Leslie’s history is excerpted from her 2007 dissertation Chicago’s 500 Clown Theater: Physical Action, Impulse and Narrative in Play for her PhD in Performance Studies at Northwestern University. The dissertation’s full text includes discussions of the definition of clown, the practice of play, and the role of clown-theater, and the practicalities of turning artistic practice into business. Leslie’s full dissertation can be downloaded here: Buxbaum Dissertation on 500 Clown
500 Clown in Chicago
500 Clown was born and raised in Chicago. Though two of its founders were in New York City practicing theater for years before coming to Chicago –my spouse Adrian Danzig and myself — 500 Clown did not happen there. Chicago in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries is a specific context for this company. 500 Clown’s productions happened in certain venues because of particular networks of artists, companies, universities and presenters. The artistic inquiry that drives 500 Clown was born amongst other artistic inquiries. The physical scale and long-term development process of 500 Clown’s work was enabled by the availability of space and time particular to Chicago’s economy.
Origins are tricky. When does this story of 500 Clown in Chicago begin? 500 Clown was born out of a few individuals’ aspirations formed over the course of many years. Though there are some revelatory moments when one has a vision of what one should do, even those moments (and they tend to be few) are culminations of years of training, practice, inspirations and experiences. The revelations are not points of origins themselves. Given that the focus of this chapter is specifically on 500 Clown in Chicago, I choose as my point of departure the arrival of two of 500 Clown’s founding members – Danzig and myself — in Chicago in summer of 1996. Our move from New York City was motivated by a merit scholarship Danzig received for MFA studies in the Performance Department of The School of the Art Institute of Chicago.
Danzig and I arrived in Chicago with, totaled between us, approximately thirty-six years of theater training and experiences that included conventional approaches to text-based theater as well as physical theater, gymnastics, mask and clown. I received my core training in acting at Herbert Berghof Studio in New York City, playwrighting with Paula Vogel at Brown University, physical theater at Ecole Jacques Lecoq in Paris, and clown with Philippe Gaulier in London. Danzig’s training included acting at New York City’s High School of Performing Arts, gymnastics with The Big Apple Circus, and clowning with Ctibor Turba and Philippe Gaulier, among others. “As a young person, I didn’t have a particularly good connection to emotion, to exposing an emotional life on stage, but I was told that I had a powerful physical presence on stage, and the clown has come from a series of ‘yeses’ I found I could say to what I can do” (Danzig, 6 June 2006).
Danzig and I also brought with us to Chicago an inquiry: how to effectively integrate clown and theater.
Two months prior to our arrival in Chicago, Danzig and I created and performed our first attempt at a hybrid form of clown-theater — a twenty-minute two-clown show based on Dante’s Inferno at New York City’s downtown avant-garde performance center, Performance Space 122. Danzig told PS 122’s then artistic director Mark Russell that he would develop a full-evening clown-theater piece, to which Russell replied clown couldn’t sustain such a show. Danzig decided to take on that challenge.
Early Chicago Encounters
Upon arrival in Chicago, Danzig and I quickly encountered the city’s well-known homegrown grassroots theater movement. By homegrown I refer to a vast array of theater companies started by Chicagoans, often recent graduates of colleges and universities in or near Chicago, who make theater in storefronts, basements, gymnasiums, churches, sometimes apartments. Richard Christensen, former theater critic with the Chicago Tribune, finds it noteworthy how many theater artists choose to remain in or return to Chicago as their careers develop. “The artistic directors of the city’s top three theaters – Robert Falls at Goodman, Martha Lavey at Steppenwolf, and Barbara Gaines at Chicago Shakespeare Theater – all started their careers in Chicago and worked their way up to their top positions in the 1980s and 1990s” (288-289).
In Chicago’s off-loop theaters, located outside the loop circumscribed by elevated train racks around Chicago’s downtown business district, Danzig and I encountered a world of devised theater, often non-text-based theater. I remember first encountering the term “devised theater” in 1993, when taking a course with Gaulier entitled “Writing and Directing,” which comes almost at the end of a year-long curriculum including Le Jeu (Play), Neutral Mask, Greek Tragedy, Bouffons, Melodrama, Mask Play, Characters, Shakespeare-Chekhov, and Clowns. Though there is no course specifically entitled “Devised Theater,” it was a general term used at the school.
“Devised theater” refers to theater that is created by actors, director, designers and anyone on the production team who, as the word devise suggests, form an idea and figure out how to translate that idea into a theatrical language. Conception happens in rehearsals with all the players, not by a playwright or creator outside the rehearsal studio.
Devised theater describes a working method but not a show itself, and thus rarely carries over to marketing language. Often the term used to describe both process and product is “physical theater”, broadly defined as theater that uses the body as its main source of communication and expression rather than the written, and in performance, spoken word.
In September 2006, Chicago’s Department of Cultural Affairs hosted a panel on physical theater to kick off a season of physical theater productions in its theaters — The Storefront Theater, The Studio Theater and The Claudia Cassidy Theater — all located downtown in and near the Chicago Cultural Center. The five panelists, each from Chicago theater companies, along with audience members, many of whom were fellow theater artists, debated the pros and cons of using the term physical theater as well as its possible definitions. Does the fact that all theater is physical render the term meaningless? Jon Sherman, an early collaborator with 500 Clown who later founded his own company called sprung, prefers to call his work “movement theater” because not all theater uses movement to tell stories. Larry Distasi of Lookingglass Theater and The Actor’s Gymnasium described the relation of physical theater’s choreography to three-dimensional space as similar to the relation of poetry to the written page. David Catlin of Lookingglass Theater described physical theater as having the power to impart meaning and understanding through image and metaphor rather than through spoken language. But all seemed to agree that what was loosely being called physical theater shared an actor-based process of collaborative development to mold scripts through physical bodies in motion.
