THE HOLLOW: A CLOWN PLAY created and directed by Mike Kennard, co-created by the company, with Christian Laurin, Natalie Breton, Christel Bartelse, Suzette Araujo and Christopher Sawchyn. Runs to April 9, Monday-Saturday 8 pm. Berkeley Downstairs (26 Berkeley). $15-$30, Monday pwyc. 416-368-3110. Rating: NNNNN
Clown shows might look easy, especially a simple two-hander, which is the norm for many such works. But when Michael Kennard was creating the Mump and Smoot pieces with John Turner, they'd often take hours solving one little problem. And that kind of process means it takes months to put up a production.
"Clowns get a bad name because some performers don't take the work seriously," says Kennard. "But you can't just go onstage and improvise - you need structure, a reality base and a justification for what you're doing."
Imagine what it takes to mount a new show with 15 clowns. That's what Kennard has tackled in The Hollow, a clown play that looks at the devastating effects of war on two societies, and especially the ruling family of one.
In the past several years, Kennard's expanded his skills by moving into directing. In addition to helming Fringe and Second City shows in Toronto, he's directed Regina productions of A Christmas Carol, The Hobbit and The Wizard Of Oz.
The Hollow actually grew out of Fou, a Fringe show from nearly a decade ago, set in a royal court made up of clowns. The idea has grown into a piece whose two central groups, pitted against each other for control of an empire, are clowns and bouffons.
What's the difference between the two?
"They're similar in the breaking of the fourth wall, creating an intimacy with the audience," explains Kennard. "We're more familiar with clowns, who are often in a two-handed relationship of hierarchy, with one person the manipulating straight man and the other the victim. Sometimes there's a third person who acts as a balance."
Think of the demanding Mump and the childlike Smoot, or Abbott and Costello. In the Hollow, the clowns are the ruling Lebarians, who control the underground cave known as the Hollow.
"Bouffon figures perform for the audience while they satirize it, intentionally making viewers feel uncomfortable," explains Kennard. "The bouffons in The Hollow are the defeated Rabiccannos, victims of the war, limbless and blind."
Kennard came up with the germ for the show when he studied bouffon in Paris. It was during the first Gulf War, and while the war itself was geographically distant, security was high everywhere. Even garbage cans were removed from the streets.
"I realized how war affects you even when you're not in it," recalls the thoughtful Kennard. "Later, John Turner (Smoot) and I went to Israel and saw what the fighting did to both Israelis and Palestinians. It was amazing to teach a clown workshop to a class made up of both groups."
Kennard's never created a piece as large as The Hollow. "I've written a lot of shows," he laughs, "but this is my first play."
Which makes the collaborative process more complex, since actor input is essential in the creation of clown-based work.
"This is, in some ways, brand new for me," Kennard continues. "I don't have all the answers. That's why the performers are called co-creators."
It hasn't necessarily been easy. There was a time early on when Kennard had second thoughts about doing it at all. He talked with Christian Laurin, one of the actors, about the possibility of not proceeding.
"Christian reminded me that one of the key ideas I teach my clown students is always to go where the fear is.
"And," he says with a smile that says the decision was a right one, "I did."