Updated: May 13, 2022
The gift of the clown up and down Broadway.
By Maya T. Weed
If you crossed Columbia’s campus on Oct. 13, 2021, between the hours of 10 and 12, you may have witnessed The Most Beautiful Thing in the World.
Barnard professor Crystal Finn formulated a grand plan to sic a gaggle of fools upon unsuspecting students and faculty, fools who heckled for spare change and expendable possessions from atop the sundial—a makeshift stage in the middle of campus foot traffic. (Following the advertised “Most Beautiful Thing in the World” came a performance of a Dolly Parton cover set to “Cotton Eye Joe” choreography). This troupe of clowns, which included myself, registered for Finn’s Acting Comedy class ignorant of the celebrations, challenges, and stories that it would produce. And throughout, we could all tell that our professor was sitting on her own sharp comedic talents.
Finn, in addition to her position as adjunct acting professor, is an affiliated artist with Clubbed Thumb, an acclaimed theater company that “commissions, develops and produces funny, strange and provocative new plays by living American writers.” Making the rounds in the downtown theater world, she has performed with the Manhattan Theater Club, Playwrights Horizons, Roundabout, 59E59, and many more. She is a playwright as well as a performer, and her intimate essay published in the American Theater Magazine came from one of her performance pieces, In Defense of Theater.
In recent news, Finn made her Broadway debut this April in Noah Haidle’s new play Birthday Candles. Directed by Vivienne Benesch, the play runs until May 29 at the Roundabout Theater Company’s American Airlines Theater. As I sat down for my first Broadway show ticket since the pandemic, I was enchanted by the whole space as I waited for the show to begin, especially the set design by Christine Jones—the pastel-cabineted kitchen, sentimental objects suspended in the air alongside phases of the moon—life’s debris lost, or preserved, by time …
The play travels through the birthdays of Ernestine, portrayed by Will & Grace’s Debra Messing, from age 17 until perhaps 107. Every year, Ernestine bakes the same cake using the same recipe, while the play itself stirs the same ingredients, of players and phrases of language, together to highlight the patterns that populate our lives. When Finn enters the scene, she brings the audience to uproarious laughter and applause at her characters’ endearingly chaotic quirks. Each of her three characters, but particularly Joan, are slight outsiders to Ernestine’s inner circle, and I could not wait to speak with Finn about her work that we were not privy to when dancing around Milbank 229.
On the first 80-degree day of the year, the two of us sat outside of a sunny café in the East Village—a lovely arrival of spring, if not too warm. My recording device overheated under the intense rays, and so halfway through our chat we relocated to a shady, stony plaza just off of Astor Place. Around the corner, The Public Theater loomed large, a fitting backdrop for our musings on the gift of plays.
This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
The Blue & White: One of my first questions is just a curiosity of mine: When we were singing “Jolene” on the college walk sundial, you would disappear, and then we’d turn around and you'd be way over, far away! What were you observing? What was that experience for you? ’Cause it was very strange for us …
CF: Oh that’s so funny, I guess I wasn’t even consciously doing that. I think I just wanted to give you all space to do your thing. And I felt like if I was there, it would look like something organized by a teacher or directed by me. So I wanted to … not be a part of the picture, and then just let people interact with you. Without me facilitating anything. And I … did observe things.
B&W: Yes. And people did. ’Cause we were selling “The Most Beautiful Thing in the World” for 5 cents, but then across the way, another group was selling astrology readings for free! So it became a competition. But was there a history to that exercise? Or was that something that you discovered in that class?
CF: I think that this was the first time that I really took things outside, and I think part of that was because of the pandemic and because we were masked and I wanted to just give us a chance to take our masks off. I don’t know if it was even sanctioned, but we did it.