Beginning in 1996, Danzig and I quickly sought out theater companies devising original work whose performance languages combined circus, dance, visual storytelling, puppetry, improvisation and spoken language. Companies and artists were investigating not only theatrical form, but also long-term processes of development, company structure, and relationships with communities, neighborhoods and audiences. One of the first companies we encountered was Redmoon Theater. Redmoon was an easy early encounter. Danzig had worked with the company in 1989, when it was founded by Blair Thomas, who attended Oberlin College with Danzig. Thomas resigned in 1998 to pursue other theatrical projects; his co-artistic director Jim Lasko became and continues to be sole artistic director. But even without Danzig’s personal connection with Thomas, Redmoon was and continues to be a relatively accessible company to get involved with, in large part because it needs a lot of manpower for its large-scale outdoor spectacle performances. Consequently, Redmoon serves as a meeting ground for theater and visual artists in Chicago. In brief, the company creates theatrical spectacles that aim to forge relationships between audience members, the productions themselves and the environments in which they take place, which sometimes are theaters but more often are parks, lakes, streets, public squares, etc. Redmoon, as part of its vision, describes that it “speak[s] a universal, highly visual language accessible to all (regardless of age, education and culture) and grounded in the dynamic elements of spectacle: hand-crafted objects, aggressive physical movement, whimsical mechanical devices, masks, puppets, and live music” (Redmoon).
Redmoon’s annual production calendar has changed over the years as its headquarters and therefore neighborhood community have changed. In its mission statement in the mid-nineties, its community outreach was specifically connected to its local neighborhood, Logan Square, where it ran two children’s art programs and developed ways for the local community to participate in its annual spectacles. In the mid-1990s, and for several years thereafter, Redmoon’s annual offerings included three non-narrative spectacle productions — the All Hallows’ Eve Ritual Celebration, a Halloween parade and show; the Winter Pageant, an indoor event celebrating the winter solstice and changing of seasons; and an outdoor summer event — as well as an indoor production that told a story using spectacle and other theatrical vocabularies. These productions relied on a large group of performers to devise and perform characters, choreography and performance acts as well as lead community participants in the performances. Largely it was volunteer work or minimally stipended work and consequently attracted young performers and artists, either in or recently out of college, interested in learning about large-scale spectacle theater,community organizing, and mentoring children as well as acquiring skills in stilt-walking, fire-eating, puppetry, etc. As important was the desire to meet like-minded peers. A small core of people from its early days have remained with Redmoon, eventually moving into paid positions administrating and running artistic programs. Many have moved on to other theater ventures, often collaborating with former Redmoon colleagues.
Another early encounter was with an ensemble-based theater called Lookingglass Theater Company (LTC), founded by graduates of Northwestern University in 1989. Ensemble member and former artistic director Laura Eason describes the ensemble’s initial vision “to bring theater to a more visual place” (Eason). According to Eason, the ensemble was inspired by artists such as Robert Wilson, Pina Bausch and Laurie Anderson, who are known for their visually spectacular works that create meaning not through text alone, but through intersections of text, dance, video, visual art, rock n’ roll and opera among other elements. Eason observed that the kind of theater Lookingglass was doing could be read as a retaliation to the predominant Chicago aesthetic of realist meat and potatoes performance championed by one of Chicago’s most renowned companies, Steppenwolf Theater Company, and I would add to that, one of Chicago’s most renowned playwrights, David Mamet. Eason remembers that in the early days of envisioning Lookingglass’ mission, the visual and physical work that inspired the company members was not based in Chicago, though might have passed through town thanks to The International Theater Festival of Chicago, which lasted from 1986 through 1996, and Performing Arts Chicago, which was founded in 1959 and closed its doors in 2005.
In addition to the two companies that Danzig and I quickly encountered were a variety of individual shows and companies pursuing hybrid forms of physical and verbal improvisation, circus arts, puppetry, and visual spectacle. Defiant Theater (1993-2004) was known for its muscular approaches to text-based plays. Plasticene was and still is innovating its own physical vocabulary and process based on working with a single resource like doors or chalkboards. Illustrious Bloodspill created by Bryn Magnus and an ensemble of performers (from Redmoon and Plasticene, among others) was a long-running show in 1996-1997, with a live rock band and choreography derived from movie action scenes. Goat Island, which is now working on its final production before terminating, engaged in long-term development of original physical performance pieces, using a church as its home-base. This list is by no means comprehensive, but rather includes the companies and shows that introduced Danzig and me to the physically- based homegrown Chicago theater scene.
The significance of these early encounters for the development of 500 Clown is both intangible and tangible. On one level there was the important but elusive consequence of being part of a community of artists and a context of artistic inquiry that fueled our own aesthetic ideas, which predictably are developed through conversations and in reaction to others’ experimentation.
Visions of company structures are developed in reaction to experiencing and watching the successes and failures of other models of organization.
Additionally there were the tangible outcomes like meeting David Engel through Redmoon who would be part of the first production of 500 Clown Macbeth, and meeting Meghan Strell in Illustrious Bloodspill and John Musial, a Lookingglass ensemble member, who shared an over-sized loft that would be 500 Clown’s first rehearsal space. The other tangible outcome was participating in productions that combined circus arts and theater at Lookingglass and The Midnight Circus.
