“Bouffon clown is like walking a tightrope. The clown’s intent is to shine a bright light into their audience’s darkest corners and see the real horror of who they are,” says Samantha Chaulk, a disciple of this art form who uses it to address the contemporary world of social media and technology with her character of Prima in the show Influenced, playing at the Montreal Fringe Festival this week.
Chaulk explains that her character, Prima, is a beautiful, horrible, dummy-thicc bouffon clown who performs at a cabaret hosted by an AI emcee who feeds her “content”, the acts of the cabaret that Prima needs to perform. At first Prima performs typical cabaret acts, like musical numbers and stand-up comedy and psychic readings, but then things start to break down. “It gets darker and more uncomfortable,” says Chaulk.
Chaulk’s goal in creating the show was to address the relationship between humans and technology.
“The form of bouffon has been about presenting dark underbelly to the audience to get them to question their relationship to their shadow,” she explains. “Prima is this shadow figure that represents the dark side that we do not want to confront. We focus on this idea of running away from what makes us most human. This thread runs through tech world and social media — uploading your consciousness to the cloud, positive affirmations, Elon Musk getting us to Mars, underground bunkers for the rich. All these things cause us difficulty yet we use it for escapism, and on a grander scale too.”
Chaulk was inspired to create the show during a low period in her life when she spent a lot of time on YouTube and began to get alt-right-lite content recommendations.
“The YouTubers don’t want you to know it’s alt right. They’re luring people into their world,” she says. In particular she talks about Dave Rubin, who presents himself as a liberal, but is anything but.
“The first thing Rubin says is I’m married to a man and I’m a card carrying Liberal, but on my show I really value that marketplace of free ideas and free speech,” Chaulk says. “But he interviews the alt-right exclusively. He never has counterpoint. It’s a weird tunnel. The videos get people who would disregard these ideas and bring them in. As I kept digging, I saw these common threads of attitudes, rhetoric, vibes that permeated everything on the internet. I saw it all come out. This is what I wanted to look at. This dark thread of coercion.”
“Coercion is foundational to internet content, and bouffons, being manipulatives, are the perfect form to address this theme.”
Influenced isn’t about the alt right, Caulk says, although she satirizes alt-right conspiracy theorists in the show, especially since conspiracy theories and misinformation “took on a new level once COVID hit.” She continues, “It was an era of conspiracy theory and misinformation. I worked on it before the pandemic and once pandemic happened everything exploded in extreme way.”
As a trained actor and musician, Chaulk chose bouffon as the medium to present this show because of the subject matter. She trained in the form with Eric Davis (Red Bastard) to “get the form in her bones” and found the tactics of bouffon the perfect vehicle for the dark topics she was exploring.
“It’s hard to do mockery or address them as yourself,” she says. “As a bouffon, though, you start out by charming and mesmerizing your audience in order to then fuck them down the road. And you’re always going back and forth between this charm and attack. It’s a dangerous form. You’re telling people off and mocking them for how they behave. You need some otherness that allows you to attack them.”
Otherness is a key component of the bouffon clown that initially came from their identity as outcasts. Chaulk explains, “The story of the bouffon is that they are the people of the swamps who have bene banished for being too ugly, too sick, too screwed up.”
“Basically, they’re society’s outcasts,” she says. “When they perform, they have only one opportunity to say f-you to the people that run the world and keep up those politesse, keep those higher level ideas in place with their behaviours. The bouffon wants to mock them, but has just one chance to do it. So, the bouffon can’t be horrible right away. The bouffon has to dance and make the audience laugh before saying how he hates them.”
While bouffons may have been outcasts, Chaulk is clear she doesn’t work alone. She mentions that the critical role her team has played in bringing it to the Fringe — her stage manager and AI emcee, Kate McArthur and director Suzanne Roberts Smith.
Influenced is at the Mission Santa Cruz as part of the Montreal Fringe Festival. Shows are June 12 (18:00), 13 (21:30), 14 (17:30), 16 (15:45), 17 (18:00), and 18 (20:45). Tickets HERE.
The Montreal Fringe Festival continues until June 18. All shows available HERE.