Friday, December 6, 2013

Four Clowns Jr. Proves Clowning Around is Cool - by M.R. Hunter

There's been an explosion of children's theater in Los Angeles the last couple of years. Live shows geared for younger audiences, costume-encouraged fairy hunts and theater productions labeled "family-friendly" are proving to be as successful if not more as the avant-garde scene. Kids are now being tapped as the new demographic in an art form that is reinventing itself. The challenge then is to create children's theater that doesn't play down to its knee high audience member, but to inspire, inform, entertain and provide a safe and imaginative environment.
Artistic director of Four Clowns, Jeremy Aluma, is intent on clowning around and playing up to younger audiences with his company's children's theater branch, Four Clowns Jr.. It's already been a fantastic journey for Aluma as he studied Clown first at Cal State University in Long Beach and later with David Bridel. It was in Bridel's class, Aluma found the inspiration to create the hit show "Four Clowns" which premiered at the Hollywood Fringe Festival and went on to play at Sacred Fools and other venues. Being a clown is no funny business for Aluma who takes clowning seriously and has created a vital new company with a variety of adult shows receiving critical and popular acclaim both locally and across the country.
Necessity is the mother of invention and Four Clowns' seemingly overnight success launched a flurry of fresh productions both taken on the road and set on stage. Their award-winning "That Beautiful Laugh" performed by company board member Mike Funt and directed by Turner Munch captivated adults at the Hollywood Fringe 2012 but also caused the company to consider a different audience, even younger than the Fringers, (and perhaps more critically brutal). Suddenly, the demand for children's theater and the outpouring of creative clowning from the company caused a brainstorm. In the midst of this awareness for providing children friendly material, Four Clowns performed a mainstage production of "Robin Hood" at South Coast Repertory. The response bolstered their desire to work with children and perform a mobile show at schools and libraries.
Immediately, Aluma, a wiz at marketing, public relations and outreach set out to form an entire new wing of his company. Already enmeshed and devoted to his Four Clowns company, Aluma restructured Four Clowns to have its own children-focused wing with the succinctly titled Four Clowns Jr.. Concurrently, the company expanded with the introduction of board members and more focused Four Clown members working in the business side of show. This allowed Aluma to expand his vision to include audiences of the PG variety. But it required a new vehicle formulated on the outset for kids as well as being able to travel easily. In other words, they needed a story that was both flexible, without rely on lighting or extensive set design, but on the players and the story itself. And be funny, informative, and ultimately entertaining.