Theater and Circus Collide
In 1993, Lookingglass was introduced to circus while devising its production of Master and Margherita, adapted by Heidi Stillman and directed by Stillman and David Catlin. Through a friend’s recommendation Catlin and Stillman brought Sylvia Hernandez onto the production team to choreograph an aerial act and teach the requisite skills. Hernandez had grown up in a circus family performing a world-renowned teeterboard act. Her first exposure to theater was choreographing an aerial act for The Snow Wolf at Chicago’s DePaul Theater School, a job gotten through a fluke of a friend of a friend overhearing a conversation in the school cafeteria about needing an aerialist for a show. Eason describes the impact of circus on Lookingglass as adding a new dimension to what the company could do. Rather than limit their imaginations to visual images created on the floor, they could now move into the air to tell their stories (Eason). LTC’s rehearsal space on 16th street became a workout space for Hernandez, LTC company members, and partners Jeff Jenkins and Julie Greenberg – a Chicago-based clown and an actress who wanted to continuing the training they began at Circus Smirkus, a youth-based circus in Vermont.
Around that time, LTC ensemble members had a conversation with another colleague Tony Adler in which someone, and no one quite remembers who, said that the company had a dream to open an actor’s gymnasium where ensemble members could continue to develop physical skills. A couple of years later at an Evanston Arts Council meeting, Adler learned about an available space in Evanston’s Noyes Cultural Arts Center and called LTC with the news that he had found a place for the actor’s gymnasium. LTC was not in a position to start such an organization, but LTC member Distasi and Hernandez (they would later be married) were, and with Adler they began the Actor’s Gymnasium in 1995. Initially the design of the organization was to offer classes in order to raise money to sponsor artists to develop work. But with the absence of sufficient funding, the Actor’s Gymnasium remained a venue primarily for classes rather than project development. Over the years, the Gymnasium has regularly produced showcases for students and faculty. More recently, it has produced its own Flying Griffin Circus and developed a program in which adult students can propose projects that, if accepted, the Actor’s Gymnasium will co-produce.
The Actor’s Gymnasium, as its name indicates, serves as a training base for theater professionals as well as for the general public including adults and children. Classes are offered in circus arts, gymnastics, stage combat, juggling, acro-dance, puppetry, capoeira, mime, clown, and percussion. The physical space (25-foot ceiling at its apex, sprung floor, and rigging) has enabled Lookingglass to create and rehearse circus acts for its shows. Danzig played the title role in LTC’s Baron of the Trees in 1999, and remembers workshops at the Actor’s Gymnasium. “Working on an Equity contract gives you no time to discover and develop circus acts so they made workshops that were not mandatory in which we developed the choreography … the choreographer was the trainer [Sylvia Hernandez-Distasi] … she had to find out what we could do and be able to perform a hundred percent of the time when the show was running” (Danzig, 11 January 2007).
Two years after the Actor’s Gymnasium was founded, Chicago became home to another company combining circus and theater, The Midnight Circus, founded by Greenberg and Jenkins, who trained alongside Hernandez at the 16th Street Lookingglass rehearsal space. Though Greenberg and Jenkins found ample space with Lookingglass and eventually the Actor’s Gymnasium to continue training, they discovered that Chicago fell flat in terms of offering performance opportunities for their newly developing circus act. So Jenkins and Greenberg took matters in their own hands and that effort resulted in When Circus and Theater Collide, of which Danzig was a part. The show opened in 1997, and ran for almost a year, first at the National Pastime Theater and then at the now closed Ivanhoe Theater. When Circus and Theater Collide launched the company Midnight Circus, which has since developed into an active performing, touring, and teaching company with its high-profile annual Midnight Circus Chicago Halloween circus spectacle in downtown Chicago.
In 1998, PerformInk, Chicago’s trade paper for theater, ran a story titled “Chicago: Circustown USA?”
It opened with the following statement: “Circus training in Chicago: 10 years ago that would have been an oxymoron. But in the past five years, with the success of training centers such as The Actors Gymnasium and what might have been the most influential show in Chicago last year, The Midnight Circus, all that has changed. Actors and non-actors can now study a variety of acrobatic and trapeze arts, as well as clowning, at various locations throughout town” (Long). Both the Actor’s Gymnasium and the Midnight Circus provided the means to bring actual circus skills into the theater: high-wire and slack-wire, web, trapeze, acrobatics, etc. And their presence and work broke down a mystique around circus, a barrier, which was actually quite real. Greenberg attributes the experimentation in theater and circus to something farther-reaching than Chicago’s local scene. As the walls around Eastern-block nations literally and figuratively fell, circus artists from those nations began arriving in the United States seeking performance and teaching opportunities. The availability of circus arts teachers made accessible a formerly inaccessible art form. According to Greenberg, historically, “skills passed from family to family, it was a closed thing. And if you weren’t in the family, you couldn’t get them” (Greenberg). Now several international circus arts performers and teachers have made Chicago their home and workplace. Nourbol Meirmanov runs Meirmanov SportsAcro and coaches a variety of performance projects, Gloria and Julio Gaona run the Flying Gaonas Gym — a flying trapeze and circus arts school — and Nyangar Batbaatar of Mongolia is the lead acrobatics instructor of the Midnight Circus.
Integrating theater and circus requires time to train and substantial square footage and ceiling height, which Danzig and I found to be available resources in Chicago. “The original Midnight Circus was basically a theater artist, circus performer and circus trainer … getting together and making something happen, and that was the kind of thing that would have taken thousands of dollars in New York … Because the space is so expensive in New York, people don’t have as much time because they’re spending more time making money …” (Danzig 11 January 2007). In 1996, when Danzig and I arrived in Chicago from New York City, we were able to rent for approximately $1200 per month a 1300-square foot storefront work/live space on the outskirts of Wicker Park, which included 900-square feet of open space with 13-foot ceilings. It was a far cry from our $800/month 600-square foot apartment in New York City’s East Village (which itself was quite a deal).
