Written by Selina Renfrow
Alice Nelson is a clown. Forget Bozo. Remember Lucille Ball? She’s a clown, just like Nelson, using physical comedy to make people laugh. And though the Calgary theatre scene isn’t the most lucrative, Nelson continues to leave the comforts of her cozy apartment for the school grounds in the province of KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa. Working among people with the highest rates of HIV in South Africa, Nelson is sharing the gift she was born with – making people laugh.
We’re sitting at busy downtown coffee shop to talk about her life so far. She isn’t comfortable with this at first, but it isn’t long before she settles in to tell her story. From the signs that would set her down a path that ends up in the townships of South Africa, Nelson’s sense of humour and ability to use her skills as a clown to communicate with others brought her to dirt fields and community centres where there are no jobs and only a third of the children attend school. There, with characters named Gogo and Mr. Fish, she would teach the children and their grandmothers something they had forgotten: how to play.
Clown drawings. Her aunt made her drawings of clowns when she was born. They now decorate her kitchen.
“When I was in elementary school I always used to get in trouble for trying to be a class clown,” Nelson said. “I used to get picked on for that. And teachers would say: stop being such a clown!” She drops her voice to a whisper, but still loud enough to hear over the din of the diners, “well you can’t help it if you kind of are.”
“Who knew being a jackass would pay off?” Nelson said with a laugh.
Her elementary school put on a fairy tale production and had the whole school involved. “I so badly wanted to be Cinderella but I wasn’t one of the ‘pretty’ girls,” Nelson remembers. “I ended up getting cast as the woodcutter, in Little Red Riding Hood. I had Groucho Marx glasses, and I asked can I use these?”
Her mother, Barbara Nelson, who taught at the school, also mentions this role as a stand out point. “She wore one of those Groucho Marx glasses with the nose on it. People didn’t even realize it was her, so I was quite impressed with that.”
“And it got laughs! This is awesome! I wasn’t so upset about not being cast as a ‘pretty girl’ so I think I was like alright, there is other stuff to play,” Nelson concedes.
Nelson took her comedic talents and girl next door looks and tried to make it as an actor in Alberta. One year at the local college in Grande Prairie, three at the University of Lethbridge and a few years auditioning, Nelson decided it was time to go back to school, this time it was the conservatory at George Brown University in Toronto.
“I hated it. I hated it. I hated it. I hated it.”
She expresses herself with hand gestures, emphasizing each “I hated it” with various tones and volume level. It would be easy to describe Nelson as theatrical but it’s more genuine and organic than dramatic.
After two and a half months at George Brown, Nelson realized that this wasn’t who she was or what she wanted.
“I moved back in to my parents’ basement and I took down anything that had to do with theatre. I threw it out. I was like, forget it, forget it. I’m mad and I’m not succeeding and it seems like the only way to get ahead is to do this conservatory thing and it isn’t me.”
“The thing is for me, drama was so much a part of her life, I just couldn’t see her doing something else,” Barb Nelson remembers the number of times she and her husband, Bob, had the conversation with Alice about what to do next with her life career-wise. “I could see her do another part of theatre, maybe not necessarily acting but maybe directing, or you know, something. But I just couldn’t see her not being in it.”
Nor did Alice fully give up on theatre. If George Brown wasn’t where she was supposed to be there had to be another school, another theatre.
“It was actually on the Fringe (Festival) circuit that I saw my first show by a couple of Dell’Arte students and ah, man, it was cool,” Nelson reminisced. “It had black like puppets in it, it had clowning, it had mask, it had dance and stilt walking! I went up to them afterward and I was like ‘oh my God, where did you learn this?’ And they’re like, ‘Dell’Arte.’ And I was like I gotta go.”
What Dell’Arte was, was the Dell’Arte International School of Physical Theatre in Blue Lake, California. Or, in other words, clown school.
“The pamphlet that they gave me was what’s your future: audition after audition?” Nelson remembers. “Or the creation of vital new work? And I was like yes! That is exactly what I’m thinking. I don’t want to audition, I want to create shit!”
“If a broke clown from Grande Prairie can make a difference, the question you leave with is: what can I do?”
Her parents, though always supportive of whatever their daughters embarked on, were concerned about the work Alice would get after her year at Dell’Arte.
“My husband was the one that said well you can go anywhere and you’re not guaranteed getting a job afterwards in any kind of study – you just don’t know if there’s a job at the end of the line,” Barb explained.
Nelson made it to Dell’Arte for the 2002-2003 school year after securing the necessary funds. Although it would be another three years before she embarked on the next big chapter in her life, Nelson was able to work as an actor and create her own work.
Actor, writer and director TJ Dawe has made a career working the Fringe circuit for over 10 years. In 2004, he met Nelson while she was performing Swashbucklers in Edmonton.
