bleeding hearts and sympathetic ears: a response to Xtra’s Theatre Issue

This post is a response to two articles in the most recent “Theatre Issue” of Toronto’s Xtra Magazine. The articles in question are mainly “Down in Front” (pg. 30), but also, to a lesser extent, “United We Stand” (p. 24).

Is there really not enough to talk about in the theatre world that in your “theatre issue” two fifths of the feature articles are about chastising audience members?

If the goal of “The Theatre Issue” is to spread the word about theatre and to get new readers interested in coming to the amazing things our theatre community is working on, then we should agree that these new readers/potential theatre goers have done nothing to offend us yet. Whatever happened to optimism? Why have we become so xenophobic?

Fine, those people I don’t know can come, but they can’t touch my stuff.

If the goal is not to garner new interest in theatre, then congratulations! You have successfully aired your grievances to sympathetic ears and essentially done nothing to further theatre’s image of being an inclusive and open community. In fact, if anything, this will reinforce to the uninitiated that theatre people are a bunch of snobs who charge too much for their often lacklustre shows and screw it, I’m just going to spend the twelve dollars and go see a movie, or a show at Lee’s where I can hang out with my friends and have a drink at the same time the band is playing.

What has been accomplished, if the latter truly is the purpose of the article, is equivalent to posting anti-Stephen Harper sentiments on your twitter feed for your left-leaning and liberal followers in a meagre attempt to get a few favourites and re-tweets.

Now, I’m not saying we should allow, or even endorse this sort of behaviour, or that we should lie down at our audience members’ feet, begging them for the right to put on a show. What I am saying is pick your battles. After all, isn’t this why theatres hire ushers? So that if any of these offences are committed, they can step in an chastise them to their faces?

What is the point of theatre if we do everything we can to alienate our audience? Even Brecht worked against this. The purpose of his alienation was to awaken the audience, to show them that they are inhabiting the same space as the living people on stage in front of them, and to turn the audience into one found at a baseball game or boxing match. Because no matter how hard you want the audience to believe that they are in Ancient Rome, there’s no escaping the fact they are actually sitting in a little black box with sixty other people looking at a set made out of papier mache.

If we suppress the audience, if we don’t care about the reactions coming from the live crowd sitting in the seats in font of us (we’ve also, apparently, taken to chastising our audiences when they show us support. See, “United We Stand”) why don’t we just make film? If we just want to perform in front of empty husks, why should we even care about people coming to the theatre at all?

Seriously, stop touching my stuff.

Have you ever seen a show, or performed a show to a group of seniors? Seniors are among the most numerous patrons of the theatre (yes, it’s usually of canonical works and safe productions at community theatres or Mirvish stages) but they are also amongst the most vocal. They will let you know, whether you like it or not, how they felt. To be performing in a tragedy and have the villain do something dastardly, as they usually do, and then to hear a lady turn to her friend and say, “No he didn’t!” or, “What a crook,” is one of the most endearing and reassuring experiences an actor can have. Because they are present. Yes, they may be treading on your pet peeves, but they are engaged. And they can’t, and don’t care about keeping their emotions and reactions to themselves. It is absolutely lovely.

Theatre will not survive if left to snobbery.

So, yes, turn your damned cell-phones off. That includes you, theatre people. But don’t assume that everyone coming to the theatre is about to commit a crime. They are there for the same reason you are: they want to see a show. If one person in the audience is ruining that for everyone else, please, don’t be afraid to tap them on the shoulder and say something instead of complaining to your like-minded friends afterwards and writing articles about it that more of your like-minded friends will read. In essence, stop being so bloody Canadian!

I will leave you with this:

“[…] when I lived in New York, other than like midnight movies in Times Square, you will not find more polite movie theatre audiences anywhere in the world. And there’s a reason why people tend to be, I think, better behaved in New York City, which is: in New York City, if you’re a dick, you will get your teeth knocked out. There will be someone right there, literally, in New York City, if you’re, like, texting and being a dick in the movie theatre, someone will hand you your teeth. Someone will hit your face. And you know what? The world needs some of that. It’s just checks and balances.”

