Zen through Clown

    Posted on: Tuesday, July 16th, 2013

SarahTilleyI 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.

FruitheadFrom 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.

Fruithead opens at the LSPU Hall on Wednesday, July 17th, at 8:oo pm. Here’s the Facebook event, and here’s where you can buy tickets. It runs until July 21.

Live joyfully

    Posted on: Sunday, July 7th, 2013

That’s the advice Dave Jones would like to give everyone if he could. That, and go to church. Not enough people go to church anymore, he feels. To encourage the churchgoing, he stands at various outdoor locations throughout the greater St. John’s area holding his trusty sign.



He doesn’t care which church you go to, just so long as it’s Christian.

And if church just isn’t your thing, you can still live joyfully. That would solve all the world’s problems, Jones believes, if we were all to live joyfully.

Can’t say I disagree with him on that one.

This is the eighth year Jones has been holding his sign up in public. He started doing it because he felt he had been called by God to do so. To do The Lord’s work. He also volunteers driving elderly women to and from church.

He likes to move around the city, finding different locations to hold his sign, which he’ll do for about an hour or so, and only in places with high traffic. Sometimes it’s Kenmount Road during the morning rush hour. Other times it’s outside the Cotton Club at night. This was Jones’ first time at this particular location, just down the road from Keith’s Diner in The Goulds, where I had a 20 minute wait on an order of fish and chips.

Don’t let the stern look on his face in the picture above fool you, he’s actually a very approachable and kindly man. I think he’s just over having his picture taken – he gets the request a lot, and it’s not always under the most respectful conditions. For the most part, though, he says the reactions he gets from people are positive. By his estimation, only about five percent are what he tactfully refers to as rebukes.

In the time I spent chatting with him, Jones and his sign received plenty of friendly waves and car horns — and not a single rebuke from what I could tell.

Jones spent the first 20 years of his working life as a land surveyor. But then the going got tough. There were a lot of younger people coming into the industry and as an older man he felt he could no longer compete in that workforce, so he changed careers and got into security, where he clocked in another 20 years. He says he didn’t really enjoy being a security guard, but it was a living and it contributed to his pension, which he now lives off of.

He’s often offered money between his sign holding and his volunteer work, but he never accepts it. For Jones, life’s not about money. It’s about doing good work and trying to make the world a better place.

If you ever see Jones and his sign in your travels, I recommend stopping to say hello and ask him a few questions. He’ll be more than happy to talk to you. It’s hard to know where he’ll be next since he does like to move around, but he tells me he will be at The Regatta this year with his trusty sign, so be sure to have a lookout for him there amidst the crowds and the kiosks if you’ll be out to cheer on the racers that day.

Filmmaking for $400

    Posted on: Tuesday, June 25th, 2013

One April evening, as I was heading up Freshwater Road, I happened to bump into filmmaker and anthropologist Latonia Hartery. Latonia has production managed/field produced huge documentary projects, including two docs for CBC’s Doc Zone.

When I ran into her, she was gearing up for a shoot of an entirely different kind: she had written a short film called “Wind Money,” and she had assembled a small cast and crew, some of whom had no experience, to film the script. Most of the gear had been donated or borrowed, and all of the people were volunteering their time.

“Am I nuts?” she had asked me.

I caught up with her to find out how it all went.

So, tell me about “Wind Money.”
“Wind Money” is about a new Cuban grad student in St. John’s who is having a really awful day. She’s trying to form relationships, but she’s continually blocked from doing so by a series of obstacles. Her luck changes, though, when mother nature comes through for her. That’s the plot anyway, but the subtext is about feeling isolated in a place that’s foreign to you, and about being lonely.

How did you make this movie?
Well, essentially, we shot this film for $416.16.

The only reason we could do that is because a number of established and really talented professionals like Duncan DeYoung, Matthew Thompson, Aaron Elliott, Rachel Deal and Tamara Segura, volunteered their time. As a team, we want to get it into festivals, sure, but at the end of the day, the film is destined to be on file at the International Student Advising Office at MUN, so they can use it for orientation in September, and as a way to show students that they understand the transition period from a foreign country is really hard.