“Within the Fringe there is a social circle among touring performers, you just get to know everybody whether you want to or not,” Dawe explained from his home in Vancouver.
Nelson made her way over to Vancouver about five or six months later, Dawe estimates. There they hung out with friends and got to talking about an idea she had for her next show, one she called Local Celebrity. The two kept in contact via e-mail and eventually met up again to discuss it more fully. Dawe questioned her early drafts, asking her questions but the experiences she was basing the play on and made suggestions about what she use more or less of.
“TJ’s really - he’s been kind of a mentor to me. He kind of got me writing – I owe that guy so much,” Nelson said. She performed the show at the Winnipeg Fringe, but she wasn’t happy with it, Dawe remembers. So Nelson re-wrote the play and Dawe directed the next incarnation and since then she has toured the show on and off.
Stephen Hunt, an entertainment reporter from the Calgary Herald caught one of those shows.
“She did a show at the Fringe in Calgary in 2007 called Local Celebrity and it was kind of like the dark side of growing up in Grande Prairie,” Hunt described. “It was really kind of gritty and funny and sharp and smart. “
“She doesn’t shy away from the grit of life.”
There’s another play that Nelson has written and acted out. Dawe helped her with the drafts via e-mail and Hunt saw the show for the first time this past January at the International Festival of Animated Objects.
“I think if people really understood what’s going on over there they wouldn’t be buying SUVs. That’s my feeling.”—Alice Nelson
Elephant in Zulu tells the story of Nelson, a girl from Grande Prairie going overseas to South Africa with the charitable organization Clowns Without Borders.
It’s a one-woman show where Nelson plays a host of characters besides her own.
With her average brown hair, average height and build, the white girl from Grande Prairie transforms into an African queen when she plays out the role of her fellow clown Sibongile (Sibo) Tsoanyane. She juts out her hip, uses her hands, slows her speech and deepens her voice to capture the way Sibo speaks and moves. The contrast is startling and impressive, but most of all comedic in the right way.
Being familiar with her work, Hunt has plenty to say about Nelson’s story on the stage and how well she performed.
“It dealt with an AIDS epidemic in Africa and very honestly and without shying away from the subject matter. But she could talk about these kinds of things in a way that’s not really a downer. She sort of takes a basic human positivism to any subject she approaches, makes it palatable and makes it even enjoyable to learn about.”
What Hunt learned was how a broke actor from Alberta could go from Grande Prairie and make a difference in the lives of orphans in Africa.
“She put a face on something that’s abstract to us, put a face on Africa, a face on AIDS and the epidemic that’s happening in the third world. Theatre can tell stories about people in a way that television can’t or journalism can’t – it can take you into the skin of the people and places you never imagine you might end up and Alice was very good at doing that.”
Nelson embarked on her first expedition with Clowns Without Borders in the fall of 2006 after hearing about the organization from fellow Dell’Arte students. While her and her classmates may not raise an eyebrow at a Without Borders organization to do with clowns, many others do.
“A lot of people laugh when they hear the organization is called Clown Without Borders,” said Dawe. “I’m pretty sure they’ve heard about Doctors Without Borders, but Clowns Without Borders? It sounds like it was a spoof!”
Though far from a joke, CWB is in the business of making people laugh – particularly those who need to the most.
“What we’re basically about is using laughter and play as a means of providing emotional relief and support to children affected by crisis and we have expanded that to include children and guardians,” said Jamie Lachman, director of Clowns Without Borders South Africa.
South Africa is one of the seven sub-Saharan African countries with 20 per cent of their population or more affected with HIV/AIDS. As of 2006, the United Nations put the percentage of those affected in South Africa at 29.1 per cent. In 2006, 1.1 million children in South Africa were orphans. The UN estimates that in one year that number will increase to three million.
While not bringing medicine out to villages or helping build wells and schools, Clowns Without Borders is bringing something equally valuable to the children and their families in South Africa. Something we often take for granted. Their childhood.
“You get to take all these kids and do workshops with them when they would otherwise have nowhere to go that’s fun,” Nelson explained. She spends her time there working with children who are left to take care of their younger siblings – they become the head of the household because their parents have died of AIDS. “They don’t often have any playtime and a chance to be kids.”
“I think that’s the best thing, giving these orphans their childhood.”
But it’s not just the kids that get an afternoon off to rehearse a play about dealing with loss. The clowns split their time between kids and the gogos (Zulu word for grandmothers). Gogos end up caring for 60 per cent of the orphans in South Africa after their own children have died of AIDS.
“I think the gogos, they carry the brunt of the pain,” Nelson said softly.
“She doesn’t shy away from the grit of life.”—Stephen Hunt, Calgary Herald entertainment writer
To help, the clowns work with gogos, teaching them games that they can play with the kids they care for, teaching them storytelling, improvisational dance and even juggling.
