500 Clown Macbeth as Audience
In 1999 I attended the opening night performance of “500 Clown Macbeth”. It was to change my perspective as an artist, and place me on a path of challenge, discovery and adventure that would last over a decade. It would invite me to unlock my power and to face all of my weakness. It would teach me about partnership, comradery and communication. It would place me on stages all over the country, playing for thousands of people, seeking true impulse, keeping senses alive to be in each moment, to partner with the other clowns, with the room, the objects, the audience and my own self. It would teach me about conjuring and about sticking to a plan. It would show me the value of respect and the value of sticking to a plan and the value of letting it all go and to disrespect and to throw the plan out the window. 500 Clown was a success. I spent most of the time failing, and examining how that failure made us a success.
500 Clown placed me where I am now. It was the most enduring artistic experience of my life.
In the Fall of 1999, my good pal and fellow improv actor at Navy Pier (now deceased) and I wandered onto Chicago’s West Side to a burned-out bowling alley that Gregor Mortis was fashioning into a gallery and performance space called Charybdis. It was cavernous. This I remember. And dusty. And lots of stacks of things that could start a decent fire.
The stage was a series of platforms, and in the center was a rickety scaffold. There were couches arranged for the audience, and disposable cameras for each of us. Carol and I sat in the front row. Seems like all the seats were filled. Most of the folks there were people I was to get to know later. Some were actors I knew, and musicians. There was a pulsing excitement, eventually we all sat down. I don’t remember how we knew to do that. Then, the whispering began.
Raspy, whispery landscape of sound descended upon us. I looked up. There they were: David Engel, Paul Kalina and Adrian Danzig. They were dressed in kilts with red ears. They climbed through the rafters above us, hissing, whispering, rasping.
My god. What was happening?
The performance that followed was the most raw, dangerous, playful indulgence of theatre that I’d ever witnessed. It involved raw meat, a fashion show, and the entire scaffold collapsing, with David on top. I was later to learn the collapse happened early. David was injured. But they played on, until they eventually disappeared into the set. It was Clown. And it was Macbeth. And I was floored.
I blubbered to Paul, who had recently hired me to be a Clown Doctor with Chicago’s Big Apple Circus Clown Care Unit at University of Chicago Children’s Hospital.
I don’t remember exactly what I said. But I loved it. I knew I loved it. I wanted to see it again and again. And I did. Their one week run had me in the audience numerous times. I ate it up. The strangeness. The rawness. The honesty. The partnership.
500 Clown Macbeth The Audition
Some time passed. I allowed that strangeness to inform my work at the hospital and at Navy Pier. I wanted that thing they were doing. That spontanaiety, that impulse, that fearlessness….
Then I got a call.
David was moving to New York. Paul and Adrian wanted to further pursue the project. Would I like to audition. The floor fell out below me. More than anything, yes. Yes. I want this thing. I want this complicity, this partnership, this danger.
The audition had everything to do with how I behaved in failure. I didn’t know it then, but I recognize now the construct. Leslie Buxbaum, Adrian’s wife and at the time outside eye and later to become the Director, conducted the series of challenges and humiliations that were my audition. Her intellect and creative power were staggering. Her mild manner and high voice were a marvelous vehicle for her brilliance. And the whole audition was euphoric. A game of catch with too many balls. If I dropped one, I had to grab my ankles and Paul and Adrian would nail my ass with the balls. Forced memorization of unfamiliar text which involved being able to step forward if I got it right, step back if I got it wrong. “Get up High” was a task. Climbing on and lifting the comic-book muscled bodies of these two fellas made me feel powerful and weak and strange and at home.
That night I sat at the Elbo Room on Chicago’s North Side, where I was a cocktail waitress. I said to the bartender: “If I don’t get this job, I am going to quit acting. Or I’m going to make the most amazing work I’ve ever made.”
This was significant. I had trained myself well in the discipline of not waiting for the phone to ring after an audition. But something about this felt so dangerous and alive and perfect and HOME. I had to have it. I wasn’t sure how to go on if I didn’t get it.
Turns out, I didn’t have to quit acting, and I did make the most amazing work of my life.
500 Clown Macbeth the Rehearsal Process
We rehearsed at the old Zenith plant on Chicago’s West Side. I believe this was Winter of 2000/01
It was filthy and cold and concrete-floored and I loved it. The U-Haul with the set could be driven in to the rehearsal space, which was convenient. Jon Sherman was our Outside Eye. I remember that we at one time asked him to give us all direction in French.
