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Rekindling Magic 

SoHum’s Feet First Dancers return to Clowntown

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Rekindling Magic
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Rekindling Magic

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The Feet First Dancers of Southern Humboldt present the world premier of the original musical Beyond the Paille: Further Adventures in Clowntown, July 3-6 at the Mateel Community Center in Redway. Performances begin at 7 p.m. Thursday, Friday and Saturday; Sunday’s final show is a matinee beginning at 2 p.m.

Bleacher and balcony seats are $15-$20, floor seats are $10. Tickets are available through Back In a Flash in Garberville (923-2441). Advance tickets are recommended as Feet First shows typically sell out.

Things were chaotic at the Garberville Veteran’s Hall. It was almost 4 o’clock on a Wednesday, a little more than two weeks before the premiere of a new show by Southern Humboldt’s homegrown dance troupe, the Feet First Dancers, and a couple of dozen cast members were assembling for the first full run-though. A few had arrived early to work with Joan Becker, co-writer, co-director and co-ringmaster of the musical dance piece, Beyond the Paille: Further Adventures in Clowntown.

Joan, sporting a clownish red bowler with a single silk flower attached, was working with the early birds crafting the lead-in to a key scene in the action. When one of the actor/dancers asked for his lines, Joan admitted most weren’t written yet. In fact she was hoping those in the scene would improvise their own lines. The setting: an imaginary courtroom (this is a bit ironic since the rehearsal is in a large room in the Vet’s Hall that doubles as Garberville’s actual court). Robed figures representing warring factions in a community dispute stand before a judge, played by Carl Hansen,a longtime Feet First backstage technician making his first onstage appearance.

“Karl, you will do your own funny Judge-your-Highness judge,” Joan instructed, as she gave him one line: “Court is now in session. Let the games begin!”

Karl improvised a bit of dialogue about “a no-class class-action suit.” The clown litigants in the scene hollered at each other. This was all prelude to a scene described by Joan in which the robes come off to reveal basketball uniforms. When the piece eventually plays out, one of the dueling sides will be clad in red uniforms that say “Us” on the front and “Them” on the back; the other side’s uniforms blue with “Them” on the front and “Us” on the back. A dance battle ensues with each side pointing fingers at the other as they sing, “Who Put the Coals Out?” (to the tune of “Who Put the Dogs Out?”).

This bit comes at the end of Act 1, and it’s preceded by enough plot development so that it makes some sense — at least as much as is required in a clown show — but it’s likely that the imagery and metaphors in play may be lost on those unfamiliar with recent events in Southern Humboldt.

Clowntown itself (whose residents are refugees of the urban Clowntropolis) serves as a stand-in for SoHum as a whole. Those who were around 19 years ago for the first Feet First clown show, Clowntown: The Search of the Holey Pail, may recognize the Coals as symbolic of the hippie magic that holds Clowntown together. And if you’ve been following the legal action swirling around the Mateel Community Center and the producers of the annual Reggae on the River/Reggae Rising music festivals, you will understand the origins of the Us v. Them finger-pointing.

Feet First productions are an extreme example of something Dell’Arte Artistic Director Michael Fields describes as “theatre of place.” Coincidentally, the Blue Lake-based physical theater company is in the midst of a two-weekend run of its own topical show: Korbel IV: The Accident, in which local characters and events are skewered in song and dance routines, with an ending touching on forgiveness. (You can read more about Korbel and “theatre of place” in this week’s Stage Matters.)

While Dell’Arte tends toward the political, Feet First is after something different. “It’s not exactly political. It’s more about reflecting on the status of the community relative to its own initiating ideals — and where we’re at now,” said David Simpson, a Petrolia resident who revives his Clowntown character Woody Debris in the new show. David also runs the overtly political Human Nature theater company with his wife, Jane Lapiner. (“Political Theater,” Oct. 23, 2003.)

“The show takes on the Reggae on the River conflict and the evolution of the back-to-the land movement toward consumerism as some of the Luddite idealism of that era has waned,” David concluded.

Back at the Vet’s Hall, Joan put it simply: “This show is about community,” before breaking off our conversation to talk with an arriving dancer.