“Their hearts are really kind of aching so we try to get them laughing and playing again,” Nelson explained. “It’d probably be the best part of my day when I’d see one of them do an improv or tell a story – I wouldn’t understand it but they’d just be howling!”
“It’s so beautiful because you know these women are going through hard times.”
The language barrier is one of the many challenges that Nelson faces. But one she was able to overcome.
“One time we didn’t have a translator. And there are twelve languages in South Africa and Sibo doesn’t know them all,” Nelson recalls. “I had to teach them how to juggle just physically, no words. And it’s surprising, you don’t actually need language to communicate play.”
Clowns Without Borders’ Lachman was able to observe Nelson work on her first expedition and note what she specifically brought to the team.
“She has a great ability to take any difficult situation… as a clown is supposed to, but she does it in her regular life where she finds the sense of humor and then being able to refocus. It’s so important because it can be tough if the field and she really bring that sense of okay, well let’s see what can we do now.”
Nelson has traveled to South Africa three times now. Every fall since 2006, Nelson has spent her time sleeping in community centre and on the floors in the homes of people willing to open their doors. She has learned how to bathe in a bucket – and learned the hard way of discovering what buckets are to wash in and what buckets are to pee in.
She’s listened to the stories of her black South African colleagues, the stories of friends dying of AIDS, the lingering problems of apartheid and the lack of jobs available. She has come to have a better understanding of why the AIDS epidemic can’t just be solved by throwing money at them or distributing condoms. She’s struggled with coming back to Calgary where the problems of Africans are out of sight and out of mind to many North Americans.
I ask her if she thinks people in the west have a hard time understanding what’s going on in South Africa. Her laid-back, humorous demeanor is interrupted by her passion for the country she has fallen in love with.
“I’m a big believer that you see signs throughout your whole life of what you’re supposed to be or what you’re supposed to do,” Alice Nelson said. “It’s like the universe is throwing them at you.”
“I think if people really understood what’s going on over there they wouldn’t be buying SUVs. That’s my feeling. If they really knew and saw the people in the townships and the clinics and how shitty it is and saw the big line-ups, the shacks that people are still living in, we wouldn’t be paying millions of dollars for yet another version of Batman or what the fuck. Sorry, I’m really bad. It really pisses me off. Just the fact that we throw all this money, even the Academy Awards and shit like this – really? Really? This is what we’re pouring money on when this country is falling part? Thousands and thousands of children are orphaned, really guys? It’s tough to distinguish my battles. I find it hard, I get so messed up in it.
“I think part of the problem with our culture is we’re so comfortable, so cushy in our little world. I like the term ‘changing the channel’. Cause it is, we see little kids on TV who are sick or whatever or orphaned and our tendency is to change the channel, see what’s on the Comedy Network.”
Nelson admits that she used to do the same thing and it causes her to question how we can make people care.
“I wonder if they could do it in a more positive light? Maybe show us the kids that have gotten money and see them happy in a school with new desks and new uniforms. Show us a clinic where moms are able to get their medication. Show us kids born negative because their moms took the right medicine.
“That might give us more hope, right now we see those commercials and maybe it’s like hopeless or that’s so far away. Show us the good things that have come.”
In a way, Nelson has used that same positive image in her show Elephant in Zulu
“It was kind of a story that was a theatrical version of Stephanie Nolen’s book, 28, which was about AIDS in Africa,” Hunt explained. “It’s not a subject that you think is very human, very positive for what you try and get when you got to theatre. But it was! When you went to it and it was full of humanity and it was full of humor and grace and made you feel – it didn’t make you feel better about life, but it was a really good experience to watch it and I was really happy I saw it.”
The next chapter in Nelson’s life is about to begin. At the age of 31, single and full of ideas, Nelson is heading back to Blue Lake, California for a masters of fine arts degree in ensemble-based physical theatre. Basically, she is pursuing a master’s degree in clowning.
“I know. It’s ridiculous, I’m going to be a Master Clown,” Nelson shakes her head. Ridiculous or not, the program is an exciting one.
“One of the ones I’m really interested in doing is a contemporary tragedy. You create a play based on a contemporary issue in society and make it a tragedy… Dell’Arte really focuses on social awareness, so the goal is to really provoke people to think and question.”
Provoking people is something Nelson has already done with Elephant in Zulu. You can read books and stories, here the pleas for donations from a variety of organizations but no one tells Nelson’s story better than the one she weaves on stage. In one short hour, you grasp the history of apartheid, the struggles of living with an AIDS epidemic and the immensity of healing a nation. But through it all is a thread of hope and promise. If a broke clown from Grande Prairie can make a difference, the question you leave with is: what can I do?