I Am YEG Arts: Christine Lesiak
January 16, 2024
Christine Lesiak is a theatre creator and performer specializing in clown theatre, physical storytelling, and interactive comedy. Perhaps best known for the hit interactive comedy show For Science!, her approach to the creative process is rooted in adventure, curiosity, and most importantly, a willingness to break things apart to make it even better. In this week’s I Am YEG Arts story, Christine Lesiak tells us how a background in science and a love of clowning influences her artistic work, and talks about how her new show The Spinsters offers a new perspective on some classic fairytale characters.
Tell us about your connection to Edmonton and what keeps you living and working here.
It’s a bit of an accident that I ended up in Edmonton, I think like a lot of people actually. I grew up in New Brunswick, in Fredericton, and I think it was in 1993 that I came to Edmonton for Graduate School at the University of Alberta, thinking I would just say for a couple of years. But Edmonton has a way of growing on you. It’s quite a hidden gem in the country. Now my family and my roots are here; the roots can grow deep quickly in Edmonton. It’s just a wonderful city to call home.
As a theatre artist it’s a super vibrant community and Edmonton really is a place you can take a risk as an artist. The theatre community itself is energized and vibrant because it constantly has new artists – new artistic blood – entering it all the time, so the community doesn’t get stale the way it can in other places.
Prior to pursuing a master’s in fine arts, you completed a Bachelor of Science specializing in physics. What convinced you to divert your career path to the arts?
I think it was a bit more of a meandering path rather than a hard pivot. I still love science. I love the way it formulates a way of thinking and analyzing and being open to the world. I think that’s really important for everybody. I was studying a Masters in space physics at the University of Alberta and there was a moment when I understood that it wasn’t my calling. I was working with amazing minds from all over the world and I could see, ah, this is what it’s like: they have the calling to do this because it’s all they want to do and all they want to talk about is their work. I think the thing I realized was that as much as I loved it, it wasn’t the thing I wanted to dedicate my entire life to.
As my kids got a little bit older, I took some improv classes through Rapid Fire Theatre and realized OK, this is the thing that’s been missing in my life. After a little bit I fell into clowning, and I met Jan Henderson. I think anyone who has met the incomparable Jan Henderson knows that she can convince you to do anything. She looked at me and said you’re going to take my class. I did, and she was right – because she is always right – and once my clown was unleashed there was no putting her back in the box.
I found myself having to confront and accept the fact that I’ve wanted to be a creator and an artist for a long time. One of the beautiful things about Edmonton is the Edmonton Fringe and that you can throw your name in the hat and if yours gets pulled, then you’re doing a show. That’s what happened in 2007. My name went in a hat, I got a spot, and Small Matters Productions was born.
How does science continue to influence your artistic projects?
One of the really interesting things that I have realized is that science and theatre are not really that different. They both require a spirit of adventure, of curiosity, and very critically, a willingness to fail because innovators need to embrace failure as a natural part of the process, and that’s also what the clowning training is very good for. One of the things that Jan Henderson teaches is the notion right, righter, and rightest. In the creation process you have to iterate on an idea: you’ll come up with an idea, and then you will keep refining it until it gets better and better and more accurate. And the scientific method is exactly the same thing.
Tell us a little bit about your role with Play the Fool and what makes it special to you and to the city.
The Play the Fool Festival is Edmonton’s festival of clown theatre and physical comedy. There are only two festivals of its kind in all of Canada. The other is in Montréal, which does have more of circus focus. The styles are very different. It’s the only place in Western Canada for practitioners of this form to get together. It is four days where we embrace risk, exploration, and play, and we also educate people as to what clown performance really is because it’s a very, very wide umbrella. It’s not only red nosed clowns and kid shows and street performers and jugglers and Cirque du Soleil — which are all amazing, fantastic forms of clowning — but it’s also, Charlie Chaplin in the film world. It’s also Blue Man Group. It’s drag artists like Jimbo and Bianca Del Rio. In film we have the likes of Rowan Atkinson, Melissa McCarthy, Kristen Wiig, Jim Carrey, and the Muppets. They’re everywhere. Recently when I was watching the Barbie movie, I was struck by how both Margot Robbie’s Barbie and Ryan Gosling’s Ken were so pure clown, just living from this place of innocence and discovery, and getting into trouble from pure naïveté. That is the world of the clown.
I think it’s also really important because many actors will tell you that their clown training was one of the best things they’ve ever done for their acting in terms of living in the moment and spontaneity. As a festival, Play the Fool gives our Edmonton artists a platform, the same platform as international and national level artists, so it really is a community building activity as well. I think that Play the Fool helps the Edmonton community understand how critical clowning is to the entire performance ecosystem. And also, we just want to laugh.
