There is something about the white-face makeup and red nose of a clown that never fails to elicit strong emotions from audiences. For the American public, the image stirs up all kinds of associations: the circus, children’s birthday parties, or even Tim Curry’s sinister clown in It, the 1990 TV movie based on the Stephen King novel.
Alive Theatre’s production ofÂ Four Clowns at the Long Beach Playhouse promises to shake up these pop culture stereotypes, bringing clowning back to its artistic origins with a modern twist. The original incarnation ofÂ Four Clowns premiered at the first Hollywood Fringe Festival last summer (spelled then as 4 Clowns), garnering a number of nominations and awards including the 2010 Bitter Lemons Most Outrageous Theater Award Nomination, 2010 Hollywood Fringe Festival Nomination for Best World Premiere, and the 2010 Hollywood Fringe Festival Award for Best Physical Theater.
Jeremy Aluma, creator and director of the play, had no idea his first attempt at authoring a piece for theater would result in such success. “I was so nervous and unsure of how the show was going to be received, if people were going to get it, if it was going to be too sloppy,” he says. “All my fears were quelled on opening night. The audience reaction was just tremendous. It really felt like they were laughing the entire time, so much so that a three to four second silence was just pregnant,” Aluma says of the Fringe audience’s reaction.
Although Aluma graduated from California State UniversityÂ Long Beach (CSULB) in the not-so-distant past of 2006, he is no rookie to Los Angeles theater. Aluma estimates that since his graduation he has been involved with at least 30 local theatrical productions and has directed between 10 and 15. In 2008 Aluma co-founded the Alive Theatre group with another CSULB grad, Danielle Dauphinee.
According to Aluma, the first step in mounting Alive was to find a group of talented individuals. “We had people who had graduated the year before us, the year after us, just a lot of people surrounding us whose talent we believed needed to be showed and nurtured,” he says. To showcase this collective talent, Aluma and Dauphinee created a play festival called the Cherry Poppin’ Play Festival which premiered at the Garage Theatre in Long Beach. “That sort of inaugurated Alive Theatre,” Aluma says of the event. “In the end, it was over 50 people working on our first production in a 30- to 40-seat house at the Garage Theatre.” The event has since been renamed the more appropriate-sounding Long Beach Poppin’ Play Festival.
One of Alive Theatre’s defining attributes is that the company lacks a permanent venue. “Our M.O. is that we find spaces: warehouses, art galleries, museums, nightclubs, boats””all over the place,” says Aluma. This can be both beneficial and problematic. “We’ve performed in six of the nine districts throughout Long Beach, which is something most theater companies can’t say. The disadvantage is that our tech people have to build a theater at every space we go to, and that’s not an easy feat. In terms of the artistic integrity, what’s been nice is really trying to match the show to the venue. It’s definitely inspiring to try to find the right space for a show.”
These experiencesÂ gave AlumaÂ an understanding of the challenges that can arise from remounting a show at a new venue. “My goal was to create a show that not only could we do again but that is easy to travel and produce all over the place — something we could set up in a really short amount of time and perform,” Aluma says ofÂ Four Clowns.
In addition to knowing he wanted to create a travel-ready show, Aluma was inspired by physical comedy and the art of clowning. As a student at CSULB, Aluma initially trained as an actor before moving into the field of directing. “When I was an actor I was really interested in physical theater. I was fascinated by the idea of bodies being the tools for telling the story,” he explains.
Aluma took “clown class” with instructor Orlando Pabotoy at Studio Six, an LA school devoted to the history and art of the clown. This experience, combined with other outside inspirations, led him to createÂ Four Clowns. “Two of the most inspiring shows for this play were Slava’s Snowshow, which I saw Off-Broadway in New York in 2006, and a show called That Beautiful Laugh, which was done by Cal State Long Beach students and directed by Orlando Pabotoy,” says Aluma.
The four clowns of the show’s namesake represent the four archetypes: the sad clown (played by Alexis Jones), the nervous clown (Amir Levi), the angry clown (Raymond Lee) and the mischievous clown (Kevin Klein). “They each have a separate story line. The play shows you four different stages of life of each of the four clowns: childhood, adolescence, adulthood and death,” explains Aluma. To convey these character arcs, the clowns primarily use physical comedy. “There are a couple of scenes that are dialogue-heavy, and their humor comes from word play and from wittiness, but for the most part we’ve tried to use miming and clowning and physical relationships between the actors and the audience to tell the story.”
The clowns’ archetypes guide their interactions with the audience as well as their own storylines. “For example, the mischievous clown is the only clown that asks for suggestions from the audience. The sad clown tries to pull the audience in by asking them whether they think things are going to get better or worse, and part of her attempt is to make the audience feel bad for her,” says Aluma.
Part of Aluma’s intention is to use as little dialogue as necessary, complemented by pianist Mario Granville. He explains that because part of the show is improvised, dialogue is a constantly fluctuating element within the piece. “A goal of mine is to be able to take this around the world. But if that’sÂ going to happen then we’ve really got to strip the play of as much language as possible. In the Fringe run maybe 30% of the show had dialogue, and this run maybe 15 to 20%,” he says.
To make his hopes become a reality, Aluma is devoted to fine-tuning the play as much as possible. He hopes to accomplish this by takingÂ Four Clowns across the country to various fringe festivals this summer. “So far we’ve gotten into the San Francisco fringe and the Minnesota fringe, and we’re waiting to hear back from Chicago and New York,” he says.
Aluma assures that Long Beach theatergoers are in for an entertaining performance. “It’s a very funny, very vulgar, very gratuitous show.”
*** All production photos courtesy of Jonathon David Lewis.
FourÂ Clowns, presented by Alive Theatre and Long Beach Playhouse, opens March 4; plays Thur.-Sat., 8 pm; through March 19. Tickets: $10. Long Beach Playhouse Studio Theater, 5021 E. Anaheim St., Long Beach; lbplayhouse.org or alivetheatre.org. Or call 562-508-1788.