My Theatre

07 April 2017

Nominee Interview Series: Adam Lazarus

By // Theatre (Toronto)

Before we announce the winners of the 2016 MyTheatre Awards, we’re proud to present our annual Nominee Interview Series.

A celebrated educator and theatre-maker, Adam Lazarus specializes in bouffon, the satirical dark side of clown (he explains it better below). In his Outstanding Solo Performance-nominated work Daughter (which played at SummerWorks last summer), Adam capitalized on a landscape full of first person storytelling narratives to hold a harsh and startling mirror up to an audience that needed to see it. It was at once the most brilliant and absolute worst thing I had to sit through all summer and I would go back a thousand times if I could.

Do you remember your first experience with theatre?
I have two memories. I saw a stage production of Annie and the other was seeing Midsummer Night’s Dream at High Park. And seeing the mechanicals, and the ass, and finding that hysterical. I don’t remember anything of the play. I think my mom tells me I passed out. It’s kind of amazing; that would be a very striking image to see a man suddenly have a donkey head. That would be my first, I think.

How did you get into clown?
So I have always made my own theatre – put on my own plays, and through university I did the same thing, rented the Poor Alex, and staged a collective creation. I did a bunch of those things, and when I graduated from school, I started a theatre company called Schmegegge, which I thought was very clever name. I didn’t know what it meant, it was actually a word, I thought I made it up… It’s Yiddish for sort of a jerk. So basically the concept was, 36 hours of rehearsal over 36 hours, and then we’d stage something at the end. I’d rent a loft space, I’d convert into a theatrical space, we’d pick a theme and then go to town. And I’d come with a dramaturgical package. It was really fun. We did about seven of those and then it started to go over longer times – 36 hours in a week – and then I started renting theatre spaces. And then I went to Vancouver, and thought, I’ll hire local actors. By that point I started to hate theatre. I was 25. And I thought, “This is dumb. Why would anyone do this?” And then I saw a show called Splice. A bunch of Lecoq graduates – this was at the Vancouver Fringe – Lecoq graduates, and they did some movie scenes. The two lighting states were on and off with flashlights, a thousand props, which you never would see, and then moving flats. And they would do shots from movies. So like, Psycho. The shower scene. The whole stage in my memory looks like the blood is swirling… Or they do a broomstick to climb a staircase in Vertigo. Or they do Titanic and the whole stage looks like the boat but it’s just their bodies and a few props, and one simple lighting state. So I asked them, “Who are you?”, and it was a Canadian, Ann-Marie Kerr, who’s the director of Daughter, and an American, a Brit and an Aussie. And they said, “we’re graduates of the Lecoq School and this is physical theatre”. So I befriended Ann-Marie Kerr based on that and she said to me… I ran into her on the street a year later, and I was even feeling worse about theatre, I was like, “I dunno, I dunno”, and she was like “You should go study with this guy, Philippe Gaulier”. I was like, “What about Lecoq?” and she was like, “Well he’s dead, so…  [laughter] the school is okay right now, but I think you should go study with a master teacher”.

So, he was going to Halifax for three weeks, to teach something – I didn’t know what – and I, like, gave up my apartment or something happened and I just threw caution to the wind – and a lot of money – and drove out to Halifax to study with this person. And the first day, in walked this grumpy old French man, and said “We’re doing clown.” My stomach dropped. I was like, “Oh shit. We’re gonna do like, in the box, and, that classic image of bad mimes and clown. I thought I was doing physical theatre! ” And we did clown. I had no idea what it was. And it changed my life. This idea which I have distilled down to pleasure, complicity and authenticity. So this idea that you have to have a good time to be on stage. If you don’t, change what you’re doing, or get off. The exercises in that class were like, “Go onstage and be funny. You’re not funny; get off”. And you’re like, “Oh my gosh what am I even doing here? What does it mean? I hate being here. Do I hate being here? Do I even like theatre?” So all of these questions that I had about performance were put to the test, and.. and then I was terrible at it. My one success was, I turned to him in the middle of an exercise- he said, “You’re a Don Juan of the beach”- so I came back the next day in, you know, full outfit, and zinc on my nose, and goggles and a badminton racket, and he was like, “No. No, none of that.” And he stripped me down. All I had were little shorts and a badminton racket. And – because he wants to expose you and make you feel uncomfortable – or it was just funnier that way? And so I remember, one exercise, turning to him, and I was like, “Ah, go fuck yourself!” because I hated it, I was so bad at it, and he laughed. It was the first time he laughed. I was a shit to him, and I sort of found my “jeu”, my play.

