A legendary clown guru returns to the stage … in a box: Over Her Dead Body at Fringe Theatre Adventures

Christine Lesiak (top), Jan Henderson in Over Her Dead Body, Small Matters Productions. Photo by Ian Walker.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

“I’ve been spending a lot of time in a coffin lately,” says Jan Henderson cheerfully. “Talk about rubbing your nose in mortality.” 

As a way to celebrate a return to the stage after 25 years, the view from the (unpadded) box comes with its own built-in ironies, of course. They’re courtesy of Over Her Dead Body, a new “clown-esque” Small Matters creation premiering Thursday at The Backstage Theatre and hereby launching the Fringe Theatre Adventures season.

Henderson, an authority with blue-chip clown credentials as a performer/ mentor/ coach/ director/ writer/ clown philosopher, notes with an air of amusement that mortality is the furthest thing from the clown mind. “You’re immortal when you’re a clown; you live in the moment.” And tomorrow never comes.

Tomorrow has come. Over Her Dead Body, which Henderson has created with her co-star Christine Lesiak and director Suzie Martin, takes physical comedy à la Mr. Bean or Buster Keaton into the perpetually fraught world of mother-daughter relationships.

“There are no words,” says Henderson, one of Edmonton theatre’s most engaging conversationalists (an irony in itself). Instead, there’s “physical comedy, with heightened characters,” says Henderson, who plays free-spirited mom, with Lesiak as her brisk, organized daughter. And there’s an original score, by the brilliant up-and-comer Leif Ingebrigtsen, who has created (and also improvised) entire musicals. “It’s the real world with occasionally magical overtones.”

Jan Henderson, Christine Lesiak in Over Her Dead Body, Small Matters Productions. Photo by Ian Walker.

When there are no words, storytelling takes other routes. “The music,” says Henderson, “is there to impart a basic underlay of what’s going on emotionally.” She sometimes gives her theatre workshop students a piece of music, and gets them to create a clown routine that fits. “You’re not ruled by music; you’re informed by music,” she says. “By the rhythm.”

“Clowns,” Henderson says, “experience the entire life span of every thought and every emotion…. As soon as it’s not pleasurable, they move on.” Which sets the clown apart from the rest of us, since we spend a lot of our time mucking around in denial and avoidance, or else clinging — to guilt or disappointment or regret. And so do our moms. She cites Leonard Bernstein on the transmutation of art: “we take the pains of life and craft them into gold….”

“Clowns accept all of their emotions; they feel them 100 per cent, and then it’s over. They turn to something else.” Henderson beams. “Clowns accept themselves…. Most angst comes from doubt.”

Henderson herself entered the world of clowning in something of that abrupt left-turn clown way — via pharmacy. Which makes her an intriguing partner to her Small Matters cohort Lesiak, a physicist-turned-clown.

“I’d never seen a play,” says Henderson, remembering her sudden impulse as a student at Dalhousie University in Halifax, to sign up for Drama 100 as an option. A legendary teacher, Robert Merritt, for whom Dalhousie’s teaching awards are named, changed everything for her.

“The first play I ever saw was Waiting For Godot,” with its two vaudevillian tramps at an existential crossroad trying to pass the time as they wait for meaning. Henderson was hooked on theatre. And her fellow summer intern at Halifax’s Neptune Theatre further refined the direction of this emerging career. Richard Pochinko, who would go on to found a famous mask/clown training technique, was a frequent Henderson collaborator and, she says, the instigator of her life as a teacher as well.

It was under his mentorship that Henderson’s own personal clown, the adorable Fender, first emerged. And Fender “still comes out every day,” she says, “depending on what’s happening in my own life.”

Jan Henderson, Christine Lesiak in Over Her Dead Body, Small Matters Production. Photo by Ian Walker

Over Her Dead Body is not only Henderson’s return to the stage — “I was busy!” she says of her complicated life of directing and coaching at the University and Alberta and elsewhere— but her return to an establishment with which she has a long and festive history: Fringe Theatre Adventures. They go back. Henderson was at the very first Fringe in 1982, in Small Change Theatre’s signature charmer One Beautiful Evening, a clown-mask piece set in a small prairie town bingo hall, with wistful, lonely characters who end up sharing a bingo card. 

There have been a lot of clown and mask shows since then, some with Henderson in the cast, some up on their feet with Henderson’s mentorship. Henderson has directed (and co-created) such Small Matters productions as Sofa So Good, Fools For Love, The Heavy Sleeper, Ask Aggie. And now, she’s Minnie, whose middle-aged daughter Mim returns to her small-town origins for a funeral.

“We mined all our mother/daughter experience,” says Henderson of the brainstorming that resulted in Over Her Dead Body. “All those half-drunk cups of tea scattered over the apartment, all the times my mother took off her engagement ring, wrapped it in Kleenex and stuck it in her pocket.…” 

No words. No red noses. Only the complications of real life embodied in physical comedy. “In a good play,” says Henderson, “the characters are always pushed beyond their comfort zone, into the un-characteristic.”

Isn’t it always that way when you’re with your mom?


Over Her Dead Body

Theatre: Small Matter Productions, in the Fringe Theatre Adventures season

Created by: Jan Henderson, Christine Lesiak, Suzie Martin

Directed by: Suzie Martin

Starring: Jan Henderson, Christine Lesiak

Where: The Backstage Theatre, ATB Financial Arts Barns

Running: Thursday through Dec. 9

Tickets: 780-409-1910, fringetheatre.ca

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