Dean Evans | Performer of the week

Dean Evans as Honeybuns in Collaboraction's Sketchbook: Reincarnate

Dean Evans as Honeybuns in Collaboraction's Sketchbook: Reincarnate Photograph: Jeremy Dopp

On the third floor of Wicker Park’s Flat Iron Arts Building in the Collaboraction theater, Dean Evans has created a revelatory live experience with his bouffon character Honeybuns. Combining mime, burlesque, and stand-up comedy with an emphasis on audience participation, Honeybuns offers one of most exciting performances of the year, and is the highlight of Collaboraction’s Sketchbook: Reincarnate. Raised in central Ohio, Evans had no interest in theater until college, when he saw his first play at 23. Since moving to Chicago to join Kapoot Clown Theater, Evans has become one of the city’s premier clown and mime performers, teaching at Chi-town Clown and the Second City Training Center when he’s not performing with companies like Redmoon and The Neo-Futurists, where he is an ensemble member. Evans speaks to us about how he became involved with clown and mime, the birth of Honeybuns, and his most outrageous audience interactions.

When did you first get involved with theater and performance?

Right out of high school, I went to community college because I didn’t know what else to do. I didn’t like school that much at the time, although I loved college. Then after that I worked with a guy who had done theater, and he was like, “Dude, you need to try theater.” Which was fascinating to me. We were just driving by the campus of Ohio State [University], and he dared me to pull off and go to the admissions office and apply, and he was going to do the same thing. So we went into the admissions office on a dare, and we told the woman that we wanted to do theater. Because I had gone to community college, I was already in their system, and they said, “Well, you’ve graduated from this, which is basically our junior college, so you can start in two weeks.” So I started to study theater, but I had still never seen a play.

Maybe like four weeks into my first semester, I saw my first play. I was 23, and that was pretty cool. Through the curriculum, I got interested in more physical stuff. One of my teachers was a mime, she taught a mime class along with other types of physical theater. I signed up for that class, which I wasn’t supposed to be allowed to sign up for—it was a grad-level class, but she didn’t kick me out. Then through that, I got introduced to The School for Mime Theater, which is a summer immersion program that happens in the middle of Ohio. So I did that for the summer the year I was working and going to college for theater, and I ended up coming to Chicago because at The School for Mime Theater, one of the teachers had a company called Kapoot Clown Theater, and he invited me to be an ensemble member. They were Chicago-based, so I just came to Chicago.

Do you remember what that first play you saw was?

Yeah, very vividly. It was called The Ohio State Murders, and it was written by Adrienne Kennedy, who is an alumnus of Ohio State. It was just a small play in a black box with some college kids in it, but I had never even been in a black box theater, and I sat in the front row and the actors were just inches away and making eye contact. I remember quite vividly, it was very basically staged, and there were some visual elements to the show. The actual story of the play I don’t remember much, but the experience of seeing these performers live was really strong for me.

That’s interesting because every show I’ve seen you in has been in a smaller space.

There’s a lot of that in Chicago. I’ve certainly done a lot of that, and I think that’s kind of the best. I do like performing for big crowds because of the energy, but that smaller, intimate experience is more gratifying for me.

There’s a lot of audience participation in the shows I’ve seen you in. Do you think that’s an important part of the live experience?

Yeah, I think live theater is about having a real connection with people, and the types of theater that I’ve done are more direct, in which you have a direct relationship with the audience. I don’t think it’s necessary for theater to have audience participation, but that’s the realm that I’ve been working in for quite some time and it seems that most of my work is that these days, which is interesting. In my life outside of theater, I’m very shy. I don’t really have much of a social life. (Laughs.) So I don’t know. Maybe it comes out of my need to connect or whatever, but that’s also something that’s really precious about that type of smaller, intimate theater in which you can directly interact with people. There’s just something joyous about that.

I know some people, including myself, get uncomfortable when there’s audience participation, but the type of audience interactivity that I like is that people are on edge a little bit about being embarrassed, but really what I’m being sensitive to is I want them to do what they want to do. It’s not about me prying them open or anything like that, even though the illusion might be that. Like in Honeybuns, he comes out and it might seem invasive, but really all I want is for people to do what they want to do, and I want them to invite me to help facilitate that experience.

When and how was Honeybuns created?

