Scrolling down my Facebook feed, I see links to pieces about tragedies both abroad and here in the U.S., crowdfunding campaigns for those desperate to afford their medical care, and thinkpieces trying to carve out room in readers’ brains for hope. There are also photos of babies. Underneath all of these, there’s a button I can press to register a cartoonish representation of my response—I like this. I love this. Wow! I’m sad. I’m angry. Not all the emotions we might need, but those we’re thought not to be able to do without, for propriety’s sake.
We all know that this online world flattens our lives in strange ways, that emoticons are shorthand, that we can get carried away. Most of us don’t deactivate our accounts; we keep updating our smartphones and refreshing our apps. We say that our use of these smartphones is an addiction, or something like it. At least, our smartphones are artifacts that symbolize certain ironies we all can appreciate.
Social media is also the way I usually find out about upcoming shows and events. There’s a flyer on my Facebook feed for an upcoming play. The flyer depicts a frazzled-looking man with wild hair being prodded and seeming distressed, all in sepia tones. The play is Lunatics & Actors, the new offering from Los Angeles clown theater troupe Four Clowns. In a world where at any given moment I could be outraged, or I could despair, I’m going to attend some live theater.
Lunatics & Actors
L&A is an original play written by David Bridel and inspired by an actual Victorian doctor, Dr. Duchenne, who sought to systematically photograph facial expressions which correspond to emotions. L&A director Jeremy Aluma described the real Duchenne’s work as relying on belief that if he shocked a specific part of a subject’s face, he could produce a specific emotion. The image from the show’s flyer comes from the real Duchenne’s work, which were groundbreaking at the time, and which now are incredibly eerie to look at.
The title of the play, Lunatics & Actors, may read like a humorous jab at creative types, but it also points provocatively to the role of the arts in our society. Playwright David Bridel said, “I’ve always been fascinated by definitions of acting, and the role of the actor in our world. Shaman, trickster, vagabond, artist, craftsman, creator, interpreter, social commentator, role model, celebrity… What is an actor, and what is he or she supposed to do? It’s murky territory and ripe for exploration.”
In Duchenne’s story Bridel found a way to explore these questions.
At Clown School
I asked L&A director Aluma about his relationship with the playwright, which has spanned a decade. The two first met when Aluma took a class of Bridel’s in the theater department at Cal State Long Beach. Soon afterward, Aluma began taking classes from Bridel, this time in clowning, at the newly minted Clown School, which Bridel co-founded with Orlando Pabotoy. Aluma says that this marked his the first time he connected with clowning as an art form and understood its purpose, even though he had encountered it in the past. He credits Bridel with unlocking a door for him into the art of clowning.
While attending a subsequent class at The Clown School, Aluma got the idea for a show, which was to become the play Four Clowns. Four Clowns follows four archetypes—angry clown, sad clown, mischievous clown, and nervous clown—through their development across three stages of their life—childhood, adolescence, and adulthood. And, in Aluma’s words, “adulthood essentially meant death.”
Four Clowns premiered in 2010 at the Hollywood Fringe Festival and has now played over 75 times all over the country, including La MaMa in New York City; in Chicago, Las Vegas, and Minnesota; as well as multiple times in Los Angeles. The success of this production from the start spurred Aluma’s formation of his clown theater company Four Clowns, which shares the name of their successful first play.
Aluma cites Slava Polunin’s clown show Slava’s Snowshow, which he saw off Broadway around the time he started taking Bridel’s classes, as another inspiration for Four Clowns. Aluma describes Slava’s Snowshow as beautiful and magical, “one of the best shows I’ve ever seen.” Its artistry inspired Aluma, but something else did too—its narrative style. Aluma describes Slava’s Snowshow as a series of vignettes that were tied together, but which nevertheless required the audience to assemble them into a storyline. Aluma enjoys this style of storytelling, but he also realized through watching Slava’s Snowshow that it is a common narrative structure for clown shows. This inspired Aluma in part to create Four Clowns, the play, and later Four Clowns, the company: he wanted to explore creating clown theater that had a clear narrative.
Among other companies in Los Angeles, Aluma believes Four Clowns is “one of the only clown troupes producing full-length productions that have a run,” he says. “So we seem to be the only clown theater troupe.” This is different, he says, from other troupes, which follow a variety show or improv model. Though Four Clowns appreciates and indeed incorporates those elements, its vision as a company holds storytelling paramount, and has more in common with theater companies, clowns or no, than clown troupes per se.
Lunatics & Actors is not the first collaboration between Bridel and Aluma. In May 2012, Four Clowns first workshopped Bridel’s Lunatics and Actors, as well as another play of his, Sublimity, a one-man show about Samuel Taylor Coleridge starring Bridel as Coleridge. As for Lunatics & Actors, Aluma described its development like this: “David would initiate ideas of games and riff off of the experimentations of this doctor to create exercises between four actors. Sometimes David and I would act and we would try stuff out and he would write stuff down, and then eventually there came a script. About halfway through the process, he had taken all these ideas and games and things that we had fleshed out and turned them into a fully arced piece. Some were literally taken word-for-word from our exercises, but more often than not, he was riffing off of sparks of things that kind of happened.”
