I’ll be honest—I asked a dozen different people whether they wanted to join me at a show about clowns, and the response was swift and uniform: No, thank you, I’m afraid of clowns (I have Charles Dickens and John Wayne Gacy to thank for that).
My mistake, it turns out, was in my pitch. Nathalie Ellis-Einhorn’s I.M. Lost (directed by Benita de Wit) in the eighth annual Dream Up Festival is less of a clown show and more of a Bildungsroman narrative about schadenfreude, an exploration of the painful process of finding one’s voice in an industry that focuses on trying to make other people happy, sometimes at the expense of oneself.
Ellis-Einhorn and Justin Danforth uncover the process of discovering one’s clown identity. At a month-long clown class, she seeks out her clown alter-ego and battles humiliation, which involves tears and other bodily fluids (her clown persona turns out to be “Little Snotty the Disaster”). A clown teacher pushes her to an emotional breaking point by pointing out how she dresses to class, and, as a result, she endures a sense of violation. She thinks to herself, “You don’t even know me!” Becoming a clown seems to require simultaneously concealing and revealing different parts of one’s identity, but this teacher seems not to understand how deeply unsettling this can be. The violative nature of this teaching encounter resurfaces throughout the show.
Ellis-Einhorn implicitly asks: In a field that uses the self—one’s own body and emotions—as the tools of expression and then masks it with layers of makeup and costume, how much vulnerability is worth tolerating for the sake of the audience? How far should one go in the effort to make other people happy and entertained, and at what cost to oneself?
The show intersperses her own experience with monologues inspired by interviews with real-life clowns. Ellis-Einhorn and Danforth effectively capture different clowns’ commitment to their subculture profession through the monologues of older, experienced clowns. In particular, the recounting of a clown funeral is touching. The surreal image of clowns walking past a fellow clown who wrote a will so she could be done up as a clown at her own funeral turns out to be not funny at all.
Ellis-Einhorn and Danforth perform a hospital clown routine filled with silly puns, but it’s equally tinged with sadness: Is this what one is left with when sick in the hospital? They play up a heavy dose of friendliness and cheerfulness, building an interesting tension with the juxtaposition of illness and smiles.
This kind of tension exists in other parts of the show as well, such as when one clown thinks it would be more socially acceptable if she were dressed as a clown so she could make a stranger’s toddler laugh. Her wish is genuine and heartfelt, but also slightly strange and delusional. Ellis-Einhorn and Danforth capture all these varied clown personalities deftly, and we’re left wondering why someone chooses to become a clown.
The climax of the performance is when audience members are invited to lob colorful balls at Ellis-Einhorn as she stands onstage performing a monologue. She speaks and stands bravely and flinches a little as the hollow balls come at her from all directions. The audience now gets to experience this strange delight. The visuals are oddly pretty, the colorful balls arching toward her, and create a Chuck E. Cheese-like floor, but the act feels far from playful. Does being a clown give the audience permission to delight in someone’s fear or vulnerability?
As she picks up the colorful balls that were thrown at her just a few moments ago, she thoughtfully considers her experiences from the clown class, her sense of self-worth, and wonders what she should have done. She acknowledges that without that experience, she would not have had this show itself. But was it worth it? In creating this show, Ellis-Einhorn is able to make it worthwhile— she has found her voice and transforms her and other clowns’ experiences with courage and honesty.
Showing at New York’s Dream Up Festival.
Saturday - September 2, 2017 - 5pm Sunday - September 3, 2017 - 5pm