Sara Toby Moore is well aware that the world doesn’t seem very funny right now. The actor-director-activist-clown has spent the past few years enduring the loss of a parent, the dissolution of a long-term romantic relationship, and a cancer scare. That’s not even counting the openly queer artist waking up to daily headlines of anti-LGBTQ+ bigotry and COVID misery. Fortunately for Moore, they were able to find inspiration in the words of longtime hero Carrie Fisher: “Take your broken heart and make it into art.”
That tiny spark of inspiration was all Moore needed to begin developing “Atomic Comic: A Human Cartoon Fantasia,” running June 30 to July 8 in San Francisco. Directed by Sean Owens, the show combines physical performance, acting and video to take audiences on a 70-minute journey through Moore’s therapeutic process—including sessions with a therapist played by veteran actress Sharon Gless. Along the way, we’re introduced to characters both outlandish and grounded, played by Colin Johnson, Sharon Shao, DeMarcello Funes, George Maguire and Maureen McVerry.
In the lead up to “Atomic Comic’s” world-premiere run (after a developmental run in late 2019), I caught up with more to ask about Bay Area independent theater, finding comfort in a crazy world, and the power of healing through laughter.
With so many crucial indie venues closing in the Bay Area (PianoFight, EXIT Theatre), was it difficult finding a place still willing to produce off-the-wall theater with independent artists?
Sara Toby Moore: I’ve had a long, 20-year relationship with Z Space since the days of Lisa Steindler, so I was always hopeful that I could count on them to co-produce with me in the future. Under the wise, jovial, highly energized direction of Shafer Mazow and Nikki Meñez I feel especially lucky to get to do this world premiere with them. My gratitude is off the chain!
For the uninitiated, what separates your brand of circus show from something like “Dear San Francisco?”
My show is not at all a circus show. It is “human cartoon fantasia.” In other words, this is a production rooted in the craft of clowning while employing a traditional theater narrative that’s sprinkled with some very cool and interesting filmed elements and visual effects. “Dear San Francisco” is very specifically “contemporary circus,” a fun and fancy term meant to describe amazingly high-end acrobatics!
Clown work isn’t often thought of as an artistic outlet for deep emotional truths. How did you know it was the right one for this story?
The clown has always been an entity of truth and deep emotion, just not often in this country. One of my deepest dreams and goals is to evolve American clowning out of the image of a birthday entertainer or Ronald McDonald or a horror clown holding a deflated balloon. But you’re right, most people think of clowning in very specific terms, at least, again, in American culture. Silent films emerging from our country yielded some beautiful clown work: [Charlie] Chaplin, though British by origin, is only one of many glorious examples of heartfelt, hilarious, even politically charged clowning on film from that era.
There’s tons of beautifully understated, lovely emotional work that has come from many clowns in Europe and other international ports, too. In other countries across the globe, the clown can be an agent of mockery for horrible world leaders, a gorgeously lonesome figure with a single rose looking for love, a wild blithering fool who only wants to dance and sing their way out of despair, or any other kind of amplified human. I truly believe we all start out as clowns in childhood but lose our ability to access our mischievous, adventuresome selves as we age—unless of course you’re a rebel-by-nature like me. Certainly, in some cultures there’s outright disdain for the childlike lens of the clown. It’s considered threatening. Yet in other cultures, like Native American tribes, the clown is considered a healer and a shaman.
I will say that I think our clowns at Thrillride Mechanics are stretching and evolving the storytelling capacity of physical comedy (and tragedy), designed with modern theater audiences in mind. We live in an increasingly sensory-oriented world and the time has never been more perfect for the clown to rise to the cause in the American spectrum!
The narrative deals with some heavy concepts, such as failed relationships, mourning and cancer scares. Given the show’s genre origins, were you surprised at what developed during its creation?
The realm of “human cartoon fantasia” affords us a LOT of room to create a multi-layered story because we are inventing a new form of theater, one that merges emotional truth with physical comedy and performed at cartoon dimensions, which for me is my day-to-day life! It’s mad fun to create this kind of theater mainly, I think, because it affords our actor/clowns license to be emotional acrobats while being wonderfully, wackily physical. So, maybe in a sense this is a kind of circus show; it’s circus for the soul!
Is it more of an adult-oriented show, or would younger audiences find something in it also?
I would say 15-plus. I’d love for teens to see this show, especially trans and queer teens. We queer folks are under assault again in this very radicalized country and if there’s any message this show has, it’s all about the love of great friends, humor as resilience and, as Winston Churchill famously said: “If you’re going through hell, keep going.” Of course, he also said: “Never, never, never give up.” He’d have made a great clown!
Your collaborators on the show seem to be a mix of both old and new colleagues. What led you to this particular ensemble?
