Be it Ronald McDonald, Bozo or those hoity-toity fellows from Cirque du Soleil, we’ve all been exposed to clowns in one form or another (I remain traumatized by a childhood birthday clown named Binches who gave me a nosebleed while pretending to extract a quarter from my left nostril). But long before any of these buffoonish iterations reared their painted heads, clowning was a serious art form dedicated to satire, social commentary and decidedly adult entertainment. It is this beautiful, funny and sometimes haunting type of clown that is showcased at this year’s Toronto Festival of Clowns, running June 2 to 5 at the Pia Bouman Theatre.
Festival cofounder Adam Lazarus has been at the forefront of Toronto’s clown scene for several years, his mesmerizing and gritty performances having graced major stages like Theatre Passe Muraille and Buddies in Bad Times Theatre — with nary a wig or big floppy shoe in sight.
“I never put on thick white makeup or a red fright wig,” says Lazarus, who studied bouffon performance with French master Philipe Gaulier. Bouffon is a hyper-physical art form reminiscent of the court jester who tweaks the nose of his bemused king with cutting, but forgivingly humorous, truths.
“The idea of bouffon is satirizing how you’re being viewed,” he says. “It’s to make fun of people who perceive you as an outsider. It hits ideas of money, fame, poverty… the whole spectrum of social conditioning.”
Take, for example, one of Lazarus’s better known characters, an unsavoury fellow named Ess.
“Ess is this filthy legless guy in a sack, with really disgusting teeth,” says Lazarus. “He’s pretty wild in engaging with the audience, trying to get someone to give him a blowjob or something. The audience is disgusted at first, and my job is to woo them back and make them fall in love with this character, despite their own prejudices or preconceptions.”
Phil Lutzi is another bouffon clown artist and one of Lazarus’s former students. He’ll be appearing in the festival with his sketch-comedy troupe The Specials, made up of Lutzi, partner Christopher Sawchyn, Sandra Battaglini and Precious Chong (daughter of screen stoner Tommy Chong). Lutzi’s talent for bouffon’s wicked satire manifested early in his training, with a piece he created called 911, The Musical.
“The great thing about bouffon is that you can express yourself and say things that people won’t normally say with a certain degree of safety,” Lutzi says. “It’s kind of like South Park… if it wasn’t a cartoon, then people would be pretty offended. We take the liberty of cartoon characters and just put a wig on it.”
Certainly one of the best-known clown performers in the city is David Tomlinson, a stage, film and television actor who adroitly dances the line between theatre and clowning in many of his shows. Many will remember his stunning performance as Icarus in the Wingèd trilogy, which premiered at the Rhubarb theatre festival. Tomlinson is directing a piece called The Antidote for the Toronto Festival of Clowns and is excited to see his community coming together under one tent, so to speak.
“The clowning community has been somewhat fragmented over the last few years,” he says. “But this festival helps it to become one big melting pot. You’re going to see some very diverse interpretations of the art form.”
Tomlinson’s clowning experiments, both “in and out of nose,” have continued to inform his work with intimate emotions as well as intense physicality. “There’s something really beautiful about watching bodies hard at work,” he says. But he’s still aware that the form’s sillier iterations have created some pretty big stumbling blocks for many audiences.
“There’s a weird thing with clown[ing],” he says. “It’s audacious and thrilling and intensely personal, but all it takes is one bad birthday clown experience to turn you off forever.”
See torontofestivalofclowns.com for more details.