Play Nice With the Killer Clown

Making it with local theater's kindest bad guy and smartest dummy

This latter quality, of course, is behind his histrionic gifts. Actors, like athletes and trampoline inspectors, are among the lucky few who get paid to play. But let's not belabor this Peter Pan thing any longer. Instead, let's go back to that point when Seifert said he "experienced life" in New York. Normally, that's the kind of empty phrase I might make fun of, if only because there's already a simple verb--namely, to live--for such a state. But he's getting at something that I suspect informs his art.

For an actor, and maybe for all of us, it helps to be a be-er rather than a becomer. And like novelists, actors must be acute observers. Seifert is that, too. All of the regular and extraordinary stuff of life--kids running to catch the bus, nights slept in a dumpy Dodge van, days spent nearly setting the town on fire (we'll get to all of that)--wind up in his performances. And maybe all of that is what makes him so in-the-moment and captivating onstage.

 

Diana Watters

For someone who is ever in the running for the (underpublicized) Wayne Gretzky Award for Excellence in Nice Guydom, Luverne Seifert makes a great villain. In Ten Thousand Things' 2002 production of King Lear, he played the dastardly Edmund with perfectly serpentine sliminess. Last summer, in Children's Theatre Company's Antigone, he turned King Creon into a beer-guzzling, ghoulish brute--a somewhat incomplete interpretation, but nonetheless one of the most memorable local performances of 2003. In both portrayals, Seifert was the bad guy you hate to love. His awfulness was so extravagant, sweaty, and utterly committed that his non-scuzzy counterparts seemed a touch bland in comparison.

A major part of his knack for nastiness is that he's a funny bad guy. Maybe he can't help it. He's a funny guy in general, a natural comic actor and improviser. It's a skill he honed during his long stint with Jeune Lune, and further developed at Pierre Byland's Burlesk Center clown school in Locarno, Switzerland. "In clowning," says Seifert, "there's no façade, there's nothing that you add to try to make people laugh. They laugh because you're so stupid. And you're not trying to be stupid, you're trying to be as intelligent as you can be, and it's so hard to be intelligent. You have to be very smart to be stupid."

Even when Seifert isn't in makeup or a funny costume, you can see this European clowning aesthetic at work. He doesn't wink at the audience or beg for laughs. In late March and early April, he'll return with Ten Thousand Things to co-direct and act in At Your Service!, a new play by Kevin Kling inspired by Kyogen drama, Japan's ancient comic-theater form. And in May and June, he'll appear in The Golem, a dreamlike take on Jewish mythology that's being remounted as part of Jeune Lune's 25th-anniversary season.

Though Seifert is probably best known for his work with that company, he first started drawing attention as a member of the late-'80s Ionesco-to-Mamet troupe City Stock Theatre. He worked in the early '90s with Frank Theatre, and he made his debut with Children's Theater Company in 1992. But he really came into his own as one of Jeune Lune's artistic associates, a post he filled from '94 to '99.

"It was so magical for me to have the opportunity to work with these people," he says. "But at the fifth year, there started to be some, I think, interpersonal issues within the company. They wanted to restructure, and I remember having a conversation with Barbra [Berlowitz, Jeune Lune's co-artistic director] at the end of my fifth year. She said, 'Well, next year you'll be with us, and then we don't know what's going to happen after that.' At that point, I felt it was time to move on; I think we all did."

Drawing from his on-the-job training at Jeune Lune, Seifert focuses on the acting techniques of Jeune Lune mentor Jacques Lecoq in his work as part-time theater arts teacher at the University of Minnesota, and he still performs frequently with the troupe. "I just love everybody there," he says, "and I'm really grateful for the opportunity to perform there whenever I can."

 

Without turning this story into an ultra-low-glamour episode of Cribs, let me just say that at this juncture in the interview, Luverne Seifert gave me a Bob Vila-style tour of his home. He and Darcey have been fixing it up for three years straight. He shows me a window from which a friend of his almost fell while remodeling the upstairs bathroom, and another window that he added to the kitchen. I get the feeling that it's important for Seifert to have lots of windows--not just for the sunlight, but because they open up the house to the real-life action that inspires his work.

He cheerfully apologizes for the room his two preteen boys share, which is predictably porcine with respect to neatness. The sins of the father..., or in other words, you should see the sty that is Seifert's 1991 Dodge Ram 250, which the actor says he has "been known to sleep in." (The Ram became his posh celebrity suite when Jeune Lune brought Hamlet to Red Wing, Minnesota.) As we drive to Mayslack's Bar in northeast Minneapolis, he fills me in on his bio. Through fifth grade, he went to a one-room schoolhouse in Iberia, Minnesota. In sixth grade, he and some friends skipped catechism and got mixed up in a combustion misadventure that involved siphoning gas, smoking, and a fellow he calls "the town something." He did his first play in 10th grade, before which he had never seen a play. He "partied a lot" in high school and college, and feels lucky never to have wound up in jail.

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