“Heading into Night,” featuring Cirque du Soleil clown Daniel Passer, explores the unexpected humor and discoveries to be found in the loss of memory.

Clown play explores the heartbreak and humor of aging

In the new performance work “Heading into Night: a Clown Ode on…(forgetting),” director Beth Frances Milles ’88, associate professor of performing and media arts in the College of Arts and Sciences, investigates the poignancies of memory.

“This is a piece about joy, loss and searching – for meaning or for your car keys,” Milles said.

The solo clown performance featuring Cirque du Soleil clown Daniel Passer premieres at Ithaca’s Cherry Arts March 17-26, both in person and online.

"Heading into Night” represents a synthesis of research, performance and community engagement, Milles said, in response to the heightened sense of loneliness many – both elderly and not so elderly – experienced during the pandemic.

The performance begins in an empty space with three chairs. Slowly, the space is filled with moving boxes, which yield, in Passer’s control, physical trickery and obstacles.

“The boxes will reveal a collection of our memories,” Milles said. “It is an immersive performance, drawing from the communal participation of the audience.”

Milles and Passer, longtime collaborators, developed the interactive piece as an investigation into kinder, gentler care dementia villages based on Hogeweyk Village, an eldercare facility in the Netherlands, where people facing cognitive loss are nurtured in a community.

Preparing the work, Milles delved into cognitive science research about repetition, connecting the mental looping characteristic of cognitive loss with clowning and commedia dell’arte theater.

“Clown is often built on repetition,” Milles said. “It seemed a very organic connection.”

Milles and Passer worked on the project for almost two years, Passer said.

“Looking through the lens of clown – and bringing a sense of joy and childlike innocence to the theme of memory – has been a rich landscape to explore,” Passer said. “I love collaborating with Beth, dreaming up the impossible and striving to bring it to life.”

As a director and theater creator, Milles specializes in new and devised work investigating the comic impulse and exploring the outer edges of farce and improbability. She has directed on Broadway and at theaters around the country, including award-winning productions with the celebrated Actors Gang in Los Angeles. She is a member of the Cherry Collective in Ithaca.

Passer has been a lead clown and comedy conceptor for Cirque du Soleil for more than a decade. He has performed on Broadway and at venues including Radio City Music Hall, ART, Oregon Shakespeare and Moscow Art Theatre.

The production is supported in part by a grant from the New York State Council for the Arts and includes a community outreach element. Milles and Passer are leading storytelling sessions at Longview Senior Living Community and the Greater Ithaca Activities Center.

“Daniel and I want to be adventurers, to explore ways to give to our community when we’re making this work,” Milles said.

A related clown workshop, including Cornell students and members of the public, was held at the Schwartz Center in February. Passer will give a Professional Directions career conversation for Cornell students on March 13 at 5 p.m. in the Schwartz Center Film Forum.

A tour of the piece is planned for summer 2023.

Milles thinks that many people faced cognitive challenges from the isolation and altered communications of the pandemic.

“There is nothing less certain than not knowing. And there is a mystical, tenuous fragility in the state of losing one’s place, as well as an audacious power in just ‘being,’” Milles said. “Our work is focused on the joy of rediscovery.”

Kate Blackwood is a writer for the College of Arts and Sciences.

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Rebecca Valli