Sara Tilley writer-in-residence U of C

I understand you’re a writer playwright and Pochinko Clown artist. Is the clowning separate from the other two or do you see them as connected?

It’s a little unusual I know. I think that for me they all dovetail together but that’s not to say that all the writing I do comes from clown or all the clown I do even has text. But the clown work and the writing work come from the same creative source.

Pochinko Clown is different than circus clown. Can you explain that?

Richard Pochinko was a Canadian who basically created a new form of theatre clown which took some of the traditional European clown methods and also a lot of inspiration from shamanistic tradition from around the world and combined it into this form which uses masks to uncover basically your own inner-archetypes to simplify things. So you create these characters that come right out of your imagination and you make masks for them wear those masks inhabit those characters and eventually begin to replace the mask with a nose — a red nose which is actually the smallest mask in the world — and that’s how you arrive at the clown. So the clown in this work doesn’t have so much to do with being I guess clumsy or able to juggle. It’s not really about the outside it’s actually coming from a very interior place. The humour of it is deep commitment to these incredibly bizarre characters that arise. So you treat everything with seriousness and it’s a way of showing humanity in a kind of funhouse mirror sort of way. I find in clown you can deal with very serious subjects and people are very open to receiving thoughts about it because you’re doing it in a kind of irreverent unexpected type of way.

I can see where that would line up with being a writer and a playwright.

And now I am starting to experiment with taking that mask process into my writing directly. The novel that I’m finishing work on right now I actually made a mask for the character of my great grandfather based on letters that I found of his detailing his trip to — he tried to go to the Klondike and missed it but he ended up in Alaska for nearly a decade and he kept really good records. I had all this material and I really wanted to write the story from his perspective and had a lot of trouble honing his voice and allowing it to become fiction so I actually used the Pochinko mask-making on this project basically modifying the Pochinko work so that it would inform my writing really directly and it’s actually worked out really well. Now I’m making more masks for other characters that are based on different members of my family and seeing what will come out when I wear each different one.

Do you see that turning into a performance in the future?

It could be. When I originally made the Duke’s mask — my great-grandfather’s name is Duke — part of me thought ‘Am I making a solo show? Or am I writing a book?’ But in that case it became clear that it was a book. However now that I have masks from that side of my family you never know. There could be kind of an ancillary project that has to do with performance. The masks in Pochinko aren’t meant to be worn onstage necessarily it’s more of a process tool so people never see what they look like. They’re very colourful and bizarre looking and it’s the shapes and colours that give you the feeling of the character.

That could also make for a really interesting family dinner.

Yeah yeah [laughing]. I’m not sure what my actual family thinks about me doing this. I think they have to just come to terms with the fact that I’m probably going to mess around with whatever I can.

You also founded a feminist theatre company She Said Yes! How does feminism inform your work?

I think it’s because I am a feminist therefore my work is feminist. I don’t deliberately set out necessarily to deliver political messages or anything. But I am really interested in the narrative of the female voice in this time and place and certainly all of my work has to do with issues of gender identity and the sort of interplay between the sexes. Often there’s stuff dealing with trans issues — certainly in my later work I have a lot of clowns who are gender-swappers and I’m just really interested in the idea of theatre as a tool for change of some kind. I don’t think we’re at a place right now where live theatre is going to incite riots but I do still see it as being a really powerful communication tool especially if you are not being overly didactic with your messages. So my company is not carrying a giant banner or anything you know what I mean — we tend to do our work through humour and surprise but it is definitely feminist.

And also I run a dramaturgy program every year through the company that is international…. That’s been going on for years and that is definitely more focused on supporting feminist playwrights. It’s highly competitive and we really look for scripts that first of all we can help — there’s no point programming something that is already great or that you don’t feel you’re connected to…. But also the idea is that these scripts will never get produced by my company but I might be able to give them a little helping hand so that this makes it to the light of day.

Are you aware of Urban Curvz in Calgary.

Yeah. I haven’t been able to get to any theatre yet and I’ve been here for a couple months so it’s sort of on my radar now that I want to go check out all the companies that are working here. I’ve heard of them I haven’t been able to see their work yet.

There’s a lot of good work going on here right now.

It’s a very rich city for culture especially theatre writing.

What does being the writer-in-residence at the U of C involve?

It’s basically half-time to myself for my own projects and then the rest of the time I spend in consultations with writers from the community so anyone who wants to can send me 15 pages and I will look at it and then have a meeting with you about your work. And also readings workshops things like that. I’m planning probably after Christmas to be offering some type of… an introductory class for writers on using masks. Just to give a taste because it may appear to be a fairly simple idea but it has actually taken me quite a few years to be able to get to the point of being able to write in that way. But I think I could at least let people know my process and give them a few exercises they could try if they’re writing in first person to try and make those voices distinct and come from the body. I mean the thing about writing in a mask is you’re sort of bypassing your brain a little bit and that is the goal is to allow the body’s knowledge and the emotional knowledge we carry come to the forefront without the mind dictating how it comes out. It’s often an out-of-body kind of a feeling where you’re not quite sure what you’re writing until you look at it later.

Did you bring your cats to Calgary with you?

I did! How did you know that?

It was in your bio that you have two cats.

Yeah I flew them here. I just couldn’t bear a whole year away from them. But I realize yes that’s a little extreme. People are surprised when I tell them that.

Does the U of C supply a place for you to stay?

No they don’t which actually ended up being a little bit stressful because the timing of my arrival was shortly after the flood. So I was long-distance trying to find an apt and it just become more and more and more difficult to even find a listing that wasn’t gone as soon as you called it let alone someone who would rent to somebody who wasn’t in town yet. But luckily a friend of mine found me a place a few days before I showed up here. But yeah there’s no residence attached to the residency.

I see you’re taking part in a couple of Wordfest events including Lit Up at The Club in Banff. Do you plan to get lit up?

What do you mean by that? Do you mean lubricated? Um well it’s not really my style but maybe just for fun. But I think both of those events Out Loud Live and Lit Up at the Club they want us to get a little crazy with the idea of reading — that’s my take on it — and kind of break some rules maybe about how readings normally happen. So I think for both events I will be doing a short reading from my first book Skin Room but I’m also going to actually read from one of my clown plays which should be really fun — I haven’t done that for a long time. One of them has five characters so I’m going to attempt to channel five different characters basically through a clown nose.

For information on the Calgary Distinguished Writers Program go to calgarywritersprogram.com and for details on Wordfest events go to wordfest.com .