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A clown is still a clown

Shannan Calcutt breaks barriers as alter ego Izzy Who: Shannan Calcutt What: Out of My Skin Where: MY (Millennium) Place When: Friday, March 12, 8 p.m.

Shannan Calcutt breaks barriers as alter ego Izzy

Who: Shannan Calcutt

What: Out of My Skin

Where: MY (Millennium) Place

When: Friday, March 12, 8 p.m.

Tickets: $17 - $20

The clown is one of the most iconic and adapted figures in North American culture.

There’s the happy birthday balloon twister and the benevolent happy meal-bearing corporate mascot.

There are the kitschy sad hobos on black velvet sold for $9.99 at low rent malls in bad parts of town, the B Movie and hardcore nü metal horror clowns and the consummate performer circus clowns, both of the traditional three-ring variety and the new school Cirque du Soleil.

And then there’s Izzy, a relentless seeker of love, companionship and a perfect body, the clown alter ego of Canadian performer Shannan Calcutt.

A perennial Fringe Festival act, Izzy is the star, by default, of Calcutt’s performance trilogy Burnt Tongue , It’s Me, Only Better, and Out of My Skin . It’s the latter that Calcutt will perform next Friday at MY Place, a piece that picks up with Izzy after she has "lost everything," a situation inspired by a real life incident whereby Calcutt’s car was broken into and all her performance props, costumes, makeup – basically everything Izzy – was stolen.

What the thieves planned to do with a wedding dress and a case of clown makeup, including the ubiquitous red nose, is a question for the ages.

What Calcutt did is open herself to the delicate territory where life and art cross paths. Out of My Skin opens with Izzy onstage with several replacement wedding dresses, none of which can replace the one that was stolen. From that point on, Calcutt as Izzy is driving the clown car with the entire audience packed in for a wild ride.

She may look like a sweet young thing with big wide eyes and a cute red nose, but Calcutt isn’t playing to the kids. When she takes on self-respect and body image she takes it on, or more accurately, off, wholeheartedly. Out of My Skin shows plenty of skin, and contains adult content. Take the kids to see the clowns at the circus, not Shannan Calcutt.

"I would say I would be more progressive, but it’s hard because what is a traditional clown?" she muses. "Clowns used to be really political and speak out before they were censored. Izzy totally speaks out and at one time that was a traditional clown. But in today’s society you think traditional and you think the Shriners or Barnum & Bailey."

A graduate of the Fine Arts Program at the University of Victoria and California’s Dell’Arte International School of Physical Theatre, Calcutt came to clowning as a college student. Her affinity for masque and physical theatre piqued an interest in the art that cultivates an intimate relationship with the audience, rather than insisting on the performer/audience barrier.

The Izzy character was born out of a piece Calcutt did for a Cabaret performance with Calgary’s Green Fools. Getting a harsh point blank dismissal after asking a male audience member if he thought her clown character was pretty she broke the tension by insisting his response was part of a game.

"I really developed this relationship with the audience," Calcutt remembers. "Instead of making it this sad thing that he didn’t think I was pretty we really made a game out of it and at the end I had the audience chanting for him to kiss me and I loved it!"

Audiences are still responding to Izzy through all three instalments in her trilogy and they’ll get their first look at onscreen Izzy in the 24-minute film CHUNK, which follows her weight-loss battles. The film is set to premiere at the CBC Winnipeg Comedy Festival later this month.

As renowned as Calcutt is becoming as a performer she says she still encounters setbacks due to misconceptions about her craft.

"When I first started touring people would see my show and say I shouldn’t call it clown," says Calcutt, "which was fair enough. There are a lot of clowns who don’t wear the nose because they don’t want to be associated with that.

"But for me, it is clown. I think while clown has changed a lot over the years a clown is still a clown – someone who lives in the moment and plays the audience and plays with an open heart. I’m lucky that people know Izzy and they’ll come to see her, but for me she is a clown. And hopefully through my work, and other clowns through their work, are changing this misconception a little bit."

With Izzy Calcutt does her part to bust misconceptions by offering a raw, hard look at the human experience.

"I would say I’m just playing the human psyche," says Calcutt. "Izzy speaks from a woman’s point of view simply because she is a woman, but the shows are very universal.

"In Out of My Skin and all of the shows she’s dealing with rejection, with Hollywood’s image of the body and what Hollywood’s image of sexy is. She has to fight against that because she’s not a size four. She does breast implant routines that are quite ridiculous but it shows how ridiculous we are that we want to change our bodies. She’s in the same trap."

The show, says Calcutt, starts with Izzy’s declaration that "something’s happened and I’m not the same," referring literally to her stolen wedding dress and figuratively to a very human feeling of being lost and dissociated.

"She starts from a place where everything that was important to her was taken from her," says Calcutt. "I think that happens to a lot of us as well... we feel that way, like there’s nothing left."

Shannan Calcutt’s Out of My Skin comes to MY Place on Friday, March 12 at 8 p.m. as part of the MY Place/Whistler Arts Council 2003/04 Performance Series. Tickets are $17 - $20. Call 604-935-8410 for information.