Leah Urzendowski | Performer of the week

500 Clown Frankenstein (2012)

500 Clown Frankenstein (2012) Photograph: JustinBarbin.com

In 500 Clown Frankenstein, three clowns put their twist on Mary Shelley’s classic horror novel for a hilarious, surprisingly poignant production. As part of a rotating cast of five, Leah Urzendowski gives a stunning performance, displaying amazing physical aptitude and a sharp sense of humor. A native of Omaha, Nebraska, Urzendowski began performing at a young age as both an actor and dancer. She moved to Chicago in 2000 to attend the Chicago College of Performing Arts at Roosevelt University, where she was taught by 500 Clown artistic director Adrian Danzig, igniting a passion for clowning that's made Urzendowski one of the city’s top performers of physical comedy. Urzendowski speaks to us about what attracted her to clown work, what goes into creating a clown persona, and how she balances the comic and dramatic elements of 500 Clown Frankenstein.

What initially attracted you to clown work?

I first saw 500 Clown Macbeth, and I had never seen anything like that before. I had heard of improv and comedy, but I had never seen this sort of theater and interaction. I was really excited by it, because I feel like theater should be a giving force, the energy that you’re giving to the room, and the audience is also a part of the show with you. That really excited me, how much sitting in the audience that I was a part of what was occurring. And it wasn’t until then that I knew that that existed. From then on I hung around 500 Clown, cleaning up fake blood from Macbeth. Through them I learned what the form was and seeking after it, watching, and taking classes and workshops. It’s still that sort of work. Being an ensemble member of the Neo-Futurists, we do that similar work, of the audience is in the room with you. We don’t ignore them, they’re as much a part of the show and the process as we are on stage.

The person I took to the show was expecting circus clowns, so he was surprised, but he thought it was awesome.

Good. That’s a funny thing with people. It’s always a weird thing to say, “I’m a clown.” [Makes vomit noise.] I mean I can juggle and I can unicycle if need be, and I can make myself whatever you need, but you always hesitate. If it’s going to be weird, I’ll just say “physical theater artist.” We’ll say that. It at least will open up conversation. Because sometimes “clown” is like, “See ya later!”

What goes into creating a clown persona?

What goes into it is a lot of who you are as a person, but exaggerated of sorts. Lily is exactly who I am, only bigger. So when we’re shifting clowns on stage and rotating the cast, that’s the interesting thing that we’re looking at: How does the show change? When I’m on stage I’m actually paying attention to that specific clown. I’m not just doing the show I know, I’m reacting to who that clown is now. That’s the awesome part of a clown character—you’re bringing you to stage. Clowns were always the jokesters, easy to laugh at. You can laugh at a clown who’s showing society, and all that. That’s who we are on stage. And that’s where the big costumes come from, too. Finding what’s funny. If you have a big butt, make it bigger. Or stuff yourself into tiny pants. Or if you have large legs, make them larger. Just getting that grotesqueness out and putting it out for everyone to see. Being ugly, and being available to be laughed at or made fun of. And in that we are showing who we are.

How has your clown experience informed your other acting?

A big part of clown is remaining present on stage. You can’t shut the audience out, just like you can’t shut your partners out on stage. That can feed all forms of art. If you’re not interested in clown work, if you’re just an artist or a person, anyone can benefit from this kind of training because it allows you to be in the moment. Be it just working a desk job, or regular “straight theater,” it actually allows you to receive what’s happening on stage and not deny what’s actually happening to you in that moment. So you can actually be very present and aware of all of those around you. It makes for a very active lifestyle and it actually helps you to be a better partner on stage. Which is good in any theater, anything in your life. You can actually receive what they are giving and project it back to them, give it back to them, that same energy or that same sadness.

Did you go back to the Mary Shelley text before the show?

I did, personally. I’ve been working with 500 for some years now on many of their shows. Whenever you can go back to a text I think it’s really important, so you can remember where you’re coming from, and the story you’re trying to tell. Because for us clowns it’s easy for us to get off track and play all over the stage. We’re actually trying to tell the story of Frankenstein, let’s keep that. Because otherwise you’re like, “Oh the audience got a three-hour show. And not a lick of Frankenstein.” So I like to go back to the text to remind myself what I’m actually doing. And to remind myself of the darkness of the story because that’s what we’re trying to tap into as well, the bullying and the monster, and what we as people are capable of. So I did go back to the text and I believe some of the other people did as well. And as a storyteller, in that role, to drive the story, it’s good to know what the story is.

Do you only play the storyteller role, or do you switch into the other ones as well?

I also go into the helper role, which is insanely different, I must say. It’s one where I’m still, you know, I got one pant-leg in, I’m like “Oh, what’s that feel like? That’s funky.” That night I think Jay Torrence played it, on opening night, but I go into that role as well. Which is new for this run.

The play takes a pretty big tonal shift at the end; how do you balance the earlier comedy with the later drama?

In rehearsals, we are all aware of the trajectory of the show, of where we have to get to, and the beats that have to get us there, and what’s going to make for the most exciting or dramatic turn. The exciting thing about it is each night it’s different, depending on what the audience gives us, and where we as performers go. So I’ll say we do know that’s where we have to get to. Especially in the helper role, there’s a part in the show, where out of sheer fatigue and exhaustion it just gets difficult. And then there’s a point where you’re like, “From here on out, I know where I have to go. As a clown, as an actor, as a person, I know what I have to open myself up to. Which is hard, because it does hurt to go there. But that’s always important, thinking in the beginning about the journey you have to take. As a clown it’s exciting, because we’re allowed to have moments in-between that are completely unscripted and improvised in the moment, depending on what our partners on stage give us, or what the audience gives us. And those can fluctuate. But in the end of it all, we do stick to these certain beats that will help us convey and tell the story of Frankenstein.

500 Clown Frankenstein runs through November 17 at Viaduct Theatre (3111 N Western Ave, 773-296-6024). Read our review of 500 Clown Frankenstein.

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