Whoa! Look at all these clowns. We all worked hard over the weekend to get ready for our public show next week. So far it’s impressively stupid in parts, in other parts head-slappingly ludicrous, and in still other parts it’s full hearted and funny. If you happen to be in or around Florence this Wednesday, Thursday or Friday, you’ll have to stop in and see us.
If you still can’t get enough, check out this interview from the New Victory Theater, with some clowns I met last summer in NYC at the Brick International Clown Theatre Festival. Enjoy reading what Billy and Summer say about this world of working clowns.
We’re wrapping up this year in school by diving headfirst into clown. It’s an ancient theatrical territory, subtle and personal, and when it’s working it crackles with joy and life.
Probably you’ve heard someone tell you they are scared of clowns. The rainbow wig, a terrible red grimace, smeared greasy face paint, cackling out a laugh with every breath. Clowns we all know seem to shout: everyone should be having fun all the time! I agree, that is pretty scary.
Most of our shared experience of clowns comes from pop culture. Krusty from the Simsons, Stephen King’s IT or the most evil of them all, Ronald McDonald. These guys are miles away from the clown work we do at school. They are devices that use the image of a clown to hide sinister motives barely hidden under that painted on smile.
All the clowns I look up to have less of the trappings of a clown. Charlie Chaplin, Lucille Ball or Mr. Bean don’t have wigs or face paint. But it’s fun to watch them fail so honestly and completely because they are ridiculously full hearted and imperfect characters. They may be full of themselves and short sighted but they are marvelously curious and completely affected by the world around them.
The director of my school says that an audience will treat clowns in one of three ways, they laugh, walk away or kill the clown. (Kill the clown? Sure! Think of the court jester who mocks the king a little too sharply, or more recently that weeble-wobbling BOZO punching bag that wont fall down.) Well, my latest clown is called Campbell Vann Damme. He’s a mind reader, a snake charmer and a complete idiot. As I’ve worked on him these past few weeks I’ve alternated between wanting to ignore him, wanting to kill him and falling down laughing playing him in improvisations with other clowns from my class.
In a way this clown is what is left after everything I use as a performer to connect to an audience is taken away. All that is left for poor Campbell is my instance on being out in front of an audience. Everything is gone except the plastic red-nose and me. “I deserve to be out here,” he says and I say at the same time.
Last week we dug in, got our hands dirty and started to make our own half masks. It was a rewarding process, but it isn’t done yet. We’ll show our first performances with them tomorrow. Matteo mentioned that making these masks has an element of alchemy. The shape you form in the clay transfers from material to material, from plaster to paper, then it transforms the actor’s body and if it’s good, it will finally arrive to the audience. Even if you think it’s a really good one, you don’t know if your proposal in clay will sustain a performance until you play it.
Making a plaster cast of your face helps keep your proportions accurate.
Comedy or tragedy? I don’t know, but I think he’s a republican.
Now we’re midway though the second term at school. These weeks are all about performing in half face mask. How do you play this technically demanding form of theater while bringing intuitive ease that makes the performance interesting to see? Finding the body and voice of the mask, improvising from that place and building up a piece that is true. If you’re prepared and lucky it can generate very funny and touching work.
Jenine describes the work very well on her website:
Dramatic depth can be found in the action of simple every day things. And it is in the action that the sentiment is revealed. The action is seen through very strict action and reaction with your co-players. A delicate dance of technique and sentiment – without one you don’t have the other. Although more often than not we’ll forgive lack of technique over sentiment. As Matteo says without sentiment your mask is nothing more than paper mache and elastic.
While I was still in New York I had the pleasure of running through the American Natural History Museum looking at some of the beautiful masks tucked away in their collections. It’s an old fashioned museum in a lot of ways, and masks of the are displayed with almost no context, like butterflies on a pin-board. In one particularly bad display of Pacific Island masks one card read, “New Ireland.” Well, I thought, there is a New Ireland.
Today the low pile carpet and oak and glass cabinets make the Hall of the Northwest Coast Indians pretty shabby and unwelcoming but in his book The Way of the Masks, Claude Levi-Strauss described his experience of the hall with the first stanza of Charles Baudelaire’s poem Correspondences:
Nature is a temple in which living pillars
Sometimes give voice to confused words;
Man passes there through forests of symbols
Which look at him with understanding eyes.
Taken as objects behind glass the masks can seem meaningless, crude and lifeless. Their cards are unhelpful to the point of silliness. They all seem to read along the lines of: wooden mask, shaman’s mask, a mask is a pretend face etc. But with a little imagination and curiosity they start to come alive. Piercing stares, flapping, lolling tongues. Some even have mechanisms–hinges and pulleys–that can tear apart one face to reveal a face underneath. Not to mention the human bodies that must have played these masks, breathing through them and embodying every distorted and extreme detail. Whoo!
