Ahead of the return of Slava’s Snowshow to Southbank Centre, Phil Penfold, caught up with the show’s creator, founder of the Academy of Fools and Russian Master Clown, Slava Polunin to discover more about the celebrated performer and the process behind his incredible shows.
Slava’s Snowshow is a universal and timeless theatrical classic; seen by over three million spectators, it has delighted and touched audiences in over 120 cities worldwide. In New York alone, Snowshow has beaten off-Broadway records, with over 1,000 performances at the Union Square Theatre. It is a show unlike anything you have ever seen before – a world of wonder, in which a bed becomes a boat, a web of cotton envelops the audience and one tiny piece of paper becomes a snowstorm that will blow you away. Ahead of the return of this stunning spectacle to the UK for a ninth time, I was lucky enough to meet up with Slava himself, in his extraordinary home just outside Paris.
A burly man of medium height, bearded, with twinkling eyes and a mane of long grey hair, comes bouncing along a pebbled lane to greet us. He’s very nimble on his feet, and is wearing ochre-yellow sweat pants and a vest of the same colour. The sturdy flip-flops are a more vibrant yellow (his colour of choice). He looks as if he’s got boundless energy – and he has. He extends an arm and points at some carved gates about 20 metres away, and quietly, rather mystically, they swing open to reveal the Moulin Jaune. ‘Beware, dreams come true’, warns the sign at the door.
Here, we are truly are entering a magic domain. It’s a touch ironic that, about fifteen minutes drive away you will hit the ersatz flim-flam of Disneyland Paris, where the imagination of visitors will be channelled and manipulated by one of the world’s largest entertainment corporations. In Slava’s world, however, all he asks is that your imagination runs free and unfettered, and that you abandon all conformity at the doors of his home, and also of the theatres and venues where he performs. A simple enough request, and one which has turned Slava into one of the most celebrated, talked-about and in-demand clowns in the world.
But if the word ‘clown’ summons the idea of a guy with big shoes and baggy pants, with a red-painted ping-pong ball glued on his nose, then think again. Slava is no ordinary clown. He turns the world upside down. He has been called ‘anarchic’ and also ‘a genius’. Slava looks at life not through a static mirror held at an angle, but through a rotating prism.
He was born in the USSR, 56 years go, in a small village of 3,000 or so inhabitants near the community of Orel. Neither of his parents, he says, were entertainers; although in later years his mother told him that his dad was quite musical. Toys were scarce, and young Slava made his own entertainment, using his fertile imagination, making up stories, relying on folklore, and running free in the local woods. He became expert at building tree houses, and put on shows for his friends.
Hardly surprising, then, that when he was packed off “as a fairly bright kid”, to study engineering in Leningrad, he soon joined a mime troupe instead. Even at the age of 17, he had decided that his mission was to rediscover what true clowns and comics did, and what gift and talents they had that could make people laugh. And cry.
Slava’s unique home, the Moulin Jaune, is a wonderful reflection of his stage performance. When you arrive, you get an energetic tour. Picture a converted and extended 12th century mill house on the banks of the River Marne, a tributary of the larger Seine. There’s also a smaller house in the five hectares of grounds, all of which are connected by a sophisticated sound system of microphones and hidden speakers to a control desk in the central performance area within the house. If Slava and his team want to listen to the rushing of the water over the weir in one of the rooms, they just flick a switch, and it’s there. If they want to listen to the rustle of the trees as they create their props and scenery and costumes, then that is possible too. There’s a state of the art performance space as well, which is replicated to the exact proportions of the stage on which he appears in theatres.
At the Moulin Jaune - Slava’s surreal laboratory and playground - nothing is left untouched and everything is an interactive dialogue between art and nature: kaleidoscopic five seasons gardens, book trees, walls to walk through, flower beds to sleep in, a giant egg house for chickens, a river that flows backwards, galaxies and giants living in trees, a capsized ship’s canteen, floating moons that sing, horses with pink wings.
The rooms to are similarly unique and typically Slava, but perhaps most important space isn’t a room at all, but a huge table and chairs and a stone heater, nestled under the branches of an ancient willow overhanging the river, where Slava and his friends and colleagues gather on summer evenings to talk, create and let their imaginations take flight in creative thoughts. “I collect joyful people around me”, he says – and it’s easy to see how he does it.
It is within this vast and playful environment that foolish encounters and experiments of all types (workshops, festivals, rehearsals and contemplative activities) give birth to even more foolish projects. For these, the company make good use of the fabric and costume treasures, technical and storage spaces, the infinitely wide collection of books and films, an equipped theatre, artist residences, outdoor stages, wood and other such workshops and of course steaming kitchens for hungry fools. Foolishness and playfulness, an end to itself.
So why France, Slava, and why here? He reveals with a smile that he and his wife Elena searched for many years for a special spot that was near to water, had land and trees and was near hills. They lived for several months at a time in or near seven cities – Barcelona, London, Berlin and Amsterdam among them – and systematically looked for that special place. Villiers, France, hit the bullseye, especially when Slava discovered many of France’s most celebrated painters had previously found the little village and its surroundings inspirational.
Slava and his wife believe that the kitchen is the heart of the home, and in theirs is a long oblong table with more than a dozen seats around it. There’s no TV in the corner, but a screen on which classics of the comic cinema are occasionally played. There’s the cooking area, a relaxation and reflection space, and a lot more besides. And, to make it even more magical, a proper tree, centuries of years old, grows right through it and up toward the ceiling. It’s on the first floor, and the wood-floored terrace of the balcony overlooks the river where there are ducks diving for their dinner.