So, we brought together any gear that we had, and all the talent that we had, and we put it all together. We tried to do it as a community service and, in that spirit, we took on a few people that didn’t have much experience. I asked my friend Darcy Ward to be a Production Assistant. He said, “I don’t have any experience!” and I said, “You’re perfect!” This is sort of what we’re trying to build, a community of people who appreciate each other with this film.

In total, during the day, there were 6, maximum 7, crew.

Two shoot days?

16 hours or 17 hours, including lunch and breaks.

How did you go about food, did you make it all yourself?

Actually, that’s where the $416.16 went! [laughs] We also got a light and a couple of batteries from Atlantic Studios Cooperative.

So, how did it go?
It really was something quite special. I’ve been working in film now for almost thirteen years, give or take some time, and I’ve worked on projects that really do have a great amount of financial support. And with that kind of money comes a certain amount of stress. But when you take something on just for the love of it, and you realize that okay, you have to do the best that you can with what you’ve got, the stress kind of goes away, you can do it for the love of it. You can also roll the dice on people that don’t have a lot of experience because you don’t really have anything to lose. You’re fostering and you’re mentoring up-and-coming and emerging talent, and I think that’s as important as anything else because everybody needs that chance. I was given that chance, and… when it’s something simple and it’s not as complicated as a real big, bustling film set with a couple hundred people, you really can focus on that individual, you can take that moment to explain to a person why you’re doing something a certain way.

When I bumped into you on Freshwater Road, you were really nervous about it!
Yeah, I wasn’t sure because, as I said, I’ve had a lot of experience working with financial support, so when you don’t have it, you do wonder if you’re getting in over your head. But it probably was the most fun I’ve had in a long time. Even when it came to making decisions about the film, I didn’t worry about it. People would offer me suggestions, and I’d say, yeah, I like that, and we didn’t need to deliberate because there wasn’t much to lose. And there was all kinds of room for people to voice their opinions because there’s no producer overlooking things and we didn’t have a production manager calling every shot and forcing your hand to make a decision. Every single decision was a collaborative, and I had never done anything like that before. It was really, really fun, I enjoyed it so much.

Also, as a director, I got to try lots of different methods of directing. Lots of time, I find I’m tied to a monitor and I very much let that go. I looked into a monitor a few times to see how the shot looked and if we got what we aimed to achieve with a certain frame, but lots of times, I let it go, I just trusted the cinematographer — I just trusted the people and their talents.

That being said, I wouldn’t continually make films for no money, because people need to be paid for their talents, for all the years that have gone into making them as good as they are. Artwork itself is a hallmark for a characteristic of being a human being, we’ve making art for much longer than we’ve been building bridges or going to the moon, and the people who maintain that and keep that going in our society are as important as any other career people out there.

Is there anything else that you’d like to add?
The Film itself wouldn’t have been possible without the help of some really great women in my life. I only moved here just over a year ago, and I myself have been adjusting to life back home. Ruth Lawrence did some associate producing for me, and Wanda Nolan did some script consulting for me. All of our locations were donated. The Metrobus gave us a bus to use for two hours. And then Memorial University gave us the student centre to use, their campus, and one of their residence buildings. There are two women there: Jennifer Dyer, she is a professor in the department of Humanities and Communications, and she helped me navigate through the university aspects. And a young woman named Gillian Angel, who is one of the managers of the student centre, she helped me set things up as well. It’s a nice collaborative effort by a group of women. This struck me yesterday as I was reading the percentage of women in the film industry. Last year, there were no female directors in the feature film competition and this year there was still only one. So I feel like, even though this is only a small project on a local level, it’s still working towards getting more and more women involved in film.

Here’s Latonia Hartery on why she writes films with strong female characters. This video was taken during our panel, Finding Your Voice in Music and Film, which was held in partnership with WIFT Atlantic and Lawnya Vawnya. The panel featured filmmakers Hartery and Elsa Morena, and musicians Amy Rigby and Lisa Bozikovic. It was moderate by author Elisabeth de Mariaffi.