B&W: And we did acquire, not just people’s money, but I think we got a banana and someone’s breakfast, pieces of granola …
CF: Yeah, people were very eager to participate. But “The Most Beautiful Thing in the World” does come from a teacher of mine, a clown teacher of mine named Chris Bayes, who was really formative in my training … He’s sort of a master clown, and he was teaching at grad school when I was there. I had him for three years, and so he really was the person that introduced me to this very specific clowning tradition—which is the red-nose clowning tradition … I’m just stealing from him. And then another teacher I had named Steven Buescher who was a little bit more out of the Commedia tradition and his own branch of study. So from the two of them really is where I learned my own kind of clowning. I don’t do nearly what they do in terms of giving the history, you know, we don’t get that deep into it in this class, and this was only the second time I taught a specific comedy class. So I feel like I’m still figuring it out, right?
B&W: Yeah! And I’ve taken your class, but also [your husband] Andy Bragen’s playwriting classes. He had us read a speech given by Sarah Ruhl about writing plays as giving gifts to people. And I remember when you were also talking about clowns in class like they’re giving gifts, comedy bits as giving little gifts … is that a conscious common thread?
CF: That's really cool that you make that connection because I know that piece, and Sarah speaks about that really beautifully and speaks also about the gift economy, right? Like—how do you remove art from the economy?
The way I’m talking about it in our class is also coming from the clown tradition from those teachers. And Chris Bayes would particularly use that language as a way of talking about what it means to get up on stage and be in front of an audience. So those actually are two very different corners, I think, coming together. And actually there's a real relationship between those two things, what Sarah is talking about and what Chris is talking about … about what it means to stand up and offer something to an audience.
B&W: Last year, the first piece I wrote with The Blue and White was an article where I interviewed a small handful of professors that are married to other professors. And I specifically avoided the theater department just ’cause I was very [steeped] in that environment …
CF: Yeah. There’s a lot.
B&W: But is there a story to how you [and Andy] ended up at Barnard?
CF: Well, we were at grad school together. Andy was there for playwriting and I was there for acting. And so there was sort of a consortium of the writers and the directors and the actors, and they were taking their own separate classes, but then we would act in their productions. And the first little thing, Andy wrote for this consortium class I was in—it was some long monologue that was really funny. And that was before we even started dating. So we were together there, and that's how we met, and then I started working at Barnard before him. But we really like sharing students, and we obviously talk about things probably totally differently, but I do think we have a shared aesthetic or a shared lineage of the plays we love. So theres, hopefully, some threads connecting those things, even though I think we'’re doing obviously very, very different things …
B&W: Yes, for sure. I'm very glad that I’ve been able to take classes with both of you. And you also write! Have you always written plays, or was it inspired by your experience as an actor?
CF: I was always writing plays on the side, and at grad school we had a program—because it was new and a little bit scrappy, we were all just doing everything—and that was really great for me ’cause I liked doing that, and my friends were writing plays, and I was directing plays. Then when I got to the city, Andy really encouraged me to keep writing. He had a teacher when he was young named Tina Howe who’s a famous playwright, and she was teaching at Hunter College. I started just going to her class ’cause Andy introduced me—just to be a reader, an actor—and she and I sort of fell in love, you know, just really clicked. And then I asked if I could take the class as a writer, so she was my writing teacher in a way. Then, I’ve just been doing it … sometimes more on the side. Obviously during the pandemic, I got to put a lot more focus on that, and I feel like this past year it’s been a real focus of mine.
B&W: With new work, that brings me to think about Clubbed Thumb as well, and that theater company. When did you join that group?
CF: Very early on, being in New York, they were one of the first companies that I worked with—in a very early Sam Hunter play, he’s an amazing writer. This was years ago in the old Ohio Theater on Wooster Street. There was no air conditioning. So that was one of my first shows that I did in New York and it was with that company, and I think, since then, they’ve just been a real home. It's a kind of synergy between what they do and a lot of the writers that I got to know—Andy's classmates, the people surrounding Andy’s class coming out of Brown. So most of my acting jobs have really come from writers and directors that I know, which is why it would make sense that I ended up at a place like Clubbed Thumb as opposed to through casting agents or something like that.
