Interview: Francesca Caruso Talks Religion, Clowning & Solo Show Pater Noster

Francesca Caruso’s solo show, Pater Noster, has just enjoyed an online run via the Command Fringe Festival and is set to be available for audiences again very soon. Here she shares insights into her love of clowning and bouffonnerie and the personal experiences of religion which prompted her to explore Catholicism and its rituals in her work.

First of all, when and how did your love of theatre begin?

When I was little, I was a mixture of dramatics and over-activity. In what I believe was an effort to find a productive outlet for this sometimes-excessive combination, my mom put me in a “Kids’ Take the Stage” summer camp, where every day for several months I was engrossed in the intensive process of working towards a final production. I was absolutely blown away by the experience and, from there, theatre became a staple in my life.

I got more serious about it in high school—participating in theatre competitions and the obligatory high school plays—but it wasn’t until university that I was introduced to the theoretical side of theatre, which I fell equally in love with. Theatre and performance theory have become the basis for my practical work as a performer; they’ve forged, for me, a really unique and dynamic appreciation for the theatre which continues to grow as my knowledge shifts and evolves.

And what has been your route into the industry?

I’m still very much carving my way into the industry. I also haven’t taken the typical approach one might expect to see from a performer looking to work professionally in the theatre. I forewent drama school and a conservatoire-style actor training for a part-theoretical, part-practical BA in Theatre and Drama Arts. Now, I’m currently working toward an MA—not the usual MFA—in a primarily academic course in Theatre and Performance.

While this has maybe curbed my path into the industry slightly, I really do believe in the theoretical study of theatre and its ability to shape its aspirants into theatremakers, rather than readymade industry creatives. In 2018, I became a member of the National Youth Theatre after completing my training with them. This was hugely helpful in understanding the logistical side of the industry—headshots, agents, auditions—and has opened up many otherwise missed opportunities. At this moment, I feel my focus is on making my own opportunities as a performer and creative wherever/whenever I can.

So let’s talk about your solo show then. Pater Noster is described as ‘a fusion of clown and bouffonnerie, following an eccentric Catholic monk who finds himself in sticky situation after sticky situation in his attempt to remain dutiful, yet God-fearing’. Tell me a little about what inspired you to create this character and this story.

This character and the story are both very much rooted in my own experience and relationship with religion having grown up in a Catholic community and household. The monk was born from a picture of me taken when I was about 10-years-old dressed almost identically to my Pater Noster monk. For a school project, we had to dress as historical figures. My classmates had for the most part chosen celebrated kings and queens of the past to emulate, but I opted for a path likely never chosen and dressed as Saint Francis of Assisi.

While part of it was a tongue-in-cheek choice, I do think I was so steeped in a Catholic environment and its framework that it consumed much of my attention and choices. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that the monk in Pater Noster is a reflection of my own religious and spiritual conflict, but he is also a reflection of most everyone because he’s so, so human. Many of his emotions are ones I grappled with in my determination to be a “good Catholic”.

I’m a hugely anxious person, so the religious structure I had growing up sometimes felt like a deterrent in my quest to find strategies to deal with my anxiety, which is the opposite effect spirituality should have. I felt a constant pressure to please God—and the religious community I was a part of, as an extension of Him—which led to the abuse and excessive misuse of Catholic rituals, including praying the rosary several times a day as a sort of recompense for passing a test I thought I had failed or always having Holy Water on hand to use when I did something “wrong”.

What I was practicing certainly wasn’t productive spirituality. It was exhausting and, at the end of the day, the only “wrong” thing I was doing was being human and all that comes with it. I wanted to create a piece that reflects this internal conflict, which manifests itself externally in its attempted conformity to a congregation of people and a stringent set of rituals and customs. As an added bonus, the actions of the monk were hugely liberating as a person who has felt so much of this conflict and obligation to adhere to the rules.

The piece speaks beyond religious themes on a very basic human-to-human level. The monk, despite his own perception of his failings, is a redemptive figure, struggling to exist within a restrictive structure, but not necessarily making utterly nefarious mistakes.

And what led you to explore the various customs of Catholicism specifically in this piece?

