Everything is multiple. Opposites seem to touch. In writing this brief history of the birth and development of 500 Clown, I am leaving out and editing and re-framing things from my current perspective. The very act of writing it down is going to demand some continuity between this opening paragraph and wherever I end up. So I’ll re-do it. I’ve told this story in many contexts and to many different groups of people – friends, board members, other artists, other theater makers, students –tons of students — and for the purposes of this writing I’ll imagine that you (my audience) are a fellow theater maker, or an academic: Someone smart and interested and informed.
The Story- Beginning
I have started or been instrumental in the beginning of five theater companies, some lasted several years and others have two decades or more under their belts. Four of these companies were very consciously started as companies. Let’s start a company! In distinction to these four companies, 500 Clown started as an experiment in a kind of work that three of us had not seen, and a way of working that we were hungry for.
I had already had the experience of being part of a new company that was super well funded (The Willow Street Carnival). We had a theater built for us from the ground up, we studied with a Spanish ensemble-based company of artists called Els Commediantes near Barcelona for months, and then rehearsed for months in Chicago, all the while being paid. Money was not a problem, and yet the work we made was decent or good – not stellar. After this experience I could definitively scratch money off the list of what is necessary for high quality theater work. Money does not make good theater. I had the experience of making useful, rural theater – theater for non-theater goers — in rural Vermont (Hubinspoke). I had the experience of developing a new form of non-representative theater alongside its chief architect who told me, with love, that if I wanted to make money from theater, I should go elsewhere, that wasn’t part of the point (Neo-futurists). I was part of the founding of a collaborative ensemble-based theater that worked with objects, puppets and actors that slowly morphed into a director–based theater (Redmoon).
500 Clown was different in that it was not an idea; it was a need we were thrashing at to try and catch hold of, repeatedly and with vigor.
It was an experimental theater project. Not a company. Not long term. Specifically for the time it was made and for the people involved. Our mode of creation was talking. David Engel and I spoke on the phone over the course of six months (1999). At the same time Paul Kalina and I were also talking. Almost exclusively on the phone. No one wrote anything down. “If we don’t remember it, it’s not a good idea.” David and I had made work together at Redmoon. David had also been involved in an aborted idea I had in graduate school to stage people going through a complicated ballet of their morning rituals, with very dangerous weapons in their hands and on the stage. I was interested in slow moving, high stakes narrow misses – bare feet and broken glass. I was interested in the effect that it would have on the audience. Paul and I knew each other by reputation and liked each other. Paul and I were very interested in clown. Paul had training from Dell’Arte International in California and had toured a duo-clown show across Canada. The three of us may have met several times during those six months. But not more than three times at the most.
Once we got together at a nasty Mexican restaurant and ate tripe, because it was the scariest thing we could think of eating. It seemed like a good way to start our relationship.
Interests, Precedents, Cornerstones
Thirteen years later, I am writing this down for the first time. Here’s what we were interested in:
- People across languages and age ranges can all “understand,” be compelled by, and organize action into a narrative. How can we make a theater that capitalizes on this? What is action-based theater? How can action trump other modes of narrative development?
- What is the specific formula (time, talent and technology) that allows an individual show to make money? How can we make theater that is supported by people paying to see the show? Commercial theater?
- How can we make work that is thematically cohesive and has room for expressive and meaningful work from the perspectives of each of its performers (ensemble based)?
- How can the actors have authority over the show? – whereby, if they notice the audience is confused, bored or otherwise “checked out” they can change the show in the moment, and somehow navigate to the next rehearsed bit? How can we make the audience perfect? How can we honor the audience’s commitment to show up ready to watch?
- What are some of the coolest things we could imagine seeing really happen right in front of our eyes?
- How can Theater best capitalize on its liveness? The one advantage it seems to have over film?
- How can we overturn the practice of “suspending disbelief” and instead actively forge belief with the audience in the moment of performance?
- How can we make theater that people attend because they are excited to attend, not because it is smart or right or because they “should.” More like a sporting event or a live music event, than most theater.
- With 250 small theater companies – what kind of high quality theater would be interesting in Chicago?
- Treating each ensemble member as a developing artist, what is each of our next steps? What would I gladly do and not get paid for? What would move each of us forward? How can we, as actors (usually without much power in the casting process) create roles for ourselves that we can do well and yet hold in them significant personally compelling challenges?
- Fear and shame should be turned towards and wrestled with or excavated so that we can turn them into wisdom. A way to use fear, shame and anger as engines for shifting consciousness, as opposed to the popular narrative of fight or flight when confronting fear.
- How can failure be negotiated in front of audience members and be changed before their eyes into triumph? Would it be their eyes that changed or the context of the action?
There were some precedents in our minds from which we wanted to learn and build. The silent clowns — Keaton, Chaplin, and Lloyd — all created underdog characters, who somehow got on the wrong side of any and every authority (including gravity) and through persistence and resilience survived against all odds and bested all competitors. Trios like the Marx Brothers and the Ritz Brothers, who trafficked in zany antics within evening length narratives were also inspirations. We also loved the real danger of circus acts and The Hanlon-Lees. The Vaudeville idea of starting with a good show and honing it in front of an audience into something really amazing was central as well.
