This story was corrected on July 11, 2012 at 3 p.m. An explanation follows the story.
The word ‘clown’ typically conjures up images of a child’s birthday party, a big red nose and a pair of oversized shoes. But a new show from a few clowning experts proves there’s more behind that painted smile.
“On the nOse”, a collaboration from on the nOse Productions and the Rockville-based Happenstance Theater, opens Thursday at the Over the Line Festival at Round House Theatre in Silver Spring.
The hour-long show is a multimedia mash-up of a live performance interspersed with video segments of interviews with world-famous clowns including Tony award-winner Bill Irwin and Pepa Plana who runs the Women’s Clown Festival in Andorra.
“It’s about how misperceived clowns can be,” says the show’s director and co-producer, Elena Day.
Day would know. A Montgomery County native, Day performed in a student circus at Oberlin College and eventually went on to portray the Green Bird in Cirque du Soleil’s “La Nouba” for five years. Now, she works as a freelance teacher and conducts master-classes in physical theater, miming and, of course, clowning.
“On the nOse” flows in a linear fashion thanks to live performers Sabrina Mandell and Mark Jaster. The husband and wife duo, and co-directors of Happenstance Theater, play a professor and his bumbling assistant who present the video segments as a part of their “lecture” to the audience.
Clowning around certainly was nothing new for Mandell or Happenstance.
“Clowning is one of the things we use to generate material,” says Mandell. “It’s a principle that we value in our performance.” In addition to her work with Happenstance, Mandell also performs as a part of the Big Apple Circus Clown Care program, dedicated to bringing the humor of the Big Apple Circus to hospitalized children.
As for the video portion of “on the nOse,” Day and co-writer, Antony Bolante, outlined sections of the documentary before conducting any interviews. Conversations with the clowns reveal insights into questions like, “Are there women clowns?” Spoiler, there are.
Another topic that emerges as a main theme of the show is the revelation that many performers don’t like to classify themselves as clowns because of the negative or silly connotations accompanying the label.
“Clowns don’t want to be associated with being a birthday party clown ... clowns can be a lot more than that,” says Day.
So what makes a clown? Well, without giving away too much about “on the nOse,” Mandell says a lot of the time they’re the opposite of what we’ve come to expect.
“I would say accessible, familiar, recognizable,” says Mandell. “Things that you wouldn’t necessarily associate with clowns; Charlie Chaplin and Lucille Ball are great examples.”
On top of some history on the art of clowning and a section on the American perception of clowns, Day says the documentary also focuses on the importance of clowning.
“It has to do with connection,” she says. “Connecting between the audience and the performer and connection with one’s own emotion.”
“On the nOse” certainly connected with audiences in the sunshine state last month when it premiered at the Orlando International Fringe Festival to rave reviews. Danisha Crosby, associate producer at Round House Theatre, is hoping for a similar response.
“I’ll be excited to see it play out in front of audiences,” says Crosby. “In general, Mark and Sabrina tend to challenge what people think of as clowning...it’s interesting to challenge these stereotypes by hearing people talk about it.”
Happenstance and Round House have a longstanding partnership, and, according to Crosby, the theater company stages at least one show at the venue every year.
“On the nOse” is part of the first ever Over the Line Festival, which Crosby says is an opportunity to give all of the theater companies that perform at Round House throughout the year a chance to get together and see each other’s work.
“We all exist in our own little bubbles,” says Crosby. “Wouldn’t it be great to put all of this stuff on all at the same time?”
Shows at the festival are aimed at audiences of all ages, and although Day says “on the nOse” is aimed at audiences 13 and older, that doesn’t mean there won’t be plenty of laughs.
“At every performance either Mark or I get a real pie in the face from an audience member,” says Mandell. “So that’s real incentive for people.”
Correction: In an earlier version of the story, Pepa Plana was incorrectly identified as the winner of the Women’s Clown Festival in Andorra. Plana runs the festival.