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DramaWatch: (more than) just clowning around

CoHo Clown Festival gets down with some feisty physical comedy; "The Hombres" land at Artists Rep; "tick, tick" heads for its final boom; the enduring wit of Louise Brooks.

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Sometimes it’s about the bubbles: Sascha Blocker hosts the opening Clown Follies. Photo courtesy CoHo Productions.

Let’s examine a question: Are clowns born or made? (It’s a relevant question, trust me. We’ll get there.)

One could consider here the ongoing debates about nature and nurture, or parse the relative weight of aptitude and application. But it seems that, on one hand the clown is in part an expression of some innate and childlike aspects of human behavior, while on the other hand, mastering the artful methods of a true clown may take years of study and practice.

Let’s consider the cases of Sascha Blocker and Emily June Newton, two of the folks behind the CoHo Clown Festival, which starts this weekend and continues through Oct. 9 with a broad slate of performances, workshops and gatherings.

Blocker’s clown life began with what she describes as “kind of an ‘a-ha!’ moment for me.” She grew up in a family that valued athletics, she explains, but she often did theater on the side. So, when needing some elective courses in college, she took a theater class. She recalls an exercise in text interpretation in which her professor chastised her for playing to the audience, for, in acting parlance, “indicating” her feelings. Later, after moving to Portland, she took a class at The Actor’s Conservatory, and the teacher there – Philip Cuomo – talked about the value in clown technique of sharing with the audience. Blocker realized that her natural impulse, which had been frowned on in (ahem) proper theater, was seen in clowning as a virtue. 

Sascha Blocker (left) and Emily Newton in the Clown Cohort’s “Beethoven & Chopin (Monster Hunters) Meet the Bride of Frankenstein (A Romance).” Photo courtesy CoHo Productions.

“I’m very connected to my physicality, so clowning made sense for me in that way, too,” she says. She went on to study in London under a successor to the famed French physical-theater master Jacques Lecoq.

Emily “High Kicks” Newton (“I used to be a dancer, so I used to be able to do high kicks. I just used that name once as a joke on Facebook or somewhere and it seemed to stick”) grew up in Australia, performing in community theater and children’s theater shows from a young age. “I did study theater in Melbourne, but I didn’t want to pursue it.” As she continued to dabble, though, doing burlesque, character sketches and the like, others encouraged her to take theater more seriously and study in the United States. After a stint at The Dell’Arte International School of Physical Theatre in Northern California, she took a job in 2014 in the Educational Theatre Program at Oregon Children’s Theatre as a way to extend her visa.

A year or so later, she, too, came into Philip Cuomo orbit; he’d seen a fringe-festival-circuit show she did and invited her to perform at CoHo Theater. “It really became like a home for me,” she says. “His whole thing for me was encouraging me to play and discover and lean into my physical style and interacting with the audience.”

Newton and Blocker became primary players in the CoHo Clown Cohort, which, under Cuomo’s expansive guidance, created a string of marvelous clown/literature mash-ups. In 2018, Philip’s Glass Menagerie recreated Tennessee Williams’ pathos by riffing on the classic play’s themes and characters through physical comedy.  Witch Hunt did the same with Arthur Miller’s The Crucible. Even more ambitious was 2020’s Beethoven & Chopin (Monster Hunters) Meet the Bride of Frankenstein (a Romance).

Philip Cuomo’s “Witch Hunt” was a riff on Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible.” Photo: Kevin Young/Neverland Images

Cuomo died in November 2021, and while the legacy he left as an actor, director, administrator, teacher, and mentor is multifaceted, its most brilliantly beveled edge might be his work as a maker of clowns.

This is the part of Cuomo’s legacy that the Clown Festival – intended as the first of an annual tradition – is meant to celebrate. Blocker and Newton helped CoHo’s program director Phil Johnson create the event, hoping to expand the Portland clown community by supporting local artists working in the form, bringing visiting artists to share their work, and attracting new fans and participants.

If it isn’t yet clear, it’s worth emphasizing what sort of clowns were talking about here.

As an exercise, I recently went to YouTube and typed in a single word: “clown.” The result was a long list of video clips, almost exclusively of grotesque, purposely horrific clowns. Somehow the predominant image of a clown has shifted from the silly to the shocking. 

“It is a hurdle,” Blocker sighs when I mention the phenomenon. “In pop culture, the scary clown definitely is a thing. But there’s a range: circus clowns, birthday clowns, the kind of clowning in The Monkees, or Help! or Mork & Mindy. This is the theatrical clown.