And then the last three days, I threw my back out, and this is where the interesting part comes [laughter], I threw my back out and he wanted to do bouffon, the contra mask to clown. I was lying on the floor and I took some [Robaxacet]. I was really high, in the [Robaxacet] way, and I was watching people do it, and I went up to Philippe and I said, “I want to do this.” And he said, “You can’t, you’re too sick.” And I said, “I can do this. I get it. I know what’s happening on that stage. Put me up there.” And he said, “Okay.” And he put me up. And I remember riffing for about 25 minutes and super-succeeding. I saw how people were looking at me, judging me. He cut off my legs, cut off my arms, I was in a wheelchair, I was just this sack, and I didn’t have to do anything. I just could, I would count, I would sing opera, I would joke about baking and loving you, and it was so… It somehow was very easy. And it clicked. And that was where I felt the calling. That sounds weird, it’s not a calling. I felt like, this is something I’m very interested in, I wanna explore more. So I came back to Toronto and started performing this weird style, this guy in a sack. That’s sort of the beginnings.

Tell us about bouffon as an art form and how it’s most meaningfully deployed in a contemporary context.
I like to talk about it in terms of clown, the contra mask. So the clown celebrates the ridiculousness of being alive, you know, we flop, we make mistakes – let’s be okay with that, we’re silly, we’re idiots. And the bouffon holds up a mirror to the audience’s hypocrisy of living. Anything that we’re hypocritical about, the bouffon smells it. Sniffs it out. And says, “I’m gonna call you out on that – just by holding a mirror up”. And so, whereas the clown performs with the energy of “Love me”, the bouffon performs with the energy of “I hate your guts” [laughter] and “I’m going to make fun of you.” I don’t really think that’s the case, but in a way that can help when teaching it to release a bit of pleasure to be mean.

I’d say a contemporary context of bouffon is anytime somebody’s an asshole onstage unapologetically, and really ugly, and is okay with that. I think often actors are afraid to look bad, so, there’s always a bit of an apology or an irony or something where, well “but that’s not them” as opposed to, just be nasty, of course it’s not you, you’re an actor, you’re playing a part. So that’s what I will always say when I’m teaching bouffon, that this is the practical application. There are very many bouffons. The same thing with clown, how many clowns do you see with the nose besides in circus? But then Roberto Benigni, who is also a graduate of Philippe Gaulier, is also a clown. Full clown energy. Helena Bonham Carter is a clown. Emma Thompson is also from this school. And then Sasha Baron Cohen, who does Borat, Bruno, Ali G- he is bouffon. He is mocking, he is playing a character in order to expose a hypocrisy of the audience. Colbert is a classic bouffon. He’s not really Republican, he plays at republican in order to expose hypocrisies of the republican. The Yes Men, I think is a great example. South Park, is amazing satire. They are making fun. So the practical, today-version is satire.

How do the principles of bouffon come into play in Daughter, and where did the idea come from?
Whenever I say things like, “Know what I mean?” it’s this identifying with this monster onstage, where you’re called out – you know this guy, you are this guy, you dated this guy, you birthed this guy. You know? He’s this classic man who you’re intrigued by, you don’t want to get to close to, you trust but you don’t trust, you brush off but. at the same time, is hauntingly familiar, or despicably familiar or something like that [laughs]. For me, bouffon through Daughter is the most successful bouffon I’ve ever done. Because it really does trick the audience, and then the mirror is held up. So by the time I start holding that mirror up, you have given over to the character onstage. There’s this idea in bouffon, make them love you first, and then you can say anything you want. In South Park, they’re so cute, and then they start swearing, you’re like, “Oh, ah huh ha, what do I think of that…?”

