Not Just Clowning Around

The art of comedy and physical theater, an interview with Stephanie Roberts

Think of the theater and the first thing that comes to mind probably isn’t clowning. Yet that’s exactly what professor, actor and creator Stephanie Roberts specializes in—only no garish makeup. Associate Professor of Physical Theatre at UMKC, Roberts teaches Clown, Mask and Commedia dell’Arte, an ancient Italian art form that gave rise to many of the stock characters seen in television comedies today. But make no mistake—physical theater is serious work, and Roberts is a serious artist. We sat down with Roberts recently to learn more about her particular brand of theater and talk about her upcoming Charlotte Street Artists’ Walk at the Nelson-Atkins on November 20.

Kansas City Spaces: Clowns usually conjure up images from the circus. How is your type of clowning different?

Stephanie Roberts: When most people think of clowning, they think of circus clowns, which is a big part of the tradition. But the type of clowning I do often doesn’t have much makeup, just a red nose and a costume. It is really kind of a poetic clown.

In the teaching that I do, we start with a neutral mask, which covers the entire face and has no expression. You start with a blank slate and set aside any idiosyncrasies and personal habits. The clown comes full circle and really reveals all those quirky things and exploits the hell out of those idiosyncrasies. People think they put on a mask to cover up, but really it reveals. And that red nose, as the tiniest mask, reveals the most. The red nose is a truth seeker. It’s not about being funny. It’s about starting with the self and letting your own flaws and failures come out. People laugh because they recognize themselves in the clown: people who try hard and often fail. They want to be loved and accepted. That’s the heart of the clown.

KCS: Not all performers enjoy teaching. What is it you like about working in theater education?

SR: Teaching is a parallel path for me—something I love as well. The more I teach, the more I really learn about my craft. Just last week I had an “aha” moment in the classroom where I realized “If you do this, that means this.” Sometimes I will teach an exercise for years and I’m doing it for the 100th time, but in that moment I will realize a different application for it. 

I feel really lucky about the work I do. I’m paid to laugh all day. Especially when I’m in the middle of clowning and Commedia dell’Arte, I get to laugh all day long—belly laughs for three hours at a time. I love that my day is filled with creativity and imagination. It’s rare that a traditional theater program in a university embraces the risk-taking that I do with my devised work. Not only do I teach but I direct and devise plays. My colleagues all really value and embrace that, and it’s really a culture of “yes.”

KCS: What can we expect from your Charlotte Street Foundation Artists’ Walk at the Nelson later this month?

SR: I’m interested in creating site-specific work in the future. From the first time I entered the Bloch Building, I was inspired by the space and the architecture; I see potential for devised work. So part of my tour will be about how we look at space and its potential for performance. Also, because of my background in mask, I’m definitely going to include some of the African masks and that tradition and how it connects to what I teach and perform.

KCS: What plans do you have for the upcoming year?

SR: I’m going to be choreographing Mr. Burns at the Unicorn Theater. It’s a co-production with UMKC and the Unicorn. I’m collaborating with my colleague Theodore Swetz, who is directing it. This year will also mark the culmination of a three-year devised process between the UMKC Conservatory’s IMP Ensemble and my third-year MFA acting and design students. We’ve been working over the last two years, and this year it’s going to be on the Spencer stage in the spring. The title is Immeasurable Heaven, which is based on the hero’s journey.