The audience would tell us what was important to keep and what sucked. We just had to listen. We were interested in making a popular form, not staying aloof but keeping the lights on and seeing the effect of the our offerings on the audience in real-time.
There was a whole other set of giants upon whose shoulders we wanted to stand: the performance artists who worked with actions. People like Vito Acconci, Marina Abromovich, Linda Montano, Tehching Hsieh and especially Chris Burden who’s actions were often more theatrical and filled with conflict, trauma and risk.
Again, these ideas and passions were what we gathered in making a show. Not a company. The cornerstones of the project we spoke into being were Action, Risk, Audience and Humor.
Humor as we conceived it should be a function of revelation of character, not jokes, and it should surface in the audience as it occurred, not with the timing of a punch-line, but with the patience to allow the material to dawn on the audience (or not). Humor was to be a touchstone, a way of assuring the audience that though we may have gone too far, or made something uncomfortable, we also have the ability and a tendency to be communicative, irreverent and humorous. Humor was to help us gain access to all the other states of being the audience might also visit. Humor was to be our calling card, and the way we qualified as communicators. It might buy us some purely expressive moments. Humor could release tension, let everyone know we were all okay, act as a socially binding event and get us all breathing together: conspiring.
The audience we wanted was a circus audience: from 4 to 80 years old and from every strata of society. We were looking to make a popular and understandable form that, like good cartoons, could play simultaneously on several levels for several audience demographics. We wanted to use clown technique, but not be at all cute or smiley. Another clown group – Mump and Smoot- already had the byline “clowns from hell.” We didn’t want to be that, but we wanted to be something like it. There is a connection between classic clown character and children. Both are seen to be naïve and incredibly resilient, lacking the experience to make the culturally proper or otherwise appropriate judgment. A child might befriend the wrong person, or walk blithely toward an avalanche, or a lion. Or she might walk directly into traffic. Clowns would also do these things, but we worry for their safety less. They are laugh makers – we expect that somehow they’re gonna be alright. But this image of children is a nostalgic one. It assumes that children can’t detect racism, or other forms of radical unfairness. The children that 500 Clown envisioned know that the government’s authority should be questioned, that we might have to move to Canada to avoid the draft. These children had only a few friends with married parents. These children had parents undergoing sex changes and being arrested in Washington D.C. for standing tall. So the clowns that are related to these children are post punk mixtures who are filled with the wonder of the world, filled with imagination and anger, filled with embarrassment and edginess. Their need is sometimes raw.
In terms of risk, it is hard to remember exactly what we thought right at the beginning. I know we spoke about how risk on stage seems to galvanize an audience and creates the need for people to lean forward to follow action closely or lean back to distance themselves from something they are watching. And I remember that we divided risk into the categories of physical risk and emotional risk. A good deal of what we’ve learned over the years and a good deal of what the 500 Clown brand centers around is risk. The complexity of how I now think about risk, its relationship to fear, and its central role in the creation of stage worthy action was, I suspect, in its infancy during our first iteration of 500 Clown Macbeth.
Action was imagined to be something stage worthy that happened right in front of the audience. Someone opens an umbrella, climbs the curtain, balances on a chair. The actions we were interested in were ones to which the performers didn’t have to add in order to make them interesting. The original version of 500 Clown Macbeth had one of us falling from a ten foot platform, fighting with solid punches on a rickety scaffold, pulling a strange food (one night it was cuttle-fish) from a huge salad bowl of “blood” and, as a showstopper, lighting a firecracker chastity belt: two hundred firecrackers mounted to a cardboard diaper and lit on fire. The explosion produced so much smoke that the most danger in the trick was not breathing incorrectly. A mistimed breath (when the smoke cloud was thickest) yielded little or no oxygen and I fell to the floor uncontrollably. Action is in this way incontrovertible. It happens or doesn’t and there is a wealth of tradition in the circus for setting up extreme action and redoing things when necessary. Often a ringmaster will announce the upcoming death-defying feat. A first attempt will come close, but a second or third attempt will succeed. Audiences seem to really love the idea of watching something really unusual, difficult, or in some way at the edge of possibility happening in front of them. This kind of action was entertaining in and of itself, but importantly, we were looking for a context in which each action forwarded the narrative by developing the audience’s relationship to the characters.
