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Morro and Jasp (aka Heather Annis and Amy Lee) are two Toronto-based playwrights who, for the past year and a half, have been performing and developing the portrayal of two clown sisters in the throes of puberty, independent living and love.
Though at times the sisters appear timeless, one could guess their age is anywhere from 16 to 25. Regardless of their age, their joie de vivre is more allegorical, their immaturity and occasional naivety a charming performance tool to put the audience at ease (or unease).
Lee, who plays Morro's older sister in the piece and is the co-artistic director of Up your Nose and In your Toes Productions, says the characterization of the clowns is something the duo have been nurturing for years.
"When we began creating shows with Morro and Jasp seven and a half years ago, we started to colour in a very full and rich life history for them. Our shows started out with them as youngsters, and we tried to fill in the history of their lives, so that they would be as fully realized as possible."
The clown sisters are aware (though it never comes across in their performance) of the inherent stigma attached to their red-nosed pathology; they play off of the clown dregs reputation with great poise. What was most fascinating in witnessing both an in-person, in-character public appearance and interview and their new show Go Bake Yourself is the reaction their clown act gets initially - how everyone weighs in their instant terror or down right disgust for clown-kind.
At first glance, Go Bake Yourself is a fun-loving, adolescents-gone-wild in the setting of domestic virtue. But the play channels other areas of concern such as sexual abuse, cutting (self-abuse) love, trust, body issues and the general politics of food (read: veganism, vegetarianism, carnivorous shame).
The ongoing performance piece works in two ways: an entertaining, character-driven work but also a huge statement on gender identity, homophobia and even the anti-bullying culture which is currently a huge trend in the media. "We try to explore the extreme aspects of humanity within our work and thus hope that everyone can identify with it in some way."
Without beating us over the head with the back story of clowns as satirical targets or symbols of an obsolete form of entertainment, Morro and Jasp's freshly baked depictions of body and soul are post-everything (post-Nigella, post-gender, post-age) removed from the quotidian concept of clowns inherent in film, cartoons and other mainstream properties.
Lee is encouraged that a lot of people have come around in terms of their fear of clowns. "We are also happy to say that we have helped a number of people get over their coulrophobia (clown phobia)."
The clown sisters have gone through a lot together; Jasp is interested in boys a bit, Morro has a crush on a female clown friend, and they are continually negotiating the terrain of their supportive sisterhood.
"Throughout the years, Morro and Jasp have grown up a little bit with every show we have done, so to us they have personalities and lives that have memories, habits and references that we all know and can draw upon when making a new show or going out into the world to interact with people," says Lee.
From the skeptical audience member, to someone dragged along by a loved one, to those with serious investment in performance art, acting or clown studies (yes, there are schools for clowns), Lee hopes people will be informed and entertained.
"We don't make our work for people who are experts in theatre or clowning; we make it for everyone. So we hope they will enjoy it. And we hope that anyone who comes to our show who happens to have studied clown also enjoys it."
Morro and Jasp will be touring across Canada this summer with performances at Fringe Festivals in Toronto, Winnipeg and Edmonton in July.
For more on Morro and Jasp and information on their tours, visit www.morroandjasp.com and check out this video on youtube about Clown stereotypes called "Behind the Nose."
Nathaniel G. Moore is a Toronto author, artist and editor at Tightrope Books. He is the author of Wrong Bar, shortlisted for the 2010 Relit Award for best novel.