Arts & Entertainment
4 min

Send in the clowns

Local twosome inspired by Montreal clowning great

"Our aim is to listen to our impulses and let them take us wherever they want to," says Heather Annis (left) Credit: Alex Nirta

Think of clowns.

If your mind just leapt to images of sad-faced hobos jammed into small cars or large-footed redheads shilling greasy burgers, then you have much in common with the rest of North America.

After all, most of the clowns we see ’round these parts have to do with either marketing bad food to kids or creating future nightmares for unfortunate children’s party attendees.

But anyone who’s seen the playful antics of Morro and Jasp knows that clowns can be fully realized characters, and miles away from the nearest McDonald’s. Morro and Jasp are the creations of Toronto performance artists Amy Lee and Heather Annis, clown artists who defy the aforementioned stereotypes with gleefully irreverent comedy that’s so sweetly refreshing you forget it’s intended for grownups.

After all, not many mommies or daddies (or in-betweenies) are going to take their kids to a show about two clowns getting their first periods, as happened in a previous show entitled Morro and Jasp Do Puberty. But this type of comedy really is a great blend of childish wonder in adult situations.

Morro and Jasp are typical sisters, adoring one moment and fighting the next — archetypal in a way, but also ripe with personality and individual quirks. Jasp (played by Lee) is the older of the two, flamboyantly emotional and hopelessly romantic. She’s generally the more adventurous sister, leading the duo into all sorts of shenanigans that have been hilariously chronicled in other shows such as Morro and Jasp Gone Wild and Morro and Jasp Go Green.

The latest installment of their series is called Morro and Jasp: Go Bake Yourself. It follows the girls’ antics as they try to fulfill Jasp’s dream of having her own cooking show. Of course, the results may not be anything like what Nigella Lawson dreams up — particularly since each clown sister has a diametrically opposed vision of television greatness.

“Well, Jasp wants the show to be more like a Martha Stewart/how to look good in the kitchen sort of thing,” says Annis, who created and plays the character of Morro. “But Morro wants a full-on Hell’s Kitchen.”

As the younger sibling, Morro is definitely the more mischievous girl. A tomboy by nature, she tends to follow her older sister’s lead in most things — even if it does involve a certain amount of griping under her breath or throwing the occasional wrench into the works.

“They really are devoted to each other but just very, very different,” Annis says. “Jasp is more concerned with being feminine and finding romance, but Morro doesn’t want anything to do with all that. It’s all part of growing up, and Morro just wants to stay young and have fun.”

Despite this desire to remain a child, Morro has recently begun to express romantic feelings toward her friend Sasha — a lesbianic development that surprised both creators when it arose in their Gone Wild show.

“A lot of what we discover about our clowns is done through improv and exploration,” Annis explains. “It was one of the things that did surprise us, but it made total sense because it was something we were wondering about Morro. Jasp is always talking about boys, and Morro has just never been interested.

“Our aim is to listen to our impulses and let them take us wherever they want to. So when we landed on this, it just felt right for Morro.”

Despite neither of them indulging in the love that dares not munch a carpet, Annis and Lee are excited about the possibilities that this Sapphic development opens up for their characters.

“Morro’s always been very private about these things,” says Lee. “She hasn’t actually told Jasp yet, but Jasp does suspect that something’s up there. I think she’ll be very excited at the prospect, and proud of her sister.”

The two based their characters partly on a school of clowning created by Montreal clown-master Richard Pochinko. The Pochinko Method emphasizes the gradual development of clown characters, encouraging students to discover facets of their creations through things like improvisational and mask performance.

Pochinko was born in 1946; his fascination with clowns led him across Europe to study with some of the art form’s finest masters. It was after a short stint at Paris’s renowned clowning school L’École Jacques Lecoq that Pochinko decided to return home to Montreal, where he opened his own acting studio.

Pochinko’s classes incorporated what he’d learned from the European masters, along with impressions gleaned from Native American clowning techniques and traditions. Using masks, movement and personal introspection, Pochinko developed a course plan that emphasized an individualistic approach to creating characters.

“He would bring artists closer to themselves,” says Peter Jarvis, a former student of the Pochinko Method and mentor to Annis and Lee. “He helped them open those doors that people are sometimes frightened to explore. He was like a midwife to your own inner mythology.”

Jarvis studied with Pochinko for three years, using some of what he learned to create the iconic Toronto street performance character Silver Elvis. Looking like a chrome statue come to life, Jarvis’s Elvis has entertained thousands of Torontonians and tourists alike with a performance style that is part mime, part clown and completely unforgettable.

“Before I met Richard I had all the technique in the world but not the access to it,” Jarvis says. “He helped me discover the confidence to find my own individual characters from within. All the insecurities started to fall away, and I was able to walk into any space and feel comfortable . . . like going out on the street and performing in front of the Eaton Centre. That’s what I hope to do in my own mentoring.”

Along with his performances of Silver Elvis and several other original characters, Jarvis teaches the art of clowning in both private and classroom settings. Like Pochinko (now deceased) before him, Jarvis incorporates a number of styles and methods in helping students to craft their own creations. Annis and Lee proved apt pupils.

“What I liked about their work is that they were brave and bold,” Jarvis says. “And that is one of the contingents of doing this work. You have to be brave, because you’re facing yourself completely.

“A lot of people fear that when they look within they’re going to see really awful things, but Richard Pochinko told us to embrace and celebrate these things when we see them.”