American clowns fall into several categories--rodeo clowns, birthday clowns, circus clowns, and what Jonathan Taylor calls "yamma" clowns. "They're someone who says, 'Yeah, I'm a clown, yeah, I'm a clown, yamma yamma yamma.' They only learned how to do balloon animals and make a really colorful costume. They usually perform in malls. You want to know who they are, but they're covered in makeup and none of their skin is showing. They scare me. We want to piss in their faces."
Yamma clowns give clowning a bad name, says Taylor, who with Anthony Courser and Voki Kalfayan created the theatrical clown group Asylum 137. They don't do balloons. "It's very hard to put a finger on what we're doing, because I don't think a lot of people are doing this kind of clowning," says Taylor. "It's theatrical because it's in a theater setting--it's on a stage. It's not in a circus, but there's still an audience....We try to pull the personal clown out from within, rather than trying to be a funny or a wacky character."
The show takes place on a set covered with white sheets and white paint; battery-operated lights are placed around the stage in a nod to circus footlights. Taylor starts off the hour-long show by looking people in the eye and yelling "C'mon!" and "Hello!" In one segment the three operate on a mutant baby Taylor has given birth to, pulling out a string of balloons and a plastic heart filled with candy powder that they pass around the audience. Later Taylor stands on Kalfayan's shoulders and tries to retrieve a roll of paper from the rafters while Courser explains that there's usually a net: "Most deaths in the circus are caused by falls." At one point there's a shooting in which Taylor is hurt; water pumps out of the wound. All the while DJ Brian G. spins music and sound effects. "The structure is similar to commedia dell'arte," says Taylor. "Every night it changes, not only with us but with the audience and the type of energy they have. Are they willing to come with us on a journey, or do we have to fight them to come to us?"
"If the audience is having fun with us playing the piano, we will probably continue playing the piano," says Courser. "If not, we'll only play it a little bit and then it will be pulled away and we'll go into another part."
In 1996 Taylor enrolled in the Ringling Brothers clown college in Baraboo, Wisconsin, where he met Kalfayan, who'd been studying theater at Vassar but had decided to pursue clowning instead. "I guess it was the freedom, that there was no script," Kalfayan says. "It was mostly improv but from a clown's perspective--it was more physical. It's about being in the moment and exploring and doing it yourself. Most of the time, you're the writer, producer, director, and performer, which is something that rarely happens in the theater, unless you do a one-man show. Before I went to clown college, that would have been something I wanted to do, but I was bad at writing. When I started clowning, I was like, 'Wow, I can put together an entire show without putting down a word of what I have to say.' That appealed to me."
He and Taylor toured for a year with Ringling Brothers, living on the circus's train and planning their escape. "We discovered that we wanted the same thing--that we weren't there for the same reason a lot of the other people were," says Kalfayan. "For a lot of them, Ringling was the end goal. For us it was the beginning, and we talked a lot about how to cultivate the art form and what we were going to do when we left."
Taylor went on to the Dell'Arte International School for Physical Theatre in Blue Lake, California, where he met Courser. Both studied under Sue Morrison, who combined elements of the impulsive, soulful fool character in Native American culture with European-style clowning, which is "much more intimate" than American clowning, according to Courser. "It's much easier to play with the audience."
Kalfayan ended up in Chicago, working with the Midnight Circus and, recently, teaching at the Actors Gymnasium. Last year Taylor came here too, hoping to do a show with Kalfayan. In the meantime he got a job performing in Blue Man Group. Courser moved here last June to be part of Asylum 137, which they based on Morrison's teachings. They even returned to Dell'Arte for a few days to fine-tune their act and make sure Kalfayan was up to speed on Morrison's techniques. "Sue told him basically to just fake it," says Courser.
"When we were creating this show, we had some ideas beforehand," says Taylor. "We wanted to use certain props and we definitely wanted a live DJ to play with us during the show, but we weren't thinking of what kind of show it would be or what it would mean. We just wanted to play with each other, and that's the whole point of clowning--to play."
Asylum 137 performs Mondays and Tuesdays at 8 through the end of November at the Viaduct, 3111 N. Western. Tickets are $10. Call 312-683-5226. --Cara Jepsen
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Eugene Zakusilo.