– Tom Lennon on the Nerdist episode 300

dossier: Helen Donnelly of FOO PRODUCTIONS and the FOOLISH CABARET

Today I’m proud to present a dossier for the generous and lovely Helen Donnelly! Aside from being my current clown teacher, Helen has had a long and illustrious career in both clown and circus performance. She’s with us to talk about the latest instalment of the Foolish Cabaret, an event I am happy to have debuted my clown at in 2012. 

Right then. On to it. dossier # 3:

Helen Donnelly

Who are we talking with?

Helen Donnelly. I’m a circus, theatrical and therapeutic clown. I’m producer of the new ‘Foolish Cabaret’ and Artistic Director of Foo Productions where I produce and create solo and group shows for festivals, theatre and circus events.

What drew you to this? (to clowning, to theatre, to wherever you are right now?)

Coming from a theatre background, I was an actor with designs for the stage, tv and film. But after a few years of auditioning, performing, wrapping up, back to auditioning again…I started to crave more of a through line to my craft. Where could I satisfy this? I was also seeking something in physical theatre. And so this led me naturally to the world of clown. I never set out to clown, and for the first few years I was awful. Truly. Crickets out there when I went on stage. But gradually (with the help of keen and talented outside eyes), I got better at it. I have no idea what made me stick to it. Stubbornness, I’m guessing.

Why the Foolish Cabaret?

I felt it was time to fill a void in Toronto to have a dedicated space for established physical theatre artists to promote their work & share their artistry while at the same time an opportunity for emerging artists to put polish on to their pieces in order to give everyone the best experience possible. So it’s about serious fools wanting to present polished pieces and give the audience the best value for their time and money. It’s also around educating people new to mime, clown, mask and bouffon. I feel there is so much talent in this city that needs to be encouraged and treasured.

What is the earliest memory you have of wanting, or needing to do this?

As soon as ‘The S.P.A.C.E’ closed back in 2003. For the last 10 years we have been orphaned and that is hard for a community. That said, the majority of clowns in our small community are newer to it, so there is not that history of knowing Mump and Smoot and training in a central spot. But I miss it. It was a special time.

Tell us a bit about therapeutic clown. I’ve heard stories about that Dr. Flap.

Ah, man—how long do you have??! Basically, this hidden art form has been an incredible opportunity for me to continue to be challenged emotionally and artistically 3 days a week. I’m currently working in pediatrics at Holland Bloorview Kids Rehab Hospital and I have also worked for years at SickKids and in Long Term Care Facilities primarily with elders suffering from dementia. At Holland Bloorview there are over 60 inpatients who are brain injured, multi-disabled or have musculoskeletal rehab concerns. It has been my joy to work there as Dr Flap for the last 5 years but also as trainer of new nose hires and program coordinator. I love my job there and I especially love how it balances out my life. To be able to be in service to this unique population in clown and with a clown partner…I feel so lucky. I am dedicated to the growth of this emerging profession.

What is your favourite memory from a past Foolish Cabaret?

Oh…that is a toughy! I would have to say being backstage with master mime Giuseppe Condello….pinching myself as we both warmed up backstage together with me thinking “Is this really happening? Am I really sharing the space with this man??” So thrilling!

Describe the cabaret in three adjectives or a phrase.

‘A space for serious fools to call home’

Do you have anything you want to share with us? A story? A photo? A song? A video?

Sure! I’m attaching The Foolish Cabaret promo video. Also a video of me in clown as Flap in a day care facility with elders with early to mid-stage dementia. And my brand new promo video of my show Saucisse which I’m quite proud of; hot off the press! And the Foolish poster. See you all on Monday at Foolish! Doors open at 7:40 so get there in good time! Thanks Andrew for this great opportunity to plug it!