Our storefront was able to accommodate a red scaffold, which Danzig had kept in storage for six years. This scaffold was later to become the central set piece and driving force of physical action for 500 Clown Macbeth.
500 Clown Macbeth is Born
So, how did this milieu and its resources give rise to 500 Clown? In the midst of these various collaborations, Danzig began to develop the idea of a circus-based Macbeth. The original idea actually belonged to Danzig’s colleague Michael Goldberg, which he shared with Danzig, Greenberg and Jenkins. Greenberg and Jenkins worked on a Macbeth production with Defiant Theater. Danzig spun the idea in his own direction. Referring to that community of artists in the late 1990s, he remembers, “that was the caldron in which the concept [of 500 Clown Macbeth] came into existence and that’s important because what you had there were theater artists who were stretching themselves to become viable circus artists and doing a pretty good job of it, being able to imagine things that people couldn’t imagine otherwise. Being in a context of those people is when you start to really have good ideas” (Danzig 11 January 2007).
Danzig’s first idea for 500 Clown Macbeth was to have five clowns saying, “When shall we three meet again?”, what he calls a “stupid idea.” Danzig was following his clown teacher Philippe Gaulier’s advice, whom he remembers as saying, “to make a clown show you need one very stupid idea. And so that was the idea” (Danzig 11 January 2007). Then there were the auxiliary ideas. “The idea of superstition was to have something majorly collapse every time the word ‘Macbeth’ was said … More than the circus arts actor stuff, it’s the circus arts rigging … things could fall in a really controlled way, things could collapse, somebody could ride a piece of set to the ground from the ceiling, hold a moving motorcycle in the air … you can think different things” (Danzig 11 January 2007). The predominant mode of developing the vision for 500 Clown Macbeth was conversation between Danzig, former Redmoon colleague David Engel and myself. In January 1999, Danzig and Engel met Paul Kalina at an audition for Big Apple Circus Clown Care, held at the Actor’s Gymnasium. Clown Care is a community program founded in 1986 by Michael Christiansen and run by New York City’s Big Apple Circus. The program brings clowns into children’s hospitals. Clowns are paid and become part of a highly structured team that undergoes orientation, on-going training, and therapy to help deal with the intensity of the work. In addition, clowns participate in annual retreats that bring together the seventeen teams from around the country for socializing and ongoing training with master clown teachers.
Kalina was at the Clown Care audition after having recently moved back to Chicago. In his training at Dell’Arte International School of Physical Theatre in 1996-1997, he found that clown and physical theater practice allowed him to become more emotionally available as a performer, less locked up, less introverted and less stuck in his head. Based in San Francisco for a couple of years after training at Dell’Arte, Kalina founded Le Pamplemousse with former Dell’Arte student and circus equestrian Annie Dugan. Le Pamplemousse was a street clown act. Kalina credits his street performing with teaching him how to play with audiences and turning on his passion for trafficking in the uncertainty of that relationship: Who is going to play? Who is not going to play? In 1999, Kalina chose to return to Chicago, where he had been doing theater and stunt work prior to his sojourn out West.
Kalina and Danzig’s meeting at the Clown Care audition led to increasingly lengthy late night phone conversations riffing on a clown version of Macbeth; months later they launched 500 Clown Macbeth with $3000 out of Danzig’s personal bank account, which has since been paid back by the company. Rehearsals were in fellow artists Meghan Strell and John Musial’s 4000-square foot loft in the South Loop. Charybdis was chosen to be the performance space, a 14,000 square foot multi-arts complex run by Gregor Mortis. The former bowling alley turned performance, exhibition and rehearsal space was located on the northwest side of Chicago.
500 Clown Macbeth was a performer-centered production, in the sense that it was conceived by the performers and rehearsed often without a director in the room.
I came to an early rehearsal, not holding the title of director, but rather as outside eye and collaborator. I brought in woodcut images accompanying an edition of Macbeth to provoke physical improvisations. The opening of the show then and now is physically embodying the heath, an action derived from one of those woodcut-inspired improvisations. Jon Sherman, who arrived in Chicago in summer of 2000 after completing the training program at the Lecoq School, joined me as outside eye.
Another collaborator on the show in addition to Danzig, Kalina, Engel, Sherman and myself was designer Dan Reilly, a former Redmoon designer.
Danzig would go over to Reilly’s house to teach him about clown and essentially empower him to construct a design that could support the clown-theater form. The goal was for Reilly to make a playground for clown.
Danzig and Reilly’s early discussions lead to a masterfully engineered scaffold (the formerly mentioned red scaffold) and a series of platforms that collapse at various times and in various ways during the show creating uncertainty in the performers and audience.
When 500 Clown Macbeth opened in October 2000, the massive Charybdis space still held remnants from “Recess! The Playground For Adults.” The space had been transformed into a playground complete with treehouse, skee-ball, video games, cargo climbing nets (which the clowns climbed down for their entrance), slot-car racing, swings, slide, and half-pipe for skateboarders. On closing night, November 4, 2000, 500 Clown Macbeth was absorbed into the next Charybdis event, “Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be,” a Halloween extravaganza featuring bands, performers, and interactive exhibitions. Charybdis was ousted from its space in 2002, after ongoing clashes with the ward’s alderman. Charybdis, itinerant to the present day, still maintains an active website that documents the Public Zoning Hearings leading to its ouster.
