Sending in the clowns (online): Play The Fool Fest is back

Kiana Woo in Inga and the Date, Play The Fool Festival. Photo supplied.

By Liz Nicholls,

Clowns: it takes all kinds. And we have the festival to prove it.

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At Play the Fool, returning Thursday (online again) for a sixth annual edition, you’ll meet “the world’s first German Nihilist life coach,” for example, with tips on making life more bearable in these traumatizing times.  And you’ll run into Jesus, too, star of page, stage and screen, having a go at teaching Grade 2 Sunday School.

There’s a mime of affirmative stripe who advises hope in the face of frustration and discouragement. There’s a grouchy guy who offers to be your guide to the wrong side of the bed.

Jake Tkaczyk, Bedeutung Krankenwagen, Play The Fool Festival. Photo by Marc J Chalifoux.

That’s the thing about Play The Fool, the country’s only clown and physical comedy festival (for adult audiences): you never know whether you’ll meet a snarly Euro bouffon who doesn’t give two hoots whether you like him or a wide-eyed red-nosed charmer eager to be loved.    

And who knows?, you may even unleash your own inner clown, the one who’s been waiting for the right moment to come out and play. Play The Fool features an “interactive clown class” on Zoom (two actually, with a 12-participant maximum) led by the galvanizing Shannan Calcutt, a longtime star of the Cirque du Soleil’s Las Vegas cabaret Zumanity. Edmonton Fringe audiences know her as Izzy, the delightful clown who tips her secret agenda on a blind date by showing up in a wedding dress.

Shannan Calcutt. Photo supplied.Seding

Play the Fool “pivoted” in order to send in the clowns digitally for last year’s edition. And, as festival director Christine Lesiak, a clown of note herself (For Science! Ask Aggie, Fools For Love), explains “it’s the right call” for this mid-pandemic year too. “Artists need to plan….”

“I’m not going to pretend I wouldn’t rather be packing the Backstage Theatre,” Lesiak says. After all, clowns naturally, inherently, gravitate to in-person, playful, interactive encounters with real people. “We’re ultimately a live festival. That’s what we are; that’s what we want to be…. But there there are beautiful advantages to a (digital) edition.”

Looking on the bright side, there’s the big wide global audience out there, needing clowns (and Edmonton clowns!) in their lives. Last year’s edition attracted audiences across North American and the U.K. And Lesiak is keen to retain that expansiveness — “depending on the budget” — even when Play The Fool regains its natural live existence next year.

And as for the inspiration of the Play The Fool Two-Minute Film Competition, which drew artists from everywhere, it quickly morphed into a two-minute film festival, a model of compression that returns this year (on April 1, natch). “A nice little niche and untapped delivery medium,” as Lesiak puts it, “and a delight to do again.” This time, thanks to support from FAVA and Studio Post, Play The Fool commissioned six Edmonton filmmakers to create originals, to play alongside submissions from elsewhere. Details on the line-up await; stay tuned.

This year’s edition of Play The Fool is a hybrid of live-online and pre-recorded performances by local artists, all perforce solo, and all new. All but one are produced by the festival and edited by techno-whiz Ian Walker on the indispensable Fringe TV platform. The exception, brought to the festival fully formed, is Barry Bilinsky’s 12-minute film He’s My Brother, a clown tragedy in which Neech must somehow cope with the unexpected death of his prize hydrangea.

Since the clown gaze is fixed on “our current experience,” says Lesiak of “a mirror in a fun house,” most of the pieces in the lineup drift toward themes of “isolation, longing, distance, coping with being cut off from the thing they love doing.” They don’t reference COVID directly (thankfully); the angle is oblique, metaphorical. “They’re not on the nose,” says Lesiak, whose lexicon contains a striking number of nasal references (it comes with her line of work, no doubt).

Rebecca Merkley in Jesus Teaches us Things, Play The Fool Festival. Photo supplied

There’s a startling variety of approaches in the six new solo pieces. Rebecca Merkley, whose fearlessly kooky Merk du Soleil series (the latest instalment Merk du Solapocalypse was at the Fringe), are gems of clowning, goes solo for the first time — as Jesus. Says Lesiak, “Jesus Teaches us Things has a loving gentle blasphemy about it. And (Merkley) is such a delightful, compelling presence onstage.” In his foray into Sunday School teaching, as Lesiak describes, laughing, Jesus “has some impulse-control issues, about what content is appropriate for Grade 2’s.”

“It comes from an interesting place: love, yet awareness of the flaws in the (religious system). There are poignant moments in it.”

Since solo is de rigueur times being what they are, a date night as revealed in Kianna Woo’s “red nose romance Inga and the Date, is a tricky proposition. “There’s an ingenious reveal I’m not going to tell you,” laughs Lesiak. “She’s taken the very classic clown blind date concept and she turns it on the nose. And she’s very funny and charming.”

Adam Keefe has done solo work before, says Lesiak, who has performed with him in Small Matters Theatre’s Fools for Love and other shows. Good Morning Darkness shows his high-level skills, “physically, vocally, and with characters,” she says, in a piece that sheds an indirect light on our current COVIDian freefall.

Hope For Life reintroduces Zillur Rahman John, an Edmonton-based Bangladeshi-Canadian mime artist, to audiences here. He hasn’t been onstage here, says Lesiak, since his appearance as the title character in the Edmonton Symphony’s 2015 performance of Bartók’s pantomime ballet The Miraculous Mandarin.

In Jake Tkaczyk’s Zoomed “live bouffon seminar” Bedeutung Krankenwagen, we meet Herr Frölich, a German Nihilist-turned-life coach. “Clowns and bouffons are on a spectrum, says Lesiak. “For me, the difference is the the clown is very impulsive, and wants to be loved. Bouffons don’t care about that. They want to manipulate the audience.…” At the extreme is a performer like Sacha Baron Cohen, “very provocative, not for the faint of heart” as his Borat films vividly demonstrate. There’s a bit more clown in Herr Frölich’s place on the spectrum, she thinks.

Bouffons are the star of this year’s Play The Fool panel discussion (live via Zoom), Pretty Ugly: Bouffon in Pedagogy and Practice. International participants, all with clown cred in the dark bouffon world, include Deanna Fleysher (of Butt Kapinski fame), Ken Hall, Nathaniel Justiniano and Janice Jo Lee.

The festival, which opens Thursday with a welcome poem by the Brit star Rob Gee, “Play The Fool Who’s Playing You,” is made possible by partnerships with the Street Performers Fest, Toy Guns Dance Theatre, Theatre Alberta and EPCOR’s invaluable Heart + Soul Fund.


Play The Fool Festival 2021

Running: Sept. 23 to 26 (on-demand and films are available Sept. 24 through Sept. 30).

Tickets, full lineup, and schedule:

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