If you think that clowns are just funny actors in white makeup and big shoes at the circus – or demonic otherworldy creatures from a Stephen King novel – think again. At least, that’s the preconception that The New York Clown Theatre Festival is aiming to debunk. Featuring over 20 different events and performances from clown performers all over the world (this year’s roster includes acts from Brazil, Australia, France, and Denmark, as well as all over the U.S.A.), the Clown Festival strives to enlighten the public about the artistry of clowning and physical theater while entertaining them with the wild variety of performance styles that fall under those umbrellas. The festival begins its third annual incarnation at The Brick Theater on Friday, September 5th.
On the eve of the opening night festivities one of the festival’s co-directors, Devon Hawks Ludlow, found some time to drop by the ol’ blog to talk about all the upcoming happenings and to start debunking some public myths about clowning. Let the mythbusting begin!
Besides yourself, who are the masterminds behind the festival? And how do you all know each other?
There are five co-directors for the festival, plus the staff at The Brick Theater. The co-directors are: myself, Audrey Crabtree, Eric Davis, Michael Gardner, and Robert Honeywell. Michael and Robert run The Brick Theater, and I knew them both from working at their black box when it first opened (I did the second performance ever there, which happened to be a solo clown show!). They later introduced me to Eric and Audrey, who they knew from the downtown theatre scene. There are also a large number of very dedicated volunteers who work like animals to make this festival happen. We could not do it without their amazing support.
How did the idea for the Clown Festival first get hatched?
The short version is: I thought NYC needed one, I proposed my idea to The Brick and they said yes.
The long version is this: in the spring of 2000, I moved to Portland, OR, to start a theatre company. As I began to get to know and be involved with the theatre scene there, I encountered a very strong ‘clowning’ movement. This was strange to me, for at the time, like most people in this culture, I easily confused the icon of clown with the performance technique. But here were passionate performers who were working to transcend even that. Clowning had become almost a way of life. Most of these people had gone to a school in Blue Lake, CA called Dell’Arte. There is a clown teacher there named Ronalin Foreman who is legendary. Most students who have worked with him have either given up performing in horror or become absolutely unswervingly fanatically committed to it. I was overwhelmed by how dedicated the performers were who had become involved with clowning. Here, for the first time, I encountered performers who were dedicating themselves to their art, to their technique. I was, obviously, enamored. We soon had built a clown commune in Portland, dedicated to working with each other and learning as much as we could. That turned out as well as you might think a clown commune would, but it was a great experiment.
When I moved to New York City in 2002, I found that here, too, were young performers coming from Dell’Arte and Lecoq in Paris. However, after a few years in the city I became frustrated. I became very upset that these dedicated and talented artists had no venue, no place to present their work. This was, of course, before the Downtown Clown Revue began. It seemed unjust. Legally Blonde gets Broadway, but clowns got third billing on open mic bingo nights. I had worked at The Brick for some time doing a variety of shows, and had a good relationship with the artistic directors. I asked Michael Gardner, in the winter of 2005, if The Brick would be interested in hosting a clown theatre festival. He was open and enthusiastic, and Robert agreed as well. Michael suggested I talk to Eric Davis about working with us on the festival. From there we recruited Audrey and before you knew it, the festival was born!
Three of the festival’s touchstone events are the opening Clown Subway Parade, the Pie Fight, and the Clown Funeral. What exactly are these and how did each of them originally get thought up?
The Parade and Pie Fight are actually one event in three parts, culminating in a free cabaret previewing the shows.
Part I – The Clown Subway Parade. A ‘parade’ in only a loose sense. Gathering in Union Square, one will see motley and rag tag procession of clowns, stilt walkers, tuba players, accordianists, Japanese women in balloon costumes, Red Bastard, and assorted lovely freaks. This loping menagerie marches directly into the subway, mingling with the exhausted commuters who have no choice but to smile – they always smile. At the Bedford stop in Williamsburg, the procession marches above ground and through the trendiest most cynical neighborhood in the city to the theatre, with a police escort, I might add. This is a sight to see, all the men and women hanging out their windows watching stilt walkers pass by at eye level, and the hipsters trying not be noticed gawking.
Part II – The Pie Fight. This takes place right after the Parade in the Brick Theatre. We build a giant, blue, Christo-style tent inside the black box itself, with a large, transparent front so an audience can watch the pie fightin’. We have a deranged referee placed inside (John DeVore, of late night radio fame), and people come in and groups and fight with pies. The first year was the wildest as we were unexpectedly given hundreds of real pies. Cherry pies, sour cream pies, pecan pies, blueberry pies, all kinds of pies. It was true hysteria. The ground was two inches thick with pie goo. It smelled like sweat, dirt, plastic, rotten fruit, and sugar. I wore a tight jumpsuit but still had half of a cherry pie wedged in my underwear at the end. Second year we used mostly shaving cream since it was much easier to clean and did not attract flies afterwards. It’s sort of like that old show Truth or Dare on Nickelodeon meets MOMA by way of Buster Keaton.
Part III – The Cabaret. This is a series of short previews of shows in the festival. We usually have a host – either serious or insane, it makes no difference. The energy is always so big the theatre feels like it’s going to explode with love and laughter and afterwards the whole crowd goes out laughing and talking animatedly and then the drinking begins. It’s all downhill from there.
The Parade and the Pie Fight came from the many conversations between the co-directors before the first festival about what we would do. I came up with the Pie Fight as an idea for maximum mayhem and publicity and fun to start off the festival. The Parade and Cabaret seemed like fabulous and obvious ways to begin, and the Parade in the subway seemed like a fine way to demonstrate the guerilla style, anarchy, and playfulness that is so much a part of clown.