2013 Nickel Festival: Closing Night

    Posted on: Sunday, June 23rd, 2013

How’s everybody feeling today? I’m going to go under the assumption that you’ve all had better days. Assuming of course that you managed to make it out for closing night at the Nickel Festival. The films were amazing, the drinks were free, the awards were all well deserved, and the band rocked. What more could you want from a night out?

This post I’m just going to run through the films that played, same as I have been doing the rest of the festival. Then within the next day or two I’ll have a final post up for the coverage with all the after party details, the award winners in case you missed them, and my own personal thoughts on the whole event. But until then, lets talk films.

First film of the night was Broken Heart Syndrome. This dark comedy came out of Ontario from Dusty Mancinelli. It follows the main character Russ, when he finds out that he has Broken Heart Syndrome after a pretty horrible/hilarious breakup. This was gorgeously shot with some great use of practical, and special effects. The film is also littered with great performances from the main actor Jim Annan, and the rest of the small cast. His interactions with his dry witted doctor and the class of young girls he teaches is darkly hilarious.

Next up is the first of two local films. Winners from Else Morena is a heart warming comedy about two young kids in competition with each other to sell the most fertilizer for a school contest. I was absolutely blown away by the performances of the two young leads in this short. They did amazing jobs and showed that they can act and hold their own with local legend Ruth Lawrence. Besides that the film had some great humor and was well shot and edited. Great job to Elsa and I can’t wait to see what she has in store for us next.

The second film of the festival out of Ireland was up next. After You, by Damien O’Connor was a short animated look at a dedicated doorman in a changing world. Well animated and full of charm, this was a great visualization of the fear that usually accompanies change. Also a great lesson in finding pleasure in the simple things in life that we should all take a note from.

Life Doesn’t Frighten Me comes from a Newfoundlander living in Ontario by the name of Stephen Dunn. This uplifting coming of age story follows Esther Weary on her thirteenth birthday as she deals with being teased about her looks, and the changes that accompany growing up. This is another film of the night that was ruled by incredibly acting. Young lead Jade Aspros more than held her own with heavyweight Gordon Pinsent. Both actors brought incredibly touching performances and had some amazing chemistry together. Of course I can’t forget to mention Igor the Pug’s great performance here as well. Definitely the best dog in the festival.

The second local film of the night comes from Jonathan Watton with his short drama The Last of the Snow. Here we follow a couple dealing with a recent tragedy, and their young neighbour, who tries to convince them to head to the park despite their somber mood and resistance. Amazing job to Jonathan for his writing skills with this one. Using minimal dialogue and some great cinematography we spare no time in learning what tragedy has befallen the silent couple. As the film progresses, the actions and the emotion out of our male and female leads guide us through their progress of overcoming this loss. This is done with some amazing acting from all parties.

The last film of the night, and of the festival as well, comes from Oscar nominated director Sam French. His short film Buzkashi Boys was nominated for a 2012 Academy Award in the category of Best Short Film, Live Action. To be able to show this caliber of film here in the thirteenth year of the Nickel is an amazing feat and testament to how much the Nickel has grown over the years. Of course this film has it’s own Newfoundland connection, with local Terry Stone being credited with Assistant Director on the film.

The story follows two young boys in Afghanistan as they begin to discover what their futures may hold and the trials and tribulations of growing up. Taking full advantage of it’s foreign location, this film eloquently displays Afghanistan in a way that most people have never seen it before. The film is shot in a muted tone but we are shown some incredibly great shots of the country and the snow covered hills. This is a side of the country that isn’t shown often enough and works great in setting the mood with a vast and dangerous openness outside of the boys crowded and bustling regular lives.

The acting from the two young male leads continues the trend of the night with another set of amazing performances. Dealing with matters that most children of their age wouldn’t normally encounter, they display their emotions in effective, yet reserved performances. This was a truly amazing film and such a pleasure to see it play at the festival. It’s available on iTunes, which you can get to by clicking the films name above, and I highly recommend having a look if you didn’t catch it at the festival.

And that’s it for the films! I’ll be back with one final post soon. Stay tuned and I’ll see all of you beautiful people then!

