Fear and loathing and clowning around: Mump & Smoot at work

January 16, 1994|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,Theater Critic

Conducting telephone interviews with a pair of performers who speak only gibberish on stage could be tricky.

However, reached at their home base in Toronto, Michael Kennard and John Turner, aka Mump & Smoot, turn out not only to be articulate, but also -- phew! -- to speak English.

Mump & Smoot, they insist, are "clowns of horror."

Granted, that may sound like gibberish, or at least a contradiction in terms. But both men maintain otherwise.

"When John and I first got together," Kennard explains, "we decided Mump & Smoot would deal with people's fears in all their shows. That's where 'clowns of horror' came from."

"One of the biggest things we've wanted to do from the beginning is baffle the North American image of clowning -- that it's for birthday parties. There's lots of clowns in North America who perform for adults," Turner adds.

Friday and Saturday, Baltimore audiences will get a chance to see just what these adult-oriented, fear-and-horror-style Canadian clowns are all about. That's when Mump & Smoot's show "Caged" will inaugurate Center Stage's new performance series, Off Center.

The series is intended to increase Center Stage's theatrical range as well as the use of its two performing spaces.

Off Center's curator, Jill Rachel Morris, first saw Mump & Smoot perform at the Yale Repertory Theatre last spring, and says of their approach to theater, "It's not a removed experience. It's very hard to sit back and be removed from the experience. It's not passive at all. By the end you feel like you understand every word they're saying. You understand everything that passes between them."

What exactly does pass between them? Here's Turner's

summary of "Caged": "We worship the clown god, Ummo, and we have an icon, the cone of Ummo. It's been stolen, along with Smoot, and it's been put in a little cage and Smoot's been put in a big cage, and Mump to the rescue! That's basically it."

He pauses and adds, "Then we get into all kinds of trouble and all hell breaks loose and we do our best to sort it out."

"Ummo," Kennard explains, is a gibberish word made by combining the middle letters of the two clowns' names.

Thematically, the show, which also includes a third performer named Rick Kunst, who plays Mump & Smoot's silent tormentor, "is about betrayal, friendship, belief in belief," Kennard says. "The biggest thing is about Mump & Smoot's relationship and how important they are to each other."

They perform in gibberish, he explains, so they can relate on a "non-intellectual" level. It's a technique they picked up when they met, in 1987, at workshops conducted by Second City, Toronto's branch of the famous Chicago improvisation club. "John and I seemed to have a real knack for it," Kennard says.

"Sometimes we communicate better in gibberish than English," Turner adds. "We communicate on a purely emotional, physical level that anyone can understand, which still sometimes surprises us."

Mump & Smoot's overall performance style derives from their studies with the late Richard Pochinko, a Canadian clown who blended American-Indian mask work, North American slapstick and European clowning, which focuses on the archetypal characters of a manipulator and a victim.

In their case, Mump is the manipulator and Smoot the victim. Or, as Kennard puts it, Mump is "the straight man; he's mean; he's the kind of person we hope we never turn out to be -- sort of cocky, knows everything."

And, in Turner's words, Smoot is "the naive, bumbling, overly enthusiastic, easily frightened, skittish, frenetic, silly one."

They also acknowledge that there are elements of the manipulator and victim in everyone. "You could say we're two sides of a single person," Turner explains. As proof of that, on occasion they have played clowns who represent the opposite archetypes.

Both Kennard and Turner are products of conventional middle-class Toronto backgrounds that offered little indication that they would grow up to be gibberish-speaking clowns.

The son of two physicians, Turner, 37, originally also wanted to be a doctor. Then, one summer, after spending a year and a half at the University of Calgary -- the third university he had attended without graduating -- he found himself playing in a band. "After one night I couldn't believe how much fun I had. I spent a couple weeks and decided to go back to Toronto and get into entertainment," he recalls.

For the next several years he worked as a waiter, bartender, fry-pan and cookbook salesman, trying to earn enough money to afford to quit and begin his performing career. "Basically, I was avoiding diving in the way I was going to have to," he says. "Finally, a friend drove me to Second City and said, 'Take this workshop.' " That, of course, was where he met Kennard.

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