As for the Clown Funeral…this year will hopefully be the best yet as we continue to experiment with the event. Theatre Group Dzieci was the final performance at our first festival, and their show was fantastic. They do something you might call ‘holy clown,’ which I can’t go into detail about here, but is immensely powerful, almost revolutionary in this atheist/agnostic lefty theatre crowd. I thought it would be great to do it again, but they were unavailable last year, so I came up with the idea of doing a ritual procession on the same route as the opening parade, as a closing ceremonial performance. I wanted to also do an event that was public and very clearly had nothing to do with the icon of clown. I wanted it to be ridiculous and melodramatic and involve lots of film and whatnot, the idea being that it would be a Fellini-style procession of weeping widows, mascara running down their faces and wailing uncontrollably. It was barely managed chaos, but ultimately hilarious and extremely enjoyable. This year we are sort of marrying the end rites by having Dzieci from the first year do the parade from the second year!
We have also incorporated and experimented with other events, including a clown bar hop and a clown olympics, but the limits of our resources and energy has forced us to keep it down to three chaotic all out events, for now….
The festival roster has shows and performers from all over the world. What made you decide to make the festival international?
It’s always good to have an international festival for publicity and credibility. The festival is also very much intended to allow performers seeing each others work and meet each other. By bringing people from around the world together we really take that kind of exchage to it’s highest level.
Second, although there are many clown performers in the U.S., the form is most popular and respected in Europe and Autralia/NZ. So there is a wealth of performers in these other countries who have phenomenal work to share and bring a profound respect for Clown. The foreign performers love coming to the U.S. where they get to perform for a much different audience and, of course, there is always the cache that comes from performing in NYC.
How does the festival roster get chosen? How do you find the shows? Or do they find you guys?
The process of adjucation involves all of the co-directors seeing as much of the work as we can, reviewing the applications, and seeing if the show fits into the festival. This is by far the most difficult phase of the festival, as we often get a great number of fantastic acts who end up looking too similar. For example, there might be too many one-man shows. We have heated debates over material presented, and the end result is rarely what is expected. We reallly get to the nitty gritty, and you see how blurry the definitions of ‘clown’ become. That’s the fun of theatre, I suppose.
As far as finding acts, we invite some and just put the word out for everyone else. The performance world is small, and the clown world even smaller, so word spreads fast. Every year the number of acts has risen, partly from word of mouth, partly because the number of performers is rising.
How did you first become interested in clowning and physical theater?
I was introduced to physical theatre in college – melodrama, commedia dell’arte, masks, collaborative physical creation, and for good measure a lot of Suzuki and Viewpoints training. We studied shape, time, vocal work, space, silence and stillness, all those things. I became enamored of physical theatre – I felt that it had the visceral, cellular immediacy and passionate energy that can act as a balance to the deadening effect of most straight and experimental theatre. It was the kind of work that could get people excited about theatre, engaged in the action before them, and moved by the performances. These techniques are also very good at helping performers to unlock things in themselves and work with others in ways they could not have conceived. There is nothing I love more than people moving beyond what they feel like their limits are, and seeing artists working co-operatively. I even wrote a militant manifesto about it at one point. Not a very good one, but, you know how it goes sometimes.
When I encountered the Dell’Arte clique in Portland I got even more invested. I shortly found myself working with a travelling clown and puppet troupe for a few years, touring around the world and being exposed to all kinds of physical performance styles, performers, and audiences. Clown stood out. It was really the passion on the part of the performers that blew me away. I didn’t know any artists who had that kind of dedication, a passion that arose, in part, from being in awe of the power of what they were doing. Clowning requires a kind of vulnerability that is very, very difficult to achieve. You have to be willing to be completely honest and actively humiliate yourself in the most intimate way in front of others. You also have to have physical virtuosity, a sense of play, the ability to improv, express deep love for the audience while at the same time being willing to scare the hell out of them. These performers generally do not take a work and interpret it, as a typical actor would. They take a character and develop it over years. The variety comes from putting the character in a variety of different scenarios, usually sad and/or comic. This is just a cursory explanation, and I’m sure others will beg to differ, but it gives you an idea of how hard it is, and hopefully, how rewarding. Clowning, in short, is very addictive.
There’s been a big spike in the popularity of clowning and physical theater in the past several years. Any thoughts on why that is?
It has been a long time coming. There are two reasons – how this work affects the audience, and how it affects the performer.
This kind of work is an antidote to the tired ritual of bad theatre that is 90% of what we see onstage, so audiences are always eager as this work is ususally unexpected and new to them. Also, the digital age has brought about a profound mind/body disconnect. We naturally enjoy and long for that connection even if we are not aware of it, and clowning and physical theatre fills that need, rewarding an unconscious craving. It cuts through all kind of preconceptions that arise from language and tradition and so on. Watching people sweat and fall and leap and work causes an immediate physical sympathy in an audience. No matter you age, language, culture, or prejudice, you will understand and, ideally, enjoy what you are seeing.
Performers are thrilled by the challenges presented by this kind of work. There is also a kind of, I hesitate to say this, monk-like devotion that comes as well. Doing clown as a form will not get you rich. It will not make you famous. At the moment, praise God, it is still pretty much divorced from commerce. There are no hedge fund managers collecting clowns. Although that would be funny. So there is an obstacle to selling out or watering down your act. Unworthy artists fail, good ones thrive, and they all help and learn from one another. This purity, this authenticity, is what people have been yearning for. This is not to say clowning is impractical. On the contrary, I feel it is the most useful training an actor can get. Some people have used what they have learned – for example Sacha Baron Cohen – to achieve magnificent success. So, many performers have been studying clown as a way to deepen their acting abilities. It’s not for everyone, but everyone can learn a lot from it.