I recently wrote an article for the next issue of The Berlesker that talks about four performing artists with a connection both to clowning and to burlesque (Dottie Lux, Melissa Roth a.k.a Foxxx Trot, Kenywn Dapo a.k.a Mistress B. and Kyla Webb a.k.a Sammy Tramp.)
Like one does when one is baking a pie, I had to trim off some of the dough and it seems too good to waste. My interview with Sammy was excellently thorough, but strayed too far from burlesque for me to be able to include all of it in The Berlesker piece. I publish it in its entirety below. Likewise, I didn’t hear about Tigger’s clown character Tiggo the Clown until too close to my deadline. So I include something about him below, as well.
Photo by Kim Kristikov
TRAV: What’s the connection between clown and burlesque?
SAMMY: Well fundamentally and simply the word burlesque in itself means joke, satire, comedy, caricature, ludicrous treatment of the subject at hand. I think that pretty much sums up what clowning means as well. Before strip teasing was even involved, burlesque meant to satire something. In a more modern context (late 19th century up until now) we saw strip tease, or scantily clad ladies dancing added to that mix. Inherently burlesque and clowning are two types of physical performance often meant to evoke humor or satire, not always, but often. Burlesque clowns and burlesque dancers were in variety burlesque shows together. There were more burlesque clowns than there were burlesque dancers for a long time. That idea has changed drastically, I suppose, since about the 1950’s up until now. I mean burlesque shows were really just seedy non family friendly maybe less talented vaudeville shows in the rougher part of towns.
TRAV: How did you become interested in each?
SAMMY: I’ve been interested in clowns, specifically silent clowns, since I was a child. My dad had me watching silent movies when I was a baby. It was something that was ingrained into me. I started doing theater when I was in high school, and went to college for it, but I never really enjoyed the “text” aspect of theater. I felt like there was too much focus on the writer and the words and the way the words were said. I enjoyed being funny, I enjoyed improv, I enjoyed using my body, and of course, my inherent love of silent film comedies eventually led me to “clowning.” As far as the burlesque element, well I love beautiful women. Hah! I’m kidding, slightly. I had been doing theater for years and I felt bored, it felt stagnant and unenergized. A performance artist friend of mine invited me to a burlesque show in a basement in Chicago. That was pretty much the first I had ever heard of it. The show was terrible, but there was still something about it that made me feel so excited and so energized. The rawness of it, the variety of it, the fact that the audience was yelling and screaming during the show. I remember thinking, “man if this could be harnessed, produced well, and invigorated with better performers this would be phenomenal and untouchable.”
TRAV: Do you consider them separate? Or merge them? Or every possible permutation?
SAMMY: When it comes to shows, production and direction I merge burlesque dancers and clowns all the time. When it comes to my performance style I am much more of a clown first. I consider myself a silent storyteller, but sometimes I do burlesque burlesque dancers.
TRAV: Which is more important to you? (ie, are you more of a clown with some aspects of burlesque; or more of a burlesque dancer with some aspects of clown?)
SAMMY: I am much more of a clown.
SAMMY: I feel like my real goal and m.o. is to keep the art of silent slapstick comedy and pantomime storytelling alive. There are plenty of lovely women doing classic strip teases. That’s not my thing or my passion. I’ll leave that to them. I would be doing what I’m doing even if it wasn’t in a “burlesque” show.
TRAV: Please give me some specifics about your work. Who do you perform for? Where do you perform? Describe your costume, make-up and act.
SAMMY: I travel and perform regularly all over the country and will be heading to New Zealand in a few months. I’m one of the co-heads of VanElla Productions founded by burlesque queen Lola van Ella. We produce in St. Louis a lot, but we also produce and run some of our own tours and other out of town dates. I’m also the artistic director and creator of The Beggar’s Carnivale, which is a very large scale vaudeville, circus, burlesque, live action silent film variety show. My costume is very Chaplinesque. A traditional tramp costume, baggy pants, patched coat, vest, floppy shoes, bowler, and cane. I also keep it in a black and white aesthetic so it really looks like a live action silent film. I wear white face with black accents. I do a lot of traditional acts, flea circus, a silly bad magic act, cane and hat tricks, but I also like to add an element of in your face punk rock modernized style to it. I don’t want to just re-create old clowning I want to modernize it and make it relevant to a new generation without losing the basic elements of what I love.
TRAV: What are you the reactions you hope to get?
SAMMY: I just want to entertain people, make them smile, and make them laugh.
TRAV: How do audiences typically react?
SAMMY: Great! I have been very fortunate. Audiences have really embraced me with open arms. People generally really love the tramp. People really latch on to the Tramp. Almost everyone can relate to the tramp. The idea of the charming down on their luck common man who gets one over on the “bad” guy…timeless. Always.
Photo by Ben Trivett
Sez Tigger: “My Tiggo the Traumatized Clown character was developed for a couple of art shows in 2001 or so. From there he went on to do weird method go-go gigs & then I developed an act for him. He went on to host burlesque shows & somehow appeared in a German art magazine. In 2007 Jonny Porkpie wrote him into one of his Pinchbottom plays, Pretençión”
Which we just saw and reviewed right here just a few days ago. Check it out!