By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca
When you’re creating a bouffon clown show about a grotesque filthy-rich capitalist with businesses, land, money, possessions, sycophants, and an insatiable appetite for more more more, it’s not as if you have to rack your brains for material. The world, and a maniacally inflated orange-haired upstager, have seen to that.
That’s what Philip Geller and his collaborators Jessy Ardern and Emily Howard found when they began to play around with the ideas that would become Weal Thyman The Third, premiering Wednesday on the Nextfest mainstage.
Geller, who directs the new play, says that “Trump is such an all-consuming easy target for liberals, it’s an interesting challenge not to just repeat what we already know…..” And it’s a particular challenge, given the way America sucks up the news of the day, “to make it really Canadian, contemporary and here!” he says. “And there’s so much that’s happening here…. The hope is that we’d interrogate ourselves about our own actions.”
They trio call themselves Pretty Affliction. Weal Thyman The Third is, says Geller, “an experiment for us as a company to see how we can tell a contemporary story that holds a mirror up for people to see themselves.” The show description might trigger a reflexive response to the gross excesses down south. But it touches down on a wide range of topics. He throws out, off the top of his head “Jeff Bezos to Conrad Black, the oil sands, white supremacy….” And what about “capitalism, patriarchy, colonialism”?
Why clowning as the storytelling mode of choice? Geller happens to be one of the world’s natural clowns, as he discovered in high school and “a tiny unit” devoted to those techniques. He and Howard, like-minded classmates in their U of A theatre school graduating class, were drawn to it immediately; one of their favourite inspirational professors is Michael Kennard of Mump and Smoot fame. They even went to a “neo-bouffon” workshop led by Karen Hines (aka Pochsy) at the clown farm run by John Turner (aka Smoot) on Manitoulin Island in Ontario.
The way clowns interact with their audiences, instinctively breaking down the theatrical fourth wall (“or loosening it up whenever I can,” Geller laughs) gives bouffon storytelling a particularly vivid and lively immediacy.
Improv in the rehearsal room, and the collaboration amongst the six actors, had a lot to do with the production we’ll see at the Roxy. “If Jessy or Emily or whoever came up with a great idea, I’d steal it!” laughs Geller in directorial mode.
He has a long Nextfest history — “ever since Grade 10” with the innovative festival underway at Theatre Network. At first it was acting in NextNextfest (high school) productions, then clown shows at the festival’s signature performance nite clubs. He and Howard have a clown duo that has performed at the Play the Fool Festival and cabarets.
Geller’s next step as an artist, for which Nextfest has been a significant inspiration, is a master’s degree in directing at York University next fall. “I’ve been veering toward directing; it’s seducing me!” he says. “I’m drawn towards more collaborative processes” in theatre creation, he says. “I’m super-interested in breaking down hierarchies.”
Weal Thyman The Third runs at Nextfest, the Roxy on Gateway (8529 Gateway Blvd) Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday. Tickets and schedule: nextfest.org.