2013 Nickel Festival: Night Four

    Posted on: Saturday, June 22nd, 2013

And now we’re down to one. Tonight marks the last night for this years Nickel Film Festival. Do yourself a favor and grab a ticket and head on down. I promise you’ll be a better person because of it. You’ll swear less, be more active, sleep better, do more charity work. All of these things happen after watching some amazing short films! Trust me!

But before we get to all of that let me talk to you about last night. Last night was the rated R night of the week and unsurprisingly came with a hearty selection of local films. While the nudity was lacking, there was cursing, violence and a little bit more cursing to even it all out.

Festival coordinator Matt Wright got things started with some R rated stand up that hit all the right spots with the sold out crowd. After Matt got the crowd warmed up we were introduced to the filmmakers of the evening. All made good use of the R rated theme of the night. Then, as usual, it was off to the films.

First of the night came from local director Ross Moore. Of The Essence showed a couples relationship as it is strained by an argument fueled by simple jealousy and then left in question under some tragic circumstances. The writing and pacing of this short really stood out to me. The relationship between the two leads was effectively built in a short amount of time and I genuinely felt bad for the situation they found themselves in. Kudos go to the well placed Tarantino trunk shot as well. I don’t know if it was deliberate or not but this simple nod put a huge smile on my face.

The second flick of the night from Chinese director Neysan Sobhani, was an impressive experimental attempt at storytelling. Dimensions focused on a young child who’s lost his younger brother. It uses some pretty unique methods to tell the story of his way of coping with the loss. This will take the cake for the most unique film of this years lineup.

Next up was the talented Peter Pasyk with his short comedy Final View. With a fairly simple premise of being seen through the eyes of a recently deceased family man, he is visited in the final minutes before his casket is closed by his three love interests. Other than a quick scene to show what brings this corpse to the funeral, the rest of the film is done in nearly one full shot. The performances by his three lovers were all solid and the humor was extremely well done. And am I the only person who loves seeing Tamira (Rachel Wilson) from Breaker High show up in different places? She may not have risen to Ryan Gosling fame, but I still love that girl.

Next we were all treated to some free Room Service. This short comes from Canadian director Glen Matthews and it follows a woman who confronts a girl, whom her husband is supposedly cheating on her with, in a motel room. I don’t want to say too much about this one in case any of you who didn’t attend last night get a chance to see this somewhere, but it has one of the better plot twists I’ve seen in a short film. Worth seeing this one for that alone.

Next of the local selection was Desperate Scribbles from director Martine Blue. Making great use of an excellent cast, with the incredibly claustrophobic location of an elevator, this was very much a dialogue heavy piece. The slow reveal of what was actually happening here was incredibly well done and helped build up to a bit of a shocking finale.

Local first time filmmaker Melanie Oates was next with her short film Get Out. A nicely shot piece that was very well done for her first film. Great job to Emily Bridger for her acting here as well. Being the only person on screen, the focus was directly on her, and she held her own under the pressure.

From Nova Scotia we get Ashley McKenzie with her short drama When You Sleep. The tone and the acting here were amazing. Ashley did a great job of setting up a believably flawed relationship between the two leads with visual cues alone. It’s not a whole lot of dialogue going on but the cinematography was very well done to help move the action along.

Geek Assassin was up next from another local Kenneth J. Harvey. A bit of a crowd favorite with a healthy selection of local actors and some good old fashioned Newfoundland humor. Natalie Hennelly and Emma Harvey, playing the assassin Sadie and her protege Yolanda respectively, were a definite high point of the film. Both put on an excellent performance.

Last film of the night came from the father of the Nickel, Roger Maunder. Cracker Barrel made good use of the R rating that came with last nights show. Following a drug addict after his recent actions force him to hide out in his own apartment with his so called friends, we get a taste of his view of the world. The cinematography here was nicely done and a huge round of applause should go out to Greg King for his performance as the troubled male lead. He may have put in one of the best performances of the festival thus far.

There you have it. Another solid night at the Nickel highlighted by some solid acting and great local filmmakers. Tonight we head into the final night of screenings which will be followed by the closing night party and awards gala being held this year at The Ship Pub. Head on down for one final night of fun and to see if any of your favorites take home an award. It’s sure to be a good time.

As always I’ll be back tomorrow with full coverage of the screenings and the awards show afterwards. See you there!