B&W: Are you particularly drawn to the comedic, strange show?
CF: I think I am. I mean, I think being married to a playwright, and trying to write myself, and loving so many different writers, I feel like that is my way into what a play is. I definitely am drawn towards things that are funny and crazy and unexpected, trying new things and playing with things, that's really something I've found has been at the forefront.
B&W: Now jumping to Birthday Candles—when I was looking at the program on Tuesday, I noticed quite a few names with Clubbed Thumb in their bios. How did Clubbed Thumb factor into that show?
CF: Well, my best friend is the other young woman in that. And she has also done many Clubbed Thumb shows. We did a show together at Clubbed Thumb called Plano … two iterations of that, and our other best friend was in it with us. So it was very special. So the two of us crossing paths a lot is probably why that company is coming up.
B&W: So how did all of you get involved in Birthday Candles?
CF: We auditioned, we just auditioned! Oh, okay, I mean, Debra Messing didn't audition, but yeah … I had worked at Roundabout twice before, in their very small theater.
B&W: That's so wonderful then that all of you got involved! And in terms of working with your best friend, on probably multiple shows over the years, does that feel like a rare thing?
CF: It does. It’s very rare and very lucky, and obviously probably some of that is of our own making in ways that we can't even unravel, and some of it is probably just kismet. But it does feel very rare.
B&W: I was having such fun in the audience, not only watching you, but seeing how much everyone loved Joan in the audience as well. It felt like Joan is, in her own way, a special kind of clown. Do you have any thoughts about Joan and how you found her character?
CF: I feel like when I read the script, I really understood her in a kind of family tree of plays that I knew … Chris Durang plays, Tina Howe plays, honestly, that generation of playwrights. There's a playwright named Harry Kondoleon … a favorite writer of mine. And I just feel like I understood her in that lineage of writers … And then the other thing you're saying, from the clown perspective—I feel like I did see her asking for that interpretation. She could handle that level of … weirdness.
B&W: For Joan in particular, there’re objects flying around—have there been any instances when things are scarily new?
CF: Um, not scarily. I mean, that’s a little gift built into the play, speaking of gifts for a clown anyway, because it literally is gonna be new every night. You literally can’t control where objects go. So that's the kind of thing that, when you’re thinking about clown work, is so great to have built into your routine. ’Cause you know that you’re gonna be given a slightly fresh problem every night. We talked about this in the class, that … you wanna set up problems for yourself that you have to struggle with.
B&W: So the rehearsal process started in the beginning of March 2020, right at the beginning of that month before the world got put on hold. In that process of starting rehearsals, how far had you gotten?
CF: We had gotten two weeks into rehearsal … and then everything just shut down, and I actually ended up quarantining with that friend Susannah for a while; my family and her family, her fiancé, all together for a while. We were together processing that play ending and not knowing what was going to happen. Everything was completely on hold—I think our whole identities really. So the two years were kind of a process of letting go of those identities … just saying, “I don’t really identify right now as an actor,” in particular. [We were] not saying, “I’ll never do this again,”… but it couldn’t really be present as something I felt.
B&W: I once had a teacher that would constantly ask us, “When you’re not doing theater, or doing anything that you feel is a vocation, who are you? Who are you apart from what you do?” And I found myself asking that question a lot during that year for sure. I think by asking that question, it led me to find my way back to the theater, to be hungry to return to acting, but—
CF: In a different way, I’m sure.
B&W: Yeah … Did you ever read, or see the show Station Eleven?
CF: I did not read the book, but you know Enrico in Birthday Candles is in it?
B&W: Wait what! No—
CF: I know that, but I haven’t actually seen it … But I know it’s kind of about theater returning…
B&W: Yes, I keep thinking about it during the pandemic, that even in these moments, theater is what brings people together. It’s so vital to people understanding one another, keeping community alive, and fostering that even in these moments of pause.
