- by Carla Lever.
Coulrophobia. It’s a fear of clowns and I’ve got it, badly. Wikipedia tells me that’s pretty normal…for a child. Maybe I can blame Stephen King, but there’s something about that thick white make up, blank face and garish painted expression that gives me the heebie jeebies.
Luckily for me, my dinner date with Cape Town’s very own, very popular resident clown troupe is safe – these are certainly not the slapstick circus performers of my nightmares. Instead, they’re the very dark, very cool Conspiracy of Clowns. A branch of the critically acclaimed physical theatre company FTH:K, indications are the clowns of this Conspiracy are softly padding their way into becoming something of an underground cult sensation. I sat down over a vegan curry with three of them – artistic director Rob Murray (otherwise known as Ugli Bob), aesthetics designer Jayne Batzofin (Granny) and leading ladyclown Liezl de Kock (Squeezle) – and faced up to my inner kid armed with a battery of questions.
C.L. You’ve got a new show at ‘Out the Box’ this year; tell us about it.
Granny: So, we’ve got Kardiavale performing at OTB. The story is about love and the abuse of power around in the disguise of a second rate, rundown carnival freakshow.
Ugli: But there’s also Benchmarks! That’s about three characters in Cape Town who strike up an unlikely friendship against the background of violence that has swept our country. It’s a story of letting go of the past and moving forward into the future.
Squeezle: What’s really cool is that they’re both so different. FTH:K and the conspiracy can show a range of what we can do which allows us not to be pigeonholed. I mean, Benchmarks is a full masked, non-verbal performance, whereas Kardiavale is cabaret clown noir.
C.L. ‘Cabaret clown noir’. WTF?
Granny: It’s about the fact that there are clowns. Who sing. And it’s pretty dark.
Ugli: The dark clown is a very specific genre of clowning, actually. Not the type you’re scared of, Carla. But perhaps you should be! We’ve mixed our interpretation of that with the darkness of cabaret. It’s also about the intimacy that that style affords with the audience.
C.L. Kardiavale’s plot centers around a girl who has a rare condition where she was born with her heart on the outside of her chest. Where on earth did you get that idea from?
Granny: Well, that I actually saw in the news. They covered a case of a child born with ectopia cordis – when the heart is on the outside of the body – and immediately there was the metaphor of this openhearted child, the most vulnerable image I’ve ever seen. So to take it across to the metaphor of love was really simple.
C.L. You deal with some pretty dark issues – exploitation of women and their bodies, disability and the abuse of power, the politics of voyeurism versus art. And you do it with a cabaret. How do you pull that off?!
Ugli: We’re trying to pull that off – ask our audience if we succeed! Actually, you’d be surprised how well cabaret lends itself to dark issues – you can tackle some very big issues in a completely irreverent way and somehow people are more receptive to it than if they’re made to sit through so-called ‘serious’ theatre. That’s one thing the Conspiracy is always trying to do – take big risks and really push the envelope of this thing we call visual performance. The point is, though, that people are reacting – that’s the power that theatre needs. Not this candyfloss popcorn, polyunsaturated, transfat-free thing that plays it safe. It’s about artists getting tougher and collectively going, let’s pull the scab off this.
C.L. I think a play like Kardiavale could have the same cult appeal that a movie like The Rocky Horror Picture Show has picked up. Does that comparison bother you?
Granny: No, I’m highly flattered.
Ugli: I’ve always wanted to be Frank N. Furter! Being cult is awesome – much more gratifying than being mainstream, in a way. You’re popular, but there’s an edge.
Granny: After this, all of our audiences are going to be singing along and throwing rice, aren’t they?
Ugli: Actually, what would be really cool is if people came dressed up – in fact, there might very well be prizes for those who do…
C.L What’s with all the nicknames?
Ugli: It’s a clown thing – you take a name. I suppose it’s also a thing of this particular group of misfits that we tune each other with nicknames. The idea of the alter ego allows people to do things that might not be expected of them. So Jayne might be known as one thing, but as Granny she can do whatever she wants. So we’re all multi-faceted, schizophrenic clowns.
C.L You’ve always got several pots on the boil at once. What’s it like running two shows at Out the Box?
Ugli: Awesome. Pretty rad. We were going to do three, but I cracked my clavicle and that made things a little too difficult.
C.L. Jayne, you’re quite the stylist. How long does it take to get your set in and your two actors through make up each night?
Granny: Well, if I only have fifteen minutes, it takes me fifteen minutes. But I’d like an hour and a half.
Ugli: …and I’d like about seven hours with the lighting grid! Look, with festivals they try to be as accommodating as possible, but you’ve just got to be flexible.
C.L Your clowns are nothing like the standard Bobo in his oversized shoes. In fact, it all looks pretty dark and sexy. Shouldn’t clowns have red noses?
Granny: Shouldn’t pigs have wings? Shouldn’t our presidents be intellectual?
Ugli: Our type of clown is a more existential clown. It’s character clowning, so it’s not about gags, balloon animals, falling over and big squeaky noses. None of the physical stuff has any relevance to us now; whereas, the darker clown has a place that can investigate that thin line between love and hate, abuse of power and vulnerability. And that throws up some very interesting questions.
There are only three performances of Kardiavale and three of Benchmarks at Out the Box this year. You can – and should – catch the clowns in their Kardiavale timeslot of Monday 5th at 6pm and 9:30pm and Tuesday 6th at 11am in Hiddingh’s Arena Theatre. Benchmarks is on Thursday 8th at 5pm and 8pm and Friday 9th at 11am in the Hiddingh Little Theatre. All shows are cost R50 (concessions and multi-pass at R40, block bookings R25). Bookings can be made through Computicket.