Talk to a clown when he’s not wearing his makeup and costume and discover he has very nice teeth and normal-sized feet. His sense of humor, however, remains irrepressible.
The Troubadour Theater Company is presenting “Clowns’ Labours Lost,” another of its Shakespearean romps, as part of the Santa Monica Civic Light Opera’s summer season.
“The clown character is the actor,” says Troubadour’s Artistic Director Matt Walker. “Imagine these clowns reading the want ads and seeing a casting call for Love’s Labours Lost. When the clown gets out there, how will he act Shakespeare?”
The performances are free to children 15 and under. “The whole show was created with kids in mind,” he says. That may be, but his mere descriptions of the buffoonery are enough to set an adult chortling.
As Walker describes it, “It’s a simple boy-meets-girl kind of thing, but with physicality.” The show opens with pure clowning, then 10 minutes of the story, then more “eye candy.” Accompanying the dialogue are pies in the face, foot stomps and eye pokes.
“If I just have clowns speaking verse,” he says, “I’m not being true to clowning. If I just do Shakespeare, I miss all the physical stuff Shakespeare must have done.” So he asked himself what the play would look like through the eyes of a clown, as well as through the eyes of a child. “After all, I have a pretty short attention span, too.” The show runs an easy 90 minutes. He wanted to call the show “Clowns’ Labours Lost And You’ll Be Home In Time For E.R.”
He says the production is in the period, “cramming the girls into their bodices.”
Girl clowns? Can a lovely, young performer the likes of Malibuite Rachel Wolfe do physical comedy?
“I think I feel more comfortable being silly,” she says. “It comes more easily to me. It’s less of an act.”
Coming from an academic family (her father is an English professor at USC and CSUN, her mother is psychologist Bonnie Wolfe), she turned her focus on “more artistic endeavors,” attending Santa Monica High School where she studied theater with Dr. Frank Ford. Having attended the graduate program at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Arts, she says she is still learning. “This play has really stretched me,” she says. “I had to overcome psychological blocks that inhibit you from flying through the air in the general direction of your head toward the cement.” The troupe rehearsed on trampolines and crash mats.
When the company first met to work on the play, Walker in essence asked each actor to find his or her inner clown. Says Wolfe, “Some is from the outside in, some unconsciously develops as you’re working and as you play off what other actors are doing.”
“I tried to imagine how many clowns I could think of,” says Walker, “from the stereotypical Bozo to the 16th century Pierrot and all the clowns in between.” Each actor took a different clown to match the Shakespeare character — a hobo clown, a bird-like clown, a rainbow-haired clown. He took for himself the “lower-status clown” — goofy, toothless and mischievous.
Walker was born in Santa Monica, then “moved around” until returning for junior high at John Adams. As a child, he made new friends by making hand puppets out of paper bags.
Like Wolfe, Walker studied theater with Ford at Samohi. Now their respective companies share the stage each summer at the high school during the Civic Light Opera season.
After high school, Walker continued to study theater, including physical comedy. At a workshop, his teacher Bill Irwin noticed his out-of-class pranks and remembered him years later. For eight weeks during summer 1997, Walker studied at Ringling Brothers & Barnum & Bailey Clown College. “It was like boot camp,” he says. “Six days a week, eight hours a day. We learned clowning, mime, acrobatics, dance, skills — juggling, unicycle.”
He tried joining the circus, but says, “There was no real camaraderie. It was every man for himself.” He also always felt like an understudy, wearing clothes not meant for him, spending too much time backstage while the animals and other acts were on. Walker may be the only person to have run away from the circus, not quite two months into the gig.
“To me, circus has always been about bringing it to the people — getting in their faces and sharing the experience.” He’s happy to see kids scraping up shaving cream after the show and hurling it at one another. “They go home and say they got to squirt a clown.”
Troubadour Theater Company has another important appearance Aug. 11 — before the Santa Monica City Council and probably not in clown costume (although don’t put it past Walker). The company wishes to use the Miles Playhouse at Reed Park (formerly Lincoln Park) for an ongoing program of youth theater activities.
Walker hopes Clowns’ Labours Lost will leave young theater-goers understanding and even liking Shakespeare. “Let’s take Shakespeare out of the library and onto the stage,” he says.
What of audience members who don’t like being teased or touched by the clowns? “Leave ’em alone,” he says.
Any downsides to clowning? “White makeup in the ears is the bane of a clown’s existence,” he answers. He also occasionally leaves the theater having forgotten he’s blacked out a tooth.
“Clowns’ Labours Lost” plays Aug. 6-9, 20-23, 28-29 at 8 p.m. at Santa Monica High School’s outdoor Greek Theatre, free to children 15 and under. Alternates with “Cabaret.” Call 458-5939 for schedule and tickets.