Clancy Productions wins Edinburgh International Festival Award

While putting on fat suits and makeup before their final performance at the 2007 Edinburgh Festival Fringe in August, the cast of Clancy Productions’ Fatboy received the news that they might be up for an award. Or something.

“We didn’t know anything about it,” says Nancy Walsh, president of Clancy Productions, co-star of the show, and wife of its writer-director, John Clancy. “We hadn’t even heard of it. We didn’t understand. Had we won? Didn’t we win? What had we won?”

Nancy Walsh, Matt Oberg, and Del Pentecost in 'Fatboy'

Nancy Walsh, Matt Oberg, and Del Pentecost in 'Fatboy'

The accolade in question was the inaugural Edinburgh International Festival Award, and Clancy Productions did in fact win, for both Fatboy and the group’s “exceptional record of Fringe shows over many years.”

The Edinburgh International Festival, which began in 1947, presents three weeks of classical music, theatre, opera, and dance every summer. Right from the start it attracted more performers than it could hold, and the Fringe was born to accommodate the overflow productions. Sixty years later, festival director Jonathan Mills wanted to find a way to finally link the International Festival to the Fringe. This new award provides £5,000-donated by Ewan Brown, a longtime supporter of the festival and the recently appointed vice chair of its board-to a Fringe artist to develop a new original project and present it as a work in progress in the Behind the Scenes program at the 2008 festival and possibly as a full production on the main program.

Clancy Productions describes Fatboy as a “fast-moving,” “profane,” and “brutal” comedy that offers a “funhouse mirror reflection of the world today.” The show had played the Fringe in 2004 and won all the awards for which it was eligible. But then the company heard that Clancy Productions was on the shortlist for a mysterious new award.

“I said, ‘Yeah, it’s us, man!’ ” remembers John Clancy, the company’s executive artistic director and a founding artistic director of the New York International Fringe Festival. ” ‘It’s definitely gonna be us!’ And then my first thought the next morning was, No way it’s us! They’re gonna give it to a really beautiful Korean dance company, or somebody beautiful and boring. No way they’re gonna give it to us! We’re pulling hats out of our ass, literally, on stage. This is lowbrow.”

Although Clancy Productions has won numerous awards, including Fringe First Awards at Edinburgh in 2000 (Americana Absurdum by Brian Parks), 2002 (Cincinnati by Don Nigro and Horse Country by C.J. Hopkins), 2004 (Fatboy), and 2005 (Hopkins’ screwmachine/eyecandy), Clancy was particularly excited by this unique opportunity and the prize money that came with it. The festival generously matched the £5,000 award, for a total of £10,000 (about $20,000), which Clancy sees as a bridge to the mainstream:

“It’s hard not to get institutionally ghettoized in your own head when you work for so long with so little. That actually defined our style for a while, and I’m grateful for that: Focus on the audience, focus on the language, and that’s the heart of the theatre anyway. We now know how to live on air, with nothing,” he adds with a laugh. “Now we can think about design, we can think about costumes, we can think about makeup and lighting. And that’s a really fun area of the theatre that we just have never had the time or money to focus on. Ask any of our old designers. They’d come in and move the lights around, and we’d go, ‘That’s genius!’ And they’re like, ‘Well, no. I just moved the lights around, you morons.’ ”

Clancy Productions now faces the challenge of expanding its vision from the fringe to the major arts circuit and of coming up with a show that’s both longer and larger than its typical fast-paced, 75-minute, 150-seat productions. Parts of the set need to be made of canvas so that clowns can fall through it and tear it up. Sections of the floor might hide trampolines so the clowns can magically bounce and fly through the air.

“They said, ‘Don’t change the aesthetic,’ ” Walsh says. “Well, we won’t. We’re gonna do our stuff, and this just means we can do it better.”

Clancy is embracing this opportunity by writing and developing a new production titled Captain Overlord’s Folly, or The Fools’ Revenge, with a cast of 12, a running time of about two hours, and a more complex set than he has ever attempted before. The show begins sedately as a traditional grand melodrama about a British war hero turned industrialist who is hiding a dark secret. But that play is quickly invaded and eventually overtaken in the first act by a troupe of crazed clowns, who viciously attack the characters, tearing out their throats and eating their insides. A few survive by fleeing the set, only to return bound and gagged in the second act, while the freakish and feral clowns have fun trying to finish the story themselves.

Clancy came up with the idea at the 2005 Edinburgh Festival while watching “some straight play, I don’t remember what it was.” He thought, “Wouldn’t it be hilarious if a clown were to come out right now and just start to mess with this play?”

The company’s workshop production of Captain Overlord’s Folly closes Feb. 15 at Manhattan’s Ohio Theatre. There will be an invited reading Feb. 17, as well as two workshop performances at this year’s Edinburgh Festival, Aug. 19 and 20.

“It’s terrifying and it’s weird, but it should also be comic throughout,” Clancy says, “because I like to write things that are funny. But clowns are scary! Half the audience should be freaked and terrified while half the audience is laughing, and it keeps flipping back and forth. That’s the sort of experience that the theatre should be, where it’s like, ‘Oh. My. God.’ That’s the tightrope walk. When you’re at the circus watching the trapeze act or a tightrope walker, half the time you’re thrilled and half the time you’re terrified. That’d be good theatre. And that’s the goal, always.”

The 2008 Edinburgh International Festival will run Aug. 8-31 in Edinburgh, Scotland. For more information, visit http://www.clancyproductions.com or www.eif.co.uk.

This article was published in the Feb. 14-20, 2008 issue of Back Stage and online at BackStage.com.

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