After 500 Clown Macbeth closed at Charybdis, Danzig and Kalina wanted to keep working on the show. Engel opted to pursue other theater work, leaving an opening in the cast. In the audience on opening night at Charybdis was Molly Brennan, another recent addition to Big Apple Circus Clown Care’s Chicago team. At that time, Brennan was making her living acting with the Factory Theater; teaching part-time with Barrel of Monkeys, a theater company that performs plays written by grade school children in their in-school playwriting programs; and doing short-form improvisation at Navy Pier, a lakefront entertainment center and boardwalk with rides, shops, restaurants, theaters, exhibition halls and museum. Big Apple Circus’ Clown Care exposed Brennan to a world of theatrical clowning different from more familiar circus and birthday party clowning, and led her to understand the clowning components already inherent in her improvisational work. When Brennan saw 500 Clown Macbeth, she recognized in it the kind of work she wanted to be doing, jumped at the chance to audition when Engel left, and was invited to join the company.
City of Fools: Showcasing Clown-Theater
500 Clown Macbeth’s second incarnation with Danzig, Kalina and Brennan took place in March through April 2001, as part of the City of Fools Clown Theater Festival produced by Danzig at the Chopin Theater in Wicker Park. City of Fools was an effort on Danzig’s part to celebrate what he identified as uniquely strong and vibrant clown-theater activity in Chicago, evidenced by five resident clown-theaters at the time.
Danzig’s vision as he described it in the festival’s press release was “to develop Chicago’s sense of what clowning is and help each company get a sense of its unique energy.”
Danzig sought to engage artists and audiences in the exploration of the question, “What is clown-theater?”, through an array of clown-theater performances and classes.
In addition to presenting 500 Clown Macbeth, festival activities included performances by Asylum 137, a 4-person all-male ensemble that used a flexible scenario and close attention to audience reaction to structure the show. The company eventually dissolved in part because one member went to work with Cirque du Soleil and another with Blue Man Group. Also on the roster was Theatre Corps, a short-lived company founded and directed by former Lecoq student Blake Montgomery, who worked with Jon Sherman and sprung, Redmoon, and later founded his own theater space called The Building Stage. Danzig invited two performers with solo shows from Toronto, who came with their clown teacher and director Sue Morrison, then artistic director of Toronto’s Theatre Resource Centre. There were also late night cabarets, a clown jam in the form of a public improvisation by all the participating performers, classes taught by Morrison, and a class and discussion on clown led by clown historian Dominique Jando, then Associate Artistic Director of The Big Apple Circus. (See Appendix II for Festival Schedule).
Danzig’s goals were twofold. Firstly, Danzig wanted to give artists working in clown- theater a chance to develop their work in the context of their colleagues in Chicago and beyond, thereby being “… challenged by each other to become better” (Goddu, PerformInk). Secondly, Danzig wanted to develop larger audiences for clown-theater.
“I’m convinced there is a big enough audience out there for all of us and that the more the audience sees, the more discerning they will get and our work will become better because they (the audiences) will need it to be”
(Goddu, PerformInk). In the press release for the festival, Danzig credited Chicago as a site for the festival, writing “City of Fools is indebted to Chicago which has provided us with the time, space and audience needed to develop this emerging genre.”
Reflecting back six years later on what 500 Clown learned from participating in City of Fools, Danzig finds two critical new ideas for the company. One was that there was an audience, and it included a broader age range than what the company initially expected after its debut at Charybdis. The anecdote the company remembers is that a sixty-year old woman celebrated her birthday with friends by coming to the show, a demographic 500 Clown did not expect. Secondly, Danzig grew aware that 500 Clown Macbeth was significantly different from the other clown-theater shows that the Festival hosted. The more typical clown-theater show is a short or evening-length introduction of a clown character to an audience, where the character is the subject of the performance.
500 Clown Macbeth had a narrative arc that emerged from what the clown characters do; that arc becomes the subject of the show, not the clown characters themselves. Noticing this distinction factored into the company’s decision to continue working.
After the City of Fools Festival, 500 Clown decided to independently produce 500 Clown Macbeth, returning to the Chopin Theater for a run in spring of 2002, and then at Pulaski Park Auditorium, a Chicago Park District building, in fall of 2002. As 500 Clown became a known entity among its artistic peers, and as 500 Clown Macbeth proved its ongoing appeal with returning and new audiences, the company was invited to enter into presenting and co-production agreements, marking a transition from producing independently.
PAC/Edge Festival: Reflecting and Manufacturing a Hub
In spring of 2002, Susan Lipman, director of Performing Arts Chicago (PAC) invited 500 Clown and eight other companies to participate in the first annual PAC/edge Festival in late winter of 2003. 500 Clown was just beginning work on its second production, 500 Clown Frankenstein, and decided to premiere the work in the festival, thereby entering into a presenting agreement with PAC. PAC was established in 1959, and was known as a presenter of chamber music, until it expanded its mission in 1992 to present a broader array of contemporary performing arts, bringing national and international companies to Chicago. Alongside PAC, was The International Theater Festival of Chicago, which closed in 1996. The Museum of Contemporary Art’s performance program, which began when the museum opened in 1967, continues today under the direction of Peter Taub, who came on board in 1996, when the new MCA building opened housing a 300-seat theater. Taub was formerly curator at Randolph Street Gallery, an artist-run venue for and presenter of performance and visual art, in operation from 1979 through 1998. The Columbia Dance Center is an active presenter of dance, and the intimate Links Hall, which used to primarily present dance, is now presenting a wider range of non-text-based performance, under the leadership of CJ Mitchell, formerly manager of Goat Island. Additionally, Chicago Shakespeare Theater has been bringing in international theater artists. Its 2007-08 season includes James Thiérrée who creates visually spectacular works and the legendary director Peter Brook.
