Send in the clowns
The 2018 programme of Edinburgh’s annual Manipulate festival boasts a special edition of the Clown Cabaret. Mark Brown spoke with one of the Cabaret’s creators, actor-director Tim Licata
If you have been an observer of Scottish theatre over the last 20 years, the chances are you will have encountered Tim Licata. Hailing from Chicago, the actor, teacher and director has appeared in numerous performances by erstwhile theatre company Benchtours, as well as in the work of his own physical theatre group Plutot La Vie, which he established with fellow artist Ian Cameron in 2002.
Most recently you might have seen him manipulating a flatulent mongrel puppet and playing the ill-fated merchant Abu Hassan in the Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh’s acclaimed Christmas production of The Arabian Nights.
The actor settled in Scotland (Edinburgh, to be precise) in 1995, with his Austrian wife Magdalena Schamberger, who is acclaimed for her work in hospital clowning (particularly as former artistic director of Edinburgh-based company Hearts & Minds). He and Schamberger met in Paris in the 1990s, while studying with the great French performance teacher Philippe Gaulier (who was himself a pupil of the theatre master Jacques Lecoq). It was there that Licata also met future collaborators in Benchtours, Catherine Gillard, Peter Clerke and John Cobb.
I meet Licata in a cafe on Broughton Street in central Edinburgh, to talk, not about his exceptional career as a performer, but about his central role as a director and curator of the Clown Cabaret. The Cabaret, which started in Edinburgh in 2013, is about to make its debut in the brilliant programme of the Manipulate festival of visual theatre.
I suggest to Licata that Manipulate plays a crucial role in Scottish theatre in providing a platform at Edinburgh’s Traverse Theatre for art forms that tend to be somewhat under-represented on the national stage. “I think that’s true” he says. “Manipulate absolutely does that.
“It’s been interesting to watch it over its 10 years. It started out with even more of a puppetry and puppet manipulation focus. It’s developed and grown into wider areas of visual and physical theatre. I think that’s great.”
Manipulate is, the actor-director continues, “a real flagship [for visual theatre in Scotland]… a platform, both in terms of bringing international artists here and featuring a lot of Scottish artists.”
Over the last 50 years Scottish theatre has developed an interesting tension and connection between its literary/textual roots and its embracing of the more visual aesthetics of leading European theatre artists such as Lecoq and the Polish master Jerzy Grotowski. However, this European strand has suffered in recent times with the controversial closure of The Arches venue in Glasgow in 2015 and the reduced profile of Tramway (the programme of which has, sadly, been neglected by its owner Glasgow City Council).
However, as Licata points out, while some doors have closed (partially, if not entirely), others have opened. Scottish theatre companies such as Vox Motus, Company of Wolves (who present their new show Achilles at this year’s Manipulate) and Licata’s own Plutot La Vie are producing work which is very clearly inspired by the techniques of European theatre.
Clown Cabaret itself is enjoying larger audiences and increasing prominence. Now based at the Roxy Art House venue in Edinburgh, it presented a special edition as part of last year’s Surge festival of street arts, physical theatre and circus in Glasgow.
The brainchild of Licata and co-conspirators Saras Feijoo and Melanie Jordan, the Cabaret runs regular scratch nights in which selected clown artists present their new and developing work. In the special editions, such as that during Surge last year and Manipulate next month (Traverse, February 3), some of the more successful pieces from the scratch nights are selected to be showcased. The Manipulate showcase will star artists such as Ruxy Cantir, Andrew Simpson and Bec Phipps.
Clowning in the theatre is, Licata explains, a very different proposition from clowning in the street. “You can do really subtle things in the theatre, but it needs the focus that artists get with theatre lighting and sound.”
Although, while growing up in Illinois, Licata loved circus clowns, he understands why so many people in the US and the UK are afraid of clowns due to the impression they received when they were young. “People know clowns from the circus”, he comments, “with all that white face make-up and big, painted-on smile. Up-close that can be really off-putting and scary.”
It was Lecoq, he says, who “rediscovered the clown. “He called it ‘the personal clown’.”
Lecoq’s deeply considered approach to the clown is very profound, Licata observes. “It can be incredibly freeing for a performer to be able to comfortably accept and, then, share what they might think are their limitations.
“Suddenly, when they are able to share their inadequacies, when they engender pleasure in an audience, those supposed weaknesses become dramatic strengths.”
Licata hopes that the evolution of Clown Cabaret, including its forthcoming showcase at Manipulate, will help develop the understanding of clown theatre in Scotland. “One of the things we’re particularly pleased about is that Clown Cabaret has given people a better understanding of personal clown. Hopefully, by taking it into Manipulate, we’re getting that out to a broader audience.”
The Manipulate festival runs at the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, January 27 to February 3: manipulatefestival.org
By Mark Brown
Saturday, January 27
This fascinating programme of short animated films made under censorship in the countries of the Warsaw Pact, the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia between 1961 and 1978 is programmed and introduced by award-winning Estonian animator Ulo Pikkov. Followed by a Q&A, it promises to offer real insights into how artists have used (and continue to use) subtle and metaphorical techniques to make unwanted political comment.
Wednesday, January 31
Superb Scots-Singaporean theatremaker and performer Ramesh Meyyappan (creator of the lovely piece Butterfly) performs his solo show about Joe Kilter, an obsessive man who is struggling to maintain his sense of himself. Everyday objects seem to conspire against Joe in this humorous, humane, beautifully executed piece of visual and physical theatre. The work is performed without spoken dialogue and is suitable for D/deaf audiences.
The Frog at the Bottom of the Well Believes That the Sky is Round
Friday, February 2
Acclaimed French company Velo Theatre offer us an intriguing guided tour in this work of total theatre. Combining performance, object theatre, installations, film, music and soundscapes, the show contemplates the great emotional and psychological resonance of our memories of our first home. In this case, it is the very unusual house of the great collector Monsieur Brin d’Avoine.
Saturday, February 3
Another Gallic work, but with a distinctly Scouse twist, as Liverpool-born artist Colette Garrigan, longstanding founder and director of French group Compagnie Akselere, retells the famous fairytale. Set in the Kingdom of Liverpool, which has been ravaged by hunger and joblessness, the piece is performed by Garrigan, with help from a variety of puppets, everyday objects and clever lighting. Expect an inventive performance which plays very much with the darker elements in the fairytale tradition.
This feature was originally published in the Sunday Herald on January 14, 2018
© Mark Brown