Shannan Calcutt is serious about her clowning

For most people, Las Vegas is a place of escape and relaxation. But for celebrated Department of Theatre alumna Shannan Calcutt, what happens in Vegas keeps her in Vegas.

Calcutt (BFA ’97) has spent the past decade starring in Cirque du Soleil’s Zumanity at the New York New York Hotel & Casino. Part burlesque and part cabaret, Zumanity is billed as an “erotic thrill ride” and has become one of the must-see sensations in a city built on sensory overload. Yet Calcutt plays down the show’s sensational side and instead sees it as that rarest of theatrical gems: a steady job.

Shannan Calcutt is at home in Vegas (photo: Ginger Ana Griep-Ruiz)

Shannan Calcutt is at home in Vegas (photo: Ginger Ana Griep-Ruiz)

“It’s a great, great gig,” she says. “We do two shows a day, five days a week, 477 shows a year. That’s a lot of audience members.”

And while it’s Shannan Calcutt who got the job, it’s her famed alter-ego clown Izzy who has entertained over half-a-million Cirque spectators in Zumanity. “My partner and I are the comedians in the show, and we change what we do every night based on what the audience says and does. That keeps it fresh.”

Calcutt’s Burnt Tongue will be playing at the Phoenix 8pm daily from October 25-29, with an additional 2pm matinee on Saturday, Oct 29. There will also be a pre-show  lecture at 7pm Friday, Oct 28. Get tickets here, or call 250-721-8000.

While Calcutt had mask and movement training at UVic, she didn’t formally study clowning until after graduation, when she attended California’s acclaimed Dell’Arte International School of Physical Theatre on the advice of then-Theatre professor John Krich. It was there Calcutt met master teacher Sue Morrison, which resulted in her studying with noted Calgary physical theatre company The Green Fools; and it was there, during a Morrison-led workshop in Clown & Bouffon, that Izzy first emerged with what became her signature line. “We were doing duos at a cabaret in front of an audience and I asked my clown partner, ‘Do you think I’m pretty?’ That’s really where Izzy was born.”

It didn’t take long for Calcutt to make a name for herself with the Izzy trilogy—Burnt Tongue, It’s Me, Only Better! and Out of My Skin—winning multiple awards and playing to sold-out audiences across North America and as far afield as the Sidney Opera House. She was scouted by Cirque du Soleil as early as 2000 (“I was put forward for Varekai and Corteo”), but it wasn’t until 2005 she joined Zumanity. Not that she’s been resting on Izzy’s laurels since then. “I just finished a Master of Fine Arts in Writing for Dramatic Media with the University of Nevada, Las Vegas,” she says. “I spent a lot of time in the dressing room writing papers.”

In addition to the Krich, Calcutt also notes Theatre professors Linda Hardy and now-retired Julianna Saxton as key influences, but names the late legendary professor Kaz Piesowocki as being singularly important. “As the movement coach, Kaz was a huge influence on me . . . he made such an impact on us all—the way he taught impulse, physicality, the breath—it was all so simple, but resonates in everything I’ve done since.”

It's been 13 years since Izzy last performed in Victoria

It’s been 13 years since Izzy last performed in Victoria

This kind of dynamic learning is what makes UVic’s Theatre department different from other Canadian universities, notes department chair Dr. Allana Lindgren. “In addition to our ‘hands on’ approach to education, we offer a comprehensive program that equally values practical and more traditionally academic courses,” she says. “These factors mean that our students leave our undergraduate and graduate programs with numerous options . . . it also doesn’t hurt that we also have one of the best educational theatre facilities in the country.”

While it’s been nearly 20 years since she graduated, the 40-year-old Calcutt is philosophical about aging alongside her character. “As you get older, so does your clown, so Izzy has really grown up here in Vegas,” she explains. “In Burnt Tongue, Izzy is very innocent—it’s her first show, she’s all about finding a guy—but now she’s one of the sex experts in Zumanity. Izzy has a husband in the show—played by my clown partner, Nicky Dewhurst—but my ‘real life’ husband Darren Pitura is our back-up, so I do work with him on occasion too. Darren and I have had two kids, so my body isn’t 25 anymore . . . that’s the beauty of being a clown—instead of having the shame of not looking like you used to, you shamelessly celebrate it instead.”

Best advice she was ever given? “Make your own show; don’t wait to be cast. Look at the alumni coming back [for this festival] — Charles Ross or TJ Dawe or myself—we’ve all created our own vehicles to perform. Don’t wait for someone to decide that you’re good enough, or smart enough, or talented enough. Talent is great, but you’ll never have more than you do today; you can work on skills and training, but it’s motivation and drive that will get you where you want to go.”

Find out more about the upcoming Phoenix 50th Anniversary reunion weekend, running November 11-13 on campus.

This story was originally published in the spring issue of UVic’s Torch magazine


Going solo pays off for TJ Dawe

After years of success on the Fringe Festival circuit and touring around the world, alumnus TJ Dawe brings his one of his earlier, and now published plays, back to the Phoenix stage as part of the Alumni Festival. The Slipknot runs 8pm daily to Saturday, Oct 22, with a 7pm pre-show lecture on Oct 21 and an additional 2pm matinee on Oct 22. Get tickets here.

