In reading this history, keep in mind that this is my blurred remembrance of the events that defined 500 Clown, or at least defined it for us, because in the end, we were defined by our audiences and critics. Somewhere in the midst of the four versions on this site exists the truth. Not that we are changing it, but it is one persons experience and that is subjective, clouded by emotions, desires, ego and selective memory. So, as you read this, keep in mind it is my attempt to recreate the events that shaped the company and in the end, brought about the end of an era.
For me, it all began years before the first production of 500 Clown Macbeth. After graduation from Illinois State and two years in Idaho working with a children’s theatre, I returned to Chicago and began working in the storefront scene. Though it was filled with some talented and ambitious folks, and some not, I found myself to be bored by the work, even as an audience member. In the early and mid nineties most theatre companies were copying the format that Steppenwolf and the Goodman had already perfected. Though the work was good, it lacked a unique voice: artists that came together to create and to speak from a voice that didn’t exist in the theatre scene. The other problem is that I realized that I didn’t fit in this mainstream approach. I worked from a physical bent and so my frustration carried me to Dell Arte School of Physical Theatre to study mask. Instead I discovered Clown.
What was amazing was that I never wanted to study clown and yet this form has given me everything.
It forced me to work truthfully and it unearthed my love of play and physical comedy and appealed to the rebellious side of my personality.
During my exit interview, the director of the school asked what was next for me? I told him I would perform on the street for a couple of years with the group I created in school and then I would return to Chicago and create theatre on my terms. I would do it my way, as an actor-creator.
Well, the street led me to San Francisco and I ended up living with Sam Payne, an amazing acrobat for Cirque du Soleil and more importantly, for my story, an old college friend of Adrian Danzig’s. After a couple of years when I felt I had learned all I could from the Street, I decided it was time to return to Chicago. Sam had spoken to me about Adrian and told me I should look him up when I get to Chicago. Well, as fate would have it, The Big Apple Circus Clown Care Unit, which would play a role in creating the company, was having auditions for the new satalited program in Chicago. And, at that audition I met Adrian, a crazy wild clown who had created a dog routine with a dog skeleton. Unfortunately, I had to leave the audition early, but I was lucky enough to get a spot on the team. Which, in a few years, would also include Adrian and Molly.
But, I get ahead myself. Soon Adrian and I began seeing each other at shows the other was in or at shows that we both were attending and these chance meetings spurred long conversation.
In the days following my creative juices exploded. I began to ask myself, what could this show possibly be? And then it came to me? It’s the clowns attempt to do Macbeth, but they can’t do it, but in not doing it, they do it. I called Adrian about this and that began a two month, almost daily, one to two hour conversation about what the show. We brainstormed all kinds of thoughts and plots. Adrian suggested we play with the superstition surrounding the play, which is ripe for the clown. So, came up with all these ideas for things to go wrong and blur the line between planned events and improvised.
The other players initially would include David Engle and Rick Kubes. David came from a very classical training and approach to the work and Rick was an amazing actor that I knew in undergrad and also a great drummer. Unfortunately, Rick had suffered a knee injury and was beginning a family at the time and it turned out that it wasn’t going to fit his schedule. After a few other offers, we decided to stay with the three of us. As I remember it, this is where the title of the show was discovered. David, Adrian and I met at O’Rourke’s, the since leveled drinking establishment of the Steppenwolf on Halstead. I believe someone in a state of excitement misspoke and said 500 Clown Macbeth and I remember jumping on it. Yeah!
500 Clown that’s perfect. 5000? No. 50? No. 500, now I would go to see that show. 5 clown, what esoteric thing is that, I would say if I saw that on a poster, then 5000, well that’s just absurd, but 500? Possible, crazy what the hell could that be?
Over time, it would come to encompass our audience, and refer to the failure in getting 5 clowns together, but at first, it was lighting…an inspirational misspoken word…awesome! From there we met at a loft on the S. side of Chicago to rehearse and in 21 hours the show as it would be seen was created. It all seemed to go together so quickly and all we did was play. Adrian brought in buckets and we created a game around the “When shall we three meet again…” speech as the witches, the only rule was no two people could speak at the same time. It became a standard piece in the show and collaborated our listening and connections to self, each other and the audience. Originally, the crown was going to be a toilet up high, but we couldn’t figure out how that would crash through the tower we wanted to build….so David suggested a crown. Then, we decided to create a cooking show with blood and a fashion show where we put on kilts and walked a runway. We decided to shoot someone and the tracks would be interchangeable, if you found yourself in a position then you had to complete these duties. It was loose, raw and dangerous….it was glorious. We were also in our thirties and still felt invincible. Though, to this day, I would jump up on that scaffolding in a minute.
