By Stephen Brown
They may be clowning around — but it’s still art.
An all-out clown fest is going down at the Brick Theater in September, but this isn’t just your run-of-the-mill circus act. In fact, it’s an interactive, emotional roller coaster that will highlight the diversity of one of America’s most-misunderstood and underappreciated art forms. (The French have mimes, we have clowns.)
“There is a lot of story involved in our performances,” said Aubrey Crabtree, the co-director of the New York Clown Theater Festival. “Most of our work examines adult themes, sometimes sexual themes.”
To get the audience in the right frame of mind, the festival will open up with a gathering of clowns that will bring a smile to kids’ faces and terror to anyone with a hint of coulrophobia.
First, about 150 to 200 clowns, along with stilt walkers and a brass band, will assemble at some unionized square in Manhattan on Sept. 3 at around 5 pm. The crowd will then take the L train to Bedford Avenue, where they will march to the Brick Theater and begin an epic, hours-long pie fight that is open to anyone with the guts to go toe-to-toe with the pros.
“People go in groups of eight or so and you have a certain designated amount of time and pies,” said Crabtree. “The theater will be covered in plastic, and you can hose off afterwards.”
There will be a party after the pie fight, and the next day the month of clown performances begins.
Crabtree, who is a clown herself, said that the real pleasure of performing is the spontaneous moments that spring from interaction with the audience, making each show unique.
“I love the moment when people decide to play along,” Crabtree said. “Whether they’re just observing or up on the stage with you, they’re joining in and engaging in some playful way.”
One of the highlights of the fest is “The Last Show You’ll Ever See,” a one-woman show — clowns typically work in pairs — in which the clown and her trombone/companion prepare for the coming apocalypse with the prerequisite tomfoolery and pratfalls.
But these clowns aren’t just hunting for laughs — they have feelings, too.
“Clowning can be a cathartic experience,” she said. “The clowns are making analogies to our own behavior.
“Maybe the clown is doing a bit about having difficulty putting items in a bag — but that could be a metaphor for how hard it is for us to get our lives together.”
Some shows will feature “undercover” clowns who dress like regular folks, but get into absurd situations. Others will have clowns in more typical garb — but they work entirely in silence. Some will be musicians; others will focus more on interaction with the audience. A few shows also cater to kids.
The possibilities are endless.
“There is laughter, empathy, sadness, frustration, and pure joy — hopefully the audience is along for the whole thing,” Crabtree said.
The New York Clown Theater Festival at The Brick [575 Metropolitan Ave. near Lorimer Street in Williamsburg, (718) 907-6189], Sept. 3-26. Tickets $15 ($10 for weekend matinee family shows). Check www.bricktheater.com for showtimes.