Three's Company: Syracuse's Gams on the Lam Give Clowning a New Twist
In a strange new town far from home, facing their first gig away from the cozy comforts of friends and family back in Syracuse, the three clowns jittered nervously. Feeling like aliens, the three women who comprise the comedy troupe Gams on the Lam were taking their first giant steps in show business. "We were at the Cleveland Performing Arts Festival," Gam Lauren Unbekant recalls. "It was sort of this serious 'performance art.' Everything was very important and, well, there was a lot of nude people in Jell-O, stuff like that. We thought we were dead!" Afraid their slapstick mime routine wouldn't fit in with the other puffed-up, self-important acts, the three clowns braced for what seemed like an inevitable flop. "We were backstage panicking, but when we came out, the audience had the best time," Unbekant continues. "They were screaming and pounding their feet!" In clown-white faces painted with colorful, madcap expressions, Gams Unbekant, Patricia Buckley and Leslie Noble use an atypical theatrical medium to dramatize their female experiences on stage: They're clowns. This Clown's LifeOr, according to their artist's statement, they utilize a "highly stylized physical form of theater." Using whirly-twirly abstract costumes, odd props, minimal sets and specially designed kerplunkity music, the three perform two self-written productions, Chaotica and The Way. "Chaotica celebrates the chaotic nature of everyday life," they explain. The Way zings along as "an allegorical road trip to desire and back," portraying a wild journey to the land of self-identity. Gams on the Lam base their chosen art form on an ancient style of clowning, the circus trio. Utilizing three characters, the Boss, the Auguste and the Joey, the threesome simplifies the complexities of interpersonal relationships. "Our act is very classic," Buckley says. In her role as Diva, "I'm the boss. Leslie [the Waif] the middle-man, the good character, the victim, and Lauren [the Trickster] the troublemaker. She's the one who's always instigating up from the bottom, and Leslie's always taking the fall for it." Noble says choosing mime to parlay their theatrical aspirations came as a challenge from fellow thespian Buckley. Figuring Saturday Night Live sketch comedy had been done enough, the all-gal team risked silence. "We had done a lot of sketch comedy, and we had done it successfully," Buckley says. "[We did] a lot of parody and a lot of satire, and I just wanted to see if we could do something more. Working silently, I thought, would be really challenging because..." "Because we never shut up," Noble interrupts. The three women, all in their thirties, exhibit the sort of easy familiarity that arises from years of working side-by-side. After receiving theater and English degrees from SUNY Albany and Le Moyne College, respectively, Buckley and Noble met while working at the Sterling Renaissance Festival. Unbekant, a Syracuse University graduate, met Noble through connections with Contemporary Theatre of Syracuse (CTS). Thoughts of forming their own group simmered as Unbekant worked solo comedy in New York City; Buckley and Noble worked on making their own educational theater upstate. "We had this idea to put together a little company to do educational theater during the day, and then we'd be able to have a theater company at night and do what we wanted to do," Buckley says. "Of course you can't [do that], you know, you have to put all your energy [into one]."As many artists realize sooner or later, the road to success is paved by concentration on that one specific love. Hoping to further their understanding of the theatrical clown form, the three sought professionals in the field. Buckley attended the Dell' Arte School of Theater and studied with clown teacher David Bridell of the Central Academy of Drama in London, as well as with Sue Morrison of Toronto's Theater Resource Center. Noble also studied with Bridell and, along with Unbekant, trained with top clown tutors Avner Eisenberg, Julie Goell and Morrison. They finally put their cooperative energies together in 1992, creating Gams on the Lam.With a structure of form in place, the women headed out on the road of silent comedy in March 1993. "If we had known then [what we know now], we never would have done it," Buckley says in mock exaggeration. "But, really, it's been great fun. It's just that it's been such a long road of learning." One of their first lessons brought John Plummer from Albany's Actors Shakespeare Company to direct and collaborate with the troupe. Since the women work without speaking roles, the need to have someone watch and access their silent physical clowning became essential. "When Pat and Lauren and I started to work on the Gams show, we realized very quickly that a director was not a luxury, it [was] a necessity," Noble says. Plummer brings an impressive directing repertoire to the production, including shows at the Theatre de la Jeune Lune in Minneapolis, the Yale Repertory Theater, the Sacramento Theatre Company, Theater Emory and the Idaho Shakespeare Festival. He's also studied with clown master Bridell and studied mime at the Ecole Jacque Le Coq in Paris. The women appreciate their fortunate link with Plummer, who understands what they want to do. "It's like John spoke the same language," Noble says. "He's a good sort of barometer of relating [to the show's universal appeal]."Universal AppealHaving the show relate to different generations and genders ranks high among the Gams' goals. "Ultimately we choose clowning because of its populist tradition," they explain. As a sort of touchstone