We took the show to Charybdis. A gutted bowling alley on N. Milwaukee. We decided to not spend the money on posters and printed some postcards and decided to use the new mainstream mode of communication to spread the word: email. It worked, for 6 shows we had over three hundred people. It might not sound like much, but for an unknown entity in the hinterlands of Chicago, it was amazing.
Dan Riley, “the Professor”, built the amazing set. Anything we dreamed up, he could make, and make it with found objects from his meanderings up and down Chicago alleys. A farm boy with a degree in electrical engineering, perfect for the clowns. Dan was even more fearless than us. One of the first trap doors he designed was so flimsy that neither Adrian or I would try it, but Dan jumped right up there and jumped around. Finally he relented and built a sturdy frame for it. He figured out how to create mechanisms to collapse the scaffolding on cue, which over time went from pull string operated to pneumatic. Set designers would marvel at the construction.
The sets were works of art and a big reason for the company’s success.
As we rehearsed on the set, it became obvious we needed an outside eye. Leslie Buxbaum Danzig came in to help and her eye was keen. She gave shape to the piece and asked great questions about the work. I loved having her in the audience. I remember the fervent conversations at the old bar across the street after rehearsals. We would buy a $4 pitcher of Old Style, a bunch of snack bags and get Leslie’s notes that would lead to long impassioned conversations between the three of us as Leslie fell asleep on Adrian’s arm.
The roof in the space had holes in it, and pigeons flew in and out of the building. The lighting consisted of galvanized buckets that we wired with light fixtures and screwed into the wood beams. The extension chords ran to a table with two power strips connected to wall dimmer switches. The SM would unplug and replug flipping switches on for lighting effects. Later we graduated to Halogen work lights while performing at the park district buildings. We would put our makeup on and paint each others’ ears up in a loft above the space. They had the huge cargo nets hanging from the rafters, so we decided to make our entrance as the witches on them. Thus began the commitment to use whatever the space offered in the show. Years later, we would descended from a balcony in one theatre, which scared the crap out of the presenter as he gave the curtain speech and saw us up in the balcony waiting to descend over the edge.
Charybdis was a gas. The responses were either love or hate and that was exactly the kind of theatre I wanted to create. One of those that loved it and completely understood what Adrian and I were trying to do was Molly Brennan. To this day I can see still see her face.
Upon completion of the show, Adrian called to let me know that David no longer wanted to continue and asked if I was interested in continuing the exploration. “Absolutely!” I had to do it, there wasn’t a choice. We had given birth to something electric and new and it needed nurturing. He asked if we should continue as a double or find a third and I said we have to have three. He asked who and two names came up. One of them being Molly Brennan. We asked them both to audition and they both were great. But, to have a woman and one as versatile and game as Molly, the choice was obvious. I remember making that call to Molly. She was visiting her parents and I called their land line (remember land lines?) and I kept a somber voice while talking. The conversation went something like this, “Molly, hey, first I want to say you had an amazing audition. We really enjoyed playing with you and want to thank you for coming in. We’re sorry, but, we want to know if you would like to join us?….(pause)…Wait…Oh my God, Yes!” The playing begins.
Molly brought style to the company. As we began rehearsals in the old Zenith plant in Chicago, she mentioned that she wanted to dye her hair purple. Which inspired Adrian to dye a red target on his head and inspired me to embrace the balding pattern and shave all my head except the tuft that grew on my forehead, which I greased down and parted. We all wore white shirts either long sleeve or short, Adrian wore a neck tie that he cut off and Molly and I wore bow ties. Some of the items emphasized the areas of our bodies that made us uncomfortable. Adrian had huge hockey pants making his butt larger, Molly wore a snowsuit top that flattened her chest even more and I wore football pants, which made me feel very exposed.
Jon Sherman directed this version. He wanted to help us bring the work closer to the story of Macbeth. We threw out things, created new material and Molly’s gift for text brought more of that into the work. The trio began to form, Adrian the eccentric, Molly the driver of text, and I the mule. We kept the freeform aspect of the show, in that the line you played was determined on your position on stage after the second bucket explosion. Later, we found it to be more productive to keep the same line.
