I’m Sam Gurwitt, a clown in Starstruck. I grew up in Norwich, Vermont, and just graduated from Yale. I was in Cirque Us’s first tour in 2016, and I’m thrilled to be back for a second summer. I’ve been thinking a lot about what makes this company and this show uniquely fun and challenging, and here are a few of my thoughts.
One fundamental feature of a Cirque Us show is interaction with the audience. In traditional circus shows, audience interaction is a key component and happens in very overt ways; the show is presented as simple performance—constantly conscious of its audience and often literally pulling them into the action—to please the crowd rather than convey some story, theme, or emotion. As circus begins to enter the theater and dance world, it sometimes loses the audience interaction component, and becomes a highly choreographed exposition of skill and theme. Cirque Us tries to walk a line in between. Its shows are structured around a theme and through-lines, but its characters are always conscious that they are performing for a live audience, and they invite the audience into the world they create rather than allowing them to sink into their seats as passive spectators.
This type of show is great for clowns. Clown is distinct from theater partly because it always breaks the fourth wall. Unlike theater, the clown exists simultaneously in his or her own world and in the world of the audience. Rather than just telling a story to a passive audience, the clown brings the audience into the world he or she creates so that they are an active part of it. The clown has to act as the bridge between the imagined reality he or she creates and the reality of the audience. By existing both in a place created by his own imagination and at the same time consciously on stage in front of an audience, the clown invites the audience into an imagined world so that for the duration of the performance, the clown and the audience float in a sort of suspension of disbelief which exists neither entirely in the audience’s reality or in the clown’s constructed world. One of the most important moments in any clown performance is the when the clown establishes a connection with the audience captures their attention, imagination, and sympathy so that they are willing to come along for the ride. Whenever I manage to do this and a performance is going well, it feels like there are strings attached on one end to every part of my body and on the other to the audience’s emotions. Once I’ve captured the audience, it’s as if I can pull gently on each of those strings and evoke a little giggle here or yank on another to get a large peel of laughter.
Starstruck, though a great show for clowns, also presents an interesting challenge because every character has many moments of interaction with the audience but also has many moments in which he or she is on stage but not performing. We spend almost all of the show on stage, but only for a portion of that time are we the focus of the action. The rest of the time we support in various ways—by throwing focus, by moving props, or by doing choreography. For me, one of the most difficult parts of this show has been figuring out how to maintain the audience connection for the whole show while also spending a lot of the show on stage but not exactly performing. When I’m simply in the background—still onstage and a part of the world we create, but not exactly performing—I cannot keep one foot in the audience and one on stage as I do when I’m clowning because if I try to maintain a connection with the audience I risk distracting them from where they are supposed to look. During Lindsey’s (formerly Rena’s) contortion act for example, the cast moves chairs in slow motion upstage of where Lindsey is performing. In this moment, the rest of the cast has to be only in the world of Lindsey’s act, not interacting with the audience trying to bring them into the action. This in itself is not difficult. All it takes is moving a chair in slow motion. But the transitions between these background support moments and the active clown moments are one of the most challenging parts of this show for me because I have to be able establish my “strings” to the audience and then dismantle them without ever leaving the stage. The balance that the clown has to maintain in which he or she brings the audience into the performance is delicate and must be actively maintained at every moment the clown is on stage. In most shows, the performer drops that connection simply by leaving the stage. This way, the connection never has to be built or broken onstage; rather the entrances and exits to the stage do the work for the performer. In Starstruck, however, I’ve had to learn how to turn that audience connection on and off without ever leaving the stage, and without simply dropping character. My character is on stage for the whole show, but only sometimes is the character conscious of the audience.
Photos by Grace G.