What do clowns have to do with theater?
By KAREN PIERCE GONZALEZ / Towns Correspondent
Ask Doyle Ott what clowns have to do with theater, and he’s likely to reply, “Ever see any Shakespeare?”
“To do Shakespeare, an actor must be word perfect, yes. But he or she can’t just stand there and do nothing else,” said Ott, a Sonoma State University theater professor.
Ott teaches acrobatics and clowning along with mask, circus skills and movement for the stage, along with general acting courses and theater history. He also directs student productions, including “The Great Divide,” which opens this week at SSU’s Evert B. Person Theatre.
The 43-year-old Berkeley resident is trained in the style of clown work known as European. Unlike the American version of over-the-top colorful wigs, bells, whistles and slap-stick humor, the European clown’s work is often more subtle. Think of classic pantomimes or street performances. They explore and expand an audience’s idea about the ways a human body can tell a story or make an artistic or emotional point.
Now in his fifth year at SSU, Ott said clowning, or physical theater, “is based on being as open and honest and present in front of an audience as possible, on creating tight structure and rhythm, and on being open to a sense of humor and wonder.”
The same skills needed in drama are also required in creating a clown piece.
“I find theatrical moments most effective when they’re right on the line between comedy and tragedy,” he said. “They are often funniest when they’re on the edge of sad or scary, and are the most moving when they would be hilarious if they weren’t so sad.”
An actor’s tool box that includes clown work is a well-equipped one, said David Templeton, North Bay theater critic, playwright and performer.
“So much of the actor’s training is in believability, sounding real and coming from a believably emotional place. And that can be done without ever having to use your voice. Sooner or later a director will ask you to fall down or trip over a sofa, and those who have the physical training are going to be able to do that.”
Ott earned his doctorate degree in theater at Arizona State University and brings 20 years of professional experience to the classroom. He holds certificates from the Clown Conservatory in San Francisco and the Centro Maschere e Strutture Gestuale in Italy, and has trained at Circus Center and the Dell’arte School. He is also artistic director of Splash Circus in Emeryville, performs regularly with Lunatique Fantastique and is theater director at Children’s Theater at Fairyland in Oakland.
Along with teaching, he also keeps an eye open for contemporary plays that can be produced at SSU. “The Great Divide,” written by Adam Chanzit, is set in Colorado and explores the practice of hydraulic fracturing to extract natural gas for fuel.
Adapted from Henrik Ibsen’s modern classic “An Enemy of the People,” the play provided Ott with a perfect intersection of his interests in theater, politics, ecology and moving drama.
“I love doing work that has a political as well as personal heartbeat,” he said. “This play examines how environmental issues might drive our most personal decisions: where to live, who to choose as a romantic partner, how to relate to our families and homes.”
New plays are what make theater exciting, Ott said.
Bitten as a young teen by the theater bug and encouraged by his Southern California family, Ott nurtured that early love by attending local Renaissance Pleasure Faires and Cirque d’ Soleil shows. He began studying physical theater at 25 and admits to still being smitten by juggling and comedie del arte, the Italian mask form that originated in the 16th century. He regularly makes time to practice these skills and encourages his students to do the same.
“Finding alignment and balance in the body is the key to everything from clear vocal to not falling down,” said Ott. His greatest teaching moments are when the light goes on for a student.
“I can see it their eyes,” he said. “To act well, the better shape you’re in the easier it’s going to be. It doesn’t always mean you have to be athletic, (just have) a high level of commitment to maintain physical virtuosity.”
Ott regularly bicycles, swims, does yoga and calisthenics to keep up his own stamina as a performer. It helped when he was asked to perform his most memorable physical theater role.
He played a bulldog for the Bay Area’s Make-A-Circus, wearing a tutu as he did his act on a rope 20 feet above the ground. The crowd below him loved it.
People continue to seek out physical theater, Ott said. “Physical theater is a trend now on Broadway. At least half of the productions have some strong physical presence.
“Spiderman, for example, pushes the envelope about what you can do in the air in theatre.”
This is an arena where live theater can compete effectively with television and movies, he said..
“Audiences are hungry. They want to see visual physical virtuosity up close and really sense, firsthand, a performer’s breath and strength.”
“Great Divide” runs Nov. 1-10 in SSU’S Evert B. Person Theatre, 1801 E. Cotati Ave., with performances this week at 7:30 p.m. Thursday and Saturday, 10 a.m. Friday and 2 p.m. Nov. 4. Tickets are $10-$17. For more information, click here. To contact Ott, click here.