Students introduced themselves by swiveling their pelvises to spell out their names. After which the others representing what the teacher called the “pooblic” in the audience responded in union with a loud “Oh. Hi (name)!”
Progressing from that simple beginning while standing in a circle, to literally taking their first careful stage steps, to maintaining eye contact with the “pooblic” while stepping around trying to stop on an unseen “X” chalked on the stage floor, the nine adult pupils learned how to clown.
By the end of the three-hour class, divided into two groups, they staged appropriately absurd song-and-dance numbers based on 10 minutes of improvised experimenting amongst themselves.
“It’s just like, personally, learning how to climb around in your own self,” said Ganesha Howell, a local land surveying business operator who had never performed on stage. “I was in the dark for years at a time and so I got a little insulated after that, and I used to be extremely gregarious.”
The class at Perseverance Theatre on Tuesday night was the first of three on consecutive nights being taught by Tallie Medel, a Ketchikan native who’s soared to global fame recently as a co-star in “Everything Everywhere All At Once,” which won the Academy Award for Best Picture earlier this year.
Now living in New York City, she said returned to Southeast Alaska in October because “my nephew’s got a birthday and my friend had a baby.” But that also offered an opportunity to teach the clowning classes she offers elsewhere at a time of the year when residents in Juneau and her hometown are more likely to be indoors than pursuing outdoor activities.
Howell said he was at the class both for the experience and who was teaching it.
“I’ve been a fan of Halle for a while and of clown (that’s) family theatery,” he said. “And my wife signed me up because she knew I was interested.”
Being an intrepid novice is a plus from Medel’s perspective, whose website assures prospective students “beginners make the best clowns.”
“I think what happens is if you come in with a lot of theatrical or comedic training there’s a lot of undoing you have to do,” Medel said. “Because the clown isn’t actually a comedic. It’s not like you’re doing comedy. It’s the recognition that you’re already funny and you’re searching for what’s human…What does happen a lot is that the person who’s coming in to take a clown class who has no idea what they’re doing is getting way more laughs than the (experienced) comedians. And you can see this rage on the comedians’ faces. And it’s very funny.”
After the initial eccentric introducing of names and pronouns among class participants, Medel — who uses they/them and she/her pronouns — spent the initial portion of the session on activities resembling a meditative or light physical dexterity class.
They had the students lie silently on the floor and absorb what their senses conveyed about the sounds of the room, feel of the floor and other sensations. Participants also got an early lesson in walking around the room taking steps as dictated by the actor — whether precise, gentle or inebriated — in a soothing level tone that occasionally interjected a few off-kilter words.
“Make sure you’re breathing so you don’t pass away,” Medel said at one point, which took a beat to sink in among students before they reacted with laughter.
Such guidance was also offered when the class progressed to more stage-direct activities during the second half of the class, where students spent a few minutes in pairs describing themselves to each other, then taking turns giving “center ring” introductions to the audience before their counterpart entered to showcase a chosen passion of their life.
Medel told the students if they were nervous or afraid about their stage entrances they should make it part of their act.
“We always enter at the speed of fun,” they said. “If you’re afraid, shout or cry out while you’re coming in.”
The experience wasn’t new for siblings Drake and Leanora Skaggs, who said they’ve taken clown classes intermittently since 2004, but getting instruction from Medel offered new elements.
“I think it’s more than anything having the opportunity to be around other people doing this right now… and have like such a big experience person come in and then talking about the way that she sees it,” Leanora Skaggs said.
Her brother said their long-running interest in clown classes is because it’s a chance “to explore a different aspect of yourself that’s more open and sillier, like more honest.”
Medel was scheduled to teach the classes Monday through Wednesday, but with weather keeping their flight Monday from reaching Juneau the sessions were moved to Tuesday through Thursday. Some participants in the first classes said they planned to attend all three classes, but Medel said that while different activities are occurring each night the fundamentals remain the same for first-timers interested in just one.
The actor is also planning to teach two classes later during the week to local high school students.
Medel stepped onto a much bigger stage, literally and proverbially, with “Everything Everywhere All At Once,” but Medel said the clown classes are “my most indispensable acting training.”
“You’re completely present in the room and present for whatever else is happening,” she said. “And what’s also really lovely about clown is that there’s no fourth wall and the audience is participating in the show. And it’s a real relief because then if somebody sneezes that performer on stage doesn’t have to pretend that there was no sneeze. You can run to them with a handkerchief or something, or try to figure out where a sneeze comes from.”
All that happens in the classes without stereotypical clown facepaint, rubber noses and floppy shoes. Medel said that’s because people already are wearing masks created by their persona, so “what’s really fun about this is it reveals you for the fool that you are and the fools that all of us are.”
A pupil demonstrating great foolery with a boisterous dash around the room high-fiving the “pooblic” after his stage introduction during an exercise was Roblin Davis, who said he has considerable performing arts experience, but his interest in clowning came after seeing a simple show featuring two people with red noses “who spoke in gibberish for the entire show.
“I was like ‘I want to do that someday,’” he said.
Know & Go
What: Clowning class with Tallie Medel.
When: 6-9 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday.
Where: Perseverance Theatre, 914 3rd St., Douglas.
Tickets: Single class for $40. Available online at www.jahc.org/box-office. Maximum of 16 students per class.
Other: Intended for people ages “roughly 18 and up.”