“Can’t Sleep, Clowns Will Eat Me.” We’ve all seen the T-shirt, and it rings true. But why? Aren’t clowns supposed to be cute and cuddly and friendly? Why do people fear clowns?
Trey Lyford and Geoff Sobelle—creators and performers of the utterly appealing All Wear Bowlers, presently enjoying an extended run at HERE—were able to provide some insight into this sensitive issue.
“Our stage manager in Philadelphia told us something really beautiful, and we put it in the show,” says Trey. “Her daughter told her, when she was a little girl, ‘I don’t like clowns, Mommy. Everything about them is a lie. Even their feet are a lie.’”
Even their gigantic feet. And of course, as Geoff points out, their painted happy face. Clowns lie. They even lie about being happy.
“The sorrow that’s underneath a lot of clowns is people’s real sorrow, and they don’t want to deal with that,” Trey explains. They don’t like the idea of the guy with all the jokes going off to get wasted somewhere after the show.
“But the kind of clowning that we’re dealing with is the exact opposite,” counters Geoff. “It’s honesty.”
“You’re your most vulnerable, your most bare, your most naked, and what people laugh at is the core of you,” he continues. “It’s like this core of truth. It’s a form about truth. And absurdity, but that’s only funny because it’s true. Whereas the Krusty the Clown, Ringling Brothers kind of clown is totally scary. The freak wig, the big baggy pants—it’s all a lie. It’s the exact opposite.”
So you can scratch Krusty as a big icon for these guys. Instead, they cite the silent film clown—Laurel and Hardy, Buster Keaton, Chaplin—as their major influence. There are also elements of the “Red Nose” clown that Lecoq teaches, which Trey describes as “open, hyper-expressive, deeply-present, and always aware of the audience.”
In addition, they’ve been influenced by “New Vaudeville,” a form made most famous by Bill Irwin and David Shiner. (Shiner served as an important consultant on All Wear Bowlers.)
Throw in a little Magritte, Beckett, multi-media design, and the chemistry between these hard-working performers, and you’ve got an invigorating, awe-inducing evening at the theater. But back to the evil clown…
“There is that moment in Poltergeist, when the clown attacks the kid,” muses Trey. “There’s a cultural history of something that you trust turning against you. Something innocent that actually is demonic. Like the baby doll whose eyes all of sudden turn red.”
Or Chucky. Or the ventriloquist dummies that come to life in several Twilight Zone episodes. The clown phobia is starting to make sense. Yet the All Wear Bowlers clowns aren’t scary. Or depressing. Even though they’re trapped in a scenario Geoff likens to No Exit.
However, unlike No Exit, these inhabitants of a frightening universe aren’t antagonistic. Hell isn’t other people. Here, other people are salvation. These two alter-egos are in it together, and their camaraderie is touching, their slapstick delightful.
“We always kept in mind that we wanted to deal with all these more complex issues, but we wanted to make sure it was always accessible and laughable,” says Geoff. “If we were taking ourselves too seriously at any point, we put the brakes on in some way or made fun of ourselves. The moment we’re completely into the illusion, it breaks apart. It’s constantly falling apart in our hands.”
At one point in the play, a clownish illusion falls apart, and the bones of it are exposed to the audience. Yet the clowns keep desperately trying to recreate it, even though the jig is up and the moment’s gone. At their core, these characters are performers, and they must continue performing, even if they don’t know why or to what end. They can only hope that they will somehow please the forces that be and so be allowed to escape.
It’s possible that the “forces that be” are the audience. In All Wear Bowlers, the clowns are more likely to be afraid of you.
Sonya Sobieski is a playwright and dramaturg.