Stellar Phoenix grad TJ Dawe

Stellar Phoenix grad TJ Dawe

The Slipknot has been described as hilarious, hypnotizing and hard. Dawe literally “slips” between three monologues — based on three horrible jobs he has done in his life — never skipping a beat, with a total of 14,000 words following a rapid fire rhythm. Stepping seamlessly from one story to the next, he chronicles his time as a stock boy in a drugstore, the inexperienced driver of a massive bin hauler, and a berated customer service person at Canada Post. Since The Slipknot was written in 2001, it has become Dawe’s most performed (and purchased) play. “Ironically, The Slipknot has actually made me enough money to get out of the world of horrible jobs,” he says.

Nothing is too personal for Dawe to share with the audience — from relationships and recreational Gravol use to Santa Claus and why you should never put meat in the mail — but although he brings his personal history to the stage (and lets us laugh at his mistakes), the life lessons are always greater than just his experience, and audiences walk away with insights about their own lives.

9780973248111Many things have changed in Dawe’s life since he wrote The Slipknot: he now has 14 solo, autobiographical shows which he tours around the world to great acclaim, earning himself such titles as “Fringe Veteran” and “King of the Monologue”.

Yet Dawe is not only a performer and writer but also an in-demand director. For example, he directed all of Charles Ross’ (BFA’ 98) one-man shows (which were presented at the Phoenix just the last week); Ross and Dawe were close friends during their time at UVic, proving the amazing friendships you make at university can stay with you for life — and, in this case, develop into life-long artistic collaborators.

Over the years he has worked with many artists as a director, including a number of Phoenix grads. Most recently, he directed alumna Nicolle Natrass‘ (BFA ’91) play Mamahood: Turn and Face the Strange at Vancouver’s Firehall Theatre. He is also the director of playwright, author and Phoenix alum Mark Leiren-Young‘s (BFA’85) Never Shoot a Stampede Queen, based on the Leacock Award-winning novel;  that solo play also featured Phoenix grad Zach Stephenson (BFA’03). Recently he co-created PostSecret: The Show, a stage production based on the popular blog site (which was also turned into a book and Smithsonian exhibitions), where people can anonymously share personal stories that they would never speak aloud. The presentation featured other Phoenix alumni Ming Hudson (BFA’07) and Sam S Mullins (BFA’08).

poster+The+F+Word+CanadaThe play that has brought Dawe the most fame, however, is a two-hander called Toothpaste and Cigars, which was co-written with alumnus Mike Rinaldi (BFA’ 96) and toured in 2003. At the time, the pair could never have dreamed that this quirky modern-day love story would become a Hollywood movie starring famous Harry Potter actor Daniel Radcliffe and Zoe Kazan ultimately titled The F Word (no, the “f” actually stands for “friend”). Read the full story on the movie here. Since it has garnered excellent reviews, fandom from 20-somethings around the world, and won the 2014 Canadian Screen Award for Adapted Screenplay.

Dawe is looking forward to interacting with the students when he’s back on campus. When asked what lessons he would to pass on to current theatre students, Dawe offered some great advice to pass on:

  • A great deal of learning is done by osmosis. See lots of theatre: Fringe shows, Belfry shows, Inconnu shows, Langham shows. “It will hugely enrich your understanding of what to do, what not to do, what kind of theatre you like, etcetera,” he says. “The more theatre you see, the better you’ll be oriented to what kind of theatre you’d like to be a part of. “
  • Take advantage of the free art on campus. Free concerts in the music department, art shows in the visual arts building, readings in the writing department. “It’ll feed your artistic soul,” says Dawe.
  • The friendships you make at school can turn into artistic partnerships in the professional world. The friendships you make in the department, the creative jamming that happens with people you click with — that’s part of your education too. A big one. TJ is still creating with friends he met at the Phoenix, which “grew very organically out of how much they enjoyed hanging out and jamming on ideas and making each other laugh.”
  • Don’t be discouraged. Rejection doesn’t mean you don’t have talent, it doesn’t mean you don’t have what it takes to make it. There are many projects that you create from the ground up. Put on a SATCo show. Organize a poetry slam or open mic or improv night or sketch show or cabaret. Make your own work.

“I’ve built a career out of original, self-created theatre, something I first did in the classrooms and rehearsal spaces in this building,” he says. “Self-created theatre has gained much more of a foothold in the last 20 years. In my student days it barely existed. Now it’s thriving . . . maybe some of the students are going through what I did as an undergrad. Maybe I’ll light the fire for one or two of them. Maybe you’ll be seeing them here in 20 years.”

—Adrienne Holierhoek

Coming up next at the Alumni Festival:

Shannan Calcutt‘s Burnt Tongue (October 25-29) see this Cirque du Soleil artist take a break from Las Vegas’ Zumanity as she brings her alter-ego clown, Izzy, back to the Phoenix in this quirky solo show about a clown who’s eager to find love — so eager she shows up to her first blind date wearing a wedding dress!

