Artist Michelle Matlock is a clown star in the Cirque du Soleil production of "Ovo," which ends its Portland run this weekend. One of the few African American clowns in the United States, Matlock performs with an outrageously talented cast of performers under the Big Top at the Portland Expo Center. Signature acts in this show, which is based in the insect world of a Brazilian jungle, include foot-juggling ants, acrobatic fleas, contortionist spiders and a crew of tree frogs combining high-flying trampoline tricks with a rock-climbing wall – you have to see it to believe it. Throughout, a live band of Brazilian musicians and vocalists add a dreamlike feeling punctuated by electronica and soaring vocals.
Matlock, who portrays a love-struck ladybug, brings the show back down to earth through her ongoing romance with a bluebottle fly. The Skanner News spoke with Matlock about her art, her vision and why clowns are important in everyday life. Cirque du Soleil's Ovo runs through May 20, get tickets here.
The Skanner News: We don't see many African American clowns. Can you talk a little bit about what you bring to this role as a comical ladybug in love?
Michelle Matlock: There haven't been very many – if any – African American main characters in Cirque du Soleil shows and especially African American women. I guess from what I've heard from the media and people around – I guess I'm the first one to portray a main clown character in one of their shows.
I think it's a great honor. It's a great company, they have a great vision, and I'm glad they were able to have vision for my type. I think that my type in this entertainment industry in general needs more vision. I appreciate being able to have the experience. Other than that, for me it's what I expect – it's a role, it's fun, it's a romantic role, it's been a great adventure to create it and play it for the country.
TSN: As a clown—do you have tricks you do, and is there a clown in your experience that you look to for inspiration or training?
MM: Let me give you a little background. I studied acting in New York – I went to a conservatory. They did offer clowning but I never consciously pursued it; a friend of mine that I went to college with insisted that I was a clown -- so I learned to juggle and created little clown shows with my first clown partner who sort of dragged me into this. She pursued it and I followed along because we began get hired and get gigs. I was originally trained by some ex-Ringling Clowns to walk on stilts and juggle, and we did bits and gags in that Ringling style on cruise ships. Then I came back to New York and I auditioned for a few circuses, including the Big Apple Circus and Circus Amok, and I was hired by both of those companies, so I learned even more about clowning.
Yes, I'm inspired by funny women in general -- not necessarily those who may be labeled as clowns. But you know – Lucille Ball wasn't afraid to fall down, which, I really appreciate that. Of course I was inspired by my original clown partner. Her name is Amy Gordon, she's Amy G, she's mostly doing a lot of stuff in Europe and in New York. I was inspired by Whoopie Goldberg, who I don't know if you would label her as a clown, but she's a funny lady, an African American lady, that I identified with.
TSN: What is different about clowns?
MM: On a base level they're able to point out peoples' faults without making people angry. They sort of connect with that realness that makes you laugh because they're identifying with humanity and human experiences, without being critical -- sort of showing that mirror to ourselves. And it's funny because we all relate to it, or we've all been through it, or we know someone that has that characteristic that a clown might point out. Good clowns, I think, are able to show us ourselves in a way that we can reflect and we can laugh and relate.
As a clown you have to be really, really aware of your audience. Really in tune and present onstage for whatever happens, even if you have a rehearsed gag or bit. In the clown world that gag can go in a whole other direction if something happens – if a door closes, or someone new enters the space, or someone coughs or someone spills their popcorn or whatever – you never know what can happen in clowning because the clown is that complete, aware presence in the performance.
TSN: I wanted to take an opportunity to ask you about the other show you're in – "The Mammy Project."
MM: It's a show that I wrote some years back when I was back in New York, a one-woman show. It's about the stereotype icon of "Mammy" in America.
I guess as a young actress I felt that was a stereotypical-type role that my type would be cast as, and that I have been cast as in the past. And so I decided to do some research about it and how it came about, and it turned into something.
You know the most famous "Mammy" in our country was Aunt Jemima, Aunt Jemima Pancakes from the Aunt Jemima Pancake Mix -- the stereotype that we saw on that box for so many years. And I saw a lot of history about that and why it became famous, and in general why Black women were cast as this "Mammy" role in theatre and in movies, and how it relates to everyday life for African American women, and how I personally experienced being stereotyped in that role.
And I made a show out of it, and ironically enough, a lot of the history of that character comes out of vaudeville, early American vaudeville. I was able to put some of my clowning techniques and things - -little clown bits in there -- because it was such a fabricated clown character in the beginning.
So I wrote this show, and it's a history piece, a personal piece. It traveled all over the country, to universities, and down to South America. And then Cirque saw it somehow and called me to audition for them, and I did. And two years later I got a role with them. So "The Mammy Project" is my personal piece, it's my baby. I'll always be connected to it and when my journey's over with Cirque, I will certainly do that show again and revamp it and bring it back.
I think it's one of those things – it's a history piece, it tells us about a lot of our history. So I think people will always be interested in knowing that. It's a really fun piece that brought me into creating my own shows for myself, and I had a lot of success with it.
TSN: So your current show though, the Cirque show, is very different from that. It has bugs and acrobats and a live Brazilian soundtrack – it sounds kind of crazy. What should be people know about "Ovo?"
MM: The director/choreographer who created it – she is the first woman to ever direct a Cirque du Soleil show. She's from Brazil so she brought her composer with her and also her stage designer. So all those components are from Brazil and have that Brazilian flavor.
Come to have a good time, leave your problems at the door. There's nothing complicated about the show. It's very fun, with insects in colorful bright costumes and sounds, and Brazilian-based music. It's bright, it's all about love and our planet. I think that people should know that no matter what background they're coming from, you're just coming to have fun.
For more info on the show, including the soundtrack and videos of performances, click here.
Photo credit: Costumes by Liz Vandal