“I turned to clown because I didn’t know what else to do. I had to learn to bounce back, and I had to learn about resiliency. Clown is about resiliency and survival and bouncing back – and pleasure and hope and joy! It’s about the continued belief in tomorrow and the radical hope that this requires.”
Sonia Norris is a Toronto-based director, teacher, and actor. Sonia is a graduate of the Playhouse Acting School, holds an MFA in Directing from York University and has trained in physical theatre and theatre creation at Ecole Jacques Lecoq in Paris, Ecole Philippe Gaulier in Paris and London, and the Dell’Arte Int’l School of Physical Theatre in Blue Lake California. She works internationally with theatre, film and television actors, opera singers, clowns and circus artists and specializes in Clown, Mask Theatre and Le Jeu (play).
W&C: You started in theater, what brought you to circus?
Sonia Norris: I have a great love for circus because it’s a world of ferocious pleasure, tangible risk and magic. I think that we go to the circus to dream. As people watch someone swinging from a trapeze or walking on a high-wire, they feel the possibility viscerally in their own body as, ‘I could do that! It is humanly possible!’ What a magnificent dream! In circus, we’re providing this unadulterated world of magical dreams, and I think that is extraordinary. My love of theater has waned over the years because it’s often so god-awful boring. It doesn’t provide the extraordinary world where I can actualize my dreams, and as a creator, performer and director, I want a space to create these magical worlds.
I think it’s the joy of comedy that allows us to engage with the tragedy of the world. It’s not that comedy and clowning undermine this tragic reality of life, it’s that they actually reveal the truth of it even more because we can bear to engage with it through laughter and pleasure. Laughter reminds us that joy is still possible. This is really important. Especially now in our world. I can’t stop the icebergs from melting, I can’t save the polar bears, and I can’t stop the boats of refugees that are being turned away – so how do I deal with these things? I’m not denying any of these tragedies by saying, “I choose to turn to joy.” Instead, I choose to turn to a way of engaging with the truth of the human condition in a manner that makes it possible for me to still hope. It’s a radical hope that is needed in order for me to wake up and continually engage with the world. Clown is a radical reinterpretation of the world: to choose joy and dare to hope in the face of despair.
W&C: What is the difference between a theater clown and a circus clown?
SN: I think this difference is what contemporary circus is exploring. Theater clowns traditionally don’t have to wear a nose because they’re characters. Traditionally, circus clowns wear a nose, but that’s not true anymore. To me, there is more story in theater clowns in that they are being created in the context of an entire show, so the whole show is about them. I think that traditionally circus clowns are doing entrees; they are coming in-between the acts, they’re warming up the audience, so they’re being used for a purpose. It was about ‘make the people laugh – do something funny and you can’t go over thirty seconds or ninety seconds’. The longer the bit is, the longer the space you are given to create in, the more evolved you can become as a character with relationships and with scenarios, and so that’s taking us into theater territory.
W&C: Who is your favorite female clown?
SN: My all time favorite female clown is Mooky Cornish. She’s been with Cirque du Soleil for many years, and then she left CdS and created her own show ‘The Glories of Gloria’. She is now in London with ‘La Soiree’, a cabaret circus show that tours around the world. She’s brilliant.
W&C: What do you love about her? What makes her your favorite?
SN: There is unrelenting joy in her clown. I love how [clown] can be representative of the ‘other’ of society and the failures of society. There is great room to explore issues that have to do with despair and isolation and loneliness and disappointment – not funny subjects and not ones that society wants you to deal with, which is why I turn to clown to deal with them. Clown has the sensitivity and subtlety as well as the ferocity to embrace the full spectrum of the human experience. Mooky deals very much in the world of joy, and she is brilliantly talented. Her comic timing is phenomenal, her pratfalls are so fucking funny, and she’s just endlessly funny to look at – whatever she’s doing. And she exudes love – this is so important for clown – it is one of the gifts of clown, to allow us the opportunity to see love in action, along with human stupidity. I interviewed her in 2012 for a magazine and she said that she remembers looking in the mirror and thinking, “What kind of husband??…”; “There’s no director who is dreaming of this face”. Instead of that sending her into an existential tailspin, which is where it tends to send me, she bounces back with, “Oh well, I’ll just do my own thing then!” I love that about her. I wish that I were more like that. I also looked at myself in the mirror many years ago and went through a similar line of questioning, so how many other women have done this? Mooky says, “Great! I guess that frees me up to just be more of me!” That, to me, is a beautiful clown sensibility.
W&C: What do you think some of the stigmas are that women need to overcome when it comes to female clowning?
SN: Women are up against a genre that has been created by men, and men hold onto their territory. I’ve been talking to some female clowns here in Toronto and asking them their thoughts, and one of them said that it’s known that the inequality is still there in how few female clowns will be hired. There can be discrimination against them being allowed through the door in circuses because there is still a belief that they will not be as funny as the male clowns. It’s safer for a producer to hire the male clowns that they trust will be as funny as they want them to be. It’s a risk to go with a female clown. Then there’s still inequality in the pay. This is what I’ve heard is still going on. Of course it’s not just in clowning – it’s in every single profession still. It’s a boring thing. I don’t want to talk about it anymore, but if I don’t talk about it, is it going to change? It needs to be known by the younger women who are coming up through the ranks. They’re further away from the archaic and patriarchal bullshit, and it’s dangerous when they don’t think they need to be aware of this anymore.
W&C: How do you help your students overcome some of the challenges that female performers face in clowning?
SN: I’ve always resisted the notion of just working with women because it creates a false environment of safety. The argument is ‘put all the women together because it’s a safe environment for them to explore and to open up’. I don’t think we need a gentler space. I think that idea in itself is patronizing, and we patronize ourselves to believe that we need some soft fuzzy space in order to allow us the courage to come out of our shells. My method of coaxing people forward is to push them off the gangplank, and that is not specific to women. I do it with all people, because people are scared, people are trepidatious, and people are terrified of failing. I think that it’s an experiential thing to realize that we survive it, and therefore you have to be able to do the freefall. Gender is always going to be there, but my focus in working with my students is always about finding what, on an individual level, allows them to blossom. Where is their truth? Where is their joy? Where is their desire to engage? Where is their story? What is emerging and how do I facilitate that?
W&C: What do you see for the future of female clowning?
I think that female clowns are doing exactly what they need to be doing, which is exploring the territory, and themselves, more. There are an awful lot of bras and boobs that get played with by female clowns, but this is to be expected I suppose, as women play with the female identifiers that society finds important. I think there are far more interesting subjects for us to be exploring – aspects of ourselves as human beings. I tend to be interested in exploring the issues that are human. The fact that the issues are being explored by a female clown inherently gives them a female perspective. Female clowns often fall into playing one of four roles: a little girl, a sexy female, an androgynous character or a man. They’re all valid, and magnificent clowns come out of them all. But I wonder, are there any others? Can we only play the roles that we are given in society? My own clown is very female and plays with stereotypical ideas of what it is to be “a lady” because I have issues around being good enough as a woman. So although I know why I have such a great pleasure to play with these ideas, I also question whether I am simply reinforcing society’s constraints by presenting them with my clown. It’s tricky territory… I think we’re in the first phase of a massive surge of female clowns who are exploring the territory. That’s really exciting, and I’m interested to see what will emerge as the possibilities are explored.
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