A few things came together, to make the show happen. The first was, I have two kids, and I look at the world – Jian Ghomeshi I think just happened, or was around that time, and, I’m like, how do we talk to our daughters? This world is petrifying. And I had this image of castration, I was like “let’s make some funny, wacky thing; we’ll just castrate some dude” [laughter]. That’s stupid, but whatever. What a weird show, but that’s how my brain works. And then that fell into the idea of Ghomeshi, and this sounds messed up but I’m going to say it anyway. Ghomeshi… I started thinking, like, there is no planet where Ghomeshi can stand up and apologize for what he’s done and we forgive him. We have two options for this guy. He either goes to jail – which I think he should, like, I need to put that up there, he’s an awful human being – or, he denies it. The system is set up like that. There’s a special place in hell for that guy I think because of what he did, but when we ride the line of offensive behaviour, we don’t have a system that’s set up for apology and discussion. 

And I even think, a little bit further, that there’s no place where that kind of person can stand up, apologize, and still retain their power, which is also a very white thing. You know what I mean?  [Trump] should have apologized [for his offensive comments] and gone through massive counselling, and never ran for president. But the system doesn’t work like that, so of course he just says, “whatever. Get over it.” Which is so weird. It wasn’t even on our radar that [he] would win, when we were doing our show, and then he won, and now it feels like the show is even more relevant because the main character of Daughter wins, you know what I mean? He’s the loudest voice, and he actually gets elected president of the Effing United States. Sorry if anyone reading or listening is a Republican but, uh, you picked the wrong guy [laughter].

And there’s one other thing about bouffon that I think is good to add- one of my favourite things about bouffon as I feel it is, satire is a very difficult form in that some people will never get it. And I still receive that. They’re like, “your piece Daughter is mean, it’s aggressive, it only makes the problem worse. It’s hate speech”. And I’m like, “Okay, well it’s hard to argue you if you, if that’s your final point.”  And for me, one of my favourite things is, two people sit in the audience next to each other, one is laughing their head off, the other one is dead silent and hurt, and turns to that person and says “How on Earth are you laughing?” and that person says, “How on Earth are you not laughing?” And then a real discussion happens afterwards. So at Daughter, we found through doing the show- because we didn’t know, we didn’t know what we had in many ways- that we will always have a discussion afterward. And as we’re moving forwards, we are doing the show and touring it, we’re inviting activists, or major thinkers, or academics to lead a discussion afterward, because it evokes some strong feelings in people, and people don’t know what to do with their feelings once they’re pulled out. So, they get defensive, they’re like, “You’re an asshole” to me – it was a character, I was lying from the beginning [laughs], you know? – but people don’t know what to do. 

The conceit of Daughter relies very heavily on the audience’s assumption that you’re telling us the truth about your life, it’s written to sound like a normal autobiographical solo show. How much of what we saw was drawn from your experience or was it all your observations?
Just to clarify, I never say my name, I never say my daughter’s name, I never say my wife’s name. But you think it’s me. There’s a movement in theatre right now where there’s a lot more verbatim, or confessional shows, so we use that as the conceit. But the first line out of my mouth is a lie- it’s not my daughter’s playlist, she didn’t make up that dance for me. I loved having a doula…. But, what is true is- we had a doula, there were some complications in the birth that I do talk about, and some of the discussion points. And you know, I’ve done some things in my life. But “should I give it away, should I not” is part of the thing. Like, does it matter if it’s me or not?

But there is some truth in there?
For sure. I am not as bad as that character. I’d say, there’s a line that tips [into total fiction] and it’s probably a lot earlier than you’d think. Like, I did go to Japan, and I heard stories about certain things that happen there, and that’s what I’m relaying, and I’m saying that it happened to me. There are some things. The story of the girl, who we staged the robbery… that’s real. She doesn’t end up in an oxygen tent, that doesn’t happen, and it’s [retold] in a way that it’s done with pure malice, whether or not that reads, but it’s a big regret. A couple of my friends and I were like, “that’s awful, that we did that sort of thing”  But I think that sort of thing is familiar, that people do mean things to each other when they’re younger. And that was just a sort of extreme version. But we did, we trashed this basement and we made it look like a robbery. She didn’t have an asthma attack or anything. She just sort of freaked out. She didn’t hit her head. But I have this memory of her saying, “Why did you do that to me?” It’s terrible, it’s so terrible.