I put a huge focus on religious customs not just for their iconographic status, but because I think the total appropriation of them heightens the sense of urgency of the piece. There’s a cringe-factor found in their exploitation—one which exists whether you’re a religious person or not—that lends to the message of Pater Noster and leans into the oppressive reality experienced by the monk, which is perpetuated by these mere objects that nonetheless have such high symbolic standing.

It’s quite a rarity to see shows embracing clowning at the moment – what would you say it is about the wordlessness of ‘clowning and bouffonnerie’ which lends itself to the telling of this tale?

Clown and bouffon are such unique forms on their own, which together work to do different things for the piece. I always quote Jacques Lecoq, whose influential work in both forms really shaped them into what they are, and whose training inspires me as a performer. He said, ‘while we make fun of the clown, the bouffon makes fun of us’.

Although it may seem that these two features would be at odds with one another, together they create a truly nuanced space for performance. The use of clown is the intimate psychological experience I needed to create in order for the spectators to see, perhaps, a bit of themselves within the monk and the work as a whole. The bouffon, on the other hand, is the “unsayable” critique, the actual donning of monk trappings and the exploitation of religious items. This is the societal critique, the critique of such agendas, which in any other context may be too offensive to criticize.

The wordlessness of both is significant because so much can be said through solely the monk’s physicality and facial qualities, which could never be justly articulated. The constant failure of the monk, evident through just the corporeal form, is again operating in a cringey and awkward space—an awkward silence, of sorts—which makes the audience feel that which can only be felt and not said.

That’s a beautifully explained insight. You’ve also developed an alternate version of Pater Noster, complete with audio descriptions, to make the show accessible to all audiences which is great to see. Is this commitment to accessibility something you hope to incorporate in your live performances when theatre spaces re-open?

Having just spoken of the importance of the wordlessness of the form, it now seems like a complete contradiction when I say I believe wholeheartedly in making all theatre accessible for all audiences, which is why I made an audio description alternate of Pater Noster.

Clowning is an especially difficult form to navigate and translate into a spoken other because so much of the implication of clown lies in its unnerving silence and the action itself. Yet, I think to make such a sweeping statement is a cop out for finding creative tactics to make it accessible for all spectators and their diverse needs. I personally found that the audio version of the piece provided a totally distinct, yet equally as effective and entertaining, rendition of the original, which was a fantastic breakthrough.

When (fingers-crossed!) I can take Pater Noster to live audiences, I certainly will consider ways in which I can integrate this all-audience-friendly approach. An audio component to the piece could indeed forge something very dynamic and new within the work.

Running at seven minutes, this is a perfect show for those looking for a quick theatre fix! Is this something you might extend or are you looking beyond this eccentric monk of yours now?

I think there’s a lot more life left in the monk that I would love to explore and extend. I’m itching to get him in front of an audience because they’re an essential element to clowning and bouffonnerie. The clown/bouffon milks every moment until they can see that the audience is no longer enjoying their failure/action, then they must move on to the next thing that will hopefully entertain—they respond so heavily to what the audience gives them and are so audience-dependent that it feels like a disservice to Pater Noster that it should only exist in the digitized form. 

That being said, I’m eager to create new material and have a few new things in development that are providing fresh challenge and excitement!

This piece has just enjoyed a stint online via the Command Fringe Festival, so what’s next for the show and how can audiences access it?

Aside from hopefully getting the opportunity to perform Pater Noster at live venues, I am in discussion to bring the piece to more virtual audiences through online cabarets and online fringe. However, because it’s pre-recorded, I also have the unique option to self-distribute it—an interesting result of the new normal we find ourselves in—which I’m considering in an effort to make it even more accessible. Definitive updates on where/how audiences can access it can be found on my Twitter! 

And what’s next for you, live, online or otherwise?

I’m currently in the midst of thesis-writing for my MA. Once I wrap that up, I hope to either continue working as a theatremaker and performer in London or in the San Francisco Bay Area (which is where I’m from). I’m working on expounding my theatre-writing and performing skills and just finding new and exciting ways to make, with any luck, compelling and exciting work.  

And finally, in just one sentence, why should audiences see Pater Noster?

Audiences should see Pater Noster because there’s a monk, a bible, and a whole lot of religious immorality—what more could you want!

So there you have it! You can keep up with all things Pater Noster and Francesca Caruso via her Twitter page.

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