The show was a sold out hit at City of Fools, the clown theatre festival produced by Adrian. The new trio was dynamic and Molly brought so much to the work. We began to gel as a trio. We even created names for our clowns. Molly decided she wanted to be called Kevin, Adrian pretty quickly followed with Bruce and I at first felt we were close to the pedestrian so I went with Eggbert, which was shot down. It wasn’t until we were loading in and Molly and Adrian got on my case because I didn’t have a name, and they started throwing out names at me. I think it was Adrian who said “Pork chop, or Pork Shank” ….and I said, “Shank” seems right. And so, I was named by my two partners, which in a way, followed the natural dynamic of our trio. Adrian was running on all 12 cylenders with the accelerator to the floor, Molly’s mind was quick and her tongue even faster, and I moved much more methodically. Later, as we developed Frankenstein, I began to play with how long I could hold the audience by doing almost nothing.
The next few runs would take place at park district buildings, theatre on the lake and again at The Chopin theatre. The big event, was a grant that Molly’s mom got to bring us to N.H. and build a show with her kids that would then double bill with us at a local theatre. Molly, The Professor and I spent a week or two out there to work with the kids and begin building a show. Dan began to build a giant clown eating clock with the design students and in the evenings we would have long creative talks over a glass of bourbon. During one of these conversations, the story of Frankenstein came up. Molly expressed her love for the story and Dan confirmed it. Molly remembers me having reservation about it, but my memory is that I thought it would be good if we stuck to the Shelly story and not the pop culture versions. But, as I stated in the opening, somewhere in all of this is the truth.
During rehearsals for the tour out East, we asked an amazing clown teacher and director Ami Hattab to direct. We felt the piece could use some more classic clown material and Ami was the person to do it. We rehearsed in a gutted former dry cleaning facility that now served as a doggie daycare. It was February, the windows were broken, we could pull our cars into the space and there was dog feces everywhere. Luckily, it was unseasonably warm, except for the final dress when the temperature dropped to a negative wind chill. But, the space was cheap and we weren’t picky.
Upon completion of our performance in N.H. Adrian found a space in N.Y. that I fondly dubbed, “The toiletorium”. The place was a disaster and the staff even more so. Adrian was spending his days with his mother who was dying, and the first explosive fight occurred right before our first show. We were all stressed to the max and Adrian was raw, as one would expect. Oddly enough, I remember it being a good show.
The run there met with the same love / hate responses that we received in Chicago, especially from some of the old clown guard from the Big Apple Circus Clown Care Unit. Eight years later, one of the loudest critics of the work scheduled a private meeting with me after attending one of my workshops and asked if we would consider inviting him to play with us. The irony was rich.
We left N.Y. wishing for more to have come out of it, but we planted the seed and six years later we returned to PS 122 with Frankenstein and 500 Clown Christmas and a much better reception.
From N.Y. we headed south to Baltimore, which became a home away from home for us. The city kept asking us back and we loved returning. Twelve years later, while working at Center Stage in Baltimore, the partner of the lead actor found out I was working on the show and was beside himself. He saw this first show and never missed any of our runs in or around the city. These moments always surprise me. It feels great, yes, the ego gets a boost, but I am always amazed that our work had such a profound effect on some people. I don’t know why, but it just does. I say does, because three years after the break up, I still meet people who saw us, were inspired by us or want to interview us….crazy.
Upon returning to Chicago we got to work on Frankenstein. Molly piloted the show and we began rehearsals for a premier at the new PAC edge festival. One of the goals for this show was to create a show that could tour easily. In the explorations we came up with a table. A three hundred and seventy five pound monster that could flip open, slam down, and had leaves that could open and close, another masterpiece by Dan Riley, also his albatross. Dan kept building it thinking we couldn’t break it and in a few days we would call him in for repairs. Eventually, he settled on a combination of plywood and steel.
We wrestled with the question “What is monster?” At the time bullying had come into the spotlight with the Columbine shootings. We looked at the relationship of father and son and creator and creation. It took us three years and multiple runs to finally put the whole thing together.
In the early years, Molly had a hard time finding a through line. But, eventually, the book was given great importance and an audience member referred to Molly as Mary Shelly. That was it, it all took off from there. Another example of our audience telling us what we are doing.
During this process, Leslie signed on as full time director. The company was now whole.