Sara drove Bannack and I upstate to an apple orchard to pick our own half bushel of some of the best tasting sweet apples I’ve ever eaten. Cars filled the parking lot outside the gift shop. Inside we bought our bag to fill and got advice on where to pick from a muscle shirted guy standing in front of his date, “Go all the way back.”
Back around the shop there was a duck pond, a pumpkin patch, chickens, goats and a rustic tree lined trail up to the orchard. I’ve never seen apples hang so heavily from trees before. Some branches were broken from the weight.
By the time we got to the top of a hill a man eating a huge stalk of broccoli stopped his light-duty four wheeler. I asked him where to find the best tasting apples and he pointed the way down the other side of the hill to a row of trees right on the edge of the farm. As he pulled away I noticed a bottle of beer in his cup-holder.
We charged down the path feeling a little like trespassers, the little road had a more private feeling than the open orchard. Down in the trees though it was near paradise. Apples from the first few trees were all of the same type but some were sweeter, some crisper, some more subtle. All astoundingly delicious, especially the ones that grew high up in the sunshine. We filled our half-bushel basket to the brim in no time and carried our loot back to the car talking about all the wonderful things we’d make with all these apples.
The next day Sara and I peeled, cored and sliced (by hand) about three quarters of the apples to make applesauce, spiced apple butter and enough canned apple pie filling for 6 pies. Last night we made a pie and even though I undercooked it—by just a little—it was just as tasty as if it was picked fresh off an apple pie tree. Apparently this sudden family obsession with apples extended all the way back to Montana. My mother sent this photo of the apple press my father cleaned up that they will use to make cider this year when their apples come in. Maybe a little applejack too? I hope so.
Maybe I was 18 and I got a scratch ticket for my birthday, but I can’t remember the last time I gambled. I would have dropped a nickle in a slot machine while in Reno, NV but they only take cards. Maybe that trip to Reno loosened me up though. We were eating dinner in a big old air conditioned restaurant on the outskirts of Minneapolis, Minnesota looking at the weekly specials. There was something about something called pop-tabs. I’d never heard about that before so I asked the waitress, “what’s this about pop-tabs?”
Turns out we were in a restaurant with a lottery booth where you could buy little cardboard lottery tickets. There are three little perforated doors on each ticket that you can open up and see if you’ve won. I bought five.
I had the lady that sold ‘em to me show me how to do it and explain the whole thing for me. Then brought the other four back to the table and passed them out to try our luck.
Chris won $2 on his ticket and Bannack won $202, that’s the jackpot for pop-tabs! Of course he’s not allowed to gamble until he’s 18, so I claimed his winnings and paid for our dinner and beers. When he’s old I’ll pay him back and tell him why it’s a terrible idea to gamble. But until then I’ll keep my winning streak alive by never gambling again.
We rolled through 615 miles this first day, from breakfast at the No Sweat Cafe to the less than succinctly named Best Western Plus Ramkota Hotel Bismark here in North Dakota. Sara, Chris and Bannack are heading home to New York City and I’m along for the ride.
This trip seems like an extension of my recent trip to the Italian consulate in San Francisco. When I count it all together my summer road trip miles will have reached over 4500 when I arrive in New York. That’s 77 hours of car time according to Google Maps. As you can imagine, rest stops are precious.
Bannack and I were both in the same kind of stir-crazy mood when we got to Wibaux, Montana. The empty deck at the brewery wasn’t a perfect playground but it meant running, airplane rides, bull fighting, getting thrown in the air, Tootsie Rolls, and donkey kicking. We visited Wibaux’s real playground too, but it was the empty kind with painful spiky grass, swings that pinch, and those metal horses on springs that look like they should be really fun but still aren’t.
Sunday we’ll be in Chicago for a night or two, Wednesday night we’ll arrive in New York, and I’m looking forward to every rest stop along the way.
Look over to the right hand column. See the Quick Snaps section? That’s for Instagram photos. It used to be only pictures from my own feed would show up there. Not any more. If you’re an Instagram user and you feel so inclined make a comment on one of your own photos and include hashtag
#kvncsy. If you have a public stream it will show up over there. Try it, it’s magic! That is all.
2001 VW Jetta 4 dr Sedan Wolfsburg addition, Great condition. Manual transmission. Approximately 130,000 miles. Good interior, cracked driver’s side view mirror. Serviced regularly in Montana. New timing belt, good brakes, good tires.
$3500. Call or text Colleen 406-439-Seven four six one.
Location: United States
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My parents. They do the most unbelievably generous things for me. There is no thank you wide enough to cover what they do to keep me going. But thank you anyway Mom and Dad. For this and everything.