Interview: Puddles Pity Party
‘I think it is more theatre than cabaret. It’s therapeutic for me.’
This article is from 2015.
All communication is fraught with the potential for misunderstanding, but an interview with Puddles the clown is a particularly challenging prospect. Despite the power of his rich singing voice – one that Fringe audiences will hear in his 2015 cabaret / theatre show, Puddles Pity Party – the towering clown refuses to speak during our scheduled Skype interview early this summer. He replies only with gesture, occasionally writing down a phrase or sentence when it becomes too difficult to mime an answer. Yet the emphasis on silence allows Puddles’ appearance and presence to become a language of its own.
Always seen in full costume, a cardboard crown atop his head, Puddles became an internet sensation when his cover of Lorde’s ‘Royals’ struck a chord with YouTubers. And as he arrives in Edinburgh, he’s fresh from a stint at the Soho Theatre and a turn at Montreal’s Just for Laughs alongside Neil Patrick Harris.
Both his height and taciturn interview technique make Puddles an intimidating character: when he sings, however, he is surprisingly unironic, giving his cover versions a respectful treatment, and evoking the sound of early Tom Waits or even Tom Jones, a fellow smooth baritone.
When he first appears on the Skype screen, his face, stained with white paint but with only suggestive dots of red that transform a clown from butoh terror to cheerful entertainer, settles in a frown that suggests he expects only more disappointment. Like his version of Sia’s ‘Chandelier’, his appearance takes something mundane and facile, and lends it a depth, hinting at unspoken anguish.
He is defensive at first: when I ask about his reasons for performance, he insists that it isn’t a simple choice. He feels compelled to perform, and any further explanation is unnecessary. When pressed, he sips his large mug of tea, discards a sheet of paper, then holds a page to the screen.
‘I think it is more theatre than cabaret,’ and then, on a second sheet: ‘it’s therapeutic for me.’
He is not interested, either, in explaining his act, or what an audience might think. Interpretation, he perhaps suggests – the signs were complicated – is best left to the observer. For his own part, he is content to sing. Then his face becomes ferocious for a moment.
Another sheet of paper is held up to the camera. ‘It’s symbiotic! The importance of empathy,’ then he points to himself, then outwards. ‘And towards others!’
Puddles’ guarded replies belie his attentiveness and interest in each question. Staring directly at the camera, focused and serious, he weighs each word in his mind before either reaching for a pen or miming a response. The discomfort he occasionally displays in performance – fiddling with the large pom-pom buttons on his Pierrot suit, wandering across the stage, distracted and disconsolate – is in sharp contrast with the clown on the screen, who appears nervously accommodating and eager to please. Returning to an earlier theme, he writes that ‘I celebrate the audience for joining in the show.’
His previously intense stare is replaced by a warm smile. He screws up another sheet of paper, throws it over his shoulder and settles back in his chair, ready for the next question.
The mythology of Puddles’ early years, when he would appear unannounced at a club, belt out a few popular favourites and leave, adds to the mystery of the clown behind the golden voice. His concerts have an uncanny, surreal atmosphere, the juxtaposition of his child-like presence and empathy for apparently shallow pop filing his charisma under inexplicable. The interview is equal parts awkward and loving, Puddles never being pinned down but occasionally making direct appeals for love. At one point he embraces the camera to express his gratitude for the conversation.
His enthusiasms are sudden, charming and animating. When I ask why he is coming to Edinburgh, he scrawls ‘chip buddy’ on the paper (it becomes clear that he means ‘chip butty’ from the accompanying illustration) and points out that the butties will be on him when he arrives. He is even more excited about the prospect of seeing Australian comedian Sam Simmons. Pressing his hands against his heart, he then gestures that Simmons might be the king of comedy (or that he blew his mind when he saw him. The signs are not always clear).
Unsurprisingly, he also expresses an enthusiasm for 2012 Comedy Award winner Doctor Brown, another silent performer. When asked about other acts, Puddles relaxes, apparently glad to shift the attention away from his life onto others. The more playful clown has arrived. When I ask whether he’ll be seeing other clowns’ shows in Edinburgh, he scrawls ‘Yes!’ with excited speed.
The rise in circus-based theatre – not limited to aerial tricks or physical spectacle – might have created a space at the Fringe for Puddles, as has the steady growth of longer-form cabaret. Puddles could sit in either category, but his claim that his Pity Party is theatre reveals that his persona is aiming at more than entertainment.
In common with Piff the Magic Dragon, who never clarifies whether he thinks he is a magician in a dragon suit or a dragon who does magic, Puddles blurs the line between the act and the personality. The confusion is endearing, and his silent interview trick forces the observer to recognise that, red nose or not, Puddles is a serious artist. Questions about whether he is a clown when he is off-screen and stage, or how he developed the idea of a sad clown with an operatically powerful voice become impossible – not just because the replies are indecipherable as gestures, but because Puddles refuses to acknowledge them. Yet his performance and his presence make Puddles’ Party, paradoxically, a display of pity that is uplifting and inspiring.
Puddles Pity Party, Assembly George Square Gardens, 623 3030, 7.25pm, 8–31 Aug (not 18, 25), £13–£14 (£12–£13). Previews 6 & 7 Aug, £10