Aren’t they stinkers? The faces of the sixth annual Toronto Festival of Clowns. Photo by Kathleen Finlay.
Mention a clown, and most people either experience (a) fear that out of its joke flower pin will spray a poisonous gas, destroying everything it touches as part of a diabolical plan to spread evil from birthday party to birthday party, or (b) an internal desire to do that themselves, just to spare their loved ones from one more moment of asinine yuck yucks and deformed balloon animals.
What doesn’t naturally come to mind are people like Helena Bonham Carter, Lenny Bruce, Geoffrey Rush, Sacha Baron Cohen, Charlie Chaplin, and Roberto Benigni. But these artists—none of whom inspire self-harm impulses or panic attacks—practice one form or another of clowning (sans frilly collar). In fact, clowning is one of the most varied, complex, and physically demanding forms of theatre, and dates back to the court jesters of ancient Egypt. Since then, different styles of clowning have had their heyday: vaudeville, mime, commedia dell’Arte, whiteface, bouffon, and, yes, even rodeo! Each with their own distinct personality and quirks, but all clowns. And it’s these clowns that are celebrated in the sixth annual Toronto Festival of Clowns, opening on Thursday.
In fact, out of the four full-length shows and four cabarets taking place this year, audiences will see a red nose in only one and a half of them (half a show, not half a nose), according to the festival’s producer, local actor and clown instructor Adam Lazarus. Instead, the festival mixes all forms of clown and physical theatre, including dance, to entice audiences new to the form who just don’t realize they’re fans yet.
“Most people are traumatized by bad birthday clowns as a kid, when they go ‘Look at this balloon, look at this balloon, look at this balloon, isn’t it craaaaaaaaaaazy?'” he says. “When clown is bad, it’s so bad. There’s nothing worse. But as bad as it can be is as good as it can be.”
And when it’s done well, according to Lazarus, the clown art form can be a vital asset in pointing out a society’s flaws. “Clowns…” in their innocence and simplicity, like the Fool in King Lear, “…are the only ones who can laugh at the face of the kings, and the king will say, ‘Ha ha ha, you’re so funny.'” Meanwhile, their dastardly cousins, the grotesque bouffons, are comedically dark and disturbing in their blunt satire of society’s villains, in the likes of Sacha Baron Cohen’s Ali G, Borat, and Brüno characters, exposing the world’s racists, anti-Semites, sexists, and homophobes. If the clown simply wants to tease the king, the bouffon wants to “make fun of the king so hard, that hopefully he dies of a heart attack.”
Gormless Joe from Keystone Theatre’s silent film–inspired The Last Man on Earth. Photo by Kate Schuyler.
And after a couple of recent elections, Lazarus says now is “…the perfect opportunity to make fun of the kings.”
Much like their fellow satirist sirens to the south, the actors in the Toronto Festival of Clowns are doing their part in adding a few laughs to make the political commentary a little easier to swallow. For example, in La Revolución, a sketch from the collective The Specials, a chorus of Frida Kahlo, Lenin, Nancy Reagan, and Che Guevara sing to Bye Bye Birdie to stop Harper from winning the election, while Nico Racicot’s gay, Jewish, and French clown in Geranium, featured in The Student Soirée, spews out the most awful, offensive, pejorative slanders to his neighbours on the street (“Oh, the festival is not for kids,” Lazarus adds), while planning a poker party with them. “I wish that Stephen Harper could be here to see this—the true Canadian melting pot. Smells like shit but we love it anyway,” the clown concludes.
“He’s saying all these racial slurs, but you love him the entire time he’s doing it because he’s got a heart of gold, and he’s part of the community. You forgive him,” says Lazarus, using Lenny Bruce’s 1950s scandalous monologue Are There Any Niggers Here Tonight? as a comparison. “They push forward the idea of acceptance, and pull power away from these derogatory words. What I love most about that is that conservative minds will say that that is not appropriate. They’ll say ‘Never say anything like that. Shh, shh, shh, shh, shh.'”
When Lazarus sees shows like Geranium, that’s when he knows the Toronto Festival of Clowns is increasing not only in scale (it’s featuring more actors from across the country than ever before), but quality as well.
“When you don’t like a clown, you really hate a clown. It has to be smart when you’re doing stuff like this, or else the audience is going to be like, ‘You racist asshole, get the hell off the stage.’ That’s satire right?”
Clowns of all kinds are weird and uncomfortable, but charming in their lack of pretense, which is why we still love them even as they (well, the mean ones) give us the finger. “For four days, the red nose pops up—an influx of the outsider, the great equalizer of ridiculousness and human folly,” Lazarus says, leaving the gag fire extinguisher and frizzy red wig behind. Instead, they do what real clowns are supposed to. “Imaginations will be sparked, your political muscle will be engaged, and you’ll laugh your ass off.”
The Toronto Festival of Clowns takes place June 2–5 at the Scotiabank Studio Theatre at the Pia Bouman School for Ballet and Creative Movement (6 Noble Street), starting at 6:30 p.m. Tickets for most shows are $10, tickets for the Masters of Clown showcase are $20, and are available at the door.