An Actor's Life: Send Out the Clowns

The Saturday before last, at the John Anson Ford amphitheater, 75 minutes into what was supposed to be a one-hour kiddie show, clown Jeff Robinson was onstage with his feet strapped to five-gallon buckets. Along with three other clowns, Robinson was masked by a tarp for the cast’s costume change (the buckets precluded easy access to dressing rooms). As planned, the tarp dropped, exposing the clowns to the sellout crowd for the show’s final scenes. The performers then waited for their sound cue. Nothing. They waited some more. And waited, for Godot, as it were.

“We were running a little long,” Robinson says. “Apparently the [Ford’s] managing director, Martin Kagan, told [the show’s director] Jennifer Furlong, to stop the show. She said, ‘No, we have eight minutes left.’ So he instructed his crew to stop running the sound. We were [left] hanging on the stage in awkward silence.” Finally, Furlong bounded to the stage, seized a microphone and thanked the crowd for attending. The play Hats, presented by Virginia’s Circus Millennia, had exceeded its allotted time limit, she said, and therefore was being stopped.

The audience was almost as stunned as the performers. Laura Zucker, head of the County Arts Commission that administers the facility, described watching the moment as “an out-of-body experience.” For Robinson, a professional actor, juggler and clown for over 25 years in film, television and live theater, “This was one of the worst moments of my performing career.”

The children were simply confused. Hats, not a mere clown variety show, has a linear trajectory that follows the story of Sarah, who cannot graduate from clown school until she finds a proper clown hat. In the final scene, she builds her own hat, which is acceptable to the clown school, and sends the audience home with the message that there are creative solutions to life’s dilemmas. Without the ending, Robinson laments, the children were left with the more skeptical notion that “if you’re a misfit without the right hat, you’re screwed.”

We asked Robinson why an actor of his experience would volunteer to dance upon a stage with buckets strapped to his feet on a Saturday morning, at his own expense and at an hour when most thespians ä worth their salt are still scraping out of bed.

“The lead clown is a close friend of mine,” he explained. “We thought, gee, this would be kind of fun. Plus I’m a juggling junkie. I didn’t ask about the pay. Like actors in L.A., we’ll do it for free, and if we get paid, it’s like icing on the cake. You know how actors are.”

No, but we’re beginning to.

Meanwhile, the very chastened Kagan insists that he merely informed the director that the show was running long and asked her if it was possible to “transition to the end,” as the next show was scheduled to start loading in.

“I heard [Kagan] say to stop the show,” explains Furlong, a bit defensively, clearly drawing a distinction between what she heard and what Kagan might actually have said to her on the amphitheater’s concrete steps. “On hindsight, I might have misunderstood what was being said.”

“In the end, people just want love and respect,” Furlong explains with the wisdom of the ages. And that’s the moral of this story. —Steven Leigh Morris

>SNAP




System shock: Brothers Mitchell and Robert arrived at this Hollywood parking lot eight hours early to catch their favorite band, System of a Down. What they, and several thousand others, got was a long, hot delay and billy-club-brandishing rent-a-cops. When word came down that the fire marshal was putting the kaibash on the free concert, shit got crazy: rubber bullets, tear gas, horses, busted windows and six arrests. System’s gear? Gone, stolen, destroyed. Happy Labor Day. Photo by Virginia Lee Hunter

Utopia: Burning Down the House

Since 1995, a sub-community called “M*A*S*H*: The Ladies Militia Forced Aid Camp” has been the locus of gay activity at the Burning Man Festival in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert. The brainchild of Ggreg Taylor, a.k.a. “NAMBLA the clown,” the camp was designed as a gay-male ghetto amid the sprawl of the temporary city, which now accommodates 25,000. It’s a place where women straight, gay or bi are not so much unwelcome as irrelevant. When two friends of mine, a straight woman and a gay man, ventured in to check out one of its tents — the Jiffy Lube Lounge (“Get in. Get Off. Get Out.”) — they were gently discouraged. “What goes on in here?” the man asked a guy inside. “Um, just hanging out.” Later, my male friend went back alone and observed men having sex. Not surprising: Outside Jiffy Lube, participants had erected a 15-foot-high, motorized cardboard cartoon of two buff and grinning naked men, one on his knees, one standing up and thrusting in rhythm. My gay friend screamed with joy when we ran across it. “Look!” he said. “They’re butt-fucking!”

As of Wednesday night, the art in front of Jiffy Lube was the wittiest thing in Black Rock City, subversive and raw. It stood as a slaphappy expression of identity, the likes of which were hard to find on this year’s playa. The official Burning Man theme of 2001, Shakespeare’s “Seven Ages of Man,” proved too cumbersome and abstract to yield much ingenious art. In contrast to last year’s theme of “The Body”, which set large roving heads loose to roam the playa among alimentary canals made of PVC and looming plaster testicles, this year’s art smacked of state-sponsorship — the state being the Burning Man organization itself, which awards grants to promising participants. Impressive installations, from a maze to a mausoleum, seemed formal and goal-oriented. But the Jiffy Lube scene was blissfully free of messages about faux-spirituality or community building. It was simply funny, nasty and defiantly frank.

By Friday night, however, the art was gone and the alkaline soil in front of Jiffy Lube looked abandoned. I didn’t think much about it at first. Installations collapse all the time here, blown away in wind storms or taken down by rangers with bad weather forecasts to worry about. White-outs were occurring hourly, and the dust storms of Thursday night had coated everyone’s skin and clogged vocal chords by Friday morning. Then, on Saturday, a reporter from Heavy Metal Times told me that the Pershing County Sheriff had demanded that the art be removed from public view, on the grounds that it violated decency standards.

Given that Jyna Camp featured Polaroids of women’s genitals and that one can occasionally catch a blowjob in progress at Bianca’s Smut Shack, I found this hard to believe, especially since rumors fly around the playa as recklessly as boa feathers. But when I got home, the Reno Gazette Journal confirmed that not only had the Sheriff issued an edict against the art, but Larry Harvey himself, the founder of Burning Man, had come around to encourage the camp to comply. As he told one man protesting the action, the very existence of Burning Man was at stake: “You’re going to be famous, and we’ll be off the desert.”

In an effort to hold on to its precious temporary-use permit from the Bureau of Land Management and keep the residents of nearby Gerlach happy, the Burning Man organization clears ever-higher hurdles to appease the authorities. That’s cause for celebration when it comes to renting more Porta-potties and teaching attendees that the holes aren’t for beer bottles. It’s noble when it comes to minimizing the event’s impact on the environment. And it’s only mildly annoying when it requires asking participants to stay mum about drug use within Black Rock City’s boundaries. But when such cooperation extends to banning creative, nonviolent expression, it becomes collaboration with the very system to which Burning Man was intended to present an alternative.

Burning Man is, and continues to be in many ways, a triumph of human imagination and good will. I love it in all its clichés: The neon wire bent into fishes on bikes, the crowds of fire twirlers, the naked people in body paint, and the towers of rickety scaffolding that people risk their lives to climb. I respect the rules about public safety, celebrate the decision a few years back to ban guns, appreciate that threatening drunks who harass women are promptly arrested and carted off. In 1999, I witnessed one camp’s residents getting thrown out for hurling epithets at passers-by (they called it performance art), and that was just fine by me. But the Jiffy Lube sex art hurt no one and bothered only bigots. Its censorship bodes ill for the future of Black Rock City, which is rapidly deteriorating into an RV park/fun fair with really lousy weather. My favorite sign on the entrance road read, “If you’re not living on the edge, you’re taking up too much space.” Maybe it’s time for someone to move over. —Judith Lewis

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