Christopher Johnston invites you into the Clown Motel

CLOWNS. Happiness. Terror. Joy. Rainbows. Anger. Fun. Red Shoes. Stephen King. You name it – there will be a strong reaction to clowns no matter who you ask.

Sometimes, all that’s needed is a quirky title to garner interest in a piece. I admit that “Selfies at the Clown Motel” drew me in from the second I heard about it. Presented by convergence-continuum at the Liminis Theater in Tremont August 26 to September 17, 2016, the title “Selfies at the Clown Motel” indeed inspires a myriad of visions.

But how in the world did writer Christopher Johnston come up with such a spectacle? He answered some questions for me regarding this production at con-con.

Leah Smith
Leah Smith in “Selfies at the Clown Motel”

Kate Klotzbach: Where did you come up with this “Selfies at the Clown Motel” concept? Specific inspiration? A conglomeration of ideas? Obsession with clowns?
Christopher Johnston: My brother Steve moved to LA after high school, and I had only been west of the Mississippi once, just across the river to Hannibal, MO, on a family vacation to check out the Mark Twain mystique. But for the next 15 years, I went west as much as I could, whether accompanying my brother or on my own. So, I spent a lot of time on the coast and in the deserts of AZ, CA, NV, UT and so on, and thus a lot of time in desert motels. So, much of the play came out of experiences I had then. A couple of years ago, the story of these two lonely, lost characters meeting at a desert motel started to take shape in my head. But I was not familiar with the Clown Motel until a friend of mine, Sade Wolfkitten, who is doing our costumes, posted a story about this completely weird and scary place on Facebook, and that gave me an exact location and pulled the whole story together for me. Not only does it have a complete clown motif throughout the motel, but there is a cemetery across the street full of gold miners who died from the plague, which reference in the story. I never had a “clown obsession” but was always fascinated by them as a kid, along with puppets, because of their colorful, strange nature and the quirky theatricality of their lives.

Kate: Why do you think so many have a problem with clowns? I mean, there’s even a specific phobia name for that fear: coulrophobia.
Chris: I’m not sure. I was never afraid of them, but if I had to speculate, I would say that perhaps people are concerned that the colorful, exaggerated make-up and costumes on the outside reflect some emotional or psychological issue on the inside.

Kate: What’s the theme of this show? The press release says it’s a surprising, strange, funny and scary experience – what about the characters and the central story makes it all of these things?
Chris: I don’t know who wrote it, probably Clyde Simon, Lucy Bredeson-Smith or Bill Lynn, but the copy on the back of our postcards really nails it: “Clowns can be funny, sad, creepy, tragic and scary – and in this world-premiere production – they can be very human, too.” It really is about the convergence, don’t pardon the pun, of two lonely souls in the desert, and we’re not sure what their continuum will be.

Leah Smith 2
Leah Smith in “Selfies at the Clown Motel”

Kate: What makes each of your cast members “clown worthy”?
Chris: Ha! They’re actors! Leah Smith, who plays the female lead Chloe, is a gymnast and dancer, so she’s very physical and beautiful to watch move, as audiences will see. Sade, our costumer, has extensive circus performance experience and she has given me great notes in the past while I was working on the play. A couple of our cast members, Lauri Hammer and Jack Matuszewski, who play the motel owner and her son, have performed at con-con in many plays, so they understand weird and quirky intimately. It’s something that Clyde, our director and con-con’s Artistic Director, has instilled in all of us.

Kate: Selfies – do you take a lot of those? Will you include some in your own? Perhaps some of your cast members’?
Chris: I don’t take many selfies because they’re usually blurred and half my head is missing, but I see the nonstop selfie action going on all around me, wherever I am. The two main characters take selfies throughout the show, and they will be projected on a screen so that the audience can see them. But, no, we will not be including any of my selfies. That’s just too frightening to consider.

Kate: Who’s your favorite clown ever?
Chris: Emmet Kelly, Jr., because I grew up watching his routines on TV, and saw him in the circus once. I’ve had this discussion with John Busser, who plays Rob, the male lead in the show, however, that Red Skelton was actually a phenomenal clown and used clowning quite a bit in his routines, which we also saw on “The Red Skelton Show.”