“In any theatrical presentation, one of the big questions is, ‘Do you see me and understand how I’m feeling?’ The clown is trying to create that connection.”

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Oregon Children's Theatre Portland Oregon
A little silliness in the Saturday clown parade around the Slabtown neighborhood Sept. 17. Photo courtesy CoHo Productions.

So, while the festival will include good some old-fashioned clown silliness such as a Saturday afternoon parade around the Slabtown neighborhood, it also will get political with Morgan Clark-Gaynor’s Clown as Protest, explore surrealism in shows by Box of Clowns and Teatro Pachuco, blend camp style and pulp-fiction stories with The Nancy Boys: Mystery Detectives, and so on.

Which, as we discuss style and subject, brings us around again to our question about clowns being born.
One of the presentations I’m most excited to see is called Big Baby, for which Newton will take on the simultaneous role of clown and infant. Newton took inspiration from an episode of the HBO show The Rehearsal, in which the comedian Nathan Fielder hired child actors to simulate the experience of caring for a baby, an exercise meant to help an Oregon woman considering motherhood. Newton says she likes the show because it’s “wildly uncomfortable a lot of the time, and because of his way of overthinking everything – which is what I’m like much of the time.”

So, did she just see that episode and think it’d be fun to have an adult rather than a child as the baby?
“It’s more weirdly personal than that,” she replies. “More about being a woman of a certain age, thinking, ‘I don’t know what that’s like, to have a baby.’ So I thought, ‘Well, maybe I’ll become the baby, and see what that’s like.’ And I thought it could be funny to have the audience have to deal with that, emotionally and physically.”

Emily “High Kicks” Newton gets back to the beginning with her “Big Baby” Sept. 23-24. Photo courtesy CoHo Productions.

Newton says next weekend’s showings will be only about 15-20 minutes long, “sort of an opening act” for other performances. As with a live devising event in the festival that will help launch the CoHo Clown Cohort’s first post-Cuomo project, the Big Baby performances will be about generating material and direction through audience interaction – “see if it’s got legs, if it can stand on its own,” she says, no baby puns seemingly intended.

But just the idea of Newton – a performer of great verve and imagination – as a baby tickles me.

I first met Newton a few years ago at a rehearsal for Philip’s Glass Menagerie, at which the actor Isaac Lamb introduced her by saying, “This is Emily. She’s the only person in Portland funnier than I am.” Lamb is very funny – charismatic, quick-witted, dexterous both verbally and physically. But in just a few minutes of off-the-cuff interaction among actors warming up, it already was clear that Lamb was right: Newton is a stitch.

So much so, you might guess she was born that way.

The flattened stage

Theory:

Practice:

Opening

Beginning another season as a guest in the Armory’s basement Ellyn Bye Studio, Artists Repertory Theatre stages The Hombres, a Tony Meneses play about men in two adjacent but contrasting locales – a construction site and a yoga studio – interacting as each privately struggles to navigate questions of cultural or sexual identity. The company touts it as a “laugh out loud, fresh, nuanced look at the complexity of male friendships through the lens of the machismo culture.” Director Reena Dutt’s cast includes such reliable talents as Jimmy Garcia and Tyler Caffall. 

Jonathan Hernandez and Demitri Tostado in “The Hombres.” Photo” Lava Alapai

***

Astoria’s TenFifteen Theatre serves up a tasty two-fer. D & D: A Night of David and Durang pairs two relatively short plays, David Mamet’s An Interview and Christopher Durang’s comic classic The Actor’s Nightmare. 

Closing

The musical tick, tick…BOOM! begins with a “tick…tick” that is explained straightaway as, more or less, the sound of one man’s anxiety. The show’s protagonist is a composer named Jon and the ticking he keeps hearing in his head is a marker of his frustrated ambition and his growing distress at the looming catastrophe of turning (gasp!) 30. So that sound is meant to underscore the emotional tone of the piece as well as to act as the kind of time-sensitive tension-building narrative device known not as a “tick..tick” but as a “tick-tock.”

So – not to give too much away – Jon finds that he’s still having to work in a restaurant to pay his rent (tick); creative work, such as writing a musical, is difficult and often frustrating (tick); the comforts of financial success, such as his best friend’s new BMW, are tempting (tick); his girlfriend wants ease and togetherness more than the nonstop scuffle of the big-city artists’ life (tick). And the terrible “BOOM” he fears is that he’ll turn 30 and not yet have the kind of stardom that obviates all his problems. 

