Dave McKay as Sketchy plays host during the Toronto Festival of Clowns.
TORONTO FESTIVAL OF CLOWNS (Festival of Clowns). Pia Bouman Studio Theatre (6 Noble) and Unit 102 Theatre (376 Dufferin). Runs to Sunday (June 2). $15. torontofestivalofclowns.com.
There will be lots of laughs - some of them dark - at Queen and Dufferin over the next few days as the eighth annual Toronto Festival Of Clowns takes over the Pia Bouman Studio and Unit 102 Theatre.
But don't expect everyone to be wearing red noses, and know that the shows are aimed at adults, not kids.
"We define clown in a broad fashion," says Dave McKay, who produces the festival with Adam Lazarus. "In our terms, a clown is a character who breaks the fourth wall, addressing the audience directly. Thus the festival includes mime, commedia, bouffon, slapstick, physical theatre of different sorts and mask work."
This year's edition features nearly 100 performers, and events include full-length shows, cabaret evenings and 10 triple bills, For the last one, three artists present 15-minute works in progress, longer than the short pieces in the cabarets but shorter than the hour-long works.
Sometimes the material is a test run for the upcoming summer festivals. Performers Danya Buonastella and Nina Gilmour's Death Married My Daughter, which features the dead Ophelia and Desdemona castigating those who've harmed them, is in July's Fringe. The show is co-created with and directed by Michele Smith and Dean Gilmour. Lazarus and Guillermo Verdecchia's The Art Of Building A Bunker, about a seemingly ordinary man with a sinister secret, plays in SummerWorks.
Other shows feature or are hosted by Toronto's best-known clowns, among them Morro and Jasp, Foo and Sketchy (aka McKay, in his red-nose role).
"The festival is a focal point for the clown community. In the past, people put up shows independently, which was a scattered way of drawing audiences. Here, audiences and artists of different generations can gather and support each other.
"The community is a cooperative one," continues McKay, who also hosts the ongoing Lunacy Cabaret series, which presents its 100th show next April. There will be a Lunacy evening Saturday (June 1), which Sketchy co-hosts with like-minded performer Light Switch (Tony Culverwell).
"There's no sense of competition in Toronto's clown world. We support each other and help get people for each other's workshops. As a result, there's a regular audience for clown pieces, meaning that many festival shows sell out."
McKay's looking forward to a pair of full-length productions, one local and one from the States.
"Baby Redboots' Revenge, written by the late Philip-Dimitri Galas and featuring Sean Sullivan, was the first indie show I ever saw, back in the 90s," he recalls. "I was mesmerized by Sean's energy and commitment. It was like he was running on the spot for 60 minutes."
Dubbed "avant-vaudeville," Revenge is about a former child star whose voice didn't change until he was 25. He's now grown up and burnt out, playing stand-up bass in a polka band.
"‘Wow,' I thought excitedly when I was dragged to Revenge at the Fringe years ago, ‘this is what really good theatre can be.' Now, 20 years later, I'm curious to see it in the intimate Unit 102 Theatre, with Sean bringing more life experience and a different kind of energy to the piece."
The other show is You Killed Hamlet, Or Guilty Creatures Sitting At A Play, by creator/performers Nathaniel Justiniano and Ross Travis of San Francisco's Naked Empire Bouffon Company.
Using improv and audience participation, it takes off from the character of Hamlet to look at our relationship with death and the way we deny our mortality. (No previous knowledge of Shakespeare necessary.)
"We rarely see a bouffon duo, and I'm curious about how dark their show is, how politically incorrect they can be."