Back to the story- The Project
Returning to those early phone conversations, before these ideas gained definition and articulation: the project we spoke about has never yet been made. It is a five-clown version of Macbeth called 5 Clown Macbeth. It explored the theme of superstition in the context of the history of Shakespeare’s play Macbeth. Macbeth is famously a “cursed” play with many superstitious beliefs about the play and its title. Many actors continue to follow wonderfully arcane rules of purging “the curse.” It’s deliciously old-school superstition. Nothing fancy about it. Fear produces an action with seemingly no connection to the source of the fear. Here’s how it works. If someone says the name “Macbeth” in a theater when the word is not a line in the show – not a written line – they may be subjected to any number of compensatory actions. Spitting over their left shoulder, running around the theater three times counterclockwise, etc. I have heard a raft of “cures” over the past decade. And all this fear comes from a history of strange and inexplicable accidents that befell people involved in productions of Macbeth. Some think that Shakespeare used actual witches’ incantations in the text and the witches did not like that and so cursed the show forever. Our idea was to do the play, starting with five clowns saying, “When shall we three meet again” and then realizing that they had no credibility because there were five of them when the line called for three. And then they try to resolve this problem with the audience.
Four years prior to this time, I had spent several weeks studying with master clown teacher Phillipe Gaulier and was impressed by many things he said, one of which was, “For a clown show, all you need is one stupid idea.” I felt this idea certainly qualified as STUPID.
Then we would perform the play and every single time the name “Macbeth” was uttered, something on the stage would collapse or fall apart. As walls crumbled they would expose other walls in different styles behind them, and the actors would change costumes to play in the style of each set, as it was revealed. Eventually, the set would be a pile of rubble too high or dangerous to navigate, and the only playing space left would be six inches of stage in front of the mess. We would be forced onto the precipice of the stage, unable to move too much or even breathe too deeply. The history and superstition connected with the play would claim the space and force the actors into a situation in which they could not do their best work.
Still a good idea I think but was too costly for us to do with our $3,000 out of pocket budget. The thing we made was what we could make.
Two performers couldn’t get to the meetings we scheduled and 5 Clown Macbeth lost its first and central joke. There were three of us. Three seemed like defeat. We had no joke. We changed the name to 500 Clown Macbeth to seem triumphant and bold and to make a promise that we could never actually keep.
We had arranged twenty-one hours of rehearsal over several weeks and we had built a wobbly scaffold that could collapse on cue, most of the time. Dan Reilly designed our set. He too had worked at Redmoon and was a perfect fit with our aesthetic. Then a bachelor, he lived with a metal lathe in his spare bedroom and a wood lathe in the dining room. He introduced us to the wonders of machine invention. He could make anything. His imagination was scrappy and ragged. He would prepare meticulous financial reports of what he spent on his creations and would weld using wire hangers instead of welding rods, in order to save three bucks. Dan was clown. He could make things happen because of his rangy skill sets, and his unquenchable sense of wonder with the world. Dan created a trapdoor rig in a ¾ inch 4×8 piece of plywood so flimsy that only he would stand on it to test it. Paul and I cringed and screamed like children as he stepped and then jumped on it to prove its soundness.
We worked with at least three directors during those first twenty-one hours. The idea of multiple directors was to dilute the importance or “authority” of the director so the actors would be allowed to exercise authority over communicating the material in performance. Both Theater Ooblek and Curious Theater Branch were already challenging the “writer” and “director” hierarchies of traditional theater, looking for structures that were more democratic or communitarian. I think we all shared the belief that theater was as good a place as any to test new non-hierarchical models. It is natural that thoughtful and courageous theater makers should experiment with how to create more egalitarian and deeply collaborative forms of creation. I think we all shared an interest in discovering the treasure that lay in this uncharted territory. For some of us the treasure was wholly about the relationships that this level of interaction supports, and for others it included a hope for shared credit in the artistic output and for shared financial reward.
Our group imagined our working model to reflect our understanding of Commedia Dell’arte. The players know specific bits and have a structure to help guide them, and they play live in front of the audience. They play as if their pay depended on it.
Our ”script” was a set list of actions. We would perform specific rehearsed actions in a set order. But what came between was to be improvised, using the theme and the live interactive energy of the audience. Initially, all the text was improvised.
We called the company “F” in honor of the grade you get for failing at something and we called the show 500 Clown Macbeth. We performed it six times over two weeks in Fall 2000. The venue was a recently gutted bowling alley that was transformed into an indoor, adult playground, with a half pipe giant slide, an array of scooters, Frisbees and pogo sticks. There was a kick-ass sound system too. Our first audience was made up of 6 people, and our final audience had 143. On stage, Paul and I were low status troublemakers. David’s actual concern that the audience understands the correlation between our actions and the play Macbeth. His need to communicate made him the white clown, the number one, or the straight man. We emerged from the experiment with very different experiences and feelings. Paul and I were ablaze. The quality of the freedom we enjoyed was unlike anything we’d experienced before. It was hard to have a wrong impulse with partners who would scold and correct you and get the show back on track if you derailed it. David was not interested in doing it again. It was too much work. The show was not clean in any way. It was unclear what would be given to the audience at any given performance.
After we closed, folks were excited about the work. Was it improvised? What was planned and what was unplanned? We were also asking questions of the audience. What was the show about? What made you think what you thought? The dialogue with the audience allowed us to understand what worked, what accrued, and what to try again. The practice we had developed of listening to the audience really paid off when the audience named us. Audiences we spoke to just naturally referred to us as 500 Clown. Why argue with that? What is 500 Clown going to do next? It was so exciting to dream into that expectation.
