It is my belief the photos were provided to The Widow Station by Mooky.
Mooky Cornish, Clown
Since she was a teenager in rural Ontario, Canada, Mooky Cornish has been fascinated by clowning. Her love of performing has led to her appearing for five years, in two stints, in Cirque du Soleil’s Varekai, with Pickle Family Circus and, in recent years, with acclaimed cabaret show La Soirée, which returns to London next week. As her character Gloria, a wide-eyed glamorous star (at least in her own eyes), she is genuinely funny, with a brilliant command over an audience. The Widow has known her for years and always loves seeing her perform. Adrian Arratoon spoke to her, while she was spending a couple of days in Montreal, to find out what she has been up to lately, and how a girl from the sticks became a global performer.
When did you first perform in public?
Other than some really small, small things, my first gig was when I was 13. There was a jazz festival that was just starting up in our village and I was really into jazz at the time. The tickets were 45 dollars, which was a bit too steep for my paper round. So I went down to the festival organisers and said, ‘Hey, how about I entertain the kids for the afternoon and I get a free pass for the festival?’, and they said: “Sure.” So I took a little friend with me, and we put some costumes on, went down to the site and entertained the kids. I had so much fun and playing with the kids that I completely forgot about the jazz until about seven thirty at night when I finally remembered, ‘Oh, yeah, the festival!’. I only watched half an hour of music, then it was all over.
But what led you to perform in the first place? Had you been in school plays?
I was always really interested in performing; I always auditioned for school plays but I never got into any of them [laughs]…
Oh, that’s the saddest story I’ve ever heard!
… I never made it. So I had to do my own thing.
And that rejection’s fuelled you for life! Is that it?
I dunno, ha ha. I guess so, in a way. It’s very Gloria. In fact, I did get into one play, West Side Story, when I was 16. There weren’t loads of opportunities to perform in a small farming village. But I don’t known why I got into clowning. I remember seeing Victor Borge on the television once when I was around 12 or so and then I got passionate about practising piano after that. And I saw one other clown on the television, Denis Lacombe from Cirque du Soleil, and that blew my mind as well. That was the first time I realised it was a profession, ‘Oh, that’s cool!’.
Growing up in a rural village, how did you make the leap to training in performance? Presumably there weren’t loads of workshops there?
Ha ha, no, no, there weren’t. There was a yearly Christmas party and a yearly maple syrup festival. My parents split and all that, sold the farm and we moved to the city, to Ottawa, and I went to a performing-arts high school straight away. That was my saving grace. This school was a real eye-opener. I’d never seen such liberated kids, wearing punk T-shirts with swear words; there were paintings on every hallway, and choirs and orchestras rehearsing. At our arty-farty arts school the equivalent of the American football team was the improv club. I auditioned for that and got in! The coach, Jane Moore, was marvellous; she trained us very hard. We worked every day after school, read the newspapers and made comedy about it. We studied all these styles, like Monty Python, Gilbert & Sullivan so we had different genres to play with. She used to work us hard and consequently we won the National Improv Games seven years in a row. We were very passionate about it. At the same time I got a job with an entertainment company, working mainly with children, your traditional clown, balloon animals, face-painting magic thing, and that was marvellous training as well. I was performing every day; I was missing school to go for gigs. I wasn’t partying at the weekends; I was up at 5am putting clown make-up on and going to gigs.
After that I came here to Montreal and started learning stand-up comedy, just to learn to write comedy. I was never passionate about stand-up as a form but I knew it was a means to learn to write, and that was helpful. Then I went to Toronto where there was more clown going on, a theatre-resource centre and Sue Morrison and others were teaching buffon and clown and other stuff. And from there I went to an international school of physical theatre in northern California, called Dell'Arte, and that’s where I did four years of very formal training and apprenticing, and went straight into their company.
And I didn’t realise you went to conservatoire for piano. What level were or are you at?
Well, it’s a bit lower now than it was, unfortunately, but I was studying piano at university. I wouldn’t have made it as a concert pianist because I didn’t have enough consistent training all the way through but I definitely could have been in a quartet or something to that extent.
So you’re back with La Soirée in London, doing Gloria. How has she changed over the years?
It’s been a real evolution. I’ve been clowning since I was 14 so it’s evolved over a long time. Originally, a friend was a very good bull-whipper and I thought she needed a sexy assistant, and of course I thought that should be me. I found a little negligée and some underclothes then went up to a festival in Edmonton. I didn’t even have a wig then, to be honest, and luckily a wonderful drag queen up there, Dan Hagen, loaned me a blonde wig. So that was the first day of Gloria, just a lot of falling down in high heels, no talking or anything. Then it got a little but more refined when I worked with Varekai all those year. Then I went to work for the Pickle Family Circus in San Francisco. It was a theatre circus show and I needed to speak and I needed a name and all of that and that’s where the name came from and the voice evolved. It was around the same time that I created the romance act with Cal McCrystal, where words are written all over my body. That was the first run of that act. I did it for a month, and Gloria has been developing stronger personalities from then.
