At eight years old, Associate Professor of Theater Studies and Theater Emory Dramaturg Donald McManus began his acting career at the Montreal Children’s Theatre in Canada, a decision that led to his participation in more than 100 shows in his career. The Montreal Children’s Theatre doubled as an agent, procuring gigs for actors in the city. In this way, even at a young age, McManus was constantly given a wide variety of acting opportunities, fueling his desire to act and passion for being on the stage.
“When I was really young, I had a fantasy that I was going to be a priest, … which is a similar vocation [in a sense],” McManus said.
As McManus began high school, he was forced to keep his theatrical side to himself, as he attended a large, sports-oriented high school that stigmatized people in the arts. Eventually in his senior year, he built up the confidence to act in a school production of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” a decision he claimed brought him to devote the rest of his life to acting.
After graduating from high school, McManus took his first steps into the art of the clown. As a budding actor in Montreal, McManus taught himself fundamental clown tenets such as juggling, unicycling and miming, citing the work of English comedian and actor Walter Wakefield as a catalyst for his clown career. Moreover, McManus saw the clown as a way of putting on a mask and a means of relating to any crowd anywhere as a universal outsider.
“Living in the French-speaking Montreal, everyone [noticed] the Anglo accent in [my] French,” McManus said, “[As a clown], I wanted to be a person of mystery. I didn’t want people to know much about me. Mime was useful in that sense [because] I wouldn’t have to talk to anybody like a normal person. I would have a mask that would work anywhere. ”
McManus, who speaks English and French, said he leveraged his multilinguality to capture the “otherness” he believes essential to the clown and central to the form of improvised theater. He cited Grock, an influential Swiss clown, as a model for what the clown embodies: using outlandish looks and fourth-wall breaking to acknowledge themselves as an “other.” In McManus’ 2003 book “No Kidding!” he explores the clown as a tragic hero figure, aware of the audience and the actors but never understood by anybody.
McManus was hired by the B’nai B’rith, an international Jewish service organization, in the early to mid-’80s in Montreal to serve as a visiting performer for orphanages, McManus saw how the clown could be used in caregiving. This experience formulated his current interests in the types of clown therapy used in children’s hospitals.
“The thing you quickly realize the clown is good at is [connecting] to the caregiver,” McManus said.
To a tired nurse or child care worker, constant bombardment of bad news and negativity can be embittering and can isolate the caregiver from the children. By appealing to these justifiably exhausted caregivers directly and making them smile, the clown brings levity and cheer to the authority figure and the children, McManus said.
After working as both a performative and therapeutic clown for several years, McManus completed his undergraduate degree from the University of Torontoand a PhD in theatre and drama from the University of Michigan. Though he was not working exclusively as a clown anymore, the themes of the art still followed him.
McManus mentioned that after taking a job at the Doon School in 2004, a private school in Dehradun, India, he directed a play version of Cyrano de Bergerac’s “Comical History of the States and Empires of the Moon” with a local production company. McManus, who starred as the lead Cyrano, remarked at how the slapstick quips of the play were a huge hit despite the cultural barrier, in terms of the values and art, between the Indian audience and the 16th century French play.
“The audience was totally on it,” McManus said. “They were laughing. The traveling, the bizarreness, the [fact that] at one point Cyrano shoots [up] to the moon in a cannon. … All of it made complete sense to them.”
McManus came to Emory University in 2006, drawn by both the high quality of academics and the uniqueness of Theater Emory. He cited the presence of Equity actors and directors, which refers to actors who are paid professionals, as one of the reasons for the production of high quality plays.
Having seen firsthand the appeal of the clown to the Indian audience and bearing a cultivated interest in world cinema, McManus now aims to incorporate more global theater into Emory’s campus. He cited the Emory Chinese Theater Club, which was founded by his former student Wencong Chen (12C), as an example of how global theater can genuinely lead to more diversity in the arts at Emory.
At Emory, he casually brought up his aspiration to eventually direct a rendition of “Layla and Majnun,” one of the most influential stories in Iranian history by Nizami Ganjavi.
“We talk a lot about diversity, [but] I hate [when] it’s just a catchphrase,” McManus said. “[‘Layla and Majnun’] is essentially a ‘be good to the planet’ message, a cautionary tale. In light of climate change, a [non-Western] perspective on the issue is so relevant. Asking those hard questions [is fitting] for a college environment.”
Haley Williams (20C), a theatre studies minor, is currently enrolled in McManus’s THEA 210W class “Reading for Performance” and is one of McManus’s independent study advisees.
“When working with [McManus], nothing is off-limits … he really tries to push those boundaries.” Williams said.
He gets very personal and he forces you to think critically … his [teaching style] scholarly but free-form, willing to get to the dark edges of what your mind is willing to think about.” Williams said.
Though films like “Joker” and “It” portray clowns as merely horrific “other” figures meant to resemble the worst aspects of society, McManus emphasizes that the clown can exist as a unifying figure that helps establish commonalities even among a diverse group of people. In the same way, he argues that global theater, though differing greatly in form, helps make obvious that across cultures, human themes and values are similar.
“[Nowadays] I find the clown where you didn’t realize it was a clown,” McManus said.
Whether through a slapstick performance or through a contemplative piece on climate change, in subtle ways, to McManus many contemporary works of art are “functioning with clown logic.”