As one of the show’s directors, Joan had loose ends to tie up. In this case, she’d found that one of her dancers has a truck and trailer they can use to haul one of Feet First primary assets, a $22,000 professional quality portable sprung dance floor, from its storage unit home to the Mateel Community Center, where the show will run this coming weekend. Arrangements were made, another item checked off on the to do list.

“This is very dedicated, extremely talented volunteer community effort,” said Joan as we resumed our chat. “We’ve

been doing this for 30 years now, so we know in the end it’s

gonna work.”

Jumping in Feet First

As we settled in on the back steps of the Vet’s Hall, site of many key discussions about Feet First productions, Joan’s co-writer/director Hal Bahr arrived costumed in a faux snakeskin vest, khaki shorts and a trucker hat. (One of the characters he plays is an “ardent recycler.”) Hal gave Joan an update on who was coming to rehearsal (almost the whole cast) and who was not (some of the singers) before bouncing back inside to get things organized.

Joan noted that there was another group who would not be at the rehearsal that day: the kids from the all ages ensemble. Most of them (including her 10-year-old son, Randy) were off at Camp Winnarainbow, Wavy Gravy’s circus and performing arts camp.

Between my long conversation on the steps with Joan, and a later chat with Hal, a history of the dance company and its upcoming show emerged.

Hal Bahr was a teenager when he came to Humboldt County in the ’70s from the Midwest. His theatrical bent was already in place: He’d been a child actor. Eventually he met (and later moved in with) the late Don Walker, a former professional dancer and figure skater, whom Hal describes as “the original hippie out here” in the China Creek area west of Redway they called home.

“When Feet First first came together [in 1977]it was 13 women,” recalled Hal, who sees himself as a historian of sorts. “One of them, Diane Richardson, is still dancing, and is in the new show. Don came in soon after that. He was the kind of person who drew people to him — one was me.

“I was the first to say, ‘Let’s not just do dance concerts with collections of unrelated pieces.’ I wanted to do story shows. The very first one I did was Success.”

That 1984 show was where Joan Becker entered the Feet First orbit. Like Hal, she’d landed in SoHum in the ’70s. She had studied dance in college, but also took an interest in clowning, exploring the form with a small like-minded group.

“There were four of us: me, Barbara Penny, Chad Harris — who has since died — and Deborah Orlando,” she said. “We worked together as clown dancers for a time and our bits started showing up in Feet First shows. Those bits evolved into the first Clowntown show: The Search for the Holey Pail.”

What they created was a clowning/dance hybrid. “We would take a piece of music and choreograph dance moves, but they would be clowny,” Joan explained. “Maybe we’d do a handstand on our partner’s back and then a forward roll, but the next minute we’d go back to dance-type things. Barbara had a background in clowning, but this was our own version,” which, it should be noted, has very little to do with the classic commedia dell’arte masked clowning taught at Dell’Arte.

Adventures in Clowntown: The Search for the Holey Pail put the clown routines front and center. The elaborate production included a huge cast of singing/dancing community members. At the core of the storyline was a group of four clowns on a quest for adventure and The Meaning of Life, which they’re told by a turbaned Wizard (Don Walker) was contained in the Holey Pail.

There was mild social commentary along the way on various then-topical topics: protesters, junk food and video games among them, along with lots of slapstick and extravagant Broadway-esque dance routines. Eventually, with help from the Debris Family (four crusty clowns, played by David Simpson and Jane Lapiner, their daughter Joyful and a young friend from Petrolia, Don Ozard), the clowns find the Pail. What they discover is that everyone has a different view of the Meaning of Life — and that’s OK.

“With the first Clowntown we just wanted to have fun and create this world of imagination, a fairytale thing,” said Joan. “That show had a cast of 70, with maybe 30 more helping backstage and front of house. It was an extravaganza.”

Why Me?

The next Feet First clown show, in 1992, did not take place in Clowntown. “Chad and Don were the resident magicians in our company,” Hal recalled. “After Chad was diagnosed with HIV, we wrote this show called Mr. Whyme and the Final Taboo. Chad played Mr. Whyme, an undertaker who always wanted to be a cowboy.”

