The Silence of the Clowns


In space, no one can hear you scream. On Earth, they also can’t hear you scream if you have laryngitis.

For the last five days I have been without a voice. Speechless. Unable to make sound. It turns out that this is a long time to go without speaking; things get pretty surreal.

My mind first started to fight back with experimentation. I tried any and everything I could think of to break through the silence. Gargling salt water helps, but gargling itself is pretty weird without sound. Whiskey doesn’t help at all, but does improve morale. Hot bath – not great. Hot shower – better, but comes with guilt when living in a drought state. I drank gallons of tea, sucked pounds of lozenges, ate buckets of soup…not even headstands helped.

At a certain point, I started to wonder if maybe my voice would never come back. I also wondered if that would be such a bad thing.

Sure, there were a few moments when my lack of vocal power was distinctly frustrating. Not being able to call my cats in from outside, for example, or tell a new suitor that I heartily approved of what he just did with his tongue (hey, I wasn’t contagious). The worst was not being able to call my parents; I realized that 3-4 days is the most I want to go without hearing their voices.

The rest of life without out a voice, though, isn’t that bad. I have never liked answering the phone to begin with, so it felt pretty great to literally not be able to. It took some quick thinking when the pizza delivery guy called (some quick running, really), but otherwise I decided that it probably would be fine if I never spoke again. Heck, it might even make me better at life!

This revelation isn’t too surprising, since for the longest time I was an actual enemy of my own voice. I hated that people mistook me for a boy over the phone; I hated how high and squeaky it got when I spoke passionately; I hated that I couldn’t disguise it or control it more – though really what I lacked was the confidence to control it.

As a solution, I worked to avoid my voice as much as possible. I became afraid of the phone. In French class, I could only get so far with reading and writing, but still I refused to practice speaking. While I can sing, the idea of singing solo in front of other people was (and still is) mortifying. Even my comedy changed, as I settled comfortably into the role of straight man in my sketch groups, in order to avoid the humiliation of “doing voices”. And then, I found a way to stop speaking altogether.

This is the part where I reveal my darkest, creepiest secret: I used to be a clown.

In my high school, students had to take a semester of oration as an English credit. Most people opted for Public Speaking, but a few of us chose Theatre Production, also known as Clowning. One of the English teachers had actually been to clown college, so he taught it as a course from which grew our school’s clown troupe, which did community service around the city.

For two years, I was one of those clowns.

The goal in creating a clown character is to be completely disguised, hence the face paint and funny hair and fake noses. I loved the idea of being unrecognizable as myself – it was liberating. But in creating Harmony, my clown, I balked so badly at finding a voice that I turned to Harpo Marx for inspiration and chose to be mute.

Harmony wore bells, carried a horn and various whistles, and communicated via kazoo, but never spoke. I had to eliminate my hated voice in order to feel completely free.

Surprisingly, silence didn’t make comedy harder. I couldn’t rely quite as much on my wit, but years of children’s theater, slapstick comedy, and marching band made it pretty easy to make the joke without words. I was even comfortable humming! As a non-clown, as long as I can still whistle, whisper, clap, stomp, and bang on things, I know I could do fine without a voice.

After my clown days were over – which I admit wasn’t until after college – and I hit the real world, a funny thing (funnier than clowns) happened; through improv, sketch writing, and adulthood, I found my real voice. I became a writer. And the more I discovered that I actually had something to say, the more I got comfortable saying it, the less I hated or feared my physical voice. I’m not saying I’ll be voluntarily singing in front of people anytime soon, but I have gotten quite comfortable making noise.

Last year, at Sci-Fest Los Angeles, one of the plays depicted a world where political dissidents were punished by having their vocal chords surgically removed. They were then given a choice: life in prison, or total freedom with the promise to never write another word. A lifetime of “yes”, “no”, and “I don’t know”, nothing more. It was the most terrifying play I have ever seen.

A life without a voice box would be inconvenient, sure, but livable. A life without a voice would be a nightmare.

(I’m still pretty happy to have it back, though.)


