I didn’t anticipate that I would cry.
When I recently attended a matinee showing of Clown Sex Ed, the latest offering from the Tribe of Fools Theater Company, I accurately predicted that I would laugh. Out of the gate, I giggled at the goofy entrances of red-nose-wearing clowns portrayed by Zachary Chiero and Tara Demmy, who comprise the cast for the show.
I guffawed through the progression of well-meaning (but hilariously ill-equipped) adult characters, each attempting to teach the young people in their care about the realities of sexuality. I gasped at surprising moments of acrobatics periodically sprinkled throughout the hour-long piece. I cackled at the use of props to portray everything from chlamydia to a Catholic classroom portrait of Jesus.
But I also teared up – and was simply not ready for it.
“I got out of a long relationship and I was basically like, ‘what do I want?’” says Demmy of the origins of Clown Sex Ed. “I realized at the age 30 there was so much I didn’t know. There were questions I had and I was reflecting on my sex education. No one told me it could feel good! It took me a long time to stop feeling guilty after feeling good, feeling pleasure.”
Looking back on her own sources of sexuality education, Demmy drew inspiration for the characters and content. The comedian and theater artist, who is currently working on her PhD in Theatre and Performance Studies, studied the tradition of red-nosed clown in Italy for ideas. “It’s such a joyful form. Could we create sexuality education that is joyful, rather than fear-based or shame-based?”
“Much in the Tribe of Fools way, we make a joke about something and then three years later: it’s a show,” says Chiero, the nationally touring actor and other half of the cast. He says when they began to workshop and devise the piece, that there were some universal teachers they wanted to depict. “Whether it was their parents, nuns, gym teachers,” he says, “they’re staples that just about everyone has had some experience with. The clowns are going through versions of our own experiences, they’re going through heartbreak, discovering sexuality for the first time.”
Clowning, as an art form, provided a unique opportunity to revisit all these real-world experiences through a new lens. “Clowns have different roles, they’re like children in that they see things for the first time, they’re kind of naïve. Through their eyes, they can give us new meaning,” added Demmy, typically because they’re so childlike and naïve, we don’t associate them with sexuality.”
“They’ve helped us find joy and connection,” Chiero says of the clowning characters, “it gives us the opportunity to reframe a potentially traumatic experience and take something compassionate from that.”
But the ambitions for this piece were not only to be an exploration of personal experiences, but also to actually provide audiences with accurate sexuality information.
“We started with our personal experiences and what we both wished we had gotten out of sex ed,” explains Demmy. “How do we take what’s personal for us but [deliver] the messaging in a way that’s entertaining and doesn’t feel like we’re just yelling information at them?”
The answer was a team effort of educators and “an incredible director and stage manager.”
Tribe of Fools, a Philadelphia theater company known for “creating new plays that blur the lines between theatre, dance, acrobatics and other highly visual and kinetic storytelling techniques,” brought together the visions of Demmy and Chiero into Clown Sex Ed through a repeated cycle of improv, feedback and revision. There is a small but mighty production team bringing in expertise on choreography, costumes, lights and sound.
For this production, they also reached out to a number of local experts including: the Mazzoni Center, Advocates for Youth, Planned Parenthood, William Way LGBT Community Center, and even yours truly.
And given all this joy and learning about sex, would could possibly have made me cry? The ingenious way in which Demmy and Chiero’s parent, nuns and gym teacher characters are portrayed with such humanity. In lieu of a caustic parodies – prudish religious figures and controlling parents – Clown Sex Ed depicts sex education as it often is: the wildly inadequate efforts of adults who want to love kids and want to protect them from harm. Sex education is not bad because people are evil; sex education is bad because most people don’t know how to do it better.
“How do we find compassion and love for these people who have taught us?” asks Demmy, “That was our guiding principle. We love these nuns. How do we show their inadequacies in terms of teaching this education but show compassion for what they’re trying to do?”
Demmy then proceeded to answer her own question.
“We’re all clowns. Embrace uncertainty, ask questions. Choose joy.”
Clown Sex Ed | Through Feb. 17. 7pm, (2pm matinee on Feb. 16-17). $15-20. Philly Improv Theater, 2030 Sansom St. tribeoffools.org