You are wearing an aqua satin parachute of a clown suit. It changes your shape. It smells musky having been in the trunk of a car during a balmy New England summer. You feel the slight pull of resistance, the studio air catching the folds of the ballooning pants. Artist Cori Olinghouse cues you to do some mental scratching. To take a walk, in this case as a “pity party clown”. The music begins. You are in clown therapy.
In this studio practice methodology of Cori Olinghouse, improvisation serves as a portal, playing with the overlap of real and fictitious states, rhythms, and hybrid identities. In developing the characters of Grandma, familial pasts and transmissions of media fuel a collage of personalities, a sort of visual rhyming for an environment composed of twinkies, cheese puffs, orange soda and television. Grandma wears her favorite pink outfit with her alternate reality ghost traveling the American dream. Deadpan emerges, a sign of maybe, which can evoke aggression, anxiety, delight.
This sort of clowning won’t give you a joke with a punchline, but rather gets stuck in the static, breaking from a more narrative form of clowning, with its structured syntax and strategies of humor. Olinghouse trained in physical comedy with Bill Irwin, an original ODC/Dance member, following her time in the Trisha Brown Dance Company. She notes elements of postmodern dance in watching old films of Buster Keaton — accumulation, and the relaxed weight and pendular movement exhibited through the body.
In creating Grandma, Olinghouse looks to scholar Lauren Berlant’s claim of humor as a space for transformation. The wobble of “laughing in spite of” or “delighting in the brokeness”. In breaking the clown form, Olinghouse allows for multiple consequences to emerge. Such a transitional infrastructure is not unlike the bardo in Buddhism, an in-between place. Ambiguity and contradiction are embedded in the slow non-arrival.
Olinghouse developed this work with Dean Moss as her dramaturg, who presented Nameless Forest in San Francisco (2012), which involved a kind of ritual process of becoming that wavers between comfort and discomfort, intimacy and distance, stability and uncertainty. Duration, darkness and gravity can be considered touchstones of his influence on Grandma.
Opening the evening, the film Ghost line, features Shona Masarin’s tactile interventions on the 16mm celluloid, manipulating Olinghouse’s character materially on film. This visual sampling, texture and rhythm have seeds in films such as Stan Brakhage’s Mothlight (1963) which exhibits porous visuals from foliage sandwiched between two strips of perforated tape. In exposing the materiality of the clown, Olinghouse also points to the haptic: relating to the sense of touch, in particular the perception and manipulation of objects.
Along these lines, Grandma employs objects to create a landscape and texture of failure, alienation and desire. My father died in a town with only a liquor store and a Wonder Bread factory. And my grandmother ate Twinkies and Dr. Pibb’s from the Piggly Wiggly every day for breakfast. A fraught attachment to objects populates this world.
All attachment is optimistic, if we describe optimism as the force that moves you out of yourself and into the world in order to bring closer the satisfying something that you cannot generate on your own but sense in the wake of a person, a way of life, an object, project, concept, or scene. But optimism might not feel optimistic. Because optimism is ambitious, at any moment it might feel like anything, including nothing: dread, anxiety, hunger, curiosity, the whole gamut from the sly neutrality of browsing the aisles to excitement at the prospect of “the change that’s gonna come.” Or, the change that is not going to come… (Berlant, Cruel Optimism 2011)
Berlant highlights such attachments as having affects on the edge of desire, completion and non-arrival, as she considers relationships that reproduce that which is damaging in the world despite their consequences; being stuck to one’s object. In Grandma, Olinghouse takes on consumption as an American cultural practice. The hoarding and discarding.
During tonight’s performance, perhaps you’ll spend some time listening to what happens in the static. Maybe try some mental scratching. How might you consider humor a tool for reckoning or resilience?
Thank you for being part of Olinghouse’s Bay Area debut and for supporting new work at ODC Theater.
Julie Potter is the Director of ODC Theater. For more information about this performance or the workshop led by Cori Olinghouse at ODC, click here.