Interview by Brittany Kay
I got to sit down with playwright Mark Brownell and actor Victor Pokinko of Clique Claque, premiering at The Next Stage Festival. We talked about who and what the “Claque” are, the potential timelessness of period pieces, and the importance of the festival model as a way of producing theatre.
Brittany Kay: Tell me a little bit about the show?
Mark Brownell: We’ve been working on the show for about two years. Last year we did Three Men in a Boat and our time machine kind of got stuck in the late 1800s in the 19th Century. Clique Claque is set in Paris and the topic is one that I have wanted to do for a long time. It’s focusing on a thing called the Paris Claque. They were essentially professional clappers who make money promoting or booing various shows. At the time, theatre was never more popular but they had a problem promoting the new shows, same as they do today. So they decided to create and hire the Claque. It started in Paris around the 1830s and kept growing and growing until the point where you couldn’t have a new opening or a new play or opera or musical piece without the Claque. They became a part of the theatre. Then, after a certain point, people started to question why that was and why these people were getting paid to do to fake an audience, essentially. Clappers would say that they are definitely part of the business. Everybody else started to think that wasn’t the case. So it’s kind of a turning point in the Claque’s existence, where people started to turn their backs on the Claque.
Victor Pokinko: The Claque also served this nefarious purpose. Actors would be able to hire the Claque to boost their own performances and convince the greater public that they were doing something better than they were. At the same time, they would be able to sabotage their competition by sending them to their counterparts and either boo, or stay completely silent during comedies, or do something to simply sabotage them and make the public think they must not be that good if no one’s clapping.
Victor Pokinko & Thalia Kane
MB: They had several different types of applause, cheering and booing where they would talk in between the acts about the show, so it became a real art. They really perfected it. Claques have been around a lot longer; it goes back to ancient Greeks. It was at its height in the 1800s and then it started to die off as the theatre started to die off with the introduction of film and stuff like that. It still kind of existed but sort of mutated into things like laugh tracks in television.
BK: Amazing, I never knew about that.
VP: We briefly mention Wagner in the play. Wagner is responsible for the house lights going down in theatre, before that it was just lit everywhere. And that benefited the Claque because the leader of the Claque would stand behind a pillar, where they would actually give hand signals. They were these strange, elaborate, almost like an umpire in baseball, for what the Claquers should do. We made these signals for ourselves to applaud or laugh etc. So one of the reasons Wagner wanted to bring the house lights down was to foil the Claque so they couldn’t see these signals and they would have to react genuinely.
MB: That’s sort of the basis around when we meet the characters and what they are doing. It’s set up like a melodrama simply because in melodrama at the time, your fortunes would gain with virtuous activity or they would diminish with rotten activity. Most of the characters in this play are rotten and wicked and they are punished for it. Some aren’t. It’s definitely good versus evil. It’s quite a dastardly group of characters and the opposite of Three Men in a Boat.
BK: Why are you inspired by the 19th Century? Where did this inspiration first come from to write about this specific movement in theatre history?
MB: We’ve had a lot of success in the past with period pieces. It’s liberating. To tell you a secret, it never goes out of date because with so many contemporary plays, you write them or you see them and then the situation changes. Oddly with historical drama, because it’s already happened, because it is already dated, you can play with it and it remains popular. Our historical dramas are amongst our most popular shows that get redone. I also teach Theatre History so I’m constantly kind of learning about new eras. We’re stuck in the 19th Century because it was amazing. For artists, it was immaculate. We just love doing these period pieces because it deals with the familiar and it deals with the alien at the same time. That’s really fascinating to me. We also have a very physical style and that fits very well into this time period.
BK: Three Men in a Boat was a very stylized, physical type of storytelling. Is that the case with this show?
MB: Three Men in a Boat was a style called spoken décor, where the three men and their bodies are the show. This is more along the lines of a classic melodrama, which is a different style, of course. We don’t have huge sets or anything like that. It is still quite stripped down and our director Sue Miner is very, very used to that. We were into the Poor Theatre before Grotowski.
VP: There are a few segments where my character is led through the catacombs of Paris. How do you make the winding sewers and tunnels of Paris without the Mirvish budget? Moments like that, we snap into a physical style and then snap back out into this melodrama.
MB: The cast is very strong. We have a great mix of (they’ll kill me for saying this) older actors and young actors/emerging artists who we love working with. We’re mixing Victor and Thalia Kane with Michelle Langille, and then two gentleman Ron Kennell and Robert Clarke, who are veterans and really wonderful. The cast chemistry is really important and we like working with people who we’ve enjoyed working with before, as does everybody.
BK: How is your working relationship with Sue and Mark coming to a new show?
VP: This is my second show with both of them and my third with Sue. It’s great. I was sort of thrown into Three Men in a Boat. That was a whirlwind of a rehearsal process and then we grew and grew as the show developed. This one feels like a new beginning – a fresh, wonderful adventure. There’s a lot of me in this character.
MB: I’ve written the character for him. Sometimes you write with actors in mind and it’s rare that they are able to do it given everybody’s crazy schedules. I wrote every one of these characters for the actors playing them. I know their quirks.