Something Wicked Awesome This Way Comes


By the pricking of my thumbs, something wicked awesome this way comes – and I am not referring to the vernacular of my east-coast ‘80’s childhood or my bastardization of the Bard. I have been asked to serve as blogger/dramaturge for the upcoming Sci-Fest (, LA’s first-ever festival of science-fiction plays, and a whole month of science-themed theatre sounds pretty awesome to me.

Between now and the festival (which is in May), I will be adding the occasional “bonus blog” inspired by some of the concepts explored in the nine pieces, seven of which will be world premieres. Yeah, that’s right. Seven of Nine. It is a sci-fi fest indeed!

At first blush, science and theatre don’t seem like natural bedfellows (although they do both tend to involve a lot of experimentation). But what seems at first to be a pairing destined to be less peanut butter-and-chocolate and more grapefruit juice-and-milk is actually quite exciting and long overdue. How do I know? Because Ray Bradbury showed me.

Bradbury’s 1940’s short story (later a play) Kaleidoscope will be the centerpiece of the festival, and the producers could not have chosen a better ambassador to bridge the two worlds. On the surface, he is a natural: he is a Grand Master of science fiction, an explorer of many genres including the theatre, and he did most of his writing in various haunts across Los Angeles. (Muscle Beach being my favorite of his choices – where better to be inspired about life on other planets?) But what makes Ray Bradbury a perfect representative of the festival is the same thing that makes him one of the greatest American writers of any genre: he understood that science fiction isn’t really about the science at all.

Science fiction, which Bradbury called the “robot child” of fantasy, was not an easy nut for him to crack at first, despite his love for the supernatural and fantastic. It wasn’t until his twenties that he cracked the code with “King of the Grey Spaces”, a story rejected by every science-fiction magazine at the time (it was published instead in Famous Fantastic Mysteries) because it was “a science-fiction story that was not a science-fiction story,” but rather a tale of a tested friendship. It so happened that the test in this case was space travel, but what Bradbury had discovered was that the best writing was rooted in his own human experience, with the occasional science-y thing sprinkled in. He would later write, in a 1980 essay, that “all science fiction is an attempt to solve problems by pretending to look the other way.”

Great science fiction is more emotional exploration than technological. It is problem solving through experimentation. Or, to again turn to the words of the master, “we are all science-fictional children dreaming ourselves into new ways of survival.” What is more dramatic – more theatrical – than that?! In Kaleidoscope, the setting is space, but the story is death. Accepting it, fearing it, fighting it, mourning it… The beauty of putting such a story on the stage is that nothing else comes close to the power of feeling another human experience such visceral emotions in the same room as you, only a few yards from your face.

As visually spectacular as the movie Gravity is, I found myself (spoiler alert!) barely batting an eye when George Clooney floated away into space. Are you kidding me? It’s George freakin’ Clooney. I should have wanted to run down the aisle toward the screen and throw myself after him Viking funeral-style. But when your brain is too busy trying to process the how-the-crap-did-they-do-that technology of it all, it’s hard to get emotionally attached. Even to the (once and forever) sexiest man alive.

Which brings me to the last reason I am so excited about the idea of science fiction on stage: because it IS still science fiction, after all. Kaleidoscope does revolve around (70-year-old spoiler alert!) seven actors floating in space, and that definitely presents a bit of a challenge when done live. I have absolutely no idea how the minds behind the festival are going to pull it off, but I am certain it is going to be fun to see them try! Will they achieve Superman-level feats and make me “believe a man can fly”? I suppose there’s a chance, but that’s not the point. The magic of theatre is that it is magic we make ourselves; theatre – like science fiction – is a group exercise in imagination. Who needs Sandra Bullock’s hair to stand on end?

Once again, the great Ray Bradbury himself said it best when he cautioned not to get too precious about the details of story or genre, for fear of losing the larger goal. “Let us remain childlike,” he wrote, “borrowing such telescopes, rockets, or magic carpets as may be needed to hurry us along to miracles of physics as well as dream.” Man, that guy could write.