Lipman, in the 2003 PAC/edge program, writes that the festival was conceived “in response to a groundswell of brilliant work being created within Chicago and the perception of a local audience prepared to embrace these works.” The most prominent part of PAC/edge was the performance festival held at Chicago’s Athenaeum Theater, a complex in Chicago’s Lakeview neighborhood. The complex houses three blackbox theaters, a large auditorium (seating almost 1000), bar and lounge, and over-sized stairwells and hallway spaces, all of which the festival used for performances, site-specific installations and visual arts exhibitions. Additionally, the Athenaeum provides low-cost office space to arts organizations including Lookingglass and formerly Redmoon before it relocated to its own headquarters appropriately called Redmoon Central in Chicago’s West Town neighborhood. Other components of the PAC/Edge Festival included helping to build networks between artists, between artists and arts-in-education programs, and between Chicago artists and national and international presenters. PAC also had a partnership with the School of the Art Institute, which was a co-presenter of the Festival.
The invited companies to the six-week festival included 500 Clown, Curious Theater Branch (producer of Illustrious Bloodspill), Plasticene, Blair Thomas (who by then had left Redmoon to begin Blair Thomas & Company), Lucky Pierre (a multi-disciplinary art-making performance collective), Oobleck (a theater company adamant about not having a director and offering sliding scale ticket prices determined by the ticket buyer), David Kodeski (a writer and performer who creates shows based on oral history, memory, diaries and photographs), and Albany Park Theater (a multi-ethnic ensemble of teenagers creating original theater out of the real-life stories of Chicago’s immigrant, working-class Albany Park neighborhood). I was also invited as an independent artist and created DOG, a theater company, which created performances for each of the three Pac/edge Festivals. Meghan Strell (who had the loft in which 500 Clown first rehearsed) ran a company called Local Infinities, which was a later invitee to the festival. PAC/edge served as a meeting place for theater companies that Lipman identified as working on the edge of a theatrical language. Companies negotiated shared theater spaces and light plots, complicated rehearsal schedules, and informal promotion of each other’s events. Participating artists hiked up stairways hauling set pieces and props for each other, borrowed and loaned ladders and other equipment, and stumbled upon each other rehearsing in out of the way corners. Some compared it to summer camp. PAC/edge ran for three years, 2003-2005. Sadly, the end of the festival marked the end of PAC. The complexities of running the festival and assessing its successes and failures are beyond the scope of this chapter, yet would be a fascinating study of trying to manufacture a hub or cauldron of artistic activity, networking, and audience development.
500 Clown brought 500 Clown Frankenstein, in different stages of development, to the first two festivals. Just as Danzig hoped the City of Fools would help each participating company to get a better sense of its unique energy in relation to other companies, so being in the context of other companies in PAC/edge helped 500 Clown to know itself better. As to what was learned, Danzig observes that firstly, 500 Clown recognized the value of not being a nonprofit organization. 500 Clown was financially dependent on the number of people who came to see the show. It was not, however, a simple financial equation. All profits from all the shows were pooled together and then equally divided among companies.
500 Clown noticed how hard it worked to attract audiences and began to observe the ways in which that hustle to fill seats was different from what companies were doing that also received grants and donations from foundations and individuals.
Danzig says, “that’s the game of theater for us … We’re assuming the work is good …What we have to do is get people to come to it … This is connected to the perspective of clown on stage – the focus is: Does the audience enjoy this? Are they interested? If they are, that makes me happy” (23 February 2007). Participating in PAC/edge marked a transition for 500 Clown from independently producing itself to being presented and partially produced by other institutions.
Allying with Companies
A year and a half after the 2003 PAC/edge Festival, Lookingglass Theater Company produced 500 Clown Macbeth in its 2004 summer slot in its new state-of-the-art home located in Chicago’s chic and vibrant shopping district known as The Magnificent Mile. Lookingglass had moved into the landmark building that was formerly a pumping station in 2002, ending fifteen years of itinerancy. Three years later, 500 Clown is once again planning to run 500 Clown Macbeth in summer of 2007, this time in repertory with 500 Clown Frankenstein, as part of Steppenwolf Theater Company’s Visiting Company Initiative. This title was given to an already existing programming initiative that aimed to demonstrate a core value of citizenship as well as to recognize that the talent Steppenwolf uses comes out of Chicago’s vital storefront theater scene. The initiative allows Steppenwolf to share its resources of space and staff, to foster the work of younger artists, and to build bridges with other companies through repeat visits. Both Lookingglass and Redmoon, before they moved into their own homes, appeared at Steppenwolf multiple times. The arrangement is neither outright rental nor donation, but a financial agreement aimed to ideally benefit both parties. The production budget includes visiting company costs as well as Steppenwolf’s administrative and production costs for the production. After these costs are met, profits, if there are any, are divided between the two companies.
In these two cases, Lookingglass and Steppenwolf occupy a presenter/producer role for the smaller company, 500 Clown, thereby providing several benefits. One is that by attaching their names to 500 Clown’s work, these hosting companies are essentially recommending 500 Clown to their audiences, many of whom are loyal subscribers. “It’s like introducing somebody to a good friend … I think you’ll really like each other” (Danzig, 23 February 2007). Secondly, producers and presenters from out of town will travel to Chicago to see the show because of the name recognition of the larger theater organization. Additionally, presenters look to the websites of well-known theaters like Steppenwolf to develop their own programming ideas. They see 500 Clown listed and potentially get interested.
Allying with the City
In addition to these alliances with other theater companies, an alliance with the City of Chicago has been integral to 500 Clown’s development as a company.
For any presenter or producer of public events, contact with city government is inevitable. The city’s zoning regulations and fire and handicapped accessibility codes dictate what legally can and cannot happen.
