“DEAD + ALIVE” is a play by Helen Hayes and Richard Saudek who is the winner of an Edinburgh Stage Award. A dark and whimsical comedy, “DEAD + ALIVE” focuses on a duo of clowns who are very devoted to each other. As one clown mourns their partner’s death, they also fight to save their soul from escaping to run amok as a dybbuk. Jewish burial rituals meet classic vaudevillian clown routines—all set to live music—in this very imaginative show about partnership, loss, and the difficult realization that the show–just like life–must go on.
Richard Saudek recently discussed this play via an exclusive interview.
Meagan Meehan (MM): When did you first discover your talent for acting and why did clowning appeal to you?
Richard Saudek (RS): It was sort of in the reverse order, actually. I was a clown in Circus Smirkus (a youth circus in Vermont) when I was nine years old throughout my teenage years. I came to theater afterward and applied what I’d learned as a young clown to my theatrical interests.
MM: What kind of training did it take to become a professional clown?
RS: I’m hesitant to call myself a professional clown only because if you were to ask me to whip up five minutes of material on the spot, I don’t think I could do it…a “professional clown” (at least in my head) could entertain anybody at any time at the drop of a dime. My methodology has always been much slower and more dependent upon a storyline or narrative. But I’ve trained in circus, commedia dell’arte, improv and physical theater which have all contributed in different ways to form my way of working.
MM: How did you break into the theater industry?
RS: After school I moved to Chicago and studied improv comedy for a couple of years before moving to New York to make work mainly with friends from college. Then I spent a summer at Williamstown Theater Festival, met some great people who I’m still in touch with, and kept broadening my network here in New York over the years. I auditioned a lot. Eventually I auditioned for One Year Lease Theater Company and found a group of people who have become like family to me. I’d say that it’s been a slow and persistent climb, making sure to surround myself with people I respect and admire along the way. It’s still very much a work-in-progress.
MM: How did you move into acting?
RS: It was pretty seamless for me. I was always most interested in narrative and the driving emotions that inform a clown’s routine. I started applying the things I learned as a clown like specificity of movement and “awestruck wonder” in my approach to theatrical roles. It was an exciting thing for me, and it caught on.
MM: How did your experience as a clown help you formulate the plot of “DEAD + ALIVE”?
RS: Well, DEAD + ALIVE is partially based on the very first clown routine I ever learned. It’s a classic routine that many young clowns learn at some point wherein one clown gets struck and goes comatose while the other manipulates the “unconscious” body of the other. I married staging of that skit with some of the ideas surrounding the Jewish rituals of death and to burial- specifically the idea that when someone dies, it’s customary to stand guard over the body to make sure that the soul doesn’t escape and wreak havoc across the countryside. That seemed like a very “clown-like” scenario to me.
MM: What’s your favorite part of this show and why?
RS: My favorite part of the show is the eulogy. My performance partner, Dana Dailey, is an incredible juggler who is able to convey emotions that most people wouldn’t ever associate with juggling. Dana is able to do a three-club routine at the end of this wild rollercoaster of a show that ultimately conveys her ability to say goodbye to someone, to let her grief be expressed via juggling that I don’t think people have seen before.
MM: This piece is a comedy but it focuses on death which is a somber subject–was it tough to find the proper tone to marry these two concepts?
RS: It is tough, but it’s also been an exciting challenge. We’ve found that joy and exuberance is just a slim breadth from tragedy and woe. Laughing and crying are so closely related that there is definitely a lot to mine in between. It’s a fun balancing act. Laughter is as much a part of the overwhelming grieving process just as crying is.
MM: What do you hope your audience remembers most about this show?
RS: I hope that the audience can find themselves relating to the themes, of course. But I also hope that they are surprised and delighted by the fact that the mediums of clowning and juggling was able to take them there.
MM: What has been the best thing about working in the theater industry so far?
RS: The best thing about working in theater is simply meeting the people who do theater for a living. We are an odd, passionate and ludicrous bunch who support each other and create things that are greater than the sum of their parts. It’s a magical process, and the community has been invaluable and inspiring to me throughout my career.
MM: What has it been like to win awards for your work?
RS: Awards are great! Obviously, it’s fantastic to be recognized for your work! Of course, that’s a fleeting sensation though because you have to keep your sights set on the next thing to come.
MM: What projects are coming up for you soon and is there anything else that you would like to discuss?
RS: Right now, I’m totally engrossed in DEAD + ALIVE, but hope to remount my other show, BEEP BOOP, soon. Touring internationally with these two shows is the hope!
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“DEAD + ALIVE” runs November 29 to December 10 at the Connelly Theater (220 East 4 St) in NYC. For more info go to https://www.richardsaudek.net/dead–alive.html