Play Nice With the Killer Clown
Very soon, I'm going to let Luverne Seifert tell you about what happened when he hit New York to "make it." But first, because this doggedly prim newspaper seems to have an inexplicable reputation for smuttiness, I want to stress that we're using the term "make it" in its strictly professional, non-salacious sense. The "make it," in other words, of Frank Sinatra's vaulting "New York, New York," not the "make it" of Bread's hot-to-trot "Make it With You." Okay, let's get it on.
"I had never been out of the state until I graduated from college," says Seifert, reminiscing in his pleasant home in sleepy St. Anthony. "I just decided one day that I was going to go to New York to make it. I was with my roommate and I said, 'I'm going to New York.' So I packed up, filled three suitcases, and got on an airplane for the first time in my life."
Seifert, who is an actor, slides into this tale as if he has recited it enough times that he can make it sound like he's never told it before. He sits rather still on his couch, rarely gestures, and speaks in a relaxed yet expressive tone. It's a bedtime story, almost.
"A friend from college was living out there, and I was supposed to meet her at this restaurant. So I got on that plane, and I was extremely nervous. I remember seeing three fires on the landscape below, and I was just petrified. And I got there. Somehow I caught a bus, got into Manhattan. I was carrying my three suitcases, dragging them around town. [My friend] said to go get a subway, and so I saw the subway. I pushed that little button to talk to the person in the booth, and it didn't work, so I heard this: 'Ah Ouoh Ah eh ohoh ee oh.'
"I said 'I, I can't understand you. I need to get to...'
"'AH OUOH AH EH!' And they got more and more angry. Finally, I just...I couldn't do it. So I took my suitcases and I started walking. I think I walked, like, 30 blocks with these three suitcases. Finally I got to the place. The people at the restaurant said, Yeah, Julie, she went home early, didn't she?"
That was 1984. Last year, Seifert performed at Broadway's New Victory Theater, playing Polonius in Theatre de la Jeune Lune's touring production of Hamlet. So he has, in a way, made it in New York, though not as a result of his impulsive and ultimately brief mid-'80s quest. It should be stressed, however, that his initial big-city failure can't be attributed to a shortage of talent--he has that in abundance--but to his unconventional (foolish one might even say) strategy for conquest.
Parts of his make-it-in-New-York plan were sound. He arrived with $800 and no prospects, which is fairly by-the-book. Poverty is crucial for aspiring actors. It emotionally prepares you for both comedy and tragedy, and if you're asked to play Vladimir or Estragon, you can provide your own costume. Seifert lived in a Midtown hotel, selected for being "cheaper than the YMCA." It was furnished with little more than a chest of drawers and a bed, or perhaps we should say a cot that dreamed of being a bed. As if to make up for its Spartan furnishings, the apartment was generously stocked with cockroaches. At all times there was a foot of brown standing water in the communal bathroom's shower-tub.
Where Seifert erred, arguably, was in never auditioning. It is said that some diligent casting agents will scour Gotham's squalid communal showers for promising actors and singers, but this is rare. "I just kind of experienced life," says Seifert. "I audited one class, but I never auditioned once." Seifert ran out of money, became depressed, and flew back to Minneapolis.
But I believe Seifert when he says his New York experiment was "great," simply because he seems to have one of the most sincerely optimistic worldviews of anyone I've met since I served as under-assistant to the secretary of my middle school's Norman Vincent Peale Society. There's something childlike about this stocky 42-year-old who looks about 33 (still not the age of a child, but let's not have any sticklers on this point). His hair is thinning, but none of it's gray, and his skin is smooth enough to suggest the wild Botox parties that I'm almost certain he has never attended. People are often surprised to learn that he's in his 40s, says Seifert, which also has something to do with his disarmingly vernal way of talking. When I ask about his wife (Darcey Engen, a fellow theater pro who teaches drama at Augsburg College), he says, with moony sincerity, "She's niiice," which is kind of an odd thing to say, no? I don't mean to suggest any immaturity here, nor do I mean "childlike" in that Hey, Ritchie, let's kill some bugs with a magnifying glass way. I mean that Seifert seems to have a big, innocent heart to match his easy laugh, and to favor an irrepressible sense of play.
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.
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.
"Another thing I did [in the '80s] is I worked in a group home for people with mental illness," he tells me over a beer. "I learned an enormous amount of acting from those people. It was beautiful. And a lot of these things I took with me, as far as characters. There was this one woman. It was my first night working in this group home. She sat down, and she said, very sincerely, 'I don't know if you've heard about this, but they're putting poison in the well in Sauk Center. Yeah, they discovered that. This isn't known, but my husband works for the city, and my family is sick.' And I totally bought into it. She was so believable. And later on, I read her chart, and part of her mental illness was that she was dealing with delusions of poisoning.
"That's what I love about theater, seeing it happen in real life. Like this morning, this beautiful thing transpired. My kid went out to wait for the bus, and the kids were all out there. And all of a sudden, I'm pouring coffee, and I hear the neighbor lady yelling, 'Caleb!' and all I see is this green piece of paper and this arm out the door. And he's waiting for the bus. And I looked at the clock and it's 27-after-8:00 [a.m.] and I know the bus comes at 28-after. He has to make the run all the way to this green piece of paper, this arm floating out the door. And I thought: This is going to be great drama here.
"So he sees it, and in his life, there's nothing more important than getting this piece of paper and getting back before the bus comes. It's beautiful because he doesn't think, Well, if I miss the bus, then my mom will take me, and maybe it'll be hard but nothing will happen. I see him run, he's running as hard as he can, and he slips on the ice. And our neighbor boy says, 'Hurry up! Run for your life! Run for your life! Because you'll get a tardy!' And he gets the paper, and the other kid's yelling, 'Run for your life!' And he's running as fast as he can, and he gets on the bus just in time.
"And this kind of thing is like the analogy to so many other things. It could be war. It could be love. It could just be a kid who runs really fast so he doesn't miss the bus. But it's absolute commitment. You can't intellectualize it, because it's sheer passion."
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