Box Office now open for all Alumni Festival tickets. Call 250-721-8000.

Charles Ross knows the sound of one-man globetrotting

Back in 2001, Charles Ross wrote his own ticket to travel the world. Since then, he has created two more — he just calls them blockbuster one-man shows.

Charles Ross, one man who does it all

Charles Ross, one man who does it all

A hilarious homage to the original three Lucasfilm movies, Ross’ One-Man Star Wars Trilogy has been performed on almost every continent around the globe — including London’s West End, New York City’s Off-Broadway and Australia’s Sydney Opera House. Ross has even performed for George Lucas himself at a Lucasfilm Star Wars convention. Fresh back from an 18-city UK tour (including a month-long run at the famous Edinburgh Fringe), Ross is one of three artists invited to perform at the Phoenix Theatre’s 50th Anniversary Alumni Festival.

While Ross says it’s an honour to be asked to perform back at the Phoenix, he laughs that he almost didn’t get into the theatre program. In this recent interview with the Times Colonist he explains how he moved from Nelson to Victoria before learning that the program was already full. “I was devastated,” he said — so devastated that he went to the department to plead his case.  “Yes, I’m going to make an ass of myself. But I’m going to do it anyway…. I told them: ‘Oh God please, if something comes up, can you give me a bit more consideration? I’m an idiot. I’ve already moved down here.’”  After a “completely bummed out” summer on the wait list, he learned only two weeks before classes that he was accepted.

Ross and a rather shaggy fan

Ross and a rather shaggy fan

Ross will perform his one-man trilogy of trilogies from October 11-17 at the Phoenix: Lord of the Rings (Oct. 11-13), Star Wars Trilogy (Oct. 14 -15), and Dark Knight: A Batman Parody (Oct. 16-17). Get tickets here. While on campus, he’ll also be talking to the next generation of Theatre students via workshops and classroom visits.

The origin story of the One-Man Star Wars Trilogy also has ties to the Theatre department. Ross was playing Frisbee with then-classmate TJ Dawe (who will also be part of the Alumni Festival) when the idea of reenacting the Star Wars movies was proposed. Both had a love for the original three movies; they sat down to write the play and soon began rehearsing it, with Dawe directing.

Over the past 15 years, the play has only improved, thanks to Ross’ lightning-fast character changes. With a quick turn or a side-step, he slips easily from the voices of Luke and Princess Leia, to Yoda, Chewbacca or the animated beeps of R2D2. Throw in all the sound effects — which he creates himself — and suddenly the stage transforms into a galaxy far, far away. “To my mind, there was nothing more absurd than seeing a man on stage wearing black clothing trying to be everything out of Star Wars. It’s like watching an eight-year-old child, except it’s a fully grown man,” said Ross when interviewed by the UK news site

Ross with Sir Ian McKellen

Ross with Sir Ian McKellen

Two years later he started on his next challenge, one that he still finds his most exhausting show to perform — the One-Man Lord of the Rings Trilogy. This play follows the original JRR Tolkien books with Frodo Baggins and friends as they carry the one ring across Middle-earth to confront orcs, goblins, wraiths, and Sauron’s other forces of evil. “The hardest part is falling a lot on my arms, shoulders and knees,” Ross told BigIssue. “Lord of the Rings has a lot more falling and a lot more brutal, violent death, creatures and orcs, and it’s very fast.” The show also led to Ross meeting Sir Ian McKellen in person.

Most recently Ross has channeled his love of superheroes into his newest one-man show, the One-Man Dark Knight: A Batman Parody. Again working with TJ Dawe as a director, Ross also consulted with another Phoenix alumni who is a Batman aficionado, Ian Case (currently the Director of UVic’s Farquhar Auditorium). The play follows the major plot developments across Christopher Nolan’s trilogy of movies, Batman Begins, The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises.

“Today, being a nerd is a good thing,” says Ross.

—Adrienne Holierhoek

Coming up next at the Alumni Festival:

TJ Dawe‘s The Slipknot (October 18-22) is a coming-of-age tale about working in lousy jobs. Hysterical yet heartbreaking, he shares his observations and life’s lessons from his experiences. The acclaimed writer/director/actor regularly performs his 14 autobiographical solo shows around the world, and his play Toothpaste & Cigars (written with theatre alumnus Mike Rinaldi), inspired the Daniel Radcliffe movie The F Word.

Shannan Calcutt‘s Burnt Tongue (October 25-29) see this Cirque du Soleil artist take a break from Las Vegas’ Zumanity as she brings her alter-ego clown, Izzy, back to the Phoenix in this quirky solo show about a clown who’s eager to find love — so eager she shows up to her first blind date wearing a wedding dress!

Box Office now open for all Alumni Festival tickets. Call 250-721-8000. Subscription packages for 3 shows, 4 shows – or all 8 shows! – start at only $39.