Grottesco's first U.S. tour from Paris was in 1984. The American artists, away for some time, were shocked by the people in wheelchairs knocking on car windows for spare change and food in NYC. Reagan had defunded social programs. Institutions had sent residents packing with no notice or provision.
Buffoon is a little known theatrical style inspired by medieval leper colonies and ships of fools, where those who were different — mentally, physically, and socially — were cast out from the villages. Legend goes they found each other, one by one in the forests or on the waterways, and formed their own strange societies. These people had nothing to lose. Some became King's Fools—the only ones permitted to speak truth to power. Once a year, the Buffoons were invited back into the villages to frighten away evil spirits and while there, they made a wild mockery of the townspeople. Eventually, this custom blended into the festival we know today as Mardi Gras, which was already a Pagan/Christian mix. Commedia Dell'Arte was influenced by the Buffoons. Shakespeare's clowns and fools, 19th-century circuses, modern clowning, and vaudeville all owe a measure to the Buffoons. Over time, the style was tamed and refined almost to extinction. But there have been periods in history when Buffoonery has resurfaced in response to intolerance and exclusion. Alfred Jarry's Ubu plays are wonderful examples. He pre-dated the Dadaists and Surrealists who were likely influenced by the Buffoons. Certainly, Reagan's legacy, widening the class divide, qualifies as one of these times. And his dark foray was nothing compared to now.
In the early 1980's, well known European directors were experimenting with the style. Eager audiences attended shows expecting to be dazzled but left disappointed. They were single note plays. The characters and worlds were fantastical but they didn't go anywhere.
Grottesco spent several years developingThe Angels' Cradle.We experimented in workshops and with the creation of a short piece exploring ritual, one of the style's foundations. With each step, we pushed deeper into the unknown. Not all cultures banished those who were different; some revered them. The so-called 'Buffoons' were people. How did they live? How did they relate to each other? How did they relate to the rest of the world? What did they value? What would they be like if they lived today? Or rather, what are they like today? And where are they?
Architecturally, Buffoonery is as large as Greek Tragedy. In some ways, they are complementary styles. As tragedy speaks to the Gods, Buffoonery speaks to the Devil. Grottesco began blending styles years before so it was natural to blend elements of Tragedy with the style and place a Melodramatic story in the hands of the Buffoons. Witnessing a homeless man screaming down a manhole in driving, freezing rain in Toronto, and coming across an anthropological study of the people living in the tunnels under NYC, gave us a location: somewhere beneath the streets of a major city. We designed the set collectively, with engineering support from Kevin Dreyer of the University of Notre Dame. Company member David Salowich did most of the construction. It fit together like a jigsaw puzzle. Each of us had our particular piece of the long set up.The Angels' Cradle premiered in 1993 and was seen at the New Victory Theater in NYC, 2 doors Off-Broadway in 1998, across fromThe Lion King.Set up was grueling. We weren't allowed on stage by the stagehand union so we sat at the edge of the stage, each verbally directing a team of stagehands to put our particular piece of the puzzle together. After a day of this, it was clear we wouldn't make the opening. In a tremendous compromise, we were allowed to put our set together as long as we took breaks at the designated union break times. After the run, the NYC Public Library for the Performing Arts invited us to permanently archive the show with them.