It is important to note that our large turn out for our final show was due in part to the event of David Engel’s birthday. His girlfriend mobilized a huge number of those people to go support David for his birthday. With $10 admission, fantastic person-to-person buzz, and $1.50 pitchers of Genesee beer across the street, many of David’s friends turned out. The irony — that David’s friends were a significant and important part of the early “success” of the company and the fact that David soon moved on to different kinds of work — has not been lost on me. And to our credit we remain close friends to this day.
The next steps were to remount and refine the show and to replace David.
Two clowns want one thing and the other wants something else, or two clowns are doing something and the other is watching them and watching the audience and waiting for a time when his friends might need his help or when the audience might need help. Listening was a mantra to the whole endeavor. And here I should talk about our red ears.
As I mentioned, we were standing on the shoulders of some Clowns. And we had some training in what is referred to as “Red Nose Clown.” But we weren’t doing that technique in a straightforward way, and we wanted to avoid invoking the cuddly side of clown in any way. We had “Clown” in the title of the show, and that set up an expectation in the minds of potential audience members. Setting up expectations and then breaking them, or setting them up to pay off in unexpected ways creates much of clown humor. The word “clown” sets up expectations like red nose, children’s entertainment, silly, and physical. We thought that by not having red noses we could challenge the other expectations that came with the term “clown” and re-define it for our audience. I was carrying an image in me that I had seen in one of the strongest productions of Titus Andronicus I can remember. It was directed by David Hersokovitz for Target Margin Theater and was presented at NADA one of NYC’s most downtown of all its storefront theaters when I was making work there in the early 90’s. The Goths entered as prisoners in Act One wearing huge black rubber gloves – the kind you might wear for cleaning the guts out of a three hundred pound fish, if that’s what you did all day. And their ears were blue. They were other from everyone else on stage and they were the same as each other. They were visibly a tribe. I believe the rule is “steal from the best.”
We wear red ears to mark us as a tribe and in tribute to the red clown nose.
In that first iteration of 500 Clown Macbeth, we also had a horrifying mix of colors that each of us put on for our entrance (a short-lived practice), but sweat and intense physical interaction quickly washed everything but our ear make up away.
Playing those first six shows taught us so much about what we wanted to do.
We discovered several key parts of what we now teach as 500 Clown technique. Some of these discoveries were simply new for us, and several were/are actually bona fide new ideas, as far as I can tell. Many of our onstage moments seem to be made from two clowns in major (forward energy that takes and holds the focus of the audience) while the other is in minor, waiting for a need to arise in order to emerge into major. Another discovery we had made in the creation of the early version of 500 Clown Macbeth is a notion of fluid status. Clown teams often use a fixed status division to create a predictable basis for humor. In two-person teams this establishes the job/role of each partner. One sets up the situation and the other subverts it. Abbott and Costello are a good clean example of a fixed status team. Tom and Jerry is another. These fixed statuses help set up expectations in the audience and regulate how events fall out. An idea we discovered and developed with 500 Clown was to use these clear roles but to be fluid with who was filling them at any specific time. This is pretty standard for soloists, stand-ups and sketch comedy folks who write their comedy, but in the past character-based improvised comedy tended to reflect a more traditional or fixed idea of status. One reason for this is that it is useful to have some constants in order to set up expectations that can then be broken. A ton of comedy emerges from the authority walking in when the idiot is getting things irrevocably wrong. But all it takes to switch the authority figure is to have a character clearly state what he wants or cares about. This utterance then acts as a proposal, which the other two can serve, subvert, turn upside down. This fluid status seems to reflect our contemporary world versus the more fixed status culture of the golden age of clowns (1900-1940).
Back to the story- Who?
The question before us after the first iteration of 500 Clown Macbeth was what to do about David’s absence. And by this time, us had shifted. When push came to shove in the creation of the first version of 500 Clown Macbeth we needed an outside eye to make decisions about elements such as lighting and when an action began and ended. My partner (colleague and wife) Leslie was that person. She had been one of the directors we brought in to lead us through some ideas during our twenty-one hours of rehearsal. (Drew Richardson was another outside eye, and I lead some rehearsals oscillating between performer and director). Outside this project, Leslie was in the process of shifting her focus from performing to directing and it so happened that the workshop she lead in rehearsal provided the structure for how we ended up playing 500 Clown Macbeth. She really opened up the piece for us, in a way that made it playable and fun. Then we needed an outside eye to say what was good and bad in final rehearsals and she really tweaked and structured the whole thing. She was the fifth in our group. By that time, our set designer Dan was the fourth.