Frankenstein toured well: Orange County, N.Y., Minnesota, Pittsburgh, St. Louis, Milwaukee, Michigan, Baltimore, Maine, even to Birmingham England. The simple set and four person touring package made it affordable and easy. However, we did add a Stage Manager and Tech Director to the mix. The tech director was Jim Moore (Safety Jim) who rebuilt, maintained the set. He also focused the plot and loaded our tech cues. He was indispensible. As for Stage Managers, we had a few. The first, who had the most difficult job of helping us understand what a stage manager needed in order to affectively do her job, was Laura Glenn. One of the finest stage managers and being connected to Steppenwolf, promoted us relentlessly to the establishment. In time, it would pay off, as Lookingglass and Steppenwolf invited to play at their theatres. Later, Angie Boller, Dawn Wilson. These are the unsung heroes of our work, because stage managing clowns is like herding cats. They also needed to call the show from a feel instead of concrete cues- not for the faint of heart.
About this time, we started teaching classes through the Actors Gymnasium. At first, Molly and I primarily taught these classes as Adrian had a full time gig at Roosevelt University. We had a great time teaching them, and they always filled. A number of students have gone on to have very successful careers. Now, I don’t attribute their success to our classes, but many of them state that the level of risk and what they had to face in themselves, brought greater danger and vulnerability to their work.
As Macbeth and Frankenstein continued to travel and have runs in Chicago we kept a look out for the next show. In 2005, I attended a production of A Christmas Carol at the Goodman. I hadn’t seen it since I was a kid and I looked forward to seeing it again in their new space. I ended up being very disappointed. The piece had become Disneyfied. The sets were complete realistic fabrications instead of suggested scenery, and it had lost its darkness. The whole thing became safe.
The final straw was the pixy dust that Scrooge threw in the curtain call. I turned to my girlfriend at the time in dismay, and she said, “500 Clown should do a version of this.”
I took it to the rest of the group and 500 Christmas was born. Molly had been working with a musician and composer in town named John Fournier and suggested we make it a musical. So, we would venture into clown musical theatre.
During this time I had another group called The Bumblinni Brothers, a duo comedy acrobatic act that used a lot of Chico Marx style play on words. We had been seen by the Big Apple Circus and they approached us to be in their next tent show. I spoke with the company and it was decided that I should take the gig, and they would ask Chad Southard to do Christmas and cover any gigs that came up with the other shows. Well, long story short, after this was all set and the company began working on the show, the contract fell through. So, I left for grad school, with the caviat that I could travel for 500 Clown gigs.
Christmas was created and it was the first time I sat in the audience to watch a 500 Clown show that I didn’t create. It was a wild ride and a crazy clown party. The whole time I was wishing that I was up there with my partners. Molly’s voice rocked, Adrians energy was electrifying and Chad found his own sensitive misfit longing to make the big splash persona. They were wonderful to watch.
The following year, Chad bowed out and so I took over the role and we began to reshape it a bit. As for the darkness in the story, well, it didn’t really follow the story of Christmas Carol, but became a clown concert that displayed the joy, dysfunction, depression, party and gift giving insanity that surrounds the holidays. It became the anti Christmas Carol event, without us trying for that, but the audience that attended began to refer to it that way. Once again, the audience labeled it, and the critics picked up on it.
We added a coffin because Jim Moore our TD had one in the space and Molly did the most amazing quick change in it in the dark. John Fournier’s music fit us like a glove, and it was a big party.
Somewhere in here, maybe before, Phil Smith of Lookingglass Theatre approached us to be the first guest company to play in their brand new digs downtown during the summer months. We were floored. We got to build a brand new updated version of the Macbeth set and light the show with real lights! Their new space fit us perfectly like a glove, with scaffold like structure on the walls that begged to be climbed upon and catwalks we could descend from. It was here that Martha Lavey of Steppenwolf first saw us. Rather fortuitous, she would ask us to bring both Frank and Mac to the Steppenwolf two years later. This run gave us the stamp of legitimacy in the commercial realm. We were on cloud nine. In five years, we went from a gutted bowling alley to Michigan Avenue. Who would have thunk it?
The following year we would take Christmas and Frankenstein to PS 122. In that version, there were these huge windows that opened to street below and Adrian would go out on the buildings ledge and sing to the folks walking along the street during Dance Like a Monkey. Again, we used what the space offered. We filled the houses and had a blast. What ride we found ourselves on.
Just before this gig, we signed on with a manager and we began to book gigs around the country at Performing Arts Centers and Colleges. Suddenly our dream of creating a touring company was coming into fruition. Unfortunately, it took some time to book enough gigs that we could actually make the ends meet. Actually, I don’t think we ever got to that point, but we were so good with our money that we had bankrolled enough to start to give each of us a monthly salary to carry out certain duties for the company. Adrian was Producing Artistic Director, Leslie manned the books and paperwork, I took care of tours and sets, Molly was in charge of marketing and merchandise. We did it our way, probably not the best way for business, but as with the form, we were making it up as we went.
