These days, it seems clowns have a bad reputation. But, in That Beautiful Laugh, which opened this past weekend at La Mama, a hilarious cast of clowns takes that reputation to task. Based on bedtime stories that creator and director Orlando Pabotoy told to his five year-old son, That Beautiful Laugh is full of whimsy and funny fantasy.
The show is superbly acted by Alan Tudyk, Carlton Ward and Julia Ogilvie. Though there were children in the audience and the play exudes the light-hearted freedom of youth, there are some darker moments as the clowns deal with smashed hopes, grief and terror.
The sparkling action on stage had the audience laughing uproariously throughout, and I was transported to a place where dreams have more weight and games have more meaning. Those early frolics that help us figure out the adult world were explored in a fantastic and riveting way. While much modern comedy today is concerned with cynicism and has an undercurrent of cruelty, That Beautiful Laugh focuses on an emotion we perhaps put too little faith in: joy.
I sat down on a stoop outside La Mama, on East 4th Street, with actor Alan Tudyk (ABC’s Suburgatory, Broadway’s Prelude to a Kiss and Spamalot) to talk about his role and some of the themes in the show. We discussed the nature of laughter, super powers, songs written by children for birds and scary clowns.
ROYAL YOUNG: What is the nature of laughter? What does it bring to us or add to our lives?
ALAN TUDYK: I’ve always said that if you could have any superpower, I would (want to be) the funniest person in the world. If you had that special power to know people’s circumstances, their point of view, the mood they’re in. When someone is really funny and they say something you can’t believe they said the thing they said. They turn a phrase or juxtapose one thing against another and for the first time, you saw something in a new light that cracks you up, that would be one of the most powerful people in the world, if you could actually do that. It disarms people, but it’s also something we share universally.
YOUNG: I think that plays into the part of the show where you’re in essence taking (echoing) laughs from people in the audience. The way people responded to that was so brilliant. There’s something so funny and fascinating about hearing your laugh echoed back to you. What does it tickle in us that just makes us explode?
TUDYK: It’s less about taking their laugh and more about enjoying the possibility of a laugh. Enjoy the possibility, never look for a thing. You can apply that to everything in life and have a better life than wanting results of any kind.
YOUNG: Something I’ve heard over and over when I do interviews is this idea of not forcing your plans on life. It’s about putting your intentions out there and certainly working hard towards them, but being open to opportunity.
TUDYK: Definitely being open to the process and whatever comes on your journey. I’ve noticed when I’ve done work in the past, I’ve done a project and it isn’t until after the project is over and I watch it, that I enjoy it. I missed the whole process. With this, it’s impossible to do that.
YOUNG: Why is that?
TUDYK: If you’re not enjoying it while you’re doing it, you’re not doing it right. You can’t half-heartedly do this one. The way we approached it was mostly discovery. Orlando Pabotoy had been doing this in Long Beach, when he taught out there. I knew him from school and I watch every play he does. I saw it and when he brought it here, there were certain pieces he knew he wanted to bring — the end and the beginning. But the rest was discovery together.
YOUNG: What did that process look like?
TUDYK: The first three days it was getting into the place of your clown, bringing in tricks, bringing in some magic, trying different things, interacting. He’d give us little pieces of dialogue like “Hey, what’s that?” “I don’t know what that is.” “That’s so beautiful.” “Do a beautiful dance and then say yay!” It was about getting into these places of just discovery and play.
YOUNG: Was his son involved in any of that process?
TUDYK: There was a new song that came to the show last week. Orlando had written a song there, only he had just found the music with the musicians, but he wanted words, so he called Nick and said “If you were telling a little birdie to fly, what would you say?” Then he wrote it down.
YOUNG: How much of the play do you think echoes a childhood experience, or the way children view the world?
TUDYK: A lot. If you dream so much and have so much hope and belief and then you lose everything, that’s a place where it’s hard to find laughter. It’s the hardest place to laugh from. Can we laugh there? And for Orlando, that was the question he wanted answered.
YOUNG: It sounds like a really intense, mutual process.
TUDYK: It was. A lot of it was him asking us to just trust.
YOUNG: Him or yourselves?
TUDYK: Both, but more ourselves. It was little steps, like okay, I am comfortable here, this is good and then he would say “Yes, but we’re going there.” It wasn’t safe. But as he would say, if you don’t risk anything the rewards are meager. The more you risk, the more you get, when it pays off.
YOUNG: Do you think that’s only true of acting, or also life?
TUDYK: Life. So much of this applies to both. Orlando would talk about how clowns hold on to their gifts, hold on to joy, hold on to what’s good. We as people hold on to our worries. Like, I got all these gifts, but I’m worried about this.
YOUNG: Yeah, that’s a hard place for us to live from. I wanted to talk more about clowns, because they have such a scary reputation.
TUDYK: [laughs] They do!
YOUNG: [laughs] I don’t understand quite how or why that happened.
TUDYK: Bad clowns. There’s a clown on the Venice boardwalk that just scares the shit out of me. He has white pancake make-up and makes sad balloon animals in a dirty costume. Ringling Brothers clowns are a certain type that are more geared towards children only. Rodeo clowns are functional clowns that are bad-asses. Then there’s John Wayne Gacy and the clown doll in Poltergeist which screwed me up for years. Our clowns are different.