INTERVIEW: Let's Get Physical, Actor Derek Kwan on the Art of Masks and Clowning

INTERVIEW: Let's Get Physical, Actor Derek Kwan on the Art of Masks and Clowning
PHOTO: Jean-Jacques Chen
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Derek Kwan takes of his mask.

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Derek Kwan (關顯揚) is a clown. Not in the pejorative sense, and certainly not one of those clowns that have been all over social media recently.

“It's unfortunate because real clown is about innocence. Essentially it's your 5-year-old self, which is the best of you. People don't actually know what a clown show is,” says the Toronto-born actor. “They think [Stephen King's] ‘It’ but they've never actually seen the joy a good clown show can bring. It's the same with masks.”

Last year, Kwan joined Dr. Red Nose, a professional clown troupe that performs at paediatric cancer wards. The initiative was established by Ma Chao-chi (馬照琪) and based on a similar venture by a French organization named Rire Médecins. Ma is a graduate of Paris' prestigious Theatre Jacques Lecoq and artistic director of Théâtre de La Sardine, a Taipei-based company that combines street performance, circus and physical theater.

“The aim,” says Kwan “is to animate the space, bringing a breath of fresh air to the patients, their families and the staff. I’ve known Chao-Chi for a few years now and love her work ... I took a clown workshop last year and afterwards they asked me to join the troupe, which I was all too happy to do.”

It doesn't seem a big leap from the clowning to the masks that Kwan donned for his captivating rendition of Kirsten Thomson's acclaimed one-person play “I, Claudia,” which wrapped up at Beitou's Lab Space last weekend. “They do say red nose clown is the smallest mask,” Kwan concurs.

Leslie_2
PHOTO: Jean-Jacques Chen

Kwan has long had a passion for this ancient art but admits that audiences these days are not always sure what to make of it. He believes the advent of Freudian psychology, Stanislavski and an obsession with full-immersion method acting have taken their toll, to the detriment of good, old-fashioned physical performance. “It's so rare nowadays to see mask nowadays – good or bad – that it short circuits people's thinking,” he says. “People don't know what to do with it.”

For “I, Claudia,” Kwan lurks behind four facades, depicting the awkward, angst-ridden and sometimes hilarious (or “high”-larious, as she has it) adolescence of Claudia through her own eyes as well as those of her doddery grandfather Douglas, neurotic soon-to-be stepmother Leslie, and Drachman, the eccentric caretaker of her middle school.

Although he professes a soft spot for each of the characters, particularly identifying with Leslie because “she's a similar age to me,” she's “up against it,” and she “goes through a huge journey of redemption,” it is Drachman who best affirms Kwan's belief in the indispensability of the body on stage. The spritely custodian skips around, striking heroic poses, magically fluttering butterflies between his twitching fingertips, and underscoring the lyric poetry and fairtyales of his fictional homeland of Bulgonia with measured gestures. Recalling his days as director of his country's national theater, Drachman emphasizes that it involved “very physical performers, very precise physical work.”

For Kwan, theater is physicality. “We all think – and I used this term very pointedly – of talking heads – the dreaded dinner party play,” he says. “It can be awesome, but a lot of them are awful. With no body there, it could be a radio play. My ambition is to be up there as a complete being.”

Discovering a passion for music while at high school, Kwan went on to study it at university. “I increasingly got into singing,” he says, “and theater was a natural adjunct to that.” In fact, he finds it is hard to separate the different strands of performance. “For me it's all theater,” he says. “Opera is theater, first and foremost, though a lot of people beg to differ. It all comes from the same place. Dance comes from the same place.”

He credits the Canadian funding model for the performing arts, which focuses on creating original works, as major factor in his jack-of-all-trades approach. “I've been able to work to work in dramaturgy, in particular really fun things like promenade and site-specific theater, collectively devised work and physically based work. These have all contributed to my approach to theater as a locus for physicality, music and story.”

Douglas_2
PHOTO: Jean-Jacques Chen

Kwan moved to Taiwan last year to be closer to his husband who opened a business here in 2010. Although he is nominally based in Taipei, Kwan seems to be constantly on the move, around Asia and Canada. “I am off to Macau next week to rehearse for a show that I did last year with Macau Experimental Theatre,” he says. “It's a two-person musical in Mandarin about Shi Peipu (時佩璞) and Bernard Boursicot, the people that inspired M. Butterfly. We’re taking it to the Tokyo Performing Arts Market, so hopefully other people in Asia will want to see it. Then I’m in Canada for a remount of a production of Lorca’s "Blood Wedding" we did two years ago that went extremely well. It showcases the best of Canada, with a truly diverse cast who all are passionate about the text and Soheil Parsa, an Iranian-Canadian director the world needs to see much more.”

Things on the domestic front are a little more up in the air. “In Taiwan, it’s a big load of maybes right now! I have a number of projects in the pipeline – concerts, shows, etc, but some are in planning and others are waiting for approval from other people.”

In addition to his acting and directing in Taiwan, he is serves as head administrator of Butterfly Effect Theatre Company, whose artistic director Brook Hall is the impetus behind the Lab Space. Meanwhile, “I, Claudia” was the first offering from Kwan's newly founded Theatre Ignite (當燃戲劇).

“‘I, Claudia’ was the first project where I oversaw everything from conception through implementation and performing,” he says. “It was a really awesome challenge to integrate my ideas with everything I’ve learned. I founded Theatre Ignite to create a platform to further explore these ideas and others, such as my fervent belief in theatre as a tool for social reflection and change.”

While Kwan has his fingers all types of pies, there's no doubt that his philanthropic endeavors for Dr. Rednose are a consuming passion “It’s very different from other forms of clowning,” he says. “It’s all improv, and there is some specialized training we receive about how hospitals work, medicine, biology, child development and psychology. It’s a huge challenge physically and emotionally, but I feel like it’s what I was meant to do.”

Editor: Edward White

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