So here we were, after the first iteration and anticipating a second. One clown short of a trio. A performer friend of David’s had been blown away by the shows. She had seen the first show – where the final collapse of the set happened by accident in the first ten minutes and was followed by forty-five minutes of improvisation. And she had seen one or two other shows when very different things went down. She had a strong style: fearless, raucous, mercurial, very intelligent and direct – a seasoned and self-taught improviser. She had an easy smile and sharp eyes. I don’t remember if she had purple hair at the time, but she has for much of the last twelve years. Her name is Molly Brennan. We met her and auditioned her to replace David. We also auditioned a thin, tall, quieter man. He was highly intelligent, precise in body and speech, easy to shock and he had extensive training in physical theater and clown. (He had studied for two years at Ecole Jaques Lecoq, the pre-eminent physical theater training for the second half of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st). He had just moved to Chicago – God knows how he knew to come here — and a mutual friend had introduced him. His name is Jon Sherman. Leslie ran the audition. And we all had a blast.
Jon was very like David. If we cast him, the structure of the show would be what we knew. Paul and I would conspire to freak him out and scare him and anger him, and he would run the bits and keep us under his thumb through his quicker wit. He’s an easy high status and less brawny than Paul or I am, with less gymnastic training. Molly was not like David. She had no training in clown and she too was not gymnastically inclined. She had a huge, devouring YES to every proposal we gave her. She was physically smaller than either Paul of me, had a fierce confidence and a gap toothed smile that she did not shy away from using. The show with her would be nothing like the first iteration. It would have to be completely re-built. Why not?! We cast Molly and asked Jon to direct. Both accepted.
Women and Clowns
A word here about women and clown. The world of clown is a guys’ world. There are terrific women clowns and there are precedents of course, Lucille Ball perhaps most astonishing of all. Carol Burnett, Lily Tomlin and Imogene Coca come to mind. But the first clown teacher I ever had — Ctibor Turba who was a Czech and had been part of the velvet revolution that elected Havel to power in 1989 — had been impressively specific about women and clowning when I took his one-week class in Philadelphia in 1991.
I remembered he had said, “The future of clowning is with women.” His thesis was that the forms based on male experience were hackneyed and could be revived and re-used by talented individuals, but that the form itself would only truly progress when women and men could clown on equal footing.
The form would progress when women could use gender, their own sexual urges, the way others sexualize or anatomize them, and their own physical power, skills, size and dynamic in their work. This would create new forms to mine. This made a strong impression on me having been raised in an ardently feminist household. It made sense. At the time, I knew of only one all female clown troupe called Gams on the Lamb, which operated out of the east coast. Paul’s previous partner in the clown duo Le Pamplemouse was a woman. But I could bring to mind no trios and only some lopsided duos with both men and women in them. By lopsided duo I mean a male clown with a talented female comic performer as a partner — not two clowns. The blooming of the form dubbed “New Vaudeville” in the 80’s gave us Bill Irwin, Jeff Hoyle, Avner the Eccentric, The Flying Karamozov Brothers, Michael Moshen, and several circuses, but evidently the U.S. was not culturally ready to support clown teams with noteworthy female clowns. The one super notable exception to this trend was The Pickle Family Circus, which had a female clown duo as early as 1989, and which fostered many female clowns. But its reach was regional at best and to my knowledge no mixed gender clown acts toured nationally. Importantly, I never saw one or heard about one. One could argue that Mumenshantz had women and men onstage doing comic physical performance in the early 80’s, but again not clown. And formally this makes a kind of sense. Clown subverts convention. The ideal of male gender in our culture that is assertive, competitive, active, bold, individual, and angry provides a culturally conventional role that male performers can take the piss out of, in ways that are easily physical. How does the correlative work with clowning and the ideal of female gender? So we cast Molly. Faced with a choice between known and unknown, we moved toward an unknown and that was very clown of us – it was the right thing to do.
Back to the story- honing the form
Under Jon’s direction we explored putting more of the ideas of Shakespeare’s Macbeth into our piece. In our first iteration, we had stumbled into some final moments that echoed moments in the original text, but Jon worked with us to create a payoff for the audience’s expectation that we would be doing something like Shakespeare’s Macbeth.
We started to work in the style we now call deconstruction/reconstruction, where we get derailed from the original narrative quite early on, but then unexpectedly return to something that parallels the original narrative emotionally for the last third of the play.
Following Jon, Ami Hattab, a brilliant French clown (also Lecoq trained), came on board as a director focusing on developing and differentiating our characters from one another. And then Leslie returned to guide us through multiple productions over the next several years, honing our formal deconstruction/reconstruction technique and shaping and refining our beats in ever more specific ways. Leslie’s great strength was that she adopted our terms and guided us from within the form as she helped to construct it. Her leadership was designed to give us total on-stage authority over the material. Importantly, this intention of hers’ mirrored our intention with our students. We wanted to teach them so that they could go out and use what they learned in class that night.
There is a consistency in perspective here that I feel I need to underscore. Leslie’s directorial style of steering our progress and the 500 Clown teaching aim were the same as our stated mission with the audience:
500 Clown wants to shift the audience from passive to active, and thereby celebrate the unpredictable power of the moment.
