The Ryerson Theatre School will be clowning around for the next few days.
Clown 2014 is a production put on as a part of the third-year performance acting curriculum. It was designed by Leah Cherniak, co-artistic director at Theatre Columbus, and has been playing for more than 10 years.
“It’s an entire technique, it’s an investigation of the self,” says Anthony Perpuse, a third-year theatre student.
Clown begins with a five-week process where students learn the rules and techniques of clowning. They’re taught to check in with the audience (when you look to your partner, then look at the audience to gauge the mood of the room) to arrive in character when they enter the stage and to follow the rhythm throughout the performance. Clown begins as improvisational theatre in class, then it is crafted, and each act is made specific for the final performance.
The entire show is created with student-generated pieces. Cherniak intervenes to offer feedback on how students can improve their ideas, make them clearer and how it can be funnier. Ultimately, she has final say about what pieces go into the show.
Clown 2014 sold out in 20 minutes and is one of the theatre school’s most sought-after productions. Due to the design of the show, each performance is a different length, but students try to limit the production to two, or two and a half hours.
“Eventually we put on the red nose, which is basically the smallest mask in the world. It draws so much attention to your face, so it’s very evident when somebody is not themselves. In Clown, you’re a degree of yourself, but also a degree of Clown,” says Perpuse.
Audience participation is a huge part of the show. Whether it is in singles or duos, the audience reactions — laughs, claps, silence, gasps, etc. — inform the clowns on how they should proceed with their routines. Through the audience, the students discover what’s funny, why it is funny and why it works. They learn about themselves and how to be vulnerable.
“Even if you’re alone on stage, you’ll always have the audience to build off of. I think that’s a pretty important tool to have in the theatre – the audience reactions can really inform how we do on stage, and that’s a very important part of Clown,” Perpuse says.
Scott Kuipers, a third-year theatre student, gave the example of a clown that cried for 10 minutes.
“It’s all about the rhythms you find in the cry,” he says. “Like he comes out, starts playing around with the set, and for some reason that makes him cry and burst out in tears and flail around. He uses the audience to find ways to find the dips and tears.”
But it is important to remember that in Clown, despite how serious things can be, there is always a sense of play. Perpuse says the actors must ensure that everything is still fun for the audience and, most importantly, that they feel safe.
The show has a lot to do with pacing. Everything can go really slow, then, all of a sudden, something happens and the actors are moving really fast again to pick up the energy.
“There’s beauty in simplicity in Clown,” says Perpuse.
He says Clown is “childish, not childlike.” The actors are allowed to break a lot of rules of conventional theatre. For instance, they can spray the audience with water just to get them riled up.
For him, Clown is just like being a kid again.
“(It’s like) I had a kid’s imagination and I was running rampant with ideas that I was allowed to express and be funny, or try to be funny about it,” he said.