Somebody had to coach me on this during the run, because I was like, “Why do they want to know it’s me? That’s not the point of the show!” Because it’s the first thing everyone asks: “Is it really you?” And Melissa D’Agostino, one of the co-creators, said, “They’re circling the point that you want them to circle by asking that, which is, they’re identifying with you – are they identifying with a real human being or a fictional human being?.” And somehow they want to believe it’s fictional so they don’t feel as bad.

That’s exactly it. If we know it’s fiction, we can tell ourselves that it’s fiction and we don’t have to deal with that character any more than we have to deal with the bad guy in a movie. But if it’s you, that’s a thing we have to grapple with in the world. So we want to know.
I think it’s something we’ve gotta grapple with in the world either way, because I think it’s underneath many- like, I take it way too far, but I think there’s an element of it [in a lot of people]. I’m a privileged white guy, and the fact that I’m a white guy, and I’m a man, and I have a lot of things, I get away with things and they’re innate. Like when Trump says, “It’s locker room talk,” I’m like, “Oh I get that, it doesn’t mean it’s right”. There’s a great article, I think it’s in the New Yorker, and White Ribbon is quoted- they do these workshops in schools where these young boys say “am I not allowed to say ‘tits’ anymore?” And they’re like, “No, you can’t.” You can love breasts for sure, but there’s a derogatory nature to it or a positioning of like, “I’m gorilla-man, they are tits”. No, we can’t speak like that anymore. Change is hard: start changing. Let’s start. That I think is the provocation of the show. The amount of men who find it hard to talk to me after the show– it’s very interesting. Because they’re like, “Uh, uh, what can I actually say to Adam now? And uh, and am I allowed to talk in this way that I’ve always talked… I love women, so how do I talk about that… ” So I’m like, “Well, I dunno you just talk about loving women. It’s fine”. There’s an excuse of locker room talk, where suddenly that’s been seen as okay. It’s not okay. And again, the trick of the show is that I say a thing and then I’m like, “whatever,” and I charm the whatever, and many people in that room will go like, “Yeah totally, whatever.”

Does it mess with your head at all to play a character who claims to be you, but is actually more of a darkest possible timeline interpretation of potentially you?
Totally, like “Earth 4” version of me! It’s hard. It’s like, in a way it’s not because I think it’s serving a great purpose. I really like this discussion thing that’s happening afterwards, and this partnership with White Ribbon… What I will say is the hardest part – you know, I’m an actor, so I ‘turn it on’, and I play this thing, and it’s my training too, that I’m needling this thing out, and I have – when I said at the beginning “I love to hate your guts” – in a way like, I like to see you squirm, you know. It’s good.  And it’s fascination. It’s such an active experience to feel hated and be okay with it, and then perform or go further into that. Like, “Oh you hate me now? It’s going to get worse, don’t worry. Don’t worry. Don’t worry, don’t worry.” I know it’s not me. I’m okay with that. What I find difficult is, the last moment of the show when the lights go up on the audience and I see the faces of people. It’s hard. I’m like, “woah, I can’t believe the show did that to people and people are rocked and people are crying. And there’s like, many women are scared in the room suddenly, and feel trapped and–” [sighs] That’s a hard moment.

You mentioned you have talk-backs afterwards – what have been some of the strongest and most interesting reactions you’ve heard?
The first two nights we didn’t have a talkback. We weren’t even going to put warnings on the show. We were like, an art is a piece of art – you walk into a gallery, it’ll say like, “mature” but it doesn’t say like this long warning… People should be theater-literate… And then… Jiv Parasram, also one of the co-creators, he talks about calling-in – we’re in this culture, everyone’s calling-out each other as opposing to calling-in, and it’s very dangerous. You’re called out, and then what do you do with that? Okay, so I’ve done something bad, I’ve done something sexist or racist or or or homophobic or ageist or whatever it might be…  help me? Or do you just want to push me off the ledge and leave me alone. I’d prefer to be called in. And that was something that we talked about with our show. So, immediately we reacted to this need, it seemed. People needed to talk. So we started doing talkbacks. The second show – this is a funny anecdote. It’s not funny, it’s crazy [laughs]. So. You remember, I go “They’re like cunts. Cunt-juice.” And it’s, very near the end. And this guy stood up, and like, stormed out. Very audibly, like BOOM BOOM BOOM. And the next line in the show is, “Well, I guess I’m not allowed to say THAT.” So he thought I was talking to him– Which I wasn’t, and he’s like “FUCK YOU! You fucking asshole, you’re a fucking asshole!” And then, the next line is, “What, can’t I express MY feelings?”