Did he always feel that he had to be a clown? No, he says, he thinks that it “just grew” within him. “I always wanted to be a journalist as well. A gardener or forester. An engineer. A librarian. And now I feel that – with this house and ground, constructing and creating things, and also writing my book, I’m actually achieving a bit of all of those ambitions. I won’t have enough time in my life to get it all done – does anyone? – but the important thing is to keep on doing it. As well as you can!”
He says, “My work cannot really be called clowning, for my main objective is to break down borders and restrictions. But a clown is really like a child – we have immediacy and a freedom, as children do. It is impossible for a child to sit still for more than five minutes, and, like clowns they always demand to be the centre of attention. Think of five children – or five clowns – in the middle of a room? Phew! Impossible! But, like children, we also want to be loved. But I am extremely blessed, because I am happy, and joyous, and also extremely lucky!”
And, it has to be said, that Slava is also extremely well-loved. By the family members and performance team he nurtures, his crew who make the props and man the sound and lighting desk, and by his friends and pupils who come to learn from this master of his craft from just about every country in the world. He raises his eyebrows at the word ‘pupil’. “No-one ever knows that I am teaching them” he insists quietly, “I never, ever say ‘do this, or do that’. I look at what they have to offer and what they do, and I suggest that maybe they could develop that little bit there, or that fragment here…and they go away and work on it and the fragment becomes something more polished, perhaps more substantial and developed. Rehearsals and classes are forbidden here. Everything happens completely organically!”
Slava has around sixty people in various parts of the world that he calls on to join him when puts a show together – they come from places as far apart as Brazil and Israel, and when he recently held auditions in his native Russia, one thousand would-be performers turned up to work with him. From that thousand, he selected twenty to go with him on a river voyage to discover and hone their skills. Of the twenty, he picked two. Only one of the two now is a full-time clown in Slava’s tradition.
He also tells the wonderful story of his work with the famed Cirque Du Soleil. Slava had been part of their company for a year and a half, and wanted to go back to doing things his way again. “I admire what they do so very much, and they are friends”, he explains, “but you have an idea with the Cirque, and it takes three years to get it together. You have an idea around the kitchen table here, and you could be doing it tomorrow, and putting it into the new production next week. It’s just... the scale of things.”
"Anyway, I told the Cirque that I wished to leave, and they said ‘Fine, Slava, as long as you find a great replacement for us’ and I promised that I would. We were in New York, and I walked out of that meeting very amicably, and I hailed a cab. And the driver of the cab was working in the US, but was one of Russia’s greatest classically-trained actors, whom I knew very well. What a coincidence. And he said ‘What are you doing here, Slava?’ and I told him, and of my search for a replacement. He said ‘I have always wanted to be a clown! Can you teach me?’ I said ‘I don’t teach, but I can give you some guidance’, and in those three days, I did. He was fantastic. In three days he had taken over from me at the Cirque. He is still there – and a very happy man!”
His mission, he thinks, is “to get the audience to open up, and to be a lot more creative within themselves. But I know from experience that what makes them hysterical in Britain will get a completely different reaction in Tokyo. They will see different interpretations of what I do.”
He has an extensive library of DVDs and videos of many of the great comics, mimes and clowns, a large proportion of them from silent films. He adores Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin, and champions the almost-forgotten Harry Langdon. “You see, silent film transcends the boundaries”, he says, “You didn’t have to crack a verbal gag. You saw what those people were going through. Why is Langdon obscured by the others now? Possibly because he never used huge action sequences. He was a more intimate performer.”
Then Slava reels off British performers that he admires, among them Tommy Cooper and Max Wall “both great visualists”, and, to a lesser extent “Norman Wisdom and Benny Hill. I love Monty Python, too – they were a great intellectual team, never mind about the humour!”
He is admired by acclaimed surrealist film director Terry Gilliam, who has been a guest in Slava’s house by the river, “we roared with laughter all night”, he says, and then adds that they to have made a documentary together, Diabolo, about the work of a clown. “I think that it will look good”, he says modestly.
He and Elena have three grown up children, all of who have the Slava entertainment genes. Ivan is an artist and designer, Pavel is a musician, and Dimitri is a technical director of some skill, and the father to their first grandchild, Mia. “I always wanted a daughter, always,” says Elena with a smile.
Slava says thoughtfully: “Everyone in this world has creativity and talent – it’s just a question of bringing it out. To open the door. You should use your natural physical being. I work without any spoken language, and so could you!” He seems, I say, to be the Prospero of his own enchanted space. “Creating magic, creating illusion, is fun”, he says.
But it must be wonderful to be able to make so many people laugh, and to enable them to forget their problems for a while? “Oh yes, that’s the best thing of all”, he agrees. “The last time I was in the UK, I played in Glasgow for a few weeks, and I met a very well-known doctor, a consultant, up there, who told me that he’d been to see the show, and how much he’d enjoyed it. I thanked him a lot. And then he said that he dealt with people who suffered from severe depression. He said ‘In the last few weeks, I’ve not been writing prescriptions for tablets, I’ve been telling them ‘Go see Slava – if that doesn’t make you forget your problems, nothing will!’ Wasn’t that a wonderful thing to say?”
Slava gets into his people carrier, and we drive to the station. He gives a huge bear hug to say farewell. “After all, I am still a Russian”, he laughs. Well, he can believe that. But Slava is really something else – a true internationalist of entertainment.