The creator and performer of Circa’s upcoming contemporary circus piece discusses physicality, clowning around, and the comic potential in high culture.
The Pianist opens at Wellington’s Circa Theatre this week, and promises to be a “charming piece of comedy about the lure of luxury.” Thomas Monckton, hailing from Patea and currently based in Paris, plays the Pianist. Well acquainted with New Zealand’s performing circuit, his most recent New Zealand production Moving Stationery won a salvo of awards amidst much-deserved critical acclaim. Here he answers a few questions.
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MICHAEL BOYES: My lasting impression from your performances is the complexity of performance style. It’s a wrestle between a clowning mentality and sophisticated physical manipulation. The former seems so intuitive, so immersive, while the latter is tightly constructed. How does this hybridised style impact your awareness in performance?
THOMAS MONCKTON: Both the structure of the show and the clowning run parallel with each other, like a railroad and a motorway going to the same town except totally different because there are no vehicles. I can have it ticking along in the back of my mind as the clown takes whatever path the audience leads it along, joining up with the structure later. Sometimes the structure just gets thrown out the metaphorical window, which is a shame because I spend a lot of time and energy on it. If this happens I usually have to sit down with the clown and explain how hurtful it is to me.
MICHAEL BOYES: To follow on from that, if performance control is one thing, devising and skill accumulation is another. Moving Stationery, as an example, contained visual puns, witty spatial manipulation, and complex prop gags. Where does stagecraft sit alongside character/environment building, and ultimately what impact does this have on a final product?
THOMAS MONCKTON: The rehearsal room is reserved almost entirely for choreography, visual effect, and skills development. The character is born on the first day with an audience. That way I preserve the naivety of the clown without having to compromise on how rehearsed my show is and I can have a very tight structure at the same time as having a character that has no respect for it.
Or at least that seems like it could be true…
MB: Your online biography lists previous training at the Circo Arts program in Christchurch, followed by Lecoq in Paris. Were both of these institutions valuable in broadening your own expectations as a performer?
TM: Circo Arts broadened my shoulders. They have since unfortunately thinned back to wispy boney things that look like extra ribs. Both schools were particularly formative for me as a performer but I don’t think my own expectations have been hugely affected or had much to do with the periods at those schools.
MB: Is there a lively circus and clowning community in New Zealand? If so, are sufficient opportunities provided for work-shopping or public presentation?
TM: There is a small group of hard working circus artists in New Zealand who really need a permanent full time circus school. Without that it is difficult for those serious about pursuing circus to develop their skills to a professional level. That’s not to say that many achieve a high skill level through the great community circus organisations, but it would be so much better if there was full time training available.
The clowning community has it slightly easier because they don’t necessarily need a big circus space with rigging and wires everywhere but there is the same problem as with circus with the lack of training available and New Zealand based teachers and facilities.
MB: The impact of modern dance on current performance styles is notoriously under-documented. Do you think clowning suffers from a similar misrepresentation?
TM: I think if clowning is used in a show the audience and the media are relatively perceptive in identifying it. I personally wouldn’t mind if the word ‘clown’ completely disappeared from our vocabulary and perhaps if it is misrepresented then it’s not necessarily detrimental to clowning itself.
MB: I suppose another important question is, in your opinion, has the school of cross-genre theatre (merging dance, movement, clowning, acting) been particularly successful internationally? Where would you like it to go?
TM: Absolutely! To Kazakstan!
MB: The Fringe Festival and New Zealand Festival coincided this year, both generating strong interest in physical performance. From your own experience in Fringe, do you find festivals enriching for yourself as a performer and, in a broader sense, the arts community at large?
TM: Fringe festivals are the driving force in the development of the performing arts. They enable artists to create what they want and they provide a buzz that gets audiences in to see shows that they might not normally see and for other artists to see different forms of performance. The consideration is less about financial viability of the work because the artists are putting their own money forward, and more about creativity. A good arts festival is integral to any town or cities identity. It brings people together and instigates dialogue, expression, and creative thought.
MB: This April you return to New Zealand with your new show The Pianist (co-created by Sanna Silvennoinnen). The pianist is one of the enduring doyens of high culture. Tell us what led to you explore the character, and his particular relationship to the piano?
TM: I love the comic potential in high culture. I went to see an orchestra as part of my investigation while rehearsing The Pianist and the drummer who probably hit his drum twice during the three-hour show lost one of his drumsticks. He spent most of the concert trying to look for his drumstick at the same time trying to appear like he wasn’t looking for his drumstick. The result was that he was one of the most entertaining clowns I have ever seen. There are a lot of unspoken rules about attending a classical music concert so there are already a lot of hurdles for the clown to get stuck in.
MB: What impact do you hope the work will have on an audience? Is there room, say, for the morbid or threatening? I’m thinking back to Moving Stationary, and with the premise of The Pianist I keep resorting to a loss of agency or feeling of displacement.
TM: I have had pianists come up to me and say what a relief it was to see a concert like in The Pianist. I like that. I want the show to have a feeling of liberation from convention.
MB: Where do you think The Pianist stands in relation to the other plays programmed at Circa this year? In fact, does it matter to you as a performer/creator?
TM: It stands after the show before it and before the show after it. I’m just looking forward to performing in Wellington again and at a new venue for me.
MB: List three arts practitioners, and three creative works, that you would recommend to anybody.
The juggling dude in Wellington who juggles four tennis balls.
Zimmerman & de Perrot.
The discussion between the driver of an illegally parked car who came back to their vehicle as a parking attendant is midway through writing them a ticket.
The arrangement of fruit and vegetables at your local supermarket.
The reaction covering up that awkward situation when one person goes for the conventional handshake and the other goes for the cooler thumb grasp. You know what I mean.