When the process started back up again, was it very sudden? Or did you anticipate that it would?
CF: We knew for a few months that it was going to be happening. But I do think that in some fundamental way, my relationship to acting had changed. It was just less known to me, what my relationship was to it anymore … I don’t think I had as many expectations, or ideas of what it should be, and I think maybe everyone felt that way. So that was great, actually—coming to it feeling like … it was amazing that it was even happening. That’s kind of how everyone feels these days.
B&W: And as far as this script, it’s such a beautiful story about time passing and the people that we stay close with or who wander apart. Having that year-and-a-half, almost two year break, how did your relationship to the story itself evolve?
CF: That is something we talked about a lot. Susannah talked about … feeling like, during the pandemic, you’re just aware of anonymous lives lived more than normal. And you’re reading obituaries and talking to friends who’ve lost—you know? That idea of … an unknown, anonymous life. We were thinking a lot about that when coming back to it, and that this woman at the center of the play really could be anyone. She’s extraordinary simply because she is herself—and realizes that at the end of the play. She has a moment of accepting her life and accepting her death. Those are the kinds of things that make her extraordinary …
B&W: And it’s so incredible to see you all travel through time, through different characters but also different ages. Your characters are the few that survive, or rather, don’t have a moment of being blown offstage in the wind—do you have a favorite?
CF: I think of Joan as being … my character in the play, and then the other characters being reincarnations of her—so that it’s all kind of one character in a washing machine a little bit. Honestly I didn’t really think about them even that much as characters—I just thought of them as motifs. So much of what they say, in those later scenes, is all things that have been said before in the play and been repeated, and so I think the play is asking for a slightly different understanding of character. So I just didn’t burden myself with that at all. I wasn’t thinking about making them different … the character is kind of the repetition.
B&W: Ah, and that’s something in Andy’s playwriting classes, when we read Suzan Lori Parks and her “repetition and revision” concept—this play used it beautifully each time a phrase seemed to pop up again in a different way … The cycles that we pick up on, don’t pick up on, and infuse into our lives like the baking of the cake every year—
CF: And some things you inherit from your parents … language that becomes your own. I think that’s where the playwriting and the acting conversation, for me and for Andy, really come together, because when you talk about repetition in that way … what does it mean to inhabit that as an actor? You kind of just have to trust that that is doing the work, that that is character. There isn’t really anything unseen … as an actor, you only have what’s in the play.
B&W: This run lasts until the end of May, and then for the summer, are you going to be involved in the Clubbed Thumb Summerworks?
CF: I won’t be this year, no, that’s happening during this run—but I will be excited to go to them, and I know that the three plays that are happening are going to be really wonderful. I don’t have any other acting jobs lined up—I’m going to California, and I’m going to a silent writers’ retreat, which I’ve done once before with this playwright … and they’re really cool.
B&W: Oh, yes, I feel like I need a framework in order to write something to completion—
CF: Yes, well this will do it. This is what you need. It’ll get you there. Like, you can’t not finish something, ’cause it’s all you’re doing. And I think that they’re all really connected—I do think that design and acting and writing are all—when you’re in a conversation in a production with a designer and you’re suddenly realizing, oh, that’s the same conversation that I need to be having with my actors, or the actors realize, oh, I’m actually learning from the design around me about what style my acting should be, or what this play is. A director is doing all of that integrating for you, but … they are actually the same conversation.
B&W: I think that’s very true. Especially, in the stuff that I’ve been able to work on as a designer. Tablework sessions have been so instrumental in trying to find what is the energy of the show. And for Birthday Candles, I was sitting in the audience before the show began looking at the set, admiring how I could get a sense of the show’s essence and spirit just by looking at the lost objects hanging above—
CF: Christine Jones is an amazing set designer, and she also is concurrently designing the set for Macbeth on Broadway, so you should go see it and