I had been doing clown material for a while, and I was getting more and more interactive with the audience. And then really what did it was a bouffon workshop with Eric Davis, who does one of the best shows I’ve ever seen, called Red Bastard. He’s a character called Red Bastard and he comes out and he’s just a big red bouffon—he introduced me to the realm of bouffon, which is what Honeybuns is. Then I took a two-day workshop with him, and I really fell in love with the material, material in which you manipulate the audience for purposes of joy. He’s an artist that inspired me to work within that realm, and that was a year and a half ago. I’ve probably spent the last 14 months or so working with costume and developing material in front of an audience. I’d always had the intention of a full-length show, in the past I’ve had full-length shows that I created, but they’ve been either vignettes or me loosely stringing vignettes together with some kind of narrative. But this show I’d always intended [it to be] a full-length show, but Chicago has this thriving variety/vaudeville/burlesque scene happening, so I would use performance opportunities that I have in that realm to flesh it out—here’s five minutes, here’s 10 minutes, working up to 20. By the time I did 60, most of that I had done before and developed in front of an audience, and then the last third of the show was up in the air. It’s still kind of like that. The last third of the show, which goes against any performing artist sensibility, to put all your tried and true near the front and then go into nothingness, but it works for that show because I try to build the momentum. Every show is so different, so that last third of the show I don’t really know what’s going to happen, but I just try to go as far as I can.

Do you take the audience outside the theater at the end of every show?

Yes. At the very least, we go out into the world. I try to surprise people with it, although I guess the jig is up because most of the reviews spoiled it. At the very minimum, I go outside. I wasn’t sure if that was going to work, even if I had to drag people out there. But it works well. Even if people are more into just sitting and watching, the thrill of just simply walking outside and watching me do something works well for the show. At the most, I go outside, I do something, and then people in the world start doing things, and I just disappear. Which I like. I like that Act Two, it’s sort of in the Andy Kaufmann style. Act Two of the show is us being out in the world and then it’s your show. Act Two is the audience’s show.

In an ideal situation, we would go out there and just take over. People would be going nuts and it would be pouring rain and the cops would be dragging me away and traffic would be stopped and it would be this wonderful, weird thing, but that’s not something that you ever want to manufacture. It’s something that I’ve seen in this work: In theater, you cannot manufacture spontaneity. It’s one of my pet peeves because a lot of times there will be theater shows that have an interactive element, and their like, “Now’s the part of the show where you get so inspired that you get up and dance because you can’t control it.” But that’s not actually happening, that’s what you’ve scripted to happen. I think it just has to happen.

The bare minimum, we go outside and I do my thing. Maximum? Who knows. I’ve always wanted to march down to the park and see how many people from the public I could get, and I’m getting closer. Last night we had a bigger house, and I was able to go pretty far with a lot of the stuff, a lot further than I’ve gone before. And a lot of it was just me getting practice, but it would be interesting to see what I could do out there. I don’t know yet. Someone told me a story of a bouffon who spontaneously decided to finish the show in the middle of the street outside, and he sat in the street and traffic stopped and he’s doing the show and people were getting dragged away and it started a riot. People were flipping cars and going crazy. I don’t want to incite a riot or anything, but I thought, “Wow, a live performance can have that kind of an impact.” This bouffon was dealing a lot with religion, and I think it was in Italy, a lot of criticism of the Catholic church and stuff. It was much more charged. My show is a lot more personal, I don’t think anyone would flip a car over anything in my show, but I was always fascinated with that idea that a live performance would inspire people to do things they would never do. Not just in a theater, but in front of the public.

When you asked us to say our deepest secret in one word, no one in our small house said anything. Do more people confess their secrets when the crowd is bigger?

Yeah, they do. I’ve gotten better at facilitating all that, because a lot of it is momentum and making people feel safe, not just safe, but helping people realize the fun in it. And that’s on me. I have a “customer is always right” approach to theater, if they don’t say anything I might rib them a little bit, but it doesn’t bother me. That’s what’s happening in the room right now, so I acknowledge it. But yeah, I’ve had people saying their secrets in the last couple shows. Audiences have been bigger, and I think when they’re bigger, people feel a little safer and braver. So what I’ve been doing is seeing how far I can go. O.K., you said your secret word, what’s the next step and the next step, and then I try to get people on stage. “Are you brave enough to stand on stage?” And then last night, I got someone to stand on stage, and I was like, “O.K., tell your secret.” And I kind of snuck it up, and she confessed to everyone that she blew her cat. (Laughs.)

It was amazing. It was the weirdest thing. She wasn’t really proud of it, and I’m not sure she’s ever told anybody, but it was so genuine. She was just like, “I performed oral sex on my cat.” And I’m like, “Oh my god.” But it was interesting because it was such a funny and weird and absurd moment, and everybody shared it. I feel like a lot of people were participating, it wasn’t “Hey, look at that weirdo,” it was like, “Wow, we’re all in this room and we all just did this thing.”  I actually acknowledge that in the show. A big part of that aesthetic is that I always have to be acknowledging what’s in the room at all times. I can’t deny anything, and when she was done, I was like, “It’s going to be hard for me to follow this moment. I’ll go through my material, but this moment was pretty great, and now I have to try to keep going.” It was pretty awesome. I’m glad that happened.

Collaboraction's Sketchbook: Reincarnate runs through July 15 at Flat Iron Arts Building (1579 N Milwaukee Ave, 312-226-9633). Read our review of Sketchbook: Reincarnate.

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