Performing artist Klara van Wyk has a gift for making people laugh. Her critically acclaimed one-woman show, You Suck (and other inescapable truths) chronicles the experience of Pretina, a high school student who candidly shares with us “how to hashtag like a celeb, defeat mean girls and twerk your way through teenage angst”. Performed with a flat Afrikaans accent, in a flamboyant costume, and with wonderful comedic timing, Klara and her director Francesco Nassimbeni have a created a theatre piece that resonates with everyone who has experienced the wonder and fear of teenage school life.
Albeit funny, being solo on stage and performing a self-penned text is a commendable feat and something most performers will work towards in their careers. Comedy is a delicate beast because audiences are unpredictable. What you’ve set up as a punchline some might not find funny, and a phrase you never imagined humorous will inevitably tickle another’s funny bone producing shared giggles and laughter at the character under the spotlight.
Physical stamina, focus, an ability to remain in the present moment and improvise are some of the qualities needed to pull off a solo performance, as well as the self-control not to burst into fits of laughter when an audience member does. We caught up with Klara, who is as bright as a highlighter and more charming than a teacup Chihuahua to find out how she dreamt up Pretina and what inspires her to perform.
You’ve been described as a new-wave clown and comedienne. What made you choose performance as your creative medium and do you ever feel pressured by that label to ‘be funny’?
I knew I wanted to be a performer from an early age and although I was also very passionate about fine arts, there has always been something about the immediacy and ephemerality of performance as a medium that is irresistible. I guess I do feel pressure to be funny but I think it comes from my own fear of not knowing how the material will be reacted to, sometimes there is just no way of knowing what will work and what won’t but that is also what makes it exciting.
Tell us about the inspiration behind You Suck (and other inescapable truths).
You Suck is mostly inspired by my own high-school ‘secret diary’ that I reread as an adult and found absurd, and at times very sad, as well as my recollected experiences and memories. However, after I read an article about the series of teen suicides in 2015, I was inspired to put pen to paper, I also spent a lot of times reading the heartbreaking letters written to parents from teenagers who had taken their own lives.
Pretina is a comedic figure. How did you go about creating a character without falling into the trap of portraying a stereotype?
Pretina developed through my clown training with Phillipe Gaulier and Gerard Bester. In the medium of clowning it is emphasised that one ‘finds’ your clown from within, your own embarrassments, quirks and insecurities. When creating from yourself as a source I think there is a certain ‘truth’ that shines through that cannot be copied or created from outside. What is funny, I think, is that she is so real, so me.
Francesco Nassimbeni directed the show. What did he bring to the creative process?
When I watched Frankie’s work I was captivated by his playfulness and his sophisticated visual vocabulary. He immediately understood Pretina and he brought her world to life with bold colours and a strong visual aesthetic. Regarding the directing, Frankie works intuitively and left me with enough space and freedom to improvise but still guided me in terms of the blocking, finding rhythm and locating and locking down the character.
In real life, do you ever find yourself thinking like Pretina?
Yes, especially when dealing with annoying people, she does it so well.
What’s the scariest and the most enjoyable part about not only performing alone but also your own work?
It is lonely, I miss sharing the nervous energy before a show or debriefing with someone who had the same experience afterwards, but it is also liberating to have to do it on my own and to know that I can. Because I wrote it, I have internalised it fully and had freedom to change it every night, but this also makes it difficult to find distance from what I am saying and see it objectively from an audience members perspective.
Do you think the audience laughs with or at Pretina?
They definitely laugh at her, for the most part anyway. Once again the modern theatre clown often has a lower status, which is to say that even though she is cheeky, she is usually blatantly wrong about things and exposes her vulnerability. In You Suck there is definitely a shift towards the end and the laughter simmers down, the audience seems to question if they still want to be laughing at her forming an alliance with her bullies, and I think this sometimes makes them uncomfortable.
Are there any unexpected things that people have found funny?
Yes, there is often a line or two that was never intended to be funny but that people find hilarious. Laughter has it’s own strange and unpredictable logic.
How to keep it together and not corpse during performances?
I find myself wanting to corpse when I improvise, or in You Suck when I dance, I guess the new thought seems funny in my head first, but these are often the most effective so it is more important that I don’t corpse. I think not corpsing has to do with your focus and concentration, but I cannot deny that I have slipped a giggle or a smile here and there.
Are you working on any exciting projects we can look forward to?
Right now I am making some videos for the youchoob, (they are still very green and experimental). I have also registered for my Ph.D., so I am currently working on my proposal.
You Suck (and other inescapable truths) runs till Saturday the 14th May at Alexander Upstairs.
Follow Klara on Instagram, and keep an eye out for her new project Kulcha with Pretina which we’ll be releasing on 10and5 this week. Find a taste of what’s to come in these behind the scenes photographs by Lieze van Tonder.