This is the DNA of 500 Clown. We want to ignite each other and our audience. We want to challenge each other to give generously. We want to give during a show, so that whatever the audience does is the right response. We want to direct each other so that the actors are empowered to be in service to impulse, rather than to what is planned. And in doing so, sacrifice favorite moments. With our students, this was also the aim: give our students the courage to become themselves and to expose themselves, and celebrate their attempts to become who they want to be.
But I have jumped many years ahead.
So let me take stock of the story so far. (Because this is just the beginning in some ways and I need to accelerate the pace here to cover more ground before chapter’s end. I’m pushing the word count.) To review: We began with an exploration of a performance style that we thought might be artistically satisfying to do and to see. The audience encouraged us to develop the idea and we gave them the opportunity to support us; we accepted the name they gave us. We made risky decisions because we saw real value in being challenged. Through both teaching and performing we honed a language of performance, a metric for understanding what we were doing and a method of teaching it that reflected the integrity of our process and exposed us to our own hidden beliefs. We tried to value what was actual and verifiable more than our ideas about what should be true. We put our trust in what was actually done in front of us, forging belief through what is seen, what is real. We embarked on a process of carefully shaping and refining the entirely raw energy at the heart of the first production. We developed and re-presented 500 Clown Macbeth in six runs at multiple venues in the first three years, and each time our audience grew as we asked better questions about what we were doing and how we could improve it. This was the Vaudeville model we envisioned. We were audience supported and based in artistic inquiry.
Within the first three productions we repaid my initial investment of dollars and we decided to incorporate.
Our model was a for-profit one. We wanted to be beholden to the people who came to the shows – the audience — not some unseen supporters for whom the work may or may not qualify. We wanted the work to support itself by earning each audience member and each dollar.
With the set paid for, we could pay each of us approximately $400 a week with a 200-seat house selling at 30% capacity with a $15 ticket price and almost no advertising costs. We usually sold much better than that. Very little money but let me put that in perspective. Many small theaters offer to pay actors $50 or $100 per week; last year a former student told me that he was offered $150 for a 10-week contract. We were putting 100% of our energy toward our audience and the support from them we got was energetic and financial. There is something important about the financial connection between the art makers and the consumers. With theater especially, artists can easily fall into the habit of not feeling valued and therefore feel justified in doing less than their best work or in resenting the audiences who come to the shows and fall asleep. We were interested in doing work at which it would be impossible to fall asleep. And if someone did fall asleep we could celebrate that event in a memorable way.
Back to the Story- The Second Show
The time came to make a second piece (2002-2004) and though we wanted to do something recognizably 500 Clown, we wanted to challenge some of what had made the first piece successful.
We wanted to push what the form could be, rather than try to repeat its success. We wanted to take care of the form, as if it were a living thing.
To let it be as big as it could, rather than closing down its parameters too fast. For instance, it was important that I not choose the next resource for us to work with; we needed to establish a way to create work that any of us could propose. We were suspicious of establishing hierarchy. I had been the hub of 500 Clown Macbeth and someone else should hub the next project. Another shift I remember us wanting to make concerned character and status. Since my character, now named Bruce, had hovered on the lower end of the status scale for most of 500 Clown Macbeth, we wanted Bruce to hover near the high status end in the second piece. How could such an idiot be in charge? Other challenges we took on were a much smaller set — one that could be carried in a large car, instead of a truck. We wanted to have gorgeous costumes to help establish expectation and set up the basic relationships between characters. Molly suggested Frankenstein as our next material and after reading the book we all agreed. Then went about the task of remembering what we had done the first time. But now Leslie and Molly were fully in the mix. What role would the director play in conceiving the production? It was uncomfortable and inexact and fun. We made a show that the audience seemed to like, but none of us really understood how to enjoy playing it for almost two years. And 10 years later, we continue to play it. And enjoy it.
Early on we started to teach. In doing so, two big things happened: One was an attempt to define a vocabulary for what we were doing so we could in fact organize a curriculum and articulate what it was that we were doing. Alongside that project was the discovery that the “it” was multiple. “It” reflected the arts collective that we were. We team-taught. Within a class, we were multiple teachers passing the ball (literally and figuratively) back and forth, not unlike what the actors, director(s) and designers were doing in rehearsal and performance.
Teaching with each other developed and refined our shared vocabulary, helped to distill our individual strengths, and gave us ways to appreciate each other outside the parameters of character (and roles as performers and directors).
Team teaching helped us develop the concept that “your partner is perfect,” helped us understand what each of our goals was on stage, and helped us share techniques we’d learned in different contexts (with each other, not only with our students).
All of this was added to the mix on stage and the brew got potent and grew into something that was not singular. One of the powerful things students can get from team teaching, which is hard to get from an individually taught class, is that there are multiple ways to achieve singular goals. Each of us starts from a base of our own constraints. Our basic pace or rhythm. Our size and our size in relation to our partners. Our fears and dreams and aspirations – all individual and specific — create in us different emotional pathways to resilience, different reactions to failure, and different strategies for putting ourselves at risk. Risking genuine experience in front of an audience and, importantly, in service to an audience, is what we teach. We all get there differently. I learned that while watching my partners teach and teaching along side of them. Setting up a context in which students had to navigate different points of view seemed to be as much a way to teach our form as distilling it. Navigation, clashing and coincidence were all very much part of the work on and offstage, in rehearsal rooms, and classrooms. Teaching from multiple perspectives at once allowed us to model 500 Clown practices of fracturing, adhering to and disrupting narrative and clown conventions.