The next big gig was Steppenwolf. Two shows in rep for the summer. That house was rock’n. We were rock’n upstairs, much to Anna Schapiro’s chagrin and August Osage County was tearing it up on the mainstage. One of my fondest memories of this time was heading out to the parking lot after the show and seeing Fran Guinan catching a smoke break out the back door. A simple wave, sometimes a few words about the shows that night and that was all. To this day, he is one of my favorite actors to watch on stage.
We began to look towards the next project. Adrian and Leslie had taught a class at U of C using Brecht’s, Mann ist Mann, and Adrian thought it would be perfect for us. We all jumped in and decided that the next challenge would be to add two more clowns and lets have John Fournier collaborate and it will be a musical. Leslie and Adrian worked like dogs and got this huge grant and the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center would commission the piece. We also got Steppenwolf to invite us back in two years for the Chicago premier.
As we began the long table work and brainstorming sessions, I remember at one meeting I passionately stated, “This is either going to break us through to a whole new level of visibility or be the end of the company.” It turned out that it would be the later of the two.
The work was hard. We constantly were throwing out the story, songs, new material trying to figure out how five clowns work with the band. The set was a huge three legged truss system that we could climb on, but didn’t really offer many surprises. We fought the material, each other, the work and at every turn it seemed like we were loosing the battle.
There were many reasons for the collapse. But, the one main struggle was that we, a company the deconstructs classics to tell the story, was using a text by a playwright that deconstructed the theatrical conventions to tell his stories. So, the clowns didn’t really have traction. The piece ended up becoming a strange mix of war images, Cabaret, changes of identity, but never really found a strong through line that the audience could hold onto. We were ambitious and lived by our motto, Life is worth the risk. This time the risk was so great, the company fell apart.
That said, I still believe we were onto something really powerful with that show. A number of audience members could see the diamond in the rough and were exhilarated by the possibilities. But, the number of years together, the dysfunctional coping mechanisms that grew over time in the relationships, the desires for other performing outlets, and time….it was ten years and the work had run it’s course. The show ended we packed it into a garage for storage and all ran from each other as far as we could. Many of the wounds are yet to be healed, perhaps they never will be. Yet, I look at it all and in the end, we stayed true to our work and desire to risk.
The company continued to tour a few more years, but suddenly understudies were needed to cover Molly or my roles because we had other gigs. And then one day, I realized I had to say goodbye. To let it all go, because I wasn’t growing anymore as an artist. I was holding onto the past as my identifier and as long as I did that, there was no room for new ideas or possibilities. I felt like I was saying goodbye to my child for ever. In a way, I was, but that meeting with Adrian brought it all full circle. We opened our hearts, spoke the truth and shared our dreams. Just as it all began twelve years earlier.
I am eternally grateful for Adrian, Molly and Leslie and 500 Clown. I am where I am today because of my work with them and the company. We created our own work, shook up the theatre scene in Chicago and every other city we played. We worked from our hearts and built work with great integrity. It led me to teaching, which I love. With the same fire and passion, I try to fan the flames of my students’ creativity. It introduced me to my wife and I have three amazing children. It will have helped me acquire tenure (if all goes well). It also made me face me and many truths. Next to my children, it is the greatest creation I have ever been a part of and some of the richest years of my life.
So, those are my words and my foggy memories. I’m sure I got timelines and events mixed up and events were omitted and perhaps even wrong. Such is history I guess.
Use what you can. Learn what you will. If there is any worth in this, I believe it is this, create from your voice and your heart and always risk it all. No matter the outcome, it will reward you a hundred times over.
At this time, I need to mention some folks that were always there to help us whenever we needed a hand or volunteered to build or repair set pieces. These folks became part of our clan and we invested in them as I believe they invested in us. Art & Nancy Brennan, Larry and Doris Buxbaum, Leah Urzandowski, Beau Johnson, Jim Moore, Dawn Wilson, David Wimsat, Lee Keenan, Matt Hawkins, Jessica Hudson, Matt and Darell, Laura Glenn, David Schmitz, Jack Cohen, Phoebe Stein, Mary Fournier, The Signature Room, Fannie Hungerford, Nicolle Wood, Mariann Mayberry, John Muisal, and I know I am missing many here. Please forgive me, but know that we know it would have been difficult without you. Many thanks.