Are you able to do things with Gloria that you would never do yourself?
Yeah, most definitely. I think that’s the beauty of clown; it’s just you with no censor and no inhibitions, no: ‘I shouldn’t do that, that’s ridiculous’. I often think about that when I’m walking in the street and past a car that’s playing Michael Jackson or something; I’d be a bit shy to dance but as Gloria I would definitely get down and have a dance.
A lot of people stay with Cirque du Soleil almost for life, like a full-time job. Was it difficult to leave the safety net or did you find it a bit constricting?
I was ready to leave; it was a taxing job, it’s ten shows a week and that’s pretty much all you can do. You don’t have a lot of time outside of that. It was really wonderful opportunity at the time and I learnt everything I wanted to learn. It was perfect for what it was but for me it was never the be-all and end-all; I always had other aspirations.
When Liz interviewed you in 2009 you told her when you came to Europe for the first time it was interesting for you to learn about how audiences reacted in different countries. How do they react differently, and how long does it take you to get into your stride?
It takes less than a week; just a few shows. Your material’s staying the same, you just have to listen to where they’re reacting and change the emphasis. Some countries they’ll laugh more at the fall and another country might laugh more at the reaction to the fall, so you change the emphasis and accents and how much time you spend on something. In London I can fall a lot more.
Do we like the falling here?
Yeah they love it – but only if it’s in good timing; London’s a stickler for good timing. I love playing London almost more than anywhere else in a way because the audiences are the most in tune with my own sense of comedy. I feel when I play London I don’t have to alter my sense of comedy, I play exactly what I think is funny, and London’s just right on it; a very astute audience. It’s very fulfilling to get a laugh in London. It makes me feel very good.
Do you prefer doing a smaller, more intimate show with La Soirée than the enormodomes you performed in with Varekai?
Most definitely. I love the Spielgeltent; you can see everyone’s faces and feel the energy that’s created. I love playing in a circle like that; when everyone’s in a circle it’s the traditional way of being; it’s what takes us back to being around the fire telling stories, you know? Even if you don’t have a lot of power that day you get it back when you’re in the tent, the way geometrically the energy is concentrated and it bounces back and forth so it’s a very good feeling.
I was once one of your ‘victims’ for your romance act and enjoyed it tremendously! How do you go about choosing someone to take up on stage?
I just kind of look around softly, with ‘soft eyes’, if you will, and also pick up on a vibration. I kind of get a feeling from humans [laughs]. In London I don’t really need to scope out the crowd, I just go out cold, because most people are used to public speaking at school and such and the English have a good sense of humour and play and don’t mind being foolish. But in other countries I’ll hide up in the lighting booth or on the balcony and watch the crowd’s reaction to an act before mine, then I can get a sense of if someone’s laughing or smiling – not too hilarious, mind, because you don’t want Mr Australian Ham-bone either; someone who takes over the show. A good volunteer has a willingness to play. That’s all it takes.
You’re really funny. Who makes you laugh or inspires you?
Roberto Benigni: I think he’s marvellous. Lately I’ve been trying to crack into film – making more films; that’s the next direction for Gloria. She wants to be a film star now…
Of course she does!
…so I’ve been watching Jacques Tati. He doesn’t necessarily make me a laugh but I really enjoy it. I like the way he sees humour in the world around him; he’s not always so egocentric, and I really like that sensibility. And Benigni is very silly and he has a lot of heart in what he does.
So are you always travelling or do you have a home to go back to?
I’m always travelling. Always. It has its benefits. Sometimes when we’re out on the road my colleagues will say, ‘Oh, I miss my cat’, or ‘I miss my bed’ but I never have that problem, ha ha. I’m always pretty content where I am. It makes me buy less. I don’t mind looking at things but I have no desire to buy them cos I have to carry them, and that gets heavy.
What have been the highlights of the past few years?
For me the thing about La Soirée that is such a treat is each other. We have such a nice time and it’s such a nice group of people. We have a good laugh every day. We get to work and have a laugh with each other; it’s a super-fortunate job in that way. I think all of us would say that’s the biggest benefit. We’re all good buddies. Everyone is intelligent and interesting so we can talk about what’s going on in the world as well. And Brett [Haylock], our chief, he’s super cool with us. We’re a small company. We don’t need to sign in or have evaluations, we take care of ourselves and our own show, and we all do a good show. We know how to figure out a new country in three days and how to change things and we know how to kill it for an audience, and that’s the difference between artists of our calibre and what else is going on. I really enjoy my colleagues’ work; we’re all really enthusiastic about our show. It’s a good feeling.