The clown-theater form we had made was feeding back to us. It had a code and a process that was transforming who we could become and who we were becoming. If the theater company had instead been a computer (stay with me), and if all the work we had done over several years had been a program we loaded into it, the answer was now coming and it began with: “Impulse – Go, Yes, Enjoy.” And it continued: “Deep listening to your partner will free you into action. Think less and just do.” We are constantly celebrating and investigating whatever dialogue we can find. Everything is at least two things. When we find that the center cannot hold, there is a lightness that enters into consciousness that allows us to think: “Why should it?” The Clown we practice is a discoverer.
Back to the story- Creating a Business
The success of the shows birthed a style and a company. The same minds that made the shows were tasked with making the company, or to say it differently, the same habits of mind were brought to bear on both tasks. There was integrity to the whole creation that we felt no need to challenge. We assumed that our working technique would guide us in business as well as creation. We carefully considered our relationship to our audience and needed to build a company that reflected that relationship. We wanted to maintain our commitment to paying people as much as possible and to valuing ourselves as partners. We were enticed to switch from a for-profit model to a not-for-profit model, because we couldn’t pay ourselves between actual productions. During a show, we were well paid, but in between productions we were lean. We had no way to support the increasing administrative operations necessary to realize the next stage of development. We were also being approached by some foundations that wanted to give us money. After consulting with many folks, we generated a list of pros and cons for switching to a not-for profit model.
|FOR-PROFIT PROS||FOR-PROFIT CONS|
|Dependency on ticket sales and tuition||Lack of income outside of earned income|
|Clarity of supply/demand logic||Necessary high ticket price to pay production and administrative costs|
|Flexibility; quick decision-making time||Low incentive for long-term planning|
|Straightforwardness of paying for professional services; not depending on donations||No tax-free purchasing|
|Innovating alternative structure for a small theater company including sponsorship and investment for purposes other than profit-making||Difficulty being eligible for pro bono professional services|
|Minimal administration||Unclear ways to give associates of the company recognizable positions like board member roles|
|Rebel Spirit; the excitement of going down one’s own path||Lack of role models; uncertainty of viability|
|The high stakes of the hustle||Hard to support experimentation that might not go over well with audiences|
|Compensating company members according to profits earned|
|Independent, only accountable to ourselves|
|NON-PROFIT PROS||NON-PROFIT CONS|
|Eligibility to apply and receive funding from private foundations and corporations||Time intensive to apply for funding with uncertain returns; amount of money awarded not necessarily enough to compensate for time taken to apply for it|
|Funding from individuals||Time intensive to build and nurture relationships with individual supporters; uncertain returns; amount of money received not necessarily enough to compensate for time taken to solicit it|
|Board providing financial and professional services; expanding audiences||Fear of catering what the company does to what funders want; letting granting applications dictate what the company does|
|Advance planning for the purpose of funding applications and board requirements; slower more considered decision making||Time put into developing and sustaining a board; board has influence on artistic process and company activities|
|Building a community of people who support the company in various ways||Limitation on flexibility and spontaneity; slower decision making; more people to be accountable to|
|Tax-free purchasing||Putting time into relationships other than those centered around performance/audience relationship|
|Increased eligibility for pro bono services||Compensation not directly driven by earned income|
|Alliances with different entities who can provide services and funding to company||Low on the priority list for professionals donating their time|
|Predictability of fees calculated in project budgets||Focus on networking that takes away from ticket sales hustle|
|Responsible to the public that ‘owns’ us|
|Predetermined fees unrelated to earned income|
The briefest version of the outcome of wrestling with models of corporate structure was that we could continue our for-profit hustle mentality and commitment to connecting with audiences and stay very conscious of not shifting our focus to satisfying the interests of the disembodied funders (which perhaps would be simpler if they were disembodied, but the truth is they are, of course, people, many of whom we met and who have been amazing colleagues and advisors). We recognized that 500 Clown did indeed fit the nonprofit model of serving the public with original educational and artistic programming. In becoming not-for-profit, we grew to include a board of incredibly dedicated people who generously and tirelessly brought their talents and skills and resources to the table. Including amazing mentorship on nonprofit administration, which it turns out, is … intense!
Playing (wrestling) with new conventions
But no sooner did we embark on that path than we began coming up against a new set of conventions – no longer those of the dramatic form of theater and the conventions of clown and their various ‘contracts’ with the audience — but now those emerging from the structure of nonprofit theater itself: having a three show season, an annual budget created prior to the start of the fiscal year (as opposed to determined by the market), entering and sustaining participation in funding cycles, finding meaningful ways for a board to be involved whether through fundraising, access to artists and process, connecting with individual donors, or strategic planning. All these means were explored and experimented with in order to reach our goals of creating four full-time salaries with health benefits.