Because 500 Clown does not run its own space, the company has only dealt indirectly with the City on this level. The only noticeable impact on 500 Clown was having to replace the exploding firecrackers in 500 Clown Macbeth with an exploding hot water bottle (and later an exploding balloon), a switch made for Lookingglass and again for Steppenwolf, and having to use a battery-run candle in lieu of open flame in 500 Clown Frankenstein.
500 Clown’s primary contact with the City of Chicago has been through use of city-run spaces as opposed to setting up its own space. The company’s first relationship with city space was through the Chicago Parks Department (CPD). In a promotional statement on CPD’s website, the department’s superintendent and Chief Executive Officer Timothy J. Mitchell writes, “We are dedicated to providing high quality, affordable cultural programming to patrons throughout the city.” A quick scan of park district programming includes performing arts, writing, visual arts, outdoor and environmental education, clubs and games, early childhood recreation, fitness, etc. Regarding the CPD’s relationship with artists, the department offers a program called Arts Partners in Residence, in which arts organizations use CPD space in exchange for offering classes to community members. Additionally, CPD rents out rehearsal and performing spaces at reasonable costs, which attracted 500 Clown to the Pulaski Park field house, constructed in 1914. In fall of 2002, 500 Clown presented 500 Clown Macbeth in the building’s auditorium. Lights, sound equipment, and box office staff were not provided. 500 Clown’s audiences waited on long lines to pay cash to a company friend working the ticket table, and then proceeded to make themselves at home on metal fold-up chairs.
In the following summer of 2003, 500 Clown Macbeth returned to another CPD building, Theater on the Lake (TOTL), a city-run theater complete with equipment and staff. TOTL, a partially out-of-doors venue located directly on Lake Michigan at Fullerton Avenue on Chicago’s North side, began in 1952 as a summer theater presenting a season of hits from the past year’s season at Chicago-area theaters. Selected companies transfer their shows to the theater for a week, in exchange for a flat fee, technical support, house management, box office services, and exposure to the theater’s subscription and single-ticket buyers. 500 Clown Frankenstein appeared at Theater on the Lake in summer of 2004.
500 Clown’s next alliance with the City of Chicago occurred as part of the city’s revitalization of the loop’s theater district, an initiative described by Christensen in a chapter entitled “The New Theater Capital of the United States.” The 1990’s initiative, led by Mayor Richard Daley and his wife Maggie Daley, an avid arts supporter, resulted in a noticeable revitalization of Randolph Street, former home to the legendary Rice’s Theatre in 1847, and now anchor of the newly dubbed “Downtown Theatre District.” The District includes the reopened 1926 Oriental theatre at 24 West Randolph, currently home to the long-running Broadway show Wicked, the Palace at 171 West Randolph Street, and the relocation of the Goodman Theater to the corner of Randolph and Dearborn from its former home adjacent to the School of the Art Institute on Columbus Avenue. “In all, the city government put in nearly $60 million for the new/old Randolph Street theaters, plus about $7.7 million more for street decoration and signage heralding the new district” (Christensen 272). Additionally, hundreds of millions of private and public dollars were poured into Millennium Park just South of Randolph Street and West of Michigan Avenue, which houses the Harris Theater of New Music and Dance and a Frank Gehry designed band shell.
On the South side of Randolph Street between Wabash Street and Michigan Avenue is Chicago’s Cultural Center, which houses the Department of Cultural Affairs (DCA). According to Sutton, the DCA in most American cities is a granting department. Chicago’s DCA runs a physical building that it was handed in 1977, turning the DCA into an arts programmer and presenter as well as a granting department. The breadth of the DCA’s programming and stature attracts cultural leaders like Chicago’s current Commissioner of Cultural Affairs, Lois Weisberg, as well as making it a player in cultural tourism and a partner to downtown urban developers. Consequently, when small local theater companies like 500 Clown work in DCA-run spaces, these companies by extension play a role in Chicago’s cultural tourism.
500 Clown entered this new relationship with the City of Chicago in fall of 2004, when it presented 500 Clown Frankenstein at the DCA-run Loop Theater. The Loop Theater was a short-lived venue in a retail building on Randolph Street, two blocks west of the Cultural Center. The Randolph Street building was slated for demolition to make way for luxury condominiums, part of an effort to increase residential living in downtown Chicago. In the two years between its retail shops closing and demolition to occur, the building’s storefront was converted into a theater and its upstairs space into rehearsal rooms. Marketing materials noted that the building’s temporary conversion echoed its origins as a Telenews Theater when the building first opened in December 1939. In 1953, it was renamed the Loop Theater, a venue for feature-length films, until turning into retail space three decades later. The return of the Loop Theater (this time for live performance) was a partnership between the DCA, Chicago Department of Planning and Development, and five of Chicago’s off-loop theater companies. The goal as outlined in promotional materials was to create a theater complex in downtown Chicago by maximizing city resources and making interim use of unused space. The plan included providing a venue and marketing support to theater companies for free, encouraging the growth of new creative talent, exposing downtown audiences to cutting edge performances of high artistic merit, keeping ticket prices affordable, and providing day and evening rehearsal space to emerging theater companies at an inexpensive rate.
As the plan intended, 500 Clown received the 99-seat space free of charge for approximately six weeks, a box office phone number, and advertising in provided brochures.
Though the demolition team had not yet arrived, the walls were literally crumbling; each physical impact, however minimal, shed more paint and plaster.
Because 500 Clown had the space entirely to itself, it brought in a graffiti artist associated with another city-run arts program, Gallery 37, who worked with his students to decorate the makeshift lobby. 500 Clown gave a late-night slot to aforementioned theater-maker Blake Montgomery who had created a new clown piece with former 500 Clown students. On off-nights 500 Clown taught an advanced clown-theater class that culminated in a public showing.
