“Jackassing” in the dark
Grand Prairie native Alice Nelson discovered her love of clowning at an early age. Saturday Night Live performers like Bill Murray and Robin Williams dazzled her with their brand of physical comedy; later, a performance by renowned Canadian “horror clowns” Mump and Smoot sealed the deal.
“It was when they did Flux,” she says. “I made my parents go see it, and I said, ‘This is what I want to do!’ And they were like, ‘Really? How about an Ed. degree?’”
Instead, she obtained a degree in drama and then a masters in “ensemble based physical theatre” — not quite what her parents advised.
Since then, she has clowned around the world in independent and professional productions, and even volunteered in South Africa with Clowns Without Borders.
Nelson is now the “emerging director” at Lunchbox Theatre. After assistant directing the company’s season of plays, she takes the director’s chair for Mockingbird Close, which opens this week.
The play tells the story of a ’50s-era couple whose child disappears; as they knock on neighbours’ doors in search of their child, they discover the dark underbelly of their pristine suburb.
Directing a play is a new hat for this clown. Despite her love of ensemble-based clowning and collaboration, Nelson found that a lack of direction sometimes diminished concepts and impacted productions. She realized a director is necessary to provide focus to the creation process.
“An ensemble can create a ton of really fantastic material,” she says, “but in the end, you need a director to rope it all together, to pull it in so that it appears like there’s one perspective on the show.”
While Mockingbird Close is an emotional, dark drama that seems dissimilar from the physical comedy Nelson loves, she insists that clowning continues to inform much of her directing style. Rather than orchestrating blocking and other creative choices, she encourages the actors to offer their own input, improvise and play, which generates innumerable ideas — her role as director, she says, is to choose the best and most cohesive ideas. This process led to some frolicsome rehearsals.
“We jackass a lot,” she says. “It’s a lot of productive jackassing.”
Because Mockingbird Close addresses numerous heavy topics, Nelson considers this “jackassing” important in finding moments of light. After the first run-through rehearsal, she realized, “Whoa. We need to find some laughs.”
“What informed this production, for me, has been my training in movement and melodrama. I realized we needed to use a lot of gesture and a lot of physical playing. And, because these characters go to very extreme emotions — it does have a sense of melodrama to it — it’s been a really good opportunity to articulate to the actors how to play those different extremes.”