Mike Funt stepped up to the challenge with a seed of an idea that bloomed into "Somewhere Like Earth" now playing for two weekends at the Attic Theatre before traveling to schools in the upcoming year. He said, "The challenge was how we can create this beautiful, pristine world that could be loaded into a car?" Simple but powerful, the storyline has shades of a sci-fi/fantasy adventure as Tom the Clown (from "That Beautiful Laugh") arrives at a planet that is somewhere like earth. There he meets three guardians of the world who look after the Air, the Water and the Land. Unfortunately, Tom is a bit careless as he explores the planet and creates havoc by virtue of his insensitivity to the environment. With the assistance of the Guardians, they teach him how to value the eco-system through cooperation, teamwork, friendship and of course lots of humor.
The world premiere show runs approximately 45 minutes and it is completely actor and storyline dependant. There are no gimmicks or fancy set changes to limit its ability to go anywhere and it can play to anyone of all ages. More astonishing is how the play underwent its process as Funt had the basic idea of the story but utilized the cast of four (Dave Honigman as Tom the Clown; Jennifer Carroll as Guardian of Land; Amir Levi as Guardian of Water; Julia Davis as Guardian of Air) in rehearsals to give it structure and flow. Four Clowns prides itself as a collaborative company but even more so when it comes to its Junior edition as kids corner the market on playing around unencumbered, free and innovative.
Ironically, anyone who has seen a Four Clowns production knows all too well that these are the qualities which make this company and their work a joy to see. Understanding adult humor doesn't preclude these artists from also understanding the sensitivity involved with children—if anything the insight they've gleaned from their mature material has provided a sensitivity to what people in general respond well to and kids don't hold back any punches when bored either. "Somewhere Like Earth" has already received a thumbs up from company member children who sat through rehearsals and their responses proved invaluable and instrumental for the cast and "That Beautiful Laugh" director Turner Munch at the helm again with this colorful piece.
The main issue with children's theater is this erroneous belief in playing down to them. Some companies and shows make this huge blunder and kids know almost instinctively when they are approached with condescension or worse silly for silly sake and no substance to hold it together. Nothing is worse for a cast to watch its adult audiences squirm in their seats. Magnify it by 10 then to have their audience fearlessly call out, rise, and maybe even pull on mommy's arm to get the heck outta of their seat. This type of viewer is completely unfiltered which is good but dangerous ground for any company to meet headlong. There are adult critics who may behave churlishly (me included) with barbed words but an 8-year-old critic would make even the critical of critics blush. On this, Jeremy Aluma and Mike Funt as well as the players of "Somewhere like Earth" are absolutely fearless. They have accepted the challenge and frankly, who better than four clowns to interact and perform in front of a group of children?
Another troublesome aspect of creating vital children's theater is the engagement of the story. Kids are a lot wiser now than ever before being able to operate an IPod or tablet with ease. They walk in with Suess, Silverstein, Dora and Elmo under the arms and are intuitively aware of what makes a story work and when it goes off the rails. There's no fooling a 3rd grader on form. They just know. Only with the advent of adulthood and abstract concepts, do we lose our childlike wonder and precociousness. Until then, kids have got a built-in tractor beam on what works and what doesn't. While there are more children's productions playing around town, most of these shows keep it on a safe, playing level without daring to rock the boat. Disney-esque characters or Aesop facsimiles engage but the problem is inherent as children want something different.
Funt, a teacher and playwright agrees with the pitfalls of working with younger audiences and describes how he approached this show, "I think there is a big gap in theater and its audiences. We are intent on creating theatrical experiences. I didn't want to think about this being a 'kid's show' but a good show. Never did we start from the premise of a kid's show." The evolution was natural and real. This is what children respond to intuitively.
Four Clowns Jr. brings back the general idea of clowning with a modern twist. These aren't your birthday to order clowns but a savvy, smart, sensitive troupe whose goal is to keep audiences of all ages engaged, laughing and thinking after the show. Of all the theater companies in Los Angeles, Four Clowns Jr. is meeting the rise in demand at precisely the right time with the talent, the insight and ingenuity to meet the challenges. Looking towards the future, Aluma and Funt are excited about the possibilities of going to public and private schools, events, and other localities with "Somewhere Like Earth" and future productions. There is also planning in the works for children's classes and workshops both in clowning as well as the performing arts in general. Teaching, creating and inspiring has become the vehicle from which all the Four Clown company members are squeezing into and heading to a place where kids and clowns rule.
Aluma states, "It's so important that children get out and do activities that are live. Our general spirit of interactivity supports that view. It's a communal effort. The environment is a recent but crucial issue. This show is engaging and exciting but children will get lessons all rolled up into one."
Parents looking for something to take their children to this weekend and the next should pop in to see "Somewhere Like Earth" and take an active interest in Four Clowns Jr. At some point, adults who discover Four Clowns tend to feel as though they have for awhile seen the world through their childlike eyes so it is fitting that Four Clowns Jr. is reaching out to its pint-sized viewers by celebrating the child in all of us at any age.

Photo credit: Andrew Eiden
"Somewhere Like Earth"
Runs Sat & Sun @ 2pm Dec 7-15
Attic Theatre, as part of the Imaginese Festival
5429 W. Washington Blvd
Los Angeles, CA 90019
Tickets: $10 for adults; $5 for kids
Recommended age for children between 6-11

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