Artist of the Week – Helen Donnelly

May 25, 2012 § Leave a comment

Clowning: It’s Serious Stuff. Seriously.

Examples of porcelain masks from Greek comedy

Comedy has been around for a very long time: the Ancient Greeks roared with laughter at the masked characters of Aristophanes and Menander, Plautus and Terrence had the Romans rolling in the aisles at their stock characters, court-jesters and fools brought levity to medieval courts, Commedia dell’arte troups entertained the street crowds and royals of the Renaissance.

The character Harlequin or “Arlecchino” from Commedia dell’arte.

These characters and clowns were able to mock society, politics, famous people and rulers all under the guise of comedy. If a political commentary was made during a comedy, what would otherwise be treasonous if said by anyone else, became acceptable. And it served a crucial role in the social order.

For thousands of years, it was understood that these characters and clown figures could offer up a mirror to society and through comic lightness and pathos, had access to truths that were otherwise taboo.

Bozo the Clown

Fast forward a few (hundred) years and one person changed that image, that understanding: Bozo. That’s right. The children’s storybook clown. What was once an honoured art form turned into an industry of children’s birthday-party entertainments. (Let’s face it, making kids laugh is a fantastic calling; anyone that can make a child laugh has done a great and wondrous thing… And yet…)

So began a rift in the clown realm: clowns that entertain at birthday parties (think Bozo), and those that pursue its historic traditions (think “Cirque du Soleil”). For the first time in history there was a divide between artistic and inartistic clowns.

This past week, the Haliburton School of The Arts was able to catch up with one of the “traditional-style” artistic clowns and ask her a few questions about her incredible – and much misunderstood – art form.

Haliburton School of The Arts – First and foremost… These days there aren’t a lot of people that grow up with the intention of being a clown (some are clowns, but I think that’s mostly a lack of maturity). When did you realize that this was what you wanted to be? Did it creep into your life? Was it more of a “Eureka!” moment?

Helen Donnelly as “Leonardo da Foo”

Helen Donnelly – I have to say it was more of a creeping in; at first I resisted the artistic life. I wanted the steady teaching job, teaching art and drama. Then I tried my hand at acting and soon was seeking a more physical form of theatre and something with consistency. The gig-to-gig rhythm in the theatre world did not suit me; I wanted to dive into a discipline and devote myself to it entirely. I just never thought it would be theatrical clown!

HSTA – Many artists often are not supported (I don’t mean financially, but morally) when they finally break the news to family and friends that they will not become a lawyer or accountant or doctor… Were the people around you receptive to the idea at first? If not, have they come around since then?

Helen Donnelly as “Daisy”

HD – I can only remember my mom’s worried face when I announced I was dropping the idea of going to teacher’s college. I come from a long line of teaching, so I could empathize with her struggle! I’m fortunate that teaching found me eventually and I enjoy the 5 workshops I offer

each year, most of them in Toronto. It makes for an amazing break from the performance rhythm. Now, 20 years later, mom remains supportive and is placated by the steady work that comes my way. But I love to tease her by reminding her friends her daughter is ‘just a clown!’

HSTA – A lot of people associate clowns with funny-coloured wigs and balloon animals. How does your clowning differ from that?

HD – Yes, yes. Short answer is mine is the theatrical form of clown whereby the kind of clown you are alluding to stems from the American Circus clown and then to Bozo and then finally to the current ‘birthday party’ clown. Before Bozo, our art form was laudable, theatrical, and would never be seen on tv or in the privacy of people’s living rooms. Bozo (based on a book by the way) changed all of that. I like to refer to him as a ‘virus’, which spread throughout North America in the 50s and 60s till it reached places like Europe and South America. Now, sadly, it’s all a big mess. It’s a horrible time in history to be a theatrical clown.

Helen Donnelly as “Miss Posey”

HSTA – With the creation and subsequent success of Cirque du Soleil in recent years, have you noticed a marked difference in “clowning”. All puns aside, are people starting to take it more seriously?

HD – Well, not really. The ‘virus’ has a stranglehold on most North Americans. When I toured as a clown with Cirque du Soleil for almost 2 years, some people would come up to me after the show and ask me if I could come perform at their kid’s party…or they would walk right by, like we’re a dime a dozen. The public’s taste for clown has been sullied and I don’t know if we will ever recover. (I’m a laugh a minute, aren’t I?!) But I do feel that at the very least with companies like Cirque du Soleil, Cirque Eloise, Circus Orange, Theatre Columbus and Theatre Smith/Gilmour…at least there is a new reference out there for clown. It may make a difference in the long run.

HSTA – What is your favourite aspect of clowning? Is it the interactions with people? Helping people laugh? Taking on different personas? Something else entirely?

Helen Donnelly as “Creature Foo”

HD – It’s all of those, but most of all, I am most ‘me’ when I’m clowning. I don’t feel fully alive till I’m ‘in nose’, as strange as that may sound. I can’t explain it any other way and I feel so lucky and strangely cursed at the same time!

HSTA – How did you create your different clown personalities (all 5!)? Are they based on people you’ve encountered or were you inspired by any works of literature? Do any of them contain pieces of you?