Luck and love. Most of us have worked together in different ways over many years! Some of us have dreamed of working together for years and never got the chance: I’ve been “threatening” George Maguire since the aughts to write a part for him and I finally did! Our youngest team member is an 18-year-old former student of ours who wanted to gain experience in building a show, so we’ll be sending them off to college in August having hopefully learned some things with us. I’m very proud that the age range of our entire troupe spans from 18 to 80. We’re just as committed to diversity in our ranks with BIPOC and LGTBQ+ as we are for being intergenerational. It feels like an entire family!
Incidentally, how did you get Emmy-winner Sharon Gless for an independent show?
The fabulous Ms. Gless is very dear friends with my co-producer Debbie Mosk. They worked together on “Round-Heeled Woman” in which Sharon was the star. Gless and I were in love from the jump. She is now my “screen mom.” And in this show, she plays my crazy therapist! She is an enormously generous person with a heart the size of the moon and I’m ever grateful that she said “You got it goin’ on, kid! Let’s do this.”
Every new headline seems to highlight a new story of anti-LGBTQ+, from bathroom laws to the murder of Banko Brown? From one queer person to another, where do you go to find a safe space from that madness —particularly in San Francisco, where the Brown murder occurred?
Outside of the obvious horrific violence, my biggest worry is the desensitizing of us all. There are crimes of all kinds that seem to only elicit sighs of resignation, whether it’s all the shootings or laws being passed against us or the usual haters just hating. There’s a coarseness and total lack of empathy that is settling into bigger pockets of society that is manifesting in every way from the horrible murders off Banko Brown and Jordan Neely in New York City and all the other countless murders—to less terrifying things like people treating every public space as a private one with blaring devices and entitlements to loudness. The former is true horror, the latter just increasingly annoying, but these behaviors are rooted in the same cesspool of not caring about other humans. I recently said to myself aloud: “So, do I need to buy a bullet-proof vest and noise-canceling earphones, stock up on something like Xanax and then zone humanity entirely out —is that the answer?” For me, it never could be.
The job of the clown is to make people realize that love is the last great technology —that, and reflecting back to our audiences the idiocy, confusion, awkwardness and absolute wonder of being human. We must never stop doing all we can to lean in and connect with others, even others who are radicalized against us. I know that’s a tall order, but the alternative is lonely, despairing and stagnant. I continue to adhere to the golden message of Mister Fred Rogers: Look for the people who are helping. That’s us, and so many, many others. Our safe houses are each other and the presence and work we do to create a loving, chosen family.
Given how, as shown by recent closures, indie theater appears to be in an odd state, what actually makes you the most excited for upcoming theater projects?
Theater and live performance, in my sometimes-humble opinion, are the most important art forms of our time. And I mean right now. As much fun as AI is, and as weirdly entertaining as driverless cars are, nothing beats the real human experience as it’s happening in real time. We need real connection and always will. I’m deeply intrigued as to where “The Theat-ahh” is going next, both here and abroad. The telling of stories on the stage will never grow old—it never, ever has—but with more and more technology feeding into our streams, it’s going to continue to get more interesting.
We are using film and video components in our show as well as a near-supernatural soundscape which goes with the “fantasia” milieu anyway, but I’ll be excited to see how all these components evolve with one another on all the stages. The pandemic shut us down entirely and it’s been a long and creaky ride springing the theatre back to full life, but it’s happening in other cities and it will happen in ours, too.
Is your next project something “light” or another emotional roller coaster?
I try so hard for lightness and always end up with precision idiocy and poetry! I doubt I’ll ever do another show quite like “Atomic Comic,” though. It truly is a roller coaster and I think I’d rather switch to a Tilt-A-Whirl from now on! To that end, me and the other Thrillriders are going to create “clown operas” from now on, like “The Supers” back in 2020. Our next one is titled “The Cosmology of Cyclone 23,” an original pantomime-clown opera about enchanted ride mechanics who manage to unite the planet through bold acts of interest and laughter. I’m already writing the “action libretto” and will be working with the brilliant composer Rob Reich again on a new, original score.
If you could hand audiences a road map for the show, what would be the starting point and what would be the final destination?
It all starts with ridiculousness, which takes a hard exit to tragedy, which gets kicked down the embankment by a despair so idiotically all-encompassing that comedy comes busting back in to mock the hell out of it. Our audience will experience in high relief what each of us knows of being human: the humor in all the humanity! As Mel Brooks famously said: “If I cut my finger, that’s a tragedy. But if I fall down an open sewer and die, That’s comedy!” You’ll laugh, you’ll groan, you’ll cry, but you’ll sure as hell laugh again.
“Atomic Comic: A Human Cartoon Fantasia” is at 8 p.m. June 30, July 1 and July 6-8 at Z Space, 450 Florida St., San Francisco. Tickets are $20-$55. Visit https://www.zspace.org/atomic-comic.
Charles Lewis III is a San Francisco-born journalist, theater artist and arts critic. You can find dodgy evidence of this at The Thinking Man’s Idiot.