for the audience to act out forbidden desires, their "principal challenge is to combine ideas, however bizarre or commonplace, with a satisfying audience experience." "It's our job to be entertaining, that's our first job," Buckley says. Adds Unbekant, "We want the audience to go away having had a really good time." A night out to see the Gams in action has been known to turn moods 180 degrees. "My personal favorite that we hear a lot is 'I was so tired, I wasn't going to go out tonight, and now [after the show] I feel so much better!'" Buckley says. Children enjoy the Gams as much as adults. "Kids always get us, no problem," Noble says. Although the Gam shows are not written for children, kids dig the slapstick. "It's like the old Fractured Fairy Tales and Warner Brothers' cartoons where the kids are laughing at a physical bit but [that's] sort of underplaying another level of humor that's a little more sophisticated, that's for the adults," she explains. If children were promoters, booking the Gams might be easier. "It's an interesting challenge to find the perfect match of the venue that wants to present material that we make," Noble admits. Their nouveau comedy style is not easily defined, a necessity for easy journey to box office and stage. Noble notes that the group has wrestled with the political correctness of its definitions. "We couldn't use that word, clowning, because [people] think circus clowns," she says. "I don't think there's an effort to find a kind of vocabulary to describe what it is we're doing succinctly. I mean, you can say new vaudeville, you can say silent movie clowning, you can say physical theatre, physical clowning." While some observers might see the Gams' comedy as a silent female version of the Three Stooges, there's also a serious message to the material. They "strive to create a woman's world where [they] struggle with power issues, explore female roles, satirize cultural stereotypes and celebrate women's ingenuity and resilience." According to their promotional material, "clowning allows us to create images that work a many-layered response and to express the unspeakable in women's experience." Being a woman compounds the Gams' clown formula exponentially. Choosing to clown is one thing, and peppering the act with an avant garde twist is another; being female in a twisty clown show, however, may be professional suicide. Buckley wondered at first if "anybody [was even] going to get it, or like it. Clowning in this country is like the kiss of death." The Gams frequently get questioned on the show's gender politics--specifically, whether it's a put-down of men. "It's not about that at all," Buckley says. "It's about us! Men love our show [and] women come up and say thank you." On the FringeLike many in the ranks of the self-employed, Noble describes the frustration of floating out in the big sea between commercial venues that have plenty of money and the non-profit organizations that have little money to spare for programming. "There's a chasm, a crack, that we fall through, just to find these places [for bookings]," she says. "Once we find them, it's like heaven."They hired an agent last fall and took to the theatrical conference circuit. "This past December, we went down to New York to do something called APAP (Association of Performing Arts Presenters)," Unbekant says. "It's a big national convention where agents bring their artists in and you do a showcase. People from all over the country who have performing arts centers come." The trio also counts on the networking and word-of-mouth advertising they get from people across the country who have seen Gams' shows. They've played from Maine to Seattle, New York to Atlanta.At the popular summer Fringe Festivals, which spotlight on-the-edge performers in Montreal and Toronto, the Gams top the popularity charts. Selected as the festival's best in Montreal, Fringe reviews have deemed the trio's Chaotica "laugh-'til-you-cry funny." The clowns will return to Canada this summer, accepting the honor of a coveted invitation from the world-famous Cirque du Soleil, traveling to Montreal in June to audition for the mega-circus entertainment company. They will also make their first attempt at outdoor street performance, stopping at a buskers festival in lower Manhattan.The coming year signifies an important phase of the Gams' upward trajectory. Having used their own money during the early years, with profits sunk back into the production, this marks the first time the three have been able to pay themselves. They have also been able to hire set designer Karel Blakeley, of the Le Moyne College theater department, to work up some set designs. The Gams recently received a Theater Commission grant from the New York State Council on the Arts, the only upstate artists among the 17 recipients. "Typically, playwrights receive this prestigious award to write a new script," a Gams press release says. "Gams on the Lam, who use no text, but rather a unique brand of clowning and slapstick, plan to use their $5,000 award to create a new work in collaboration with a director, scenic designer and composer." Like the "new" simplicity movement and its contemporary attempt to revive some very old conventions, Gams on the Lam perk up the ancient practice of clowning. Since the Commedia Dell' Arte in 16th-century Italy, clowning has allowed audiences to abandon pretense and relax in the humor of our humanness. Gams' audiences may rest assured they're in good hands. Allowing the Gams to create a safe and entertaining realm of hilarity, audiences of every kind are invited to step onto the cutting edge of new perspectives for at least one merry night.