BK: Oh yes, and Victor has none…
VP: (Laughs) My character is a Polish Canadian piano playing man named Victor with big ears and a distinctive laugh.
BK: That’s not you at all.
VP: Yes, it’s a real stretch. (Laughs) Our relationship has grown in a very big way. We joke a lot in rehearsal and there is a common vocabulary we all use. It’s lovely to simply jump into that work and know exactly the style we’re going for and know the vernacular.
MB: You get into a rhythm and a language together. We’re working as a tight ensemble. We really enjoy working that way.
BK: Why is this story important for audiences today?
MB: I’ve thought about this a lot. It’s important because in any one of our period plays, there’s a reflection of the modern. The time that we’re setting it in, is at a time when Modernism kicks in and the 20th Century is around the corner. We’re in the 21st Century now, but people’s motivations are the same. The wickedness is the same. Melodrama has a bad rep. People think that Melodrama is over the top acting. It’s not that. If you really study Melodrama, it’s a sort of style that survives to this day. If you look at any Hollywood film, the manipulation of the audience is still there but it’s grown more sophisticated and subtler. You have music to pull the heartstrings. Go to a Stephen Spielberg film and find your tear ducts starting to go. Take away the sound, take away the orchestra, and sometimes you’ll see a lot of bad acting.
The laugh track has fallen out of favour, but you have things like The Big Bang Theory, which is the perfect example. Take the laugh track out of that show and sorry, but it’s not that good. We’re still cueing people constantly with music, laughter, and the chatter. It’s still with us, so I think that’s the biggest message. That said, we don’t use the Claque in this production but the audience is co-opted a bit to behave as the Claque.
VP: I think it’s a big commentary on what theatre was and has become. In a cool way, it gives an inside look into what theatre was historically. For the non-theatre people, it shows a bit of an inside look at what it is that we are struggling for and struggling against constantly.
BK: Why does Pea Green Theatre keep coming back to the Next Stage Festival?
MB: This is our third Next Stage. We started in ’88, so it’s been a long journey. Over that time, the pie that’s available for funding from grants etc. has shrunk significantly. Our way of producing and creating theatre has changed over the years simply because there is less money available and we have to raise money in different ways. But also, for the economics of theatre itself, the festival model is very, very strong. If you’re smart and don’t have a cast of 20, you can actually make money on the Fringe tour. The Next Stage Festival, is the next step in that. The last 4 of our shows that have come up through the festival circuit have gone onto larger productions. That’s why Next Stage is important because it is literally the next stage for the work.
BK: A good stepping-stone.
MB: And that’s what it is supposed to be. Larger theatres are now plucking shows out of the Fringe. They’re taking from the festival circuits. The Festival model is the way to go. The days of licking stamps and sending off scripts to the mainstream theatre doesn’t exist anymore.
BK: What has Next Stage done for you as an actor Victor?
VP: I like festivals and they are great opportunities. Big companies come out to Next Stage and can see your work. It’s a weird thing to talk about exposure, but Next Stage is great because there are only 10 shows and people attend and really care about it. It’s nice to know there is a large artistic reach for the art we are making and wanting to share.
BK: What do you want audiences walking away with from Clique Claque?
MB: Primarily to be entertained.
VP: It’s nice to be transported when watching a period piece. You’re going to enter this other world. I’m excited, as an artist, to explain the Claque and this part of history. As an audience, it’s always exciting to feel like you’ve experienced history and to walk out having learned something. Hopefully, I want them to walk out with a sense of involvement in that.
Rapid Fire Question Round:
VP: La Vie en Rose MB: Babette’s Feast
VP: Pass! MB: A Wizard of Earthsea
VP: Our Town or House OR The Goat MB: Les Liaison Dangereuses
VP: Coffee MB: The whole hawg from the Bar-B-Barn in Montreal.
Favourite Place in Toronto
VP: Christie Pitts MB: Cherry Beach
Best advice you’ve ever gotten
VP: Don’t take yourself seriously. MB: Be nice to people on the way up because you’re going to meet them on the way down.
Photo Credit: Tanja Tiziana
Presented by Pea Green Theatre Group
Written by Mark Brownell
Director Sue Miner
Featuring Robert Clarke, Thalia Kane, Ron Kennell, Michelle Langille, and Victor Pokinko
Clique Claque marks Pea Green’s return to the festival after last year’s Dora-nominated hit Three Men in a Boat. Clique Claque is a dastardly period comedy/ melodrama set in 1880’s Paris. Madame Clothilde is the “Chef de Claque” – the overseer of a motley group of professional “clappers” who manipulate audience applause for cash. Together with her detestable husband she seeks to control the life and fortunes of every performing artist in Paris.
Factory Theatre Mainspace (125 Bathurst St.)
January 06 at 09:30 PM
January 07 at 08:30 PM
January 08 at 04:00 PM
January 09 at 06:45 PM
January 11 at 08:45 PM
January 13 at 05:00 PM
January 14 at 06:30 PM
January 15 at 02:45 PM