Consider the clown. Though clowns, in some shape, have manifested in all kinds of ancient cultures–from Native American myths of the arch-trickster to the ithyphallic satyr choruses of third century B.C. Greek drama–their image has taken quite the hit in the past 50 years.
Most of us tend to view them as either garishly made-up circus or children's party clowns, personified by Bozo, or runken, loutish boors, like Krusty, or downright fucking evil monsters, like Stephen King's Pennywise in his novel, It.
Eli Simon knows better. A professor of acting at UCI, Simon knows the rich heritage of clowning through the ages, and he's created an acting troupe, Clownzilla, that adds a little bit of lustre to this fallen icon of world theater.
We caught up with Simon on the eve of his troupe's latest show, Illegal Aliens, and picked his brain about–duh–clowns. (The show is running concurrently with another Clownzilla offering: Clownzilla: A Love Story.)
OC Weekly (Joel Beers) You are an acting professor at UCI, which sounds like serious stuff. Yet, you're also artistic director of a troupe called Clownzilla, which doesn't sound that serious, at least not from the name. Yet, the history and tradition of clowning is quite a serious endeavor, ain't it?
Clowning has led directly out of my quest to train actors who are honest, connnected and tapped into their inner clown. Clowning is indeed a serious endeavor, although clowns, at least ones that aspire to the highest levels, make people laugh, in spite of ridiculous situations and antics. I love clowning because it is serious and irreverent, meaningful and meaningless, all at once. You can't say that about too many art forms, can you?
How has the art of clowning permeated other forms of acting?
I believe that really fine actors–whether serious or comics–are tapped into their inner clowns. They know that wellspring of creativity like the back of their hands. It's not enough to carry a serious moment. You have to have a degree of humanity about you, a sense of what's funny. That stems from the clown in you. Really funny plays, movies or TV shows aren't channeling stupid Ronald McDonald, children's party clowns. They are clowning with heart and that's what infuses their art with relevance. It's the realness that touches us.
Is there a serious, philosophical side to clowning that people may not appreciate?
Yes, and it's hard to define. Simply speaking, clowns are between worlds and they connect us to both sides: Life and death, meaning and nonsense, gain and loss. This is what Illegal Aliens is about: Loss of your home; flight to Earth; the need to assimilate; traveling from one place to another and showing us the folly of exclusion. Clowns thrive on failure but that's something non-clowns try to avoid at all costs. But when clowns fail, they actually succeed. And when they succeed, we succeed as well. So, we learn in clowning and in performing clown shows that there's no way to lose, really. I think that is something valuable people learn from clowns, whether consciously or unconsciously.
How does this Clownzilla show differ from past efforts?
When I began creating clown shows, I just wanted to see if I could sustain the audience's interest for the duration of a full-length production. I was also testing the waters to determine whether clowns could garner sustained laughs for upwards of an hour. Next I tackled impossible tasks–food for clowns–through celebrating all the holidays (real and imagined) from A to Z. With Clown Macbeth and Ready, Set, Dead, I followed existing scripts like Macbeth, Romeo and Juliet and Caucasian Chalk Circle.
Illegal Aliens is mythological in nature. It's my saga of the creation of Clowns, being born on Clown Planet, blowing the planet up, traveling through space to Earth, and how they came to live among us. The troupe is tackling issues of assimilation, immigration and persecution. So, it's a lot more serious in places than my previous shows.
But there are also really entertaining moments along the way. This is also my largest American ensemble of clowns, nine, all of them very different. And we have a narrator too.
Also of note this week: These humble ears have been hearing great things about Stages Theatre's production of Our Town, which closes next weekend. Just saying…
Illegal Aliens, Money Wrench Collective, 204 N. Harbor Blvd., Fullerton, (714) 525-1400. Fri., 8 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m. Sun., 2 p.m. Thru Sept. 25. www.monkeywrenchcollective.org.
Our Town, Stages Theatre, 400 E. Commonwealth, Fullerton, (714_ 525-4484. Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m. Thru Sept. 19. www.stagesoc.org