Emily June Newton isn’t an ordinary clown. She doesn’t wear a red-nose. Instead, her style of clowning means creating and distinct characters that allow her to express where she’s at in life. And she’s debuting a brand new character this week at the CoHo Clown Festival in Portland.
Newton’s basement isn’t ordinary either.
She remodeled it as a 1950s cabaret bar, and now it’s her laboratory for creating new comedic characters. The space is funny and has a slight air of grotesquerie: Her wigs, masks and hats are organized neatly in cupboards with peculiar labels. One bin reads “teeth and glasses.” A fleshy, saggy, pink and yellow fat suit hangs in one corner of the room; she made the suit in a show in which she played a human fat cell.
Newton has been playing some characters now for almost a decade. Take Frank, a cigar-smoking, washed-up lounge singer who fashions himself as the world’s “most entertaining entertainer.”
In the middle of the basement tour, Newton stops being Newton. She slouches a bit, her eyes widen and her voice becomes hoarse. Frank is now walking around the studio pointing at random props.
“I have my sewing machine … I have some masks … some shoes… I got, oh, I have a whole bunch of old telephones. I love old telephones,” Frank says. “It was a certain era, you know, before cell phones. My fingers are too fat to use a screen on a cell phone. So I like to press the buttons.”
Newton studied at the Commedia Dell’arte school in Northern California. She takes her silliness seriously.
“The word ‘clown’ can be really off putting to people. I never used to say I did clown,” she says.
Physical comedy and clowns
In popular culture, the word “clown” is often associated with horror. But Newton’s style of clowning comes from a tradition that goes back thousands of years.
“The clowning that I do is sometimes called physical comedy, physical theater or eccentric character,” she says.
Think about Mr. Bean, played by Rowan Atkinson. He’s a fully embodied, non-verbal character who is totally self-absorbed and physically hilarious.
Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin popularized this kind of clowning, and this is is Newton’s wheelhouse. Some of her characters are non-verbal.
Some are very verbal.
Newton suddenly snaps into one of these very verbal characters. Pat McKensie is a self-taught motivational speaker. As Newton embodies Pat, her Australian accent becomes more distinct. Unlike Frank, Pat doesn’t slouch and has excellent posture.
Pat marches over to the bin labeled “teeth and glasses.” She starts to give her thoughts on Emily June Newton the performer: “She’s obviously got a dental issue if she’s putting her teeth in there. And her eyesight needs to be checked ‘cause there’s a lot of glasses in there as well.”
Physical comics embody different characters, and so Newton’s body is central to her work. But a decade ago, a serious lower back injury limited how she could move. She didn’t let that limit who she could become.
“There was an event happening at Dell’Arte, which I couldn’t be part of because of my back,” she said. “And so I was like, ‘I’ll host as this character, Pat McKensie.’ So she was this host that was born out of not being able to physically move around.”
Newton, 40, often finds these kinds of parallels between her characters and her personal life. Her newest character, Big Baby, is no exception.
“I had an image for it and I thought, ‘Oh, it’d be really silly and stupid.’ And then I was like, ‘Isn’t that interesting that I’m thinking about this character when at this time in my life?’” Newton says, “A lot of people I know are having children, and I’m a woman of a certain age, and there’s been talk around, ‘Are you gonna have kids?’ and being really freaked out by that.”
For Big Baby, Newton will use a fat suit, though not the one that had been part of her human fat cell character, a giant baby bottle and a bib. Because the character is non-verbal — being, after all, a baby — she’ll experiment with different ways of asking the audience to interact with her. And that is precisely where Newton thrives, in that playful imaginative space where she can become anything, and bring an audience along for the ride.
“I would say that 75% of my characters have facial hair or are male identifying. I can play a moon, if I want to, and I have. I can play a big baby, if I want to, and I will,” she said. “I hosted a cabaret as my dog, Dennis, a couple years ago. But that ability to be like, okay, I’m gonna play this thing and it’s gonna be mine, and it’s on my terms is pretty cool.”
The CoHo Clown Festival will run through Oct. 9 at the CoHo Theater in Portland. Big Baby will show on Sept. 23 and 24 at 7 p.m.