Clowning that isn’t for kids

A mistake in signing up for a physical theatre workshop set Adam Lazarus on a new path

Adam Lazarus had a panic attack when he discovered the physical theatre workshop he’d driven across the country and paid $2,500 to take was actually a clown-training course.

“I trusted my gut and in walked this fat, old French man with glasses and he said, ‘Eh, okay, we do clown,’ ” he says. “I’m, like, oh my God, clowns are the worst things I’ve ever seen in my life. I think of Ronald McDonald or kids or birthday party clowns that make me want to scream but it changed my life, it totally changed my life.”

Through the workshop by master teacher Philippe Gaulier, who has taught the likes of Sacha Baron Cohen, Emma Thompson, Geoffrey Rush and Roberto Benigni, Lazarus quickly discovered clowns are more than just children’s entertainers and balloon makers.

“It’s about an energy of performance, to be really open and be okay looking stupid and to embrace the failure and to show all sides of yourself and all these wonderful qualities,” he says. “Number 1 is your pleasure. You have to love what you’re doing. Even if it’s failing, you have to love it.”

As co-founder of the annual Toronto Festival of Clowns, which this year takes place at Pia Bouman School for Ballet and Creative Movement from May 31 to June 3, Lazarus aims to help break clown misconceptions and stereotypes and hopes people understand it’s a challenging art form.

“I want people to take away a broad experience of what is possible in the theatre,” he says. “I think we come to the theatre to have that live experience. You don’t get it in film, TV, so we come to the theatre for this amazing live experience and in a clown show or a clown inspired show you are part of the action.”

Rather than birthday party or traditional circus clowns, the shows feature a variety of physical comedy, mime, bouffon, vaudeville and cabaret acts. As for Death and Other Discomforts, the triple bill he directed for this year’s festival, he warns it’s anything but kid friendly.

“It’s not for the faint of heart,” he says. “Talk about not being a clown piece. It’s a visceral horrific experience of the theatre.”
Lazarus, who also teaches at the University of Toronto and the National Theatre School, recalls his own theatrical production debut at Forest Hill Collegiate Institute in the play Sweet Charity.

“I had to be funny and I never had a problem sort of looking like an idiot and I had to look like an idiot,” he says. “I was Oscar Lindquist, which was the lead of that play. He gets stuck in an elevator and has a fit because he’s very claustrophobic and I just remember girls coming up to me after. I was maybe a little awkward and when I was on stage girls liked me.”

Over the last seven years the Toronto Festival of Clowns has grown to become a springboard for future productions like Spent, which went on to win a Dora award, he says. A meaningful addition to the festival was funding the clown-training bursary three years ago, he says.

“A good friend of the festival named Mark Purvis passed away and we wanted to honour him somehow so we created this student night cabaret,” he says. “That was really exciting and meaningful and we were really happy about that.”

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Posted: Jun 15 2012 1:48 pm
Filed in: NEWS
Edition: Toronto