Tyler Andrew Jones as Michael (left), Lauren Steele as Susan and Jesse Weil as Jon in “tick, tick … BOOM!.” Photo: Shawnte Sims/Courtesy of Portland Center Stage.

Perhaps other young creatives can relate. But this old non-creative finds this 95 minutes of shallow navel gazing from Jonathan Larson (who later found stardom, albeit posthumously, with Rent) hard to care much about. Stephen Sondheim, a sort of shadow presence in this show as Jon’s idol, is remembered less for being just 27 when he had his first great triumph (as lyricist for West Side Story) than for a career full of deeply considered, finely crafted and emotionally mature creations. Even Wunderkinder have to keep delivering.

Jon in tick…tick…BOOM! has a fearful attitude toward maturity, and the show’s music reflects that problem. Larson’s shows are often described as rock musicals, but his tastes in rock appear to have been lightweight and middlebrow at best (don’t think the Stones and Bowie, think Bread and Billy Joel). And while a couple of songs here (“Sunday,” “Real Life”) show a touch of Sondheim-ish spine and specificity, others are self-consciously clever (“Therapy”), trite and superfluous (“Sugar”), or just mediocre (everything else). There’s pleasure to be had in the script, which often flashes a trenchant wit, but not enough to make up for story and songs so trivial and undercooked.

What very nearly does make up for those deficiencies, though, is a cast you’ll love to watch, even in material such as this. Jesse Weill, in the lead role, comes across as a likable presence despite his character’s blinkered narcissism. Tyler Andrew Jones, as Jon’s best friend and roommate, Michael, is charming from the jump, and along with the ever-magnetic Lauren Steele (as Jon’s girlfriend, Susan) lends a soaring richness to the singing.  Would that those two supporting characters – whose minds and therefore lives appear more interesting than Jon’s – were more fully written. Maybe then we’d have had something more explosive.

The best line(s) I read this week

“In writing the history of a life I believe absolutely that the reader cannot understand the character and deeds of the subject unless he is given a basic understanding of that person’s sexual loves and hates and conflicts. It is the only way the reader can make sense out of innumerable apparently senseless actions. . . . We flatter ourselves when we assume that we have restored the sexual integrity which was expurgated by the Victorians. It is true that many exposés are written to shock, to excite, to make money. But in serious books characters remain as baffling, as unknowable as ever. . . . I too am unwilling to write the sexual truth that would make my life worth reading. I cannot unbuckle the Bible Belt.”

—- Silent-film star Louise Brooks, from an article for Focus on Film, as quoted in The New Yorker.

Film star Louise Brooks, ca. 1929. Photo: Bain News Service/Wikimedia Commons.

The New Yorker profile of Brooks by Kenneth Tynan, from 1979, reprinted in a recent edition, is full of remarkable descriptions, mostly from Brooks herself. For example, these recollections of her fellow stars in 1920s Hollywood: 

(of Fatty Arbuckle) “He was a wonderful dancer—a wonderful ballroom dancer in his heyday. It was like floating in the arms of a huge doughnut.”

(of Charlie Chaplin) “Do you know, I can’t once remember him still? He was always standing up as he sat down, and going out as he came in.” 

(of W.C. Fields) “He was an isolated person. As a young man he stretched out his hand to Beauty and Love and they thrust it away. Gradually he reduced reality to exclude all but his work, filling the gaps with alcohol whose dim eyes transformed the world into a distant view of harmless shadows. He was also a solitary person.. . . . Most of his life will remain unknown. But the history of no life is a jest.”

***

That’s all I have for now. I’ll try to do better the next time.

Editor

Marty Hughley is a Portland journalist who writes about theater, dance, music and culture. His honors have included a National Arts Journalism Program fellowship at the University of Georgia, a fellowship at the NEA Arts Journalism Institute in Theater and Musical Theater at the University of Southern California, and first-place awards for arts reporting in the Society of Professional Journalists Pacific Northwest Excellence in Journalism Competitions. In 2013 he was inducted into the Oregon Music Hall of Fame for his contributions to the industry. A Portland native, Hughley studied history at Portland State University, worked at the alternative newsweekly Willamette Week in the late 1980s as pop music critic and arts editor, then spent nearly a quarter century at The Oregonian as a reporter, feature writer and critic. His recent freelance work has appeared in Oregon ArtsWatch, Artslandia and the Oregon Humanities magazine. He lives with his cat, and dies a little with each new setback to the Trail Blazers.

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