After its tenure at the Loop Theater, Claire Geall Sutton, then Public Programs Manager with the DCA, encouraged 500 Clown to propose a show for another DCA-run theater space, The Storefront Theater. The Storefront Theater is a permanent space, also on Randolph Street located in the Gallery 37 Arts Building just across the street from the Cultural Center.
In stark contrast to the Loop Theater (demolished in 2005), the Storefront is a polished, well-maintained space complete with security staff, café, lounge, technical director and building shop. The arrangement provides the 99-seat house for free. The city takes 15% of box office, leaving 85% for the company. Front of house staff, box office services, technical director, and publicist are provided, as well as marketing in brochures and postcards. In exchange, the company provides a show, liability insurance, production staff and eighty complementary tickets for Gallery 37 students. In 2005, the ticket price was capped at fifteen dollars. When 500 Clown returned to the Storefront Theater with its Christmas show in 2006, the ticket price had been raised to twenty dollars, still an affordable price. 500 Clown cannot be presented in a DCA-run space until 2009, because of a rule that DCA can only present a company three times in five years.
In December 2005, when 500 Clown Christmas was playing at the Storefront Theater, 500 Clown stumbled (partly by accident and partly by design) into a more direct role as cultural ambassador. In Danzig’s frequent visits to the DCA’s office as producing director of 500 Clown, he became aware that an adjacent office housed Chicago’s Sister Cities program. On a whim, he entered the office and had an impromptu meeting with Karen Tinta, who was then running the Sister Cities program in Birmingham, England. Luck would have it that Tinta was preparing for a meeting to begin programming a week-long Sister Cities event in Birmingham for June 2006. Danzig invited Tinta to 500 Clown Christmas. Tinta came to the performance with her colleagues, found it compelling and entertaining, and invited 500 Clown to be one of the representatives of Chicago culture on this largely business-focused trip.
Six months later, 500 Clown was on route to Birmingham with 500 Clown Frankenstein, making its European debut. Travel, lodging, touring crate and flat fee were provided by the City of Chicago. In exchange 500 Clown performed the show, did walkabout entertainment in the city center, visited the Birmingham Children’s Hospital to share with its staff their experiences working in children’s hospitals, and provided entertainment at the children’s library.
The visit enabled 500 Clown to make contact with international presenters, a break-through for future international touring.
Regarding 500 Clown’s relationship with the City of Chicago, Danzig observes that “what seems striking is that the city programs theater, and so the city is aware of its brand. Chicago is a city in which there is a really active vital storefront theater scene and the city is trying to showcase that [aspect] downtown where other legitimate theater is seen, making it tourist friendly” (Danzig, 23 February 2007).
Danzig sees himself as trying to sell to the City of Chicago the idea of 500 Clown and more broadly physical theater as a Chicago export.
Danzig’s frequent conversations with Sutton about devised physical theater in Chicago were in part responsible for Sutton’s decision to present a season of physical theater at the DCA theaters in fall of 2006, whose kick-off event was the panel on physical theater described earlier. In 2007, Danzig met with Commissioner of Cultural Affairs Lois Weisberg to share with her that Chicago is a vital and powerful center of physical theater, because, according to Danzig, it is an affordable city and therefore can support the long-term development of devised theater pieces, which need more space and time than conventional four- to five-week rehearsal processes allow. His conversation with the commissioner was open-ended, without a particular goal, but by the end, Weisberg wanted to know what kinds of spaces were needed and desired by companies. What might the city provide?
Conclusion: Chicago Theater Culture(s)
It is difficult to provide evidence for what amounts to the feeling of a city and its theater scene. In conversation, observations and anecdotes flow freely and easily. In writing, especially in academic form, they become unfounded, too detailed and minor to be pageworthy.
And yet the development of 500 Clown is in the details, in daily occurrences. It happens through random conversations turned into opportunities; through friendship and collegiality developed across aisles, over footlights, and in workout sessions; and through passing on names and numbers.
Danzig describes Chicago as a town in which people pick up their phones. Danzig wandered into Karen Tinta’s office. He called Martha Lavey, artistic director of Steppenwolf, directly, and before sharing with her that he wanted to talk about the possibility of 500 Clown performing at Steppenwolf, she pre-empted him, asking, are you going to ask me if 500 Clown can perform at Steppenwolf? He sent an e-mail to Commissioner Lois Weisberg, and two weeks later, her assistant replied to set up a meeting. A week later he was in her office for almost two hours.
Places have particular cultures, and 500 Clown has grown in a particular way within the culture(s) of Chicago. “Culture”, Raymond Williams writes, “is one of the two or three most complicated words in the English language … it is the range and overlap of meanings that is significant. The complex of senses indicates a complex argument about the relations between general human development and a particular way of life, and between both and the works and practices of art and intelligence” (The Sociology of Culture 87-91).
The story of 500 Clown in Chicago chronicles the general development of a company intricately tied to particular ways of living in Chicago, including cost of living and community networks.
And still there is another significant aspect to making theater in Chicago. Christensen describes Chicago as a town in which people do their work, rather than waiting for the next big thing. He quotes Steppenwolf ensemble member Amy Morton saying, “You’re not going to become famous here, and you’re not going to become rich, so you might as well do good work. Hone your craft. You don’t have anything to worry about except doing the work” (291). I began this chapter writing, “500 Clown was born and raised in Chicago,” meaning it found the space and time to do its work and grow relationships that furthered the work in various ways. In Chicago, 500 Clown developed its particular way of practicing clown-theater. The work itself makes up the body of this dissertation. In the seventh and final chapter, I return to a discussion of 500 Clown as a company focusing on developing a viable business model out of almost seven years of artistic practice.