I know quite a few people whose lives have been changed — like, CHANGED FOREVER, in a genuine enlightenment kind of way — by clowning. Specifically, by clowning with Sara Tilley, via her Clown Through Mask workshops. Tilley, who is also an accomplished author and playwright, is trained in the Pochinko Clown method, which she explains in the following interview way better than I ever could. Her one-woman clown show, Fruithead, opens at the LSPU Hall tomorrow night, and it will probably change a few lives, too.
(The images below, and the picture above, are stills from the stop-motion animation films, made by Jason Sellars, which accompany her show.)
How did you get into clowning?
I saw two solo clown shows at the Halifax Fringe Festival when I was 19 years old or so. I loved both of them, and they were both directed by the same woman. And when I left university and decided that I wanted to start a theatre company, I wrote to her blindly, and asked her to come here and train some of us, and she did! That’s actually why I named my company “She Said Yes!” But it just came out of seeing other people’s work that excited me in a way that a lot of theatre didn’t. It was so immediate and so alive and just full of life energy and weirdness. It was really, really exciting.
Can you tell me about the type of clowning you do?
My kind of clown, you basically make masks with your eyes closed, so it’s all about going inward into a feeling of something and not caring what it looks like. Then you wear these masks that turn you into creatures — not human, usually, but some weird thing. You wear them for a while until they become real to you. And then you replace those masks with noses. So the clown doesn’t come out of some idea of what might be funny, but actually out of trying to embody another creature. And that could be a plant life, it could be anything at all, it could be something that doesn’t even exist. Basically, you take your body, you let your body do work, and it takes your imagination into some place where you draw out a character. And usually, it’s very surprising.
I don’t know where it comes from, but I have this memory of someone saying that clowning is the height of acting, and that many actors really revere people who do clowning.
Well, I guess it depends who you talk to. [laughs] I would say that was true for some people and, for other people, they look at clown as almost a lower form. But that’s also due to the fact that there’s so many different clowns. The type of clown I do is character-based, and I definitely do it because I find it to be the hardest thing that I can challenge myself to do. And it’s also the most fun and the most surprising.
In what sense is it hard? From what I’ve gathered from people who have done your workshop, it seems like you really learn how to step into yourself and just erase everything else.
It’s really an internal journey into your own psychological landscape where you encounter these versions of yourself that are very different from your everyday self. When you’re making a clown show, the real purpose of this work is to break down boundaries between ourselves and our world and to create more bonds of empathy between ourselves and other people. That is the core philosophy of this work. The clown shows the audience humanity. It shows us a lot of its pain, its heartache, its fears, as much as it delights and makes then laugh. In this work, it’s all coming out of very dark stuff that we all have to deal with, and it’s meant to be cathartic, it’s meant to make you think about your own life, but in a way that’s not preachy, that’s not boring, but absolutely delightful.
How is it different from acting?
Well, for me they kind of blur together, honestly. But this work is not about what it looks like. You’re going with a feeling first, it’s from the inside out. It’s all made physically, there’s no script beforehand. I actually physically improvised the character for a year before I made the story, but it comes from the body first, not the brain. Usually, acting is very psychologically based, at least in the beginning stages of the rehearsal. And also, for my show, while there is a very set narrative that I follow moment to moment, every night there is going to be a lot of surprise. For example, my costume is full of balloons, and they pop at random times. So, sometimes I pop them on purpose and react, but other times they will just pop and that forces me as a clown to just be completely in the moment, no matter what, because you can’t have a balloon pop and not react to it. So, there’s a spontaneity to it, and that’s a little different.
So, when you say that you were improvising this character for a year, you were being this character for a year before you figured out what this character’s story is?
I created the character in 2008, and it came out of my Clown Through Mask core character that I made with my teacher Ian Wallace in Vancouver. And then I would take this character out sometimes on little improvised walks around Signal Hill or go somewhere and play outside, but I never did anything serious with him/her — it’s a character with both sexes — until I got an RCA Seed Money grant to do a workshop and then some NLAC money last year to work the way I need to work, which is over a long period of time. What we do is, I go into the physical character and we talk about the themes we want to touch on maybe or maybe a prop that I think I want to use and then Mark White, my collaborator, would videotape me. Then we watch the video, we take notes on what things we really like, and we make a giant map on the mall cutting out pieces of paper and writing on them with Crayola markers — it looks very silly — and just moving everything around for days and days as we keep videotaping and adding to what we know until a story comes together. So the end result is a little more surreal, and perhaps a little more surprising, than if I sat down and wrote it. So it’s coming out of my body and my body’s experience of the character, rather than my brain.
From what I’ve heard, that seems to be a big part of clowning: your body, rediscovering your body, and then rediscovering objects around you through your newly rediscovered body.
Yes, definitely. My teacher would say that the first thing you have to do is cut off your head, by which he meant you have to stop thinking. Which is an impossible task, so there’s also the knowledge that you will never ever fully achieve what you’re trying to get to, which is this state where your body and your emotional self is doing everything and your mind is like a little helium balloon trailing along and watching the show. When you’re in a really good state of present moment in clown, it will often feel like an out of body experience. Then later, it’s almost like I can’t remember exactly what happened. It’s like I go into some weird trance because I’m just letting my physical self do its work without thinking too much.
So, what’s your relationship with this Fruithead character?
[laughs] Well, it’s called my ultimate clown, which means it’s got all of my different clown energies in one. So it’s kind of more complicated than some of the other characters that I’ve done, but at the same time, it’s incredibly simple in a weird way. When I watch the video of myself, sometimes I forget it’s me because I have transformed. I don’t recognize certain sounds that I make, or certain movements, as being me, but then there are other moments where the character is really an amplification of my own personality, and certainly of my own preoccupations in life, my own fears. The clown is really a medium to be vulnerable. You’re not putting on a character, in a way, the character really is you in some funhouse mirror permutation. So, it’s very naked. We go to some dark places and those dark places have to be fully alive, so it’s been pretty awesome to get to embody my own fears and my own boogie men.
What’s the narrative arc in Fruithead?
Basically, we wanted to have a microcosm where Fruithead is the only creature. There’s one tree, there’s one island, there’s one of her, and there’s one little plant that grows. It’s from birth to death, essentially: the birth of the world and the character and the whole life story of those two things. So there’s a lot going on in the disguise of a very simple show wherein somebody in a clown nose plays with balloons. But we deal with a lot of major themes that would be in a lot of serious plays.
What are you hoping that the audience gets out of all this?
Well, first of all, a really, really entertaining night at the theatre. Hopefully a new experience, something that they have not seen or thought about before. I want people to laugh, but I also hope that they are taken in by this character and moved by her journey, because it’s not just a silly sort of light thing, we are making a work of it. And that goes throughout the entire design of the show, it’s going to be just beautiful. There’s stop motion animation dream sequences, there are sounds made out of my character’s voice and it’s going to be, hopefully, very dreamy, so that when you’re done, you’re not sure if you hallucinated some of it.