You’re lucky he didn’t come punch you!
Oh I know. I know. But I felt that. And then he ran right up to the box office staff, and he started yelling at them. “How dare you put hate speech on stage like that! He’s a monster!” All these things. He didn’t see the theatre. And that day, a sound cue didn’t fire, so it really felt bare. It’s so different without that sound going. The box office staff didn’t know how to respond, because they don’t know every show, and it’s also early in the festival– So the only thing they could say was, “I’m sorry, we can’t refund your ticket.” [laughter] So we started having talkbacks. I’ll say the worst stuff that happened was people giving me dramaturgical advice, it was like “this is not the place.” Some of the best stuff… Somebody once said, “Watching your show, I realized that I will never be understood as a woman, and that’s mortifying.” Hearing that, it’s amazing hearing that in a public space. So that was very powerful, and led to an interesting discussion. Another thing I found interesting, someone said “I don’t even understand what a man is anymore. I don’t understand what men are about”. That was another one. It was amazing seeing people get angry at me. Be like, “There’s no point in your show. I hate your show, we should be past this kind of show,”

Was it mostly men who said that?
Yeah. It was mostly men who said that. So interesting that you asked that. I didn’t even think about that, but yeah.

I ask because I, as a woman, actually found it comforting that you, as a straight white man, were aware enough of the issues in the play to put them in a play, even if they were tough to watch. A lot of the reason that things like “locker room talk” are perpetuated is that ostensibly good guys who might never actually say those things out loud themselves just accept other guys saying those things around them to the point of not even noticing when it happens. I feel like only men would say, “we’re beyond this” because women actually have to deal with the reality that we aren’t. 
That’s awesome to hear. And, another thing, there were lots of younger women were like, “I know that guy.” “I go to school with that guy”- like high school aged girls were saying that. Like, oh my god. So I don’t know what the powerful thing is, it just feels like it’s this weird tremor that’s in everybody after the show. Like you never know, I thought when I was doing these shows as a younger artist, with no arms and no legs in a wheelchair, with this crazy character, like, “This is the one – this is going to rattle people” and in fact, people were able to distance themselves from it, and say “Well that’s obviously a character.” But, for me, this one feels like, “I got you,” “I got them” – I tricked the audience into actually feeling a bit disrupted. Again, the clown nose, you always can be a bit removed because there’s a red nose that’s a mask, as opposed to seeing Roberto Benigni or Robin Williams, you’re like, “Wow they’re so wild, look at that crazy spirit” and we don’t remove ourselves as much. I’m not saying it’s the right way, it’s just back to the initial thing I just said, you never know. I had no idea that this was any more powerful than the last show.

Maybe it’s of the zeitgeist too- the rise of Trump and the rise of misogyny, or the last, dying embers of white privilege, or something like that. Let’s hope that that’s what’s happening [laughs] … who said that, the last stand of the bigot? Something on CNN said that that’s what we witnessed in the States, and I think that that’s what happens in the show, is that he has an opportunity when his daughter runs out that room, and even doing the show, he could come around and have some sort of understanding about how he is, and instead he says, “I refuse to give up. Why would I step down, forget it. I’m going to be the father, I’m going to stare at tits, done.”  Isn’t that weird? That ending kills people and it’s just this one word.