The Foolish Cabaret

The Foolish Cabaret promo:

Dr. Flap:

Saucisse: A Foo Musical promo:

dossier: Dave McKay of TORONTO CLOWN and the RED NOSE DISTRICT

For the next dossier, I was able to get in touch with Dave McKay of Toronto Clown and the Red Nose District. I sent him some questions and he opened up a beautiful vault of treasures to show me his answers. It blew me away. You get a real sense Dave’s been around for the development of clown in Canada and has been very important to its current framework and popularity here in Toronto.

That said, here’s dossier number two:


First off, who’re we talking with?

Dave McKay. I’m the co-producer of the Red Nose District show, Lunacy Cabaret, Belleville Ville and the Toronto Festival of Clowns.

What drew you down this path? (to the Red Nose District, to being a clown, to being wherever the hell you are in life?)

I used to play in a band and we put out and album and toured around. The other guys got married and had kids so we stopped playing. I guess I was more of a rock star than a musician. I always preferred the performance aspect of being in a band. In the mid-nineties I read a review of clown duo Mump and Smoot – the clowns of horror. I thought I would love to see that. I went to see them and then I wanted to do what they did. I had no idea where to start as a clown so I got into improv comedy instead. While in the Second City Conservatory program I met people who had studied clown with John Turner and Mike Kennard of Mump and Smoot. So when the time and money became available I took Mike Kennard’s Baby Clown/Clown Through Mask course. Sometimes while doing improv I would connect with a character and the audience and it would all just flow naturally. However while clowning it always happened. I had found my thing. At the time I was still doing improv, theatre, music and tv/film work. So in 2006 I told myself, “nothing but clown this year.” That year I started up, the Lunacy Cabaret (with Dan Nimmo, Jeff Krahn and Eli Chornenki) and the Toronto Festival of Clowns (with Srah Buski and Adam Lazarus). The Lunacy Cabaret has a very wild audience so you need to be an experienced performer to handle them and the Toronto Festival of Clowns features hour long shows. There needs to be a place where people who are starting out can get some experience in front of a friendly audience. In the past there were some small clown cabaret shows that people could get some stage time with, but eventually they ran their course and stopped. I created the Red Nose District show to fill that role. A place for new clowns who have just taken a workshop, experienced clowns to work on new material and for people who have left clowning to come back and try it again.

What’s you earliest memory of wanting, or needing to do this?

As I kid I had no affinity for clowns. In fact I just kind of ignored them and thought they were for little kids or unsophisticated people. It wasn’t until I started seeing several Pochinko style clowns that I got into it. In particular I was doing improv in a show that Neil Muscot produced and he had Helen Donnelly on doing her Foo character. Foo did a very simple turn where his ass was itchy and he searched the room until he found a box of Gold Bond powder in a bag in the back of the room. Foo looked into the bag and then up at the audience several times before revealing the contents. Each time he looked in and then out it was a completely different face and expression. This was beyond mugging, there was a whole story behind each expression. At this point I made the commitment to study Pochinko clown.

What can we expect, if anything, at the Red Nose District?

You can expect the performers to recognize that there is an audience in front of them and sometimes to engage the audience in their act.

Tell us about your favourite moment from this event in the past.

Once a year we put the Red Nose District show in the Toronto Festival of Clowns. We get Morro and Jasp to host it. They really take the hosting job seriously and put together one of the best nights at the festival. One year at the end of the show they started a popcorn fight with the audience, there was popcorn everywhere. We have pictures of the whole audience engaged in throwing stuff with huge smiles on their faces.

Describe the Red Nose District in three adjective or phrases.

Surprising, engaging and adult.

Do you have anything you want to share? A story? A photo? A song? A video?

I recently found these videos on Youtube of Richard Pochinko teaching a clown class. He is recognized as the father of modern Canadian clowning or as we sometimes call it Pochinko Clown. I never met him but he seems like at delightful, enchanted nutbar who created a wonderful thing that has turned into a tradition. I like to watch these videos once in a while so that I don’t take the whole clown thing too serious.

He gives a good description of what he is trying to accomplish at around 2:50 in this video.

Mump and Smoot with some of their dark humour, it starts getting really dark around 4:30.

A montage of Foo clips

Red Nose District