Aluma describes Four Clowns’ work as tending to be a little bit dark overall, but even against this baseline, he says that L&A is quite dark—and in a different way than their previous shows. L&A does not include sexual explicitness, or violence, or pop references, but instead is more rooted in psychological realism. When dealing with the electroshock experiments of a Victorian doctor, it’s easy to imagine that this psychological realism will set a dark tone. That there can be humor arising from the dark subject matter expresses a deeper hope inherent to this story: that there can be humor and art to be found in personal horrors, ready and waiting with the power to redeem pain.
A work of theater is wrought from the lives of its actors, who are immersed in a play long before the curtain rises, as well as after it falls. With a title like Lunatics & Actors, I was not surprised when my conversation with Aluma turned to the life of an actor. Among a variety of acting methodologies, Aluma noted that actors are sometimes rewarded for what is apparently a total commitment to a role that extends beyond being on set. Examples of this are many, from Leonardo DiCaprio’s performance in The Revenant, to Jared Leto in Dallas Buyers Club, and remembering Heath Ledger’s performance as The Joker—some actors are able to immerse themselves in a performance that takes over all aspects of their lives, and some face negative consequences to various degrees from this way of working.
The line between good acting and going too far is not always clear. Aluma said, “Good acting is living truthfully in the given circumstances and believing the given circumstances, but is there an end to that? Is 90% in and 10% out okay? Is 100% in okay?” This is a question about craft, but it’s also a question about wellness. Aluma continued, “Often actors describe their work, and their acting onstage and they say, I don’t even know what I just did; I was lost. And often, that’s the best performance. And maybe in certain roles, that’s okay, but in some roles, it can become dangerous.” This danger might arise from an actor’s own impulses regarding her or his role, or it might come from an actor’s training, whether explicitly or implicitly. Either way, this reflects social expectations about acting and, more broadly, the arts, and it has real effects on actors.
Duchenne put his task of cataloguing emotions above potential psychological or even physical harm to his subjects. There are similar ethical dilemmas in science and medicine today, and there have been heartbreakingly many examples throughout history, and even recent history, of ethical failures—scientists harming marginalized people, citing a specter of the greater good. If theater is a human experiment, and if the actor is both experimenter and subject, is there ever a time when it’s worth it for an actor to put themselves at risk of psychological harm, if it means they might make good art?
Bodies in Motion
A theater troupe with clowning at its core is uniquely well poised to consider madness and extreme emotional states. While film and television sometimes imply a level of realism by virtue of the power of the camera, it’s understood that theater is a representation of life, not life itself. But it’s not out of the question that certain theatrical forms which don’t claim to portray life with accuracy, might portray its emotional truths with greater accuracy, or at least on a more visceral level.
Aluma says that on the stage, there’s something about how bodies move through space in three dimensions that creates a unique relationship between performers and audience. Film and television might try to capture this embodied relationship, but can only approximate it. He says, “telling a story on the stage, you have the opportunity to make things more magical, or make things bigger, or make things, you know, slightly off-putting. Whatever your style of storytelling is, I think you have the opportunity to do it with greater abundance on the stage.” Off the stage, however, one of Aluma’s favorite films of the last 10 years is Beasts of the Southern Wild, which he experiences as magical and very theatrical, while also telling “a very real story.”
Surreal narrative forms might feel magical because they portray a world that works differently from ours, but there’s something else that’s likely to feel magical to those in their 20s and 30s today: live theater and music events, which leave the audience with a sense of connection. Aluma spoke of the sense of isolation that can accompany the supposed connectivity of social media: “Facebook is about connecting us, and in some ways it does. I know what’s going on in my friends’ lives from all throughout my past, but also it makes it easier for me not to connect to them because I don’t need to reach out. On my birthday I get 300 Facebook messages and a very few texts and phone calls, and I feel like this inherently builds a desire to connect in a social way because we’re missing it. We’re being told we’re connecting and we’re not feeling like we are.”
Bridel had something to say about this too: “I notice a peculiar discord in our contemporary culture between feelings, which run amok in certain venues (like social media), and the broader idea of humanity, which can sometimes come under attack as a direct consequence of all these rampant emotions (think violence at political rallies). So I would hazard that this play has something to expose about the relationship between emotion and truth, and the relative merits of both—or neither.”
The arts are not a panacea. But after too much time scrolling through a screen and selecting emotion buttons from six options, attending a show like those put on by Four Clowns is sure to feel like one.
Four Clowns presents Lunatics & Actors, a world premiere by David Bridel
Friday, April 29 at 8pm
Saturday, April 30 at 8pm
Friday, May 6 at 8pm
Saturday, May 7 at 8pm
Friday, May 13 at 8pm
Saturday, May 14 at 8pm
Thursday, May 19 at 8pm
Friday, May 20 at 8pm
Saturday, May 21 at 8pm
Thursday, May 26 at 8pm
Friday, May 27 at 8pm
Saturday, May 28 at 8pm
Show runs 90 minutes with no intermission
WHERE: The Shakespeare Center of Los Angeles, 1238 W 1st St, Los Angeles, CA 90026