HD – One is a hybrid (character/clown—‘Daisy’) who speaks English and is an autograph hound. She has some aspects of me but mostly I created her for Cirque when I first toured with them. The rest–Foo, Miss Posey, Mildred and Dr Flap(my healthcare persona)—are 100% rooted in me. My training is rooted in authenticity; I AM the material. The idea is to be honest with your audience; what is more honest than to be yourself, but show and reveal MORE of yourself?  I like to say clowning is you…times 10! It’s life…times 10!

HSTA – How is clowning different than acting, for example? In both, you are required to take on different characters and both are certainly performance art. But does clowning bring any new challenges with it? Is there anything that’s easier? (ie no lines to memorize?)

Daisy “breaking the wall” and interacting with people directly

HD – With clown there is no 4th wall, meaning we see and interact with our audience directly. We do not pretend they are not there. Also, even if there is a script (for example my one-woman clown gibberish musical goes up June 1 and 2nd; there is a script), the clown can ‘leave’ the script for a moment in order to ‘deal’ with an audience member. My favourite moments are latecomers to the show. I love giving them a particularly hard time! It’s funny, and honest and a great release for all. Bonus is, those people will never be late again! The other major difference is actors ‘play’ a character, clowns are ‘playing’ themselves. It’s the art of gently mocking and celebrating who you are, and not being precious and guarded. It takes a very brave, secure person to train in clown in my opinion.

HSTA – Did you grow up in a household where laughter was important? Has it always been something that comes naturally to you?

HD – Yeah, I did. We were constantly looking for ways to make each other laugh. I was the stereotypical ‘middle child’, vying for attention constantly. Humour developed very early. Growing up in a rural setting also ensured an insanely evolved fantasy life. And as a family we’d listen to old Hancock records or watch Laurel and Hardy or Lucille Ball on TV and Danny Kaye movies….I was very very lucky to be exposed to such great clown geniuses from such a young age!

Helen Donnelly as her therapeutic clown, “Dr. Flap”

HSTA – Dr. Patch Adams gained widespread renown for the ’98 movie of the same title for his experimental “laughter-is-the-best-medicine” style of practice. Since 2004, you have been working as a therapeutic clown; first at SickKids Hospital and currently at Holland Bloorview Kids Rehabilitation Hospital. Do you think he’s on to something? Have you noticed any marked improvements in patients over the years that have experienced the healing power of laughter? Are there any cases that stand out for you personally?

HD – I like to separate my practice from that of Patch Adams for one very important reason: he is a medical doctor who donned the nose as a tool to relate to his clients better, whereas therapeutic clown artists use the art of clown as trained actors/artistic clowns as a tool to serve clients in healthcare. That said, there is a lot to be said for people who are fortunate enough to work as a clown in healthcare. I have a plethora of stories I could tell you about what I’ve witnessed or heard from other staff members who witness the work we do. Because we are Canada’s largest rehabilitation hospital for children, we often work in tandem with staff (nurses, OTs, PTs, Child Life Specialists) to help achieve team goals as well as working in duo with clients—to play for play’s sake. It would be impossible to pick just one story…the benefits are most often immediate and obvious.

Dr Flap and sidekick Nurse Polo (Manuel Rodriguez)

But one unique thing I’m very proud of is our involvement with research in 2010. The challenge: Hospitalized children with profound disabilities can’t show or tell us if they’re benefiting from interaction with therapeutic clowns.
The solution: A Bloorview team designs the first study to measure the long-term physiological effect of therapeutic clowns. Scientists measured physiological arousal, emotion and behaviour in eight inpatients. The results were so exciting! Every child showed unique patterns of skin temperature, sweat level and heart and breathing rates during clown visits that are not seen while watching television. Behavioural and emotional data suggest the children’s physiological responses to the clowns are positive. We were interviewed by CTV and since then I’ve shared our findings globally. They are published in a medical journal. That was a thrill!

HSTA – Do you have any advice for aspiring clowns? Is there anything people should be aware of before they decide to start clowning?

HD – Yes!  For those looking to explore this unique art form as a curiousity,  I heartily encourage them to try it. It’s an amazing journey if you have the right teacher at the helm.

Those who look to clowning as a second career should know it will be a long road, and longer if there is very little artistic background and training. The art of clown, no matter where you apply it (healthcare, on stage, in the circus) involves ‘hard skills’…there is a strange assumption out there that if you have a good heart and love children you can pull it off with very little training (I think this is not their fault…again, I blame Bozo!). People like that are a little naïve and those who do it anyway with no training are a little scary. There is too much that can go wrong. So, advice for those who want to do it professionally? Proceed with caution and get great advice from those who know.

Helen Donnelly as “Foo”

HSTA – You have a workshop coming up at the Haliburton School of The Arts this July 23rd – July 27th.  What sort of things can people expect to take away with them from this workshop?

HD – It’s the kind of workshop that is very unique; it’s a mix of playful exercises, solo and group work, intro to stage. Students will be going on this personal journey of discovering who their clown is and at the same time sharing this journey with others in the class. So very private and very public at the same time. People take this workshop for many reasons, but sometimes the best reason is not knowing why they are taking it! I have been lucky in the students I’ve been honoured to teach over the last 8 years at Haliburton. They have been extremely generous and supportive of each other which, at its heart, is what clown is all about.♦

For more information about Helen Donnelly, or to contact her, please visit her website at www.helendonnelly.com

To learn more about this course, or to register, please contact the Haliburton School of The Arts at www.hsta.ca or 1-866-353-6464 x3

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