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Finding Your Inner Clown: Artist-in-Residence Creates Clown Play

(Posted January 28, 2002)

HUNTINGDON, Pa. -- There are a bunch of clowns running the latest production coming from the Juniata College theatre department.
But that's not a bad thing. Artist-in-residence Don Rieder, a clown trained in the European theatrical tradition, is working with Juniata theatre students to create "Hoopl," a clown play that is scheduled to play two shows a day Feb. 21 to 23 at Rosenberger Auditorium in Oller Hall on the Juniata campus. Reider, co-director of the Montreal-based theatrical group Klauniada (a Czech word meaning "clown play"), currently is devoting his time to turning serious college students into clowns.
"I'm trying to bring out what's crazy in each of them," says Rieder of his six-actor cast. "The play is really about spending an evening with a very eccentric clown family."
When Rieder speaks of clowning, he's not talking about red noses, big shoes or garish makeup. His training in the European clowning tradition emphasizes movement, characterization and a sense of fun, instead of the American circus clown tradition or gags and skits.
"A traditional Ringling Brothers clown works from the outside in, so the audience never sees beneath the makeup," Rieder explains. "In the tradition I work in, we simplify the surface of the character so the audience can see beneath it."
In the weeks to come before the performance, Rieder will help the cast structure the play. Each cast member will be asked to contribute to the creation of the play, as well as create his or her own characters and costumes. The final production will have no text or narrative structure, and some audience members will be asked to occupy seats set up on the stage. Rieder says there will be set performance pieces or skits, but the structure of "Hoopl" will change for each performance.
"The rehearsal period is sort of like a wacky dancing class," Rieder says. "I've got them doing all sorts of things. What I'm after is the look of a little traveling circus that has arrived at Juniata."
Rieder, who founded Klauniada with his wife Valerie Dean, has been performing in the group for 22 years. Originally from Cleveland, Ohio, the lanky clown has studied at the Ecole LeCoq in Paris and received much of his theatrical clown training in Prague, Czechoslovakia. He has toured in a variety of theatrical shows as a solo artist and in ensembles.
Rieder also teaches at the National Theater School and the National Clown School in Canada. He also works as a youth-at-risk program trainer for Cirque du Soliel, which is headquartered in Montreal. His wife, Valerie also works as movement trainer for Cirque du Soliel. He says the essence of clowning is improvisation and being in the moment.
"What I'm looking for in creating this play is accidents and surprises," he says. "We will end up putting our best accidents and surprises in the play. Not everything will work, but I know the audience will have a good time. It will be like a bicycle tire with a small flat spot -- the path won't be smooth but it will be an interesting ride."

Contact John Wall at wallj@juniata.edu or (814) 641-3132 for more information.