Through your work with both Small Matters Productions and Play the Fool you’ve taken on a role of mentor/collaborator where you help artists bring their ideas from concept to opening night. How important has collaboration been to your career, and why are you drawn to it?
Collaboration for me is fundamental to the creative process. In terms of mentorship, it’s a way for me to give back. Jan Henderson was generous in giving me countless hours of her time to help me hone my craft, apprentice under her, and understand and learn her pedagogy. I’ve had the opportunity to travel to learn from clown masters from all over the world, and it’s really important for me to be able to bring that back to Edmonton and disseminate that within our community. I also just love working in a mentorship capacity. Teachers are right when they say it keeps you young being around people younger than you. I have such a good time with it and it expands my mind.
I feel my job is to try to understand what it is the performer/creator is trying to achieve with their piece and help them achieve their vision with my knowledge and base of understanding. I think collaborative processes are critical because I don’t believe one person ever holds all the answers, even in a specific area. And I believe questions are incredibly important. This, I think, is part of my science brain that comes in. The scientist is never afraid to ask the question, even if it risks breaking a thing. In fact, I think those are maybe the most important questions to ask if it risks breaking the thing. I think that as collaborators and creators, when we bring our whole selves to the room, all of our foibles and warts and all, and we offer those to the project, we just have better outcomes and better experiences. I believe process matters.
Your new show, The Spinsters, opens at the Fringe Theatre on January 16th. How did you and Tara Travis come up with the idea for the show, and what do you hope the audience takes away from the performance?
The Spinsters is definitely the most ambitious thing that Small Matters Productions has ever undertaken, and possibly also the most bonkers. Just to give it a bit of a framework, The Spinsters is a reimagining of the classic story of Cinderella from the perspective of the ugly stepsisters. The audience meets the sisters as middle-aged ladies who’ve now bought the palace, and this time it’s their ball and it’s their rules.
The idea actually started in 2017 when my partner and our mechanical designer, Ian Walker, saw Tara Travis and I walking together down the road one night after leaving the beer tent at Fringe and said Ah, I see you on these giant, enormous dresses that glide around the stage seven feet tall. I could build those. Tara and I said that sounds fantastic, but that’s an image that’s not a whole play. Let’s figure out what that story is. It wasn’t until three years later in 2020, Tara and her husband and Ian and I were all in a cabin together in BC. We were on a hike, and it just came to me: Oh, we’re the ugly stepsisters because Cinderella is all about the dresses and the ball. Once we had that, we went through three years of creation period, writing, rewriting, experimenting with different styles of shadow puppetry and with different mechanical design for these crazy dresses that we’re on, working with some amazing designers, some from BC and Edmonton. Our original director and dramaturg is from Winnipeg. We have a sound designer from Prince Albert, Saskatchewan. It’s been quite a crazy ride.
In terms of what the audience can take away from the performance, we want them to laugh a lot. We do believe they will laugh a lot, but we also hope the rug gets pulled out at a certain point and it leaves them maybe having some conversations afterwards. The classic structure that I love is laugh for a long time, pull the rug, maybe have a little bit of a cry, and then leave them laughing again.
Once The Spinsters finishes its run, what are you working on or hope to explore next?
Coming up right away in March, I will be hosting an adoption event for the Lost Sock Rescue Society with another theatre creator, Louise Casemore, as a part of the SkirtsAfire Festival and we are very excited to educate the greater Edmonton community about the common misconception that single socks have no value outside of a bonded pair. And to fight implicit bias against mismatched stock mates.
For Science is going to be back at the Edmonton Fringe in the French Quarter again this summer. We’re super excited to do that. We’re also going to be looking for touring opportunities for The Spinsters. And then Ian Walker, who is the For Science! co-creator, and I have been noodling for a follow up to For Science!. We have an idea, it will be different, but in the same spirit of participatory whimsy.
About Christine Lesiak
Christine Lesiak (she/her) is an Edmonton/amiskwacîwâskahikan-based theatre artist, teacher, mentor, director, clown, and artistic director of Small Matters Productions, smallmatters.ca. She holds a BSc in Physics, and a Masters of Fine Arts in Drama. She is co-creator of and performer in Small Matters’ eight full-length shows, including the interactive comedy hit, For Science! (2018−24) and The Spinsters (2023÷24). She is a frequent collaborator with Edmonton companies Catch the Keys Productions, and Toy Guns Dance Theatre, and the Director of the Play the Fool Festival of clown-theatre and physical comedy. She specialises in clowning, collaborative devising and directing, audience experience design, interactive comedy, and physical storytelling. christinelesiak.com.
The Spinsters runs from January 16 – 27 at the Fringe Theatre Arts Barns. Click here to purchase tickets.