SoHum musician Andy Barnett served as an accompanist for Feet First many times over the years. (He would have played in the band for the new show, if not for a prior commitment: He’s in the small pit orchestra for the concurrent run of Korbel IV.)

When it comes to “theatre of place,” Andy sees Feet First as a classic example. “All the metaphorical and personal references are very local,” he said in a conversation just before theKorbel IVpremier,citingMr. Whyme and the Final Tabooas an example.

“Mr. Whymewas basically the community working through the grieving process and dealing with death in the midst of the AIDS epidemic. Chad, who directed the show, knew he was positive. He was diagnosed with AIDS while they were putting the show together.”

Death might seem an unlikely subject for a clown show, but by all accounts it worked.

Andy continued, “Chad dies in the show. In the end, he has his cowboy boots on and little angel wings and he’s rotating up into heaven through sparkly lights. All of his friends were below him singing. It was totally ritual — full-on indigenous spiritual ritual — as well as a theater production. A year later, he died.That sort of ritual has been a running theme of all the theater down there: Joanie Rose’s work, Recycled Youth, all of them.”

Return to Clowntown

“The beauty of clown is, if you can exaggerate something it helps deal with it,” Joan explained. “When you’ve got troubles, when you’ve got issues and you can exaggerate them in a humorous way, it’s an important step toward dealing with change.”

In part the genesis for the new Clowntown show was a major change in Hal’s life, and another loss to the company.

“A year and a half ago, Don died while we were surfing in Hawaii,” said Hal, punctuating the sad recollection with a sigh.

Dealing with his personal loss got him thinking about values that seemed to be slipping away from SoHum as a whole. “My personal process is to work things out onstage,” he said. “Don was the embodiment of living simply on the land and being a steward of the land. [Thinking about that] got me looking at the past, at what it was that brought me here, what brought this community here in the beginning — what the values were.

“At the same time my community had decided to make war with itself. [The battle over] Reggae was only the most virulent symptom. I related it to frustration with the whole Bush administration. We could not have any effect on the war or the other things they were doing. Not being able to get the bad guy out there, that energy turned into this thing where, ‘I want to get the bad guy here.’ The reality is there are no bad guys in your family. Still, this big split was developing. Those two things together made me want to revisit [Clowntown].”

In brief, the legal battle over Reggae grew out of a dispute about whether longtime Reggae on the River producer Carol Bruno quit or was fired from her job overseeing the multi-million dollar festival. That question rolled into another: whether the Mateel Community Center’s lease for the Dimmick Ranch, where Reggae relocated in 2006, unequivocally specifies Bruno as concert producer. The concerned parties filed lawsuits and countersuits in the spring of 2007. (“It’s just Reggae,” Aug, 2, 2007.) In January of this year Mateel v. Dimmick Ranch made it to court. With mounting legal expenses for both sides, a mediated resolution was announced two weeks ago. As of press time details have not yet been revealed.

Garberville lawyer Eric Kirk started up a blog he calls SoHum Parlance not long before the Reggae clash heated up. It became a designated online battleground for the squabble. He marvels at the degree of interest in the topic and the intensity of the invective.

“I can’t go into the market without someone wanting to talk about it,” he said in a lunchtime conversation last week at a Garberville burrito joint. “Once I went to Shop Smart and ended up having four conversations about Reggae before I could get out. Everybody wanted to talk about it, everybody wanted to argue about it.”

As Kirk noted, the dispute has ended long friendships and spilled over into everything from the community radio station to the race for 2nd District Supervisor.

“These are institutions — the Mateel, KMUD, Reggae on the River — that everyone worked together on. The community built them. A lot of the people who moved up here had been part of the struggles and efforts to create a new society in the ’60s. These were expressions of a community they’d built, and they continue to be.

“Now both sides feel disillusioned. They feel like the ideals behind these institutions have been betrayed, that somebody lost sight of them, that it became about money. And this came from both sides: feelings that one side or the other had become too bureaucratic or too focused on the bottom line or whatever. This idea that it was a vision betrayed made the lawsuit about much more than two parties in dispute over a contract. What was different was that this new community was at odds with itself, rather than with what used to be the predominate culture here.”