I remember the conversation of “What is Clown” was forbidden. It was also inevitable, and we were constantly reminding ourselves we couldn’t talk about it. We could only do it. One of the many sources of tension and creativity that remained throughout our process.
There was an exercise with dowels, wherein the three of us would hold three dowels among us and use resistance and release to keep pressure among us. There was a lot of foursquare.
There was a lot of getting brave on the set, learning the trigger releases and how their proper use meant whether or not one was standing on a platform on the scaffold or laying beneath it on what I believe was a boxspring.
The most significant exercise was the first one. In my memory, it went like this: Jon had us blindfold ourselves. We were placed in various spots about the cavernous room, and asked to find each other without verbal communication of any kind. Once we found each other, we were to exit the room.
In darkness, with little sound but feet on the floor, we found each other. Then we groped out of the room. Then we stood, what seemed like many, many minutes. Suddenly, I was lifted off my feet by Adrian and Paul and found myself moving, flying, swiftly back into the room. Then I was on the platform on the scaffold.
“They took their blindfolds off.” I thought.
The game was over.
This was a new game.
I was on the scaffold, up high, blind. Adrian and Paul were on the floor, with sight.
I could hear light snaps of fingers.
I felt a light touch on my ankle.
They wanted me to jump.
I swept the air below me with my hands. No one was there.
Another touch of my ankle.
“We’re here.” It said.
I swept again. “Not there,” I thought.
Ah! “Take the Risk that we’ll be there.”
So I fell.
I fell off the scaffold, through the air and into the arms of my partners, my brothers, my other clowns. Blindfold off. Cheering. Ecstatic. All of us.
What was this?! We found a terrible, wonderful game in spite of the other game. We did something complicit, together, risking, trusting, succeeding. I chased that dragon with these two Clowns for the next ten years.
Adrian arrived at the Zenith space and announced that his Clown’s name was Bruce. It seemed right. Short, funny, and reminiscent of a Porn Star, which was very funny, since we were highly unsexy.
Paul wanted to be called “Eggbert” at first. This didn’t seem right. Too silly. Too typically Clown. I feel like I started calling him Shank. It seemed right. Strong, brief, solid.
I told a story of being hit on in a bar, and when the guy asked my name, I told him it was Kevin, which was very confusing to the poor fellow. Paul and Adrian thought “Kevin” was a good name. And so it was. Gender-challenging, and with an amusing tale
Leaning in to the idea of Failure, Adrian had the idea to accentuate what we felt worst about our bodies. Bruce, therefore, wore hockey pants that made his butt, which he felt was big, bigger. Paul wore spandex pants to draw attention to his crotch, which held some insecurities. As I had issues with my modest breast size, and felt fat around the middle, I wore a cut-off top to ski pants, which flattened me more and expanded my waist.
We all wore white button-down shirts and ties. Like we tried to dress up for the performance. We all wore kilts, but not in the proper way until after the appearance of the Crown onstage. Our donning of the kilts signified the possibility that we could be King. We could be Macbeth.
We painted our ears red. To be part of the same tribe. To show we weren’t quite human. To have a Clown element without the expected red nose. To put emphasis on listening. We painted each others’ ears. We were to never paint our own ears. The pre-show ear painting became a very important part of our ritual.
Designed by Dan Reilly, the “Mad Professor”, the set looked like some crappy green platforms and a rickety two-tier scaffold.
Dan, in fact, overheard someone in the audience in Baltimore remark upon reading the program: “There was a set designer?”
But the set was alive. The platform lids lifted off to be placed onto the scaffolding to get us closer to the Crown. Both of these had trigger-release traps to allow a Clown to fall through and disappear into the stage.
One platform tilted diagonally to swallow a clown after the final uttering of “Macbeth”, another flipped completely around to swallow another clown. The scaffold was built to collapse at the end of the show, through a series of hinges, holds and releases.
Three metal buckets with lightbulbs inside were at the front of the stage. One sputtered out, one vibrated and emitted a small explosion. The last was a trick: it only lit up. While we focused on what it might do, the set collapsed around us, leaving the dangling Crown alone in a spotlight at the end of the show.
City of Fools/My First Performance
All I remember from my first performance at City of Fools (the Clown Festival Adrian produced at the Chopin Theatre, with 500 Clown Macbeth as the Headliner) is that we had flexible tracks as our clowns, and that I did the fall through the scaffold. In later development, we found value in sticking to a track as our clown to keep the story and develop the emotional pathways and physical precision that became, along with following impulse, signature elements of our work. In 500 Clown Macbeth, Paul’s (Shank’s) realm was the emotional journey, Adrian’s (Bruce’s) was a series of feats of strength, and mine (Kevin’s) was the text.