Kate: What inspires you to write? How did you get started? What was the subject of your first story you ever wrote?
Chris: I started as a poet and short story writer in college, but got into playwriting in my early 20s when I lived in upstate New York for a few years and spent a lot of time in the City. The company my father worked for had an apartment at 63rd and 3rd where they let me stay if the salesmen weren’t using it. So, I spent a lot of time there and tried to see whatever plays I could, especially Shepard, Mamet, Wasserstein, etc, and of course, get to CBGB’s as much as possible. Those were theater voices that resonated in my head in a way that Shakespearian or Restoration dramas or even early classical American theater did not. My first short story was very Poe-ish, about a man who discovers his real “self” is a ghost. I am inspired by people I meet – just saw this fascinating woman at the Botanical Gardens last night studying the flora, drawing plants in her notebook with one hand while eating her sandwich with the other, who will appear in a play at some point – historical stories, my Irish heritage, unusual experiences I’ve had in my life, like being a suburban kid from Cleveland exploring the desert and the mountains. Because of the early influence of poetry and immersing myself in literature as an English major at John Carrol, I am primarily a language playwright, so my scripts are usually driven by language, too.

Kate: Are you from Cleveland? Why do you love this city?
Chris: Yes, I am a native and have lived here most of my life. I love the people, the hard-working, generous citizens full of heart that can take all the jokes and losses and just keep rolling forward, just keep giving and striving and helping other people when they need it. I love the deep roots that we have in industry and the gritty post-industrial landscape that we’ve found a way to make cool. I love that our great industrialists created the foundational institutions that then led to our distinctive arts and cultural sensibility. I am continually astonished by the depth of creative talent and appreciation for the arts in Cleveland and this region. I also love our forests, parks and certainly Lake Erie and our other lakes, rivers and streams and how they change with the seasons. We have great windstorms here, too.

“Clowns can be funny, sad, creepy, tragic and scary – and in this world-premiere production – they can be very human, too.”

Kate: Why is con-con a good venue for this show?
Chris: There’s no place better for this type of show. I wrote it specifically for con-con. I am a company and Board member, and have seen every mainstage show Clyde has produced. We were friends when he founded the theater, so I went to support him, and after a couple of years, he said, “When will I see something from you?” He has produced and directed two other plays that I wrote for the theater: Spawn of the Petrolsexuals and APORKALYPSE! So, I feel very at home there now as a playwright. Primarily, I dig that style of theater, the contemporary, edgy, in-your-face dramas and comedies. I also prefer the intimate experience for the audience members that a 40-seat black box theater affords that you can’t get in a gigantic Broadway proscenium setting. There are many times at con-con when you really feel like you are in the play, because the actors will talk to you, sit in your lap, hand you something or climb all over you. They’ve never met a fourth wall they liked.

Directed by Clyde Simon, “Selfies at the Clown Motel” runs August 26-September 17, 2016 at The Liminis. Presented by convergence continuum, this World Premier stars John Busser, Leah Smith, Jack Matuszewski and Lauri Hammer.

TICKETS are $10 for students, $12 for seniors and $15 for general admission.playYourpart

SELFIES AT THE CLOWN MOTEL by Christopher Johnston
Directed by Clyde Simon
August 26 – September 17, 2016
Thurs-Sat @ 8pm at The Liminis Theater
2438 Scranton Rd, Cleveland (Tremont ‘hood)

“What’s your worst nightmare? Could it be … oh, I don’t know … maybe … CLOWNS?? Spend a day (and night) with Rob, Chloe, Skar, Agnes and Lars, who pedal their way backward on a unicycle in a haunting clown motel out on the wild, howling, staring Mojave Desert. Or is it dessert? Clowns are people too. (World premiere.)”

Featuring John Busser, Lauri Hammer, Gideon-Patrick Lorete, Jack Matuszewski and Leah Smith.

convergence-continuum sells non-alcoholic concessions but encourages you to bring your own [insert preferred libation here] if you wish.

Tickets ($10-$15) can be purchased by clicking HERE or by calling 216.687.0074.

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