Joan sees the Reggae dispute as emblematic of breakdowns in all sorts of agreements and arrangements, things like land partnerships done on a handshake that ended up going sour years down the line.

“The whole thing [with Reggae] was so disappointing to me: the side-taking, the fundamentalists, the narrow-minded thinking that says your friend has to agree with you or they won’t ever be forgiven.

“I think when we were younger there was this feeling, if we could just hang out long enough and keep talking, we’ll get somewhere. It was heartbreaking to see how fast Reggae moved out of mediation and into the legal structure.”

Although it comes across less overtly in the show, Joan and Hal were also looking at the consumerism associated with SoHum’s successful illicit marijuana industry and how it has affected counter-culture back-to-the-land ethics.

“Mom and Pop marijuana built this community,” said Joan. “In the fall you taxed yourself and you gave to all the local organizations. The clinic grew and the schools grew, the women’s shelter grew and the dance company grew. That was how we taxed ourselves rather than paying the government. That [ethic] is shaky right now with the next generation. It’s a mixed bag. Some have it, but there’s also this very high-dollar income, high consumer thing that’s different from the way things were.”

Beyond the Paille

As we revisit Clowntown 19 years after the earlier Adventures, the Wizard from the first show has moved on. As Hal explained it, “He retired from the wizard business and flew his magic carpet to Humbozocino.”

But before he left, he created a lasting legacy: The Coals. “They had a big party in the summer; everybody sang songs and laughed and told stories and danced. The Wizard did a magic spell that took bits and pieces of all the stories and dances and love. He made that into the Magic Coals of Community Vision that are kept burning inside the Pail. As the legend goes, as long as the Coals kept burning, everyone was able to live in peace and harmony on the land together.”

The show includes some things seemingly added just for pun value or to get a laugh from kids. Dog farts play an important role, although explaining that too much would give away important plot points. The clowns get their clown noses from Nosewood trees, which means there’s an annual festival to celebrate nose-picking season.

Then there’s the wordplay that shifts the Holey Pail, toBeyond the Paille. “In the new show one of the vendors at the Nose-Picking Festival is selling a new formula of clown-white make-up. It’s called Paille DeLite,a play on the use of faux French names to disguise cheap goods,” said Hal.

“The thing with this clown-white, it comes direct from the White House, and no matter how little substance you have, when you use it, you appear brilliant. The side-effects are that it’s addictive, and it makes you want to consume mass quantities of natural resources.”

As a result, the townsfolk of Clowntown become a decadent lot. They start chopping down the Nosewood trees that block their solar panels or greenhouses, and their lives become so busy people are shirking their shifts at that community repository for Magic, The Coals.

Before the clowns lead us to a final (happy) ending, all the trees are felled, a code enforcement officer has paid a visit, the Coals have gone out, blaming fingers are pointed, lawsuit filed, and ultimately lessons are learned about the nature of community.

Joan and Hal both hope that their little clown excursion reaches beyond commentary on current events.

“I don’t necessarily think of [the new Clowntown] as a show about Reggae or about what happened to the back-to-the-landers,” said Joan. “To me, if we’re at all successful, we’re holding up a mirror that will show where we’ve gone off track and where we’ve lost some of those initial values.”

Hal concurs, noting that the overall idea is to “make an assessment of what it was that brought us here, and where are we now. It’s about self-examination through laugher with no finger-pointing.”

Is the show intended as a ritual aimed at mending a divided community? “In my wildest dreams, this will help to start the healing process,” said Hal. “When I was 8 years old, I had a dream where the meaning of life was revealed to me. It was one word, written on a blackboard: cooperation. We live in a society that operates on one word: competition. The thing that relights the Coals in the show is cooperation.”

Joan is equally hopeful, but also pragmatic. “In a way I know we’ll be preaching to the choir. Those who will come see us are the ones who are not so galvanized. I don’t expect anyone to change their position, but maybe for a moment, they’ll remember those basketball shirts that say ‘Us and Them’ and think, maybe that’s just too silly a way to approach things in life.

“Honestly, I just want us all to be together, to see what we share in common instead of what keeps us apart. And if we can all get together and laugh at ourselves, maybe we can recognize where we’ve gone wrong.”

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Bob Doran

Bob Doran

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