More I remember my first performance with Paul and Adrian, which was a promotion for the City of Fools Festival, at a bar in Wicker Park, called the Pontiac. Adrian and Paul and I “got into ears” in a closet, then began the “heath” (the top of the show, where we created a sound and visual scape of a Scottish heath, and also served as time for us to get to know our audience by taking their cues, seeing them, reacting to them) We wound our way through the bar, then climbed onto the bar to do “When Shall We Three Meet Again…”
I remember the Blue Line train blew past, interrupting us. We all stopped, listened. The bar crew laughed. This was the thing. Preparing an onstage event, and being ready for it to be reshaped by the space we were in.
We tried and we failed for audiences for years, and that thing was always the thing.
City of Fools served us well. Great reviews, great audiences, making friends and enemies with the Clown community. I heard many times how inspiring the work was, how much people wanted to be up there with us.
We offered classes during “City of Fools”, and I learned more about what 500 Clown was doing than I taught. Teaching was to become a major element of 500 Clown. We taught through Actor’s Gym for many years, and always offered workshops and classes when we toured.
Our “Risk and Play” class became the one we offered the most. The goals were to put students into a state of play wherein they could carry out an action while being influenced by partners, including those on stage, in the audience, and the room, props, etc. The shape of the class grew and changed over the years, and there is a long list of Chicago performers who took “Risk and Play”, and claim it was a big influence on their work, including Michael O’Brien (Saturday Night Live), Patrick Andrews (Goodman, Steppenwolf), Paul Lopez (Absinthe Las Vegas), Eric Jeffers (Cirque De Soleil), Sara Fornace (Manual Cinema), Jessica Hudson (500 Clown and the Elephant Deal, Mucca Pazza), Jay Torrence (Neofuturists, Ruffians) and Rick Bayless (Cascabel).
The name of the Company when I started with Paul and Adrian was “F” for Failure. After the run at City of Fools, where everyone referred to us as “500 Clown”, we changed our name, once again learning the value of listening to our audience. We spent the first part of our companyship as an LLC, for profit, and in later years changed to an NFP.
First Tour of Many, Many, Many
After City of Fools, my mother, Nancy Brennan, got some money together to pay us to come to New Hampshire and devise a Clown Show with her high school students, then perform 500 Clown Macbeth with the students’ show as the opening act. On that same route, Adrian booked us performances at the Theatorium in NYC, and in Baltimore, MD.
As Adrian was tending to his ailing mother, Paul, Dan and myself went to New Hampshire to make a Clown Show at John Stark Regional High School. Dan worked to design a set with the production crew. Paul and I worked to help the students find who they were in Clown, and built a piece based on their experience at Theatre Festivals. The show wound up being called “Tempo Del Pagliaccio”, and featured a giant, menacing clock that forced the cast of Clowns to do something artistically worthy in a set amount of time. It was a big hit at the Festivals, and a featured piece at the International Thespian Society Festival. At home, it brought in a huge audience, who also dug the heck out of our production of “500 Clown Macbeth”.
“500 Clown Macbeth” in New York did something we didn’t expect: the crashing scaffold evoked the World Trade Center bombing. A good lesson in imagery, and how our work could be many things to many people.
“500 Clown Macbeth” in Baltimore also did something we didn’t expect: Baltimore became a city that loved us…LOVED us…and we returned to the area again and again with various productions.
500 Clown Macbeth Continues
I don’t know how many times I have performed this show. A whole lot. In a whole lot of cities. In Chicago, we’ve had runs at Steppenwolf, Lookingglass, and smaller theaters. We’ve played for 2000 in Southern Illinois. We’ve played for 100 in Baltimore. The show grew and changed and became an entertainment machine.
I will never forget the thrill of this show, the danger, the smell of Paul’s recipe for blood.
“500 Clown Frankenstein”
One evening in New Hampshire, post “Tempo” rehearsal, Dan, Paul and I were talking about the next 500 Clown Show.
“Frankenstein” is one of my very favorite books.” That’s what I said, and that is true.Dan agreed, and if I remember correctly, there may have been some countering from Paul. In any case, at some point, we were all on board, and “Frankenstein” became our next project.
Molly will continue to update and expand this history as time permits. Enjoy!