How much research did you do into male behaviour or was it all sort of observational?
 We were always doing research and throwing things around. I think the way we all work is, what is the question that we’re asking, we’re unrelenting, we go for that answer. And if we feel like we’re being soft, we sharpen up again and go deeper. So, for example, I wanted to have a cathartic ending at first. And we kept trying. And it was like “Oh my gosh. This is failing. It’s so stupid – the ending. Because why are we saying it’s something that it’s not? We’re putting this question in the air and then, suddenly men are okay…” There’s still this massive problem. That was the kind of research, relentlessly going after the question. You asked what was the inspiration, that was my first question- how do we talk to our girls?- and, in the end, it actually became, how are we going to talk to our boys? Because the women in the audience know this stuff. Although, again, how many women voted for Trump in the US, thinking that it’s okay to say “grab ’em by the pussy”? It’s like, maybe the women, they don’t know, as well, or they need to rethink. It’s not okay. It’s not okay to say that.

I think they know, it’s just, they think they need to put up with it, because they’re women.
Yeah. Exactly. That’s unacceptable. Right? We can’t say yes to that. I agree. We teach our girls not to be assaulted, and the boys play basketball during that class. It should be the same class, and the boys taught not to assault. White Ribbon have this great campaign called 20 Minutes of Action for Change. You remember Brock Turner- “Jail time for 20 minutes of action? Come on!”- So, White Ribbon did this reaction, 20 Minutes of Action for Change, where men sit down with their boys, and they talk to them for 20 minutes about responsibilities, or power, or being a good man, being a good boy, being a good person, and equality and respect. Another thing that’s quite profound, I think, and it happened a little bit, it is very difficult for men to express their feelings. And in those talkbacks, women would often talk a lot more, and in a way, rightly so – like someone was like, “I’m tired of hearing men talk” and even the show at the end is just a man talking at you – but boys are not nurtured in their feelings. It’s like, shut up and work, right? 20 Minutes of Action For Change is a good idea,  and also maybe making a little bit more space for boys to feel messed up and be supportive in that. I don’t know, I’ll try my best for my kid. 

You mentioned you’re sort of re-doing the show a little bit, and you’re taking it out on tour. What’s the future of Daughter?
The NAC has just put a little bit of funding into it, for the development. Our dream is to go to Edinburgh for 2018. And then there’s two other big things, that we cross our fingers for. But what’s remarkable is, again you never know when it’s going to hit, and it feels like people are saying, “This show should be shown”. I want to further develop partnerships with organizations to help get the word out there about the set of issues that the play raises, and I also want the discussion part, to be important. It’s very important that the partnership with an organization is advertised.  It will also be interesting to play for people who don’t know me at all. And the other thing is, trying to find a local, academic or activist, someone to come in and discuss the issues of the play and lead that discussion – as opposed to me. I don’t think I should even be at these discussions. Because it’s like “How did you memorize those lines? Is that really you? Why did you say this? Why did you do that?” You know, it’s like – I don’t mind doing that once in a while, but the discussion is something else, for sure.

Are you working on anything else right now?
Yes, I am working on getting my life together. There’s a few things. So I’ve started this theatre school called Play On Theatre.ca, and this idea of having a creation-based learning space. I’m bringing in different artists who specialize in creation of various forms, so like, I would do bouffon and at the end, there’s a presentation, or we do a large-scale Greek chorus and somebody who’s known for that comes in. It’s creation-based, not text-based. So that I’m working on, and developing.

Do you have anything you’d like to add?
We live in this really difficult time, where it’s hard to communicate. We’re not connecting as well as we could. I’m of a generation where I knew life before social media –  I can only imagine the stress and anxiety of that being the pervasive form of communication. I still call people, and they’re like, “Uh – hello? Why did you call? Why didn’t you text me? ” And I’m like, “Eh I dunno, I just wanted to gab…” I love that. I hope we can get back there and I still have this belief, I hope we can continue it as we fold social media into it, but I think theatre is still that one space where we can have a discussion and we can see each other’s reactions, to become more empathetic – to “call-in”. So this kind of show, I think why I’m happy for it, I’m proud of it, is that we are having real discussions. So you asked is there anything profound that comes up in those discussions – it’s that it even happens. Forty people a night are sticking around because they want to make sense of life. Nobody’s writing me nasty emails and hiding behind anything. It’s really been open, and I think that’s really important. I want to see more theatre like that.

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