Without doing the actual calculation of how our time was actually spent, we went from the feeling of devoting 98% of our time to artistic practice and 2% to administrating the artistic practice to, at its other extreme, perhaps 80% on building a sustainable company structure and 20% on artistic practice (feeling!, actual data unavailable).
Needless to say, that was not sustainable. Either emotionally, or in terms of sustaining a company whose reason for being was artistic collaboration. (Note: I do not think that struggling with this balance is unique to 500 Clown.)
Back to the story – Budgets and New Partners
Between 2006 to 2008, 500 Clown’s budget doubled from $110k to $220k, which included significant touring income, a national grant from the Association of Performing Arts Presenters Ensemble Theatre Collaborations Grant Program (a component of the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, which recognized 500 Clown as a leader of ensemble work in the US) and a generous commission to develop its fourth production 500 Clown and the Elephant Deal from the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center at University of Maryland. In 2007, 500 Clown joined the roster of Elsie Management in NYC, which books and helps manage touring. We found ourselves in various partnerships with larger institutions including the University of Chicago, Steppenwolf Theatre Company, and the City of Chicago. In these other kinds of partnerships (echoing those on stage and in rehearsals) we benefitted from our partners’ resources and offered our own, which in large part were our connection with a range of audiences, the palpable and exciting live energy the work generated in various performance spaces, and our workshops in risk & play, which were decidedly for both theater and non-theater makers. Phone calls with the possibilities of new opportunities came in with more and more frequency (on, I should add, our personal cell and home phones). They demanded a staff presence and dedication to translate ideas and potential into action.
The expansion of work resulted in a commitment to monthly stipends, but not full-time salaries with benefits, and after a few years (2006-2009) of dedicated focus to reaching that next financial level, we each, at various moments, turned to other sources for the income we needed. We did not piece together odd jobs hanging on the margins of our work with 500 Clown. Rather we brought our experience, maturity and professionalism to significant career opportunities that could support continued artistic practice with 500 Clown and elsewhere. As of Spring 2012, Paul Kalina is an Assistant Professor of Movement in Theater Arts at the University of Iowa. Leslie Buxbaum Danzig is Program Curator of the Gray Center for Arts and Inquiry, a new arts initiative at the University of Chicago. Molly Brennan is Artistic Director of Barrel of Monkeys. I am the Producing Artistic Director of 500 Clown along with being an Equity actor and free-lance teacher. It is my job to carry the DNA forward to a new collection of individuals.
Clowning the Company
It strikes me that our project of making 500 Clown into a business finds parallels in the project of making clown-theater.
We play with existing conventions and structures, try them on, get stuck at times in ill-fitting structures, free ourselves, get stuck again, take some falls, rise to some unexpected heights (that are precarious in their instability) and, in 500 Clown clown-mode, exercise our resilience.
Our premise now is that we have built a strong platform, which includes maintaining a twelve-year history of not being in debt, building a generous reserve in the bank, always working within our financial means, cultivating partners, and ultimately not losing sight of the artistic questions driving the work, though sometimes they fell to the background and even became a bit out of focus. The ‘brand’ of 500 Clown (and the expectations it generates) has been a big source of our success; we also recognize the need to wrestle with that brand if we are to keep the questions and drives as live and urgent as they were when the experiment began in 2000.
Coming up Next
So what is on the docket for 500 Clown as it moves into its 13th year?
An experiment with 500 Clown Frankenstein, which I have been wanting to do for several years: bring a group of performers into the show who will perform it in different trios in order to test and push our clown-theater form. It seems possible that three clowns (not the originators of the work) can play the same action script in several ways, while charting the same narrative course and delivering the show’s themes. If this is true, might we create an opportunity for an audience member to feel/perceive the same freedom of choice that we experience in the classroom with our students? A model of team-teaching transferred to performance. Everything is multiple.
The development of a new show based on a script that captured my attention back in 1994, and has been collecting dust in my desk drawer ever since. For that we are bringing in a new director – Alex Harvey – who once a student of ours and then an amazingly insightful eye that kept showing up at our rehearsals and performances, and now is a really exciting director.
Continued national (and possible international) touring of 500 Clown Macbeth, 500 Clown Frankenstein, and 500 Clown Trapped, managed by Elsie Management. Continued teaching with the addition of new levels of workshop offerings. Through the 500 Clown Frankenstein multiple-cast production and teaching, we are hooking back into the Chicago community of clown and physical theater out of which 500 Clown emerged and which, 12 years later, is happening in different spaces with different people, and with an inspiring vitality.
Perhaps … and as I write this I’m not entirely sure its true … we are moving towards (at least the feeling of) 98% artistic practice and 2% administrating/strategizing that practice. And ready for the discovery of the next Impulse – Go, Yes, Enjoy.