"500 Clown Trapped": A crossover hit?

May 4, 2011

“It was a big thing, to not be afraid of losing the brand,” says 500 Clown cofounder Adrian Danzig. “We needed to say, ‘The brand is strong enough, let’s see what it will hold,’ instead of re-creating the same note. It’s a risk.”

Might not seem like much of a leap, but the 11-year-old troupe of clown specialists—progenitors of the sometimes R-rated, comically existential 500 Clown Frankenstein and 500 Clown Macbeth—are doing their first-ever children’s show, a coproduction with Adventure Stage Chicago called 500 Clown Trapped. Conceived by Danzig and directed by Paola Coletta, who trained at Jacques Lecoq’s international school of theater, this new piece also falls outside the troupe’s comfort zone by welcoming two relative newcomers as collaborators: joining Danzig onstage are dancer Tim Heck—performing for the first time with 500 Clown—and longtime 500 Clown understudy Leah Urzendowski.

Basically, the three clown/musicians in 500 Clown Trapped take a false step or two (or three, or more… ) and lose their instruments. “We’re in this wonderful clown dramaturgy where every solution is the next problem,” says Danzig. “We’re following the trouble, until there’s more trouble, and more trouble, and more trouble. We end up being trapped physically, and that amuses the kids. And for adults, there’s the relationship/personality trap. But certain freedoms are maintained even inside the trap—it’s this great paradox. And there’s eventual escape.”

Danzig plays Bruce, also his persona in 500 Clown Macbeth and 500 Clown Frankenstein. The Trapped manifestation, he says, combines the best of both. “Here Bruce starts out in high-status mode—he’s in that mode for the entirety of ‘Frankenstein.’ But about halfway through this show, he loses that status and turns more toward the anarchic: lower-status, more chaotic, looking for fun.” 

500 Clown Trapped is an all-ages show, and Danzig and his collaborators definitely kept  family-oriented guidelines in mind—but worried more about parents and teachers than about kids.

“The big thing was to choose material that didn’t require going into areas that are challenging for adults,” says Danzig. “Children see the blood fight at the end of Macbeth—I’ve heard this about 20 times—as a cartoon. They have anchors that say, ‘I can watch that.’ But PARENTS get upset. In Frankenstein, the bullying and violence are really challenging for teachers and grown-ups, but kids see it every day.”

In 500 Clown Trapped, he says, “We were on the lookout for those kinds of things and for swear words—which we never use much anyway! It’s material in the 500 Clown style, but without allusions to a pre-existing story. Instead it’s based on a concept. It’s easy for a 5-year-old to understand a trap—and for a 25-, 45-, or 65-year-old, though my fear is that we’ve made a good kids’ show that may not be good for 45-year-olds. But I have insane stores of resilience and hope.”