Four Clowns is a Los Angeles-based, internationally touring clown troupe whose definitions of clowning and physical theater are much different from what people most often assume. It’s not Ringling Brothers, to say the least. The company was formed on these tenets: humanity, entertainment, and redefining an audience’s relationship to the performers onstage.
Its first show, aptly titled Four Clowns, was developed by director Jeremy Aluma with the company and produced at the inaugural Hollywood Fringe Festival. Four Clowns won Best in Physical Theatre and Dance and was nominated for Best World Premiere, as well as the Bitter Lemons Award for Most Outrageous Theater at the festival that year. Since then, the troupe has presented distinctive clown versions of such works as Romeo & Juliet, Hamlet, and Pinocchio.
I had the opportunity to interview Aluma last year in anticipation of the company’s most recent Fringe show, The Halfwits’ Last Hurrah, and also got to experience first-hand what Four Clowns is all about. Now, as he prepares to depart the troupe (at least temporarily), Aluma spoke to me about the new show he’s directing that opens at the Shakespeare Center of Los Angeles on April 29.
Lunatics & Actors takes the troupe into darker territory than it’s been before. Inspired by the experiments of real-life 19th-century neurologist Duchenne de Boulogne, the show posits the question: “Who’s really mad after all – the lunatic or the actor?”
Aluma developed the idea for Lunatics & Actors with David Bridel, interim dean at USC, whose The Clown School inspired him to form Four Clowns. As a member of the troupe, Bridel has worked on a number of productions and approached Aluma with the idea for this new show, one that would fit the company’s aesthetic but definitely went in a different direction. It was workshopped in 2012, but this is its premiere staging.
Bridel was fascinated by Dr. Duchenne, whose controversial experiments advanced the science of electrophysiology. By applying electrodes to certain areas of a subject’s face, the doctor felt he could induce specific emotions.
“David had the premise from the beginning that [the character of] Duchenne would invite an actor from the audience and then compare and contrast his or her emotional authenticity with that of three lunatics he has brought with him from an 1860s French asylum,” said Aluma. “He uses an electrical conductive device to induce emotion from the lunatics and then compares them with the actor to see who has more authenticity.”
Lunatics & Actors is a definite departure from the productions Four Clowns has done before. “Often, when we are creating our own stories, or even when we’re adapting the text, we’re bringing our own theatrical and clowning language,” he added. “This time, we really embraced the tone of Duchenne and his experiments rather than our own outrageous aesthetic. We didn’t need to push the envelope because it had already been pushed.”
Naturally, this results in a more serious piece. The humor is still there, though – it’s just bleaker than usual. “We’re relying on the discomfort of the audience to provide the laughter,” he added.
Citing Heath Ledger’s performance as the Joker in The Dark Knight as an example of an actor’s extreme dedication, Aluma wondered: “How far is too far? Is it still acting or has it become this psychosis they are living truthfully in an adopted mind – turning on something that is no longer them and is in fact dangerous?”
“The same thing goes for medicine. [Duchenne] is experimenting with electroshock therapy similar to the ways Nazis were experimenting in the 1940s. Sure, there were great advancements in the medical field, but at what cost?”
“Often, we as artists say it’s for the greater good, but if someone’s life or mental health is at risk, is it really for the greater good?” he finished. “I’m interested in that question, and where we draw the line in both arts and medicine.”
Four Clowns’ Lunatics & Actors by David Bridel plays Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. (also two Thursdays, May 19 and 26), from April 29 through May 28 at The Shakespeare Center of Los Angeles, 1238 W 1st St, Los Angeles. Tickets can be obtained online or by calling (562) 508-1788.