Talking personas, performance and playwriting with CAW member Heidi Madsen

I recently sat down to a delicious plate of pasta with Heidi Madsen in her delightful home to learn more about her artistic path. Her passion falls at the intersection of art and performance, and this is completely evident in the way she has decorated her living space. She has wonderful collection of clown art, including a portrait of herself done by Joey Monsoon. According to her, clowning is serious business, and it is clear that she is working towards a much larger goal than simply a chuckle. She approaches each new challenge with gusto! Her performance personas span from clown to drag king to Sasquatch. I hope you have as much fun learning about the person behind the performer as I did.

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What changes when you put on a red nose?

The clown nose is the smallest mask in the world. It does not hide you, it reveals you! It doesn’t change [me], it is like an on switch. It is like an on switch for lighting up the authentic self.

Clown school was a bit of a legend to me, but you’ve actually been! What was it like?

I didn’t know what I was getting into. I had the same image that other people have of clowns. It was a five-week program about clowning through mask. It was in Toronto so it was based on Richard Pochinko’s clowning who is a famous Canadian clown. Everything was based around making six masks. It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done and it was like doing improv on steroids. I had never spoken out loud on stage, ever, and I had to do that. Basically, I had to turn myself inside out on the stage and doing that consciously is a scary thing. The teacher was a tough love teacher!  She was really good and knew you could do better. It was all about being authentic.

I went to clown school because I wanted to take my performance to the next level. I really wanted to learn new things about performance since I don’t have any training background at all, except for just doing. This was a chance to get some training and the idea of being a clown intrigued me. Going to clown school was my fortieth birthday gift to myself!

Before you were a clown, you were a drag king. What was your first performance experience? 

I had never been on stage before and I didn’t even know there was a stage person in me. Today the core of who I am is a performance artist and I know that at 43 years old, but I did not know that in 1995. A friend of mine had a birthday party and 3 of our friends decided to do some performance at a bar and dressed up like men. We didn’t even know what a drag king was, nobody did. It was so much fun the bar owners invited them back, so I offered to help backstage. My girlfriend at the time told me I should get up there. She said, “C’mon, go up there and do Risky Business or something.” I thought that it looked fun and I could probably slide across the stage in my underwear. Once I was up there, there was some magic that happened. There were no words for what I felt. There was something in me that knew how to do this. I was surprised that it was part of me.

Heidi is staring down a sculpture by Sharon Dorsey.
Heidi is staring down a sculpture by Sharon Dorsey.
Cat meets clowns!
Cat meets clowns!
The portrait of Heidi was painted by Joey Monsoon.
The portrait of Heidi was painted by Joey Monsoon.
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You described drag as a political statement. What do you mean by that?

I am on stage to reveal the absurdity that real men are 100% masculine and are only attracted to real women. And that real women are 100% feminine and are only attracted to real men. I didn’t know this immediately. In the beginning it was fun and was just getting used to my sea legs. During those first years of performing, a bunch of drag kings were in the Women’s Studies program at OSU getting their master’s degrees. They started to talk to all of us about what performing drag really meant. After a couple of years of learning more about what it meant to perform gender, my tendency to want to make the world a better place came out.  If I am good at grabbing people’s attention, then I have a responsibility to say something important. That is how it became political.

Some CAW fans might recognize you as a giant, lovable Sasquatch. What was the significance of that performance?

Over the last three or four years bullying has become a big topic. Obviously it has been going on since the beginning of time, but when you have [the audience’s] attention you can get somewhere new with them. Heidi Kambitsch and I decided to make a performance with clowning and her body puppets. With those two things we created an interactive, anti-bullying performance for kids called Bully Eraser, Love Replacer. The Sasquatch character was about my sister’s story growing up being bullied. She had to change high schools because she was bullied so much. I was a year ahead of her and I didn’t understand why she was having such a hard time. In high school it is all about you and saving face in your grade. A lot of the bullying was emotional trauma, so I didn’t see the bruised feelings at the time. I’ve carried that around with me for years. This was an opportunity to go back and interview her, and then write a story for her. My sister was tall for her age and she hadn’t grown into her paws yet. This one asshole called her Sasquatch so the character is supposed to be my sister. It was my way to say that I am sorry.

Family stories are important inspiration in your artistic practice. Can you talk a little bit about the story of your uncle and the BIG project that you’ve been working on for several years?

Aunt Christine was a Catholic nun for 30 years. In the late eighties she left the nunnery to become a radical feminist lesbian. In the late nineties she decided to transition into Uncle Chris. So the name of the play is called From Sister to Mister. Uncle Chris is a real person who lives in Cleveland. He is a professional nurse and is 71 years old now. He is really important in my life because he is someone who made some really hard life choices. When she left the convent, it was the same time that I was a freshman in college so I felt like we were both leaving home. When she came out to the family at that time, I was also coming out in my mind, so we kind of came out together. When I found that she was transitioning, I had been a drag king for 5 or 6 years and realized that drag could be very serious performance. I really wanted to bring Chris’s story to the stage. In terms of the people in my life who I am really proud to know and can learn from, he is in the top three. I wanted to write a play about his life and I have spent eight years working on two versions of the play.

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There is a performance related to From Sister to Mister that is coming up in October. What is it?

I have taken a three-year break from the play and have been focusing on my performances with Heidi Kambitsch. I certainly want to write the final version [of the play]. This is a life project for me because my uncle is so important to me and I know this story needs to be out there. And I know I am the one to put it out there.

I needed to see the play through a different lens because I was too close to it. Two friends, one who is the manager at the Garden Theater and another who runs a dance company here in town, came up with a project to choreograph dance pieces to local plays. So I sent them my play for consideration. Long story short, they picked it! There are three choreographers, producing three dance pieces, to three plays in late October. I get to be part of the artistic process with the dancers between now and the performance. That will help me figure out what piece is missing in the play. By the way, Uncle Chris’ story isn’t done yet! He just got married last August to a woman in a Catholic church.

What advice would you give a performer just starting out?

It is really important to find your authentic voice. Not only through your voice, but also through your movement, how you look, and especially what your subject matter is. Make sure it is something you really, really care about. Because if you care about it, you will become a mirror for your audience and they will find the things in that mirror that they care about. I have no desire to do any type of performance that does not bring the performers and the audience together to see something new.

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