humor with all sorts of emotions, the daring connection between actor and audience – I want more. A part of me even feels inspired to try out some local workshops. But whether or not I put on a red nose, I can certainly look forward to next year’s Edmonton Clown Festival. It’ll at least be good for a laugh or two.

© 2016 Andrew Hall Writes

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