Four years of fourth-wall busting for Four Clowns

An L.A.-based clowning troupe with Long Beach roots pushes the working knowledge of theatre and acting in its latest production


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(Left) Thaddeus Shafer as Dr. Duchenne beckons for volunteers from the audience as his patients (seated from left) Tyler Bremer as Bon-Bon, Alexis Jones as Fifi, and Andrew Eldredge as Pepe during Four Clowns’ most recent production, Actors and Lunatics, which is running now through May 28.

Courtesy Andrew Eiden

Fourth wall, meet Four Clowns. Four Clowns, meet sledgehammer. Boom. The fourth wall is smashed into a million gritty bits of metaphorical plaster and debris in this Los Angeles-based clown troupe’s most recent production, Lunatics and Actors.

The brainchild of founder and California State University, Long Beach graduate (2006) Jeremy Aluma, Four Clowns is known for pushing the boundaries of live performance, marrying clowning techniques with raw acting on stage.

In theatre, the fourth wall is an imaginary wall just as much crucial to the set as the other three physical walls making up the set. The fourth wall is the “front” one, separating the play and actors from the audience and reality.

The concept of a fourth wall was created by dramatist and critic Denis Diderot and later coined by French playwright and actor Molière. In the 19th century, the idea of a fourth wall was embraced in the naturalist theatre. By the 20th century, playwrights and actors were challenging the conventionality of performance, creating a transparent fourth wall (or completely breaking it down), interacting with the audience.

So, what happens when the wall is shattered and a troupe of clowns crunches through the rubble?
Four Clowns’ unique approach to live performance has garnered it many awards in just a short time, including several at the Hollywood Fringe Festival in 2011 for its rendition of Romeo and Juliet and in 2015 for The Halfwits’ Last Hurrah.

“We do our best to make light of what is painful,” said Alexis Jones, who plays Fifi in Lunatics and Actors, regarding the company’s style. “So we can attack important issues, but with a smile.”

And attack they did. What started as an idea from Aluma’s mentor, a former CSULB theatre professor and writer of this production, David Bridel, quickly morphed into a dark comedy that pushes the definition of actor to extremes that only clowns in Aluma’s pack could seemingly pull off.

“I’m thinking we can make the third act darker,” Aluma told Bridel when working on Lunatics and Actors. “It can be played for laughs easily enough, but there’s something going on underneath the humor, and I want to bring that out in the performance.”

Bridel agreed, saying that the clowns should “put the audience on edge.”

This has been the trademark for Four Clowns since the beginning. Dedicated to entertaining and interacting with the audience, while shining the light on humanity, Four Clowns constantly shatters the fourth wall in every production, pushing both the audience’s and the actors’ understanding of acting and theatre.

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(From left) Tyler Bremer as Bon-Bon and Alexis Jones as Fifi nuzzle close to each other on stage.

Photo courtesy Keleigh Layton

“You don’t really have a show without an audience,” Jones, another CSULB graduate (2007), said. “It wouldn’t really behoove us to pretend that they are not there.”

Sans fourth wall, Four Clowns pushes the boundaries, questioning and often poking fun at (as clowns do) what it means to act and perform. Lunatics and Actors directly centers around what it means to be an actor. Are actors really different than anyone else? Is it a matter of training? Or does it come from a deeper, darker well of emotions?

Breaking the fourth wall is typically used to create comedic tension, something Four Clowns uses to its advantage. This technique allows the marriage of sinister and lightheartedness to take place on stage, keeping the audience squirming from entertainment and uneasiness.

“Are we laughing because it makes us uncomfortable, or because it reminds us of what it means to be human?” asked Tyler Bremer, who plays Bon-Bon in Lunatics and Actors and is another CSULB graduate (2014).

Four Clowns’ Lunatics and Actors is running through May 28 with various Thursday, Friday and Saturday performances at 8pm at the Shakespeare Center of Los Angeles. Tickets are $12-$15. For more information on the production or about Four Clowns, go to fourclowns.org or call (562) 508-1788.

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