As I have mentioned before and will mention many more times, I started my professional career in the theatre, and it has 100% shaped the person I am. In the theatre world, I am one of the most pragmatic you can find. I have had conversations along the lines of, “I don’t think he should jump off that 11′ high bridge. I think that’s not safe.” But in the more traditional work world, I am considered to be CRAZY. Woohoo, nutso, pie in the sky dreamer. For me, you can imagine it’s an odd experience. I come to the work world with a creative attitude that you don’t seem to find in the workforce.
And although theatre folks are naturally creative, it’s often hard to keep that creativity alive. You might come by it naturally, and then you study great actors, learn solid technique, appreciate legendary art and design, and what often happens is that the balance between all that learning and all that creativity becomes off kilter and leans too heavily to learning, creativity forgotten. That’s one of the reasons I’ve appreciated the very limited experience I’ve had with clowning. The history of clowning is very old, with origins going back to Egypt 2500 BC. You might know some about it as a world citizen from your knowledge of art history. Or maybe your understanding of clowning begins and ends with Krusty the Clown. Clowning connects humanity with our most basic emotions.
As I struggle with this lack of creativity in the traditional workplace, I got to think about art forms that get those creative juices flowing, and I thought the best person to chat with is Julia VanderVeen. Julia is an actress with years of training and experience, embraced clowning in recent years, and finds it transformational. I’ve been curious as to why and thought it would be great to sit down with her for an interview. So here it is, my clowning query with the great Julia!
Hi, Julia! Thank you for chatting with me today.
Can you tell The Notable Woman readers a bit about yourself?
I am an actor. I am from North Carolina, and I have a degree in Musical theatre. I’ve lived in Brooklyn for about 3 years with my fiance and our two cats.
Where did you get your acting training, and what was your favorite part and why?
I have a BFA from Illinois Wesleyan University
. I also studied for a semester at the British American Dramatic Academy
in London. And I received a lot of training at the Barter Theatre
in Abingdon, Virginia, which was my first professional job out of school. I was first introduced to mask work in London, by a man called Mick Barnfather. He was a really tough teacher. We all wanted him to like us and we all wanted to be funny. Looking back, that was where my first taste for the clown began. Mick’s work with us introduced me to entering the world of the theatre through your body, as opposed to with your brain, and I really connected with that.
Since graduating from school, what path have you taken as a creative?
Originally, I was auditioning and working at regional theaters. Since I’ve moved to NYC, and found my passion for clowning, I’ve been more interested in building my own work. I love being other people’s plays or films, but the market is so saturated, and there is something in me that needs to create. I can no longer wait for someone else to tell me “yes.”
Have you found it difficult to maintain your creative energy in the “real world” of acting and performance?
Yes and no. It is certainly challenging to pay your bills and maintain a relationship and pursue art in NYC. But I think that’s why what you really want to do floats to the top. There’s not time to do everything, so you really have to be choosy and that gives me a great feeling of power in a career where you can feel very powerless.
What first brought you to clowning?
I wasn’t cast in a show. I really thought I was going to be and as my back-up if I wasn’t, I decided I would take this clown workshop with Carter Gill. Man, I’m glad I did. It made me fall in love with performing again and also, fall in love with my life again.
How would you define clowning to a novice and non-theatre person?
I have mostly been training with Christopher Bayes
, who is a Master Clown teacher. He talks a lot about the pleasure we should have as performers. So much worry and negative self-talk gets in the way of the real reason we want to be onstage in the first place: pleasure. There is great pleasure for the clown because you get your brain to a place where things are softer. There is greater opportunity for tragedy. We all, as adults, and especially in this city, forget our sense of wonder, our sense of play, our sense of discovery. This work I’ve been pursuing is about letting your body lead and remembering what it feels like to lead with your hope. Tragedy may strike, but you keep leading with your hope. In this way, your hope grows, and you’re not just walking around like a wounded, rejected artist constantly. Our bodies are much smarter than we give them credit for. We get our big old brains out of the way, and magical, beautiful theatre is made.
How has clowning influenced you as an actor?
My emotions are more accessible to me because I am not listening to my critic so much. It’s very different than the Stanislavsky training I received at school, where you connect what’s happening in the play to your personal experience. I think that’s useful training, but it can feel like, “Well, I don’t feel this today. I’m faking it.” And the thing is: yes. There are days where you don’t want to cry and you don’t really feel it, but it’s not about you. It’s about the play and the people who paid money to sit in the seats and see the truth. With this clown training, you say, “OK, body, you’ve cried a lot in your 31 years. You know how that works. You take the reigns.” I found it tremendously helpful when I was playing Honey in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? a few months back and had to breakdown every night. If I was waiting for it to feel completely organic every night, I wouldn’t have gotten there. Instead, I let my body lead.
Has your work with clowning changed you as a person or any of your personal relationships?
I am definitely more present. I am also more appreciative of the small beauty I see every day. I also appreciate my ability to feel deeply more. I had a lot of shame wrapped around my great capacity to be more feeling than others and I was embarrassed. Through this work, I’ve gotten to celebrate that, whether onstage or off.
If someone wanted to learn more about clowning, where would you send them?
The Funny School of Good Acting is Chris Bayes’ school. Also, Movement Theater Studio has clown classes and so does The Comic Performer.
You’re doing a pretty prestigious apprenticeship right now. Can you give us the deets on that?
I am observing Chris Bayes two days a week at Yale and also when he teaches in the city. The idea is that I learn his technique so that I can develop my own exercises and teach clowning one day myself!! (Happy dance.)
You’ve also found a clowning partner. And you and your partner have a show coming up. What was the process for developing the show?
I developed a show with Clay West. It was painful. The clown needs the audience to survive and you don’t really know if something is funny until you have them. So unlike a regular play, there is no fourth wall. You are speaking directly to the audience. So it was very challenging to come up with a loose structure that could get us started, but could also change every night based on the audience. A lot of it is improved. Also, this was our first time making a full-length show (an hour), and it is hard to come up with that much material. But it was a wonderful payoff. I was very happy with the result.
Anything else you’d like the readers to know about clowning?
I know people think “clown” and they think Birthday party clown, but the clown has a very old tradition in storytelling and truth telling. I encourage people to keep an open mind. The kind of clown you’re scared of, I’m scared of too.
If people wanted to learn more about you, where should they go?
I’m hoping to get a website up soon. I will let you know when I do!
[I will update this with Julia’s website when I have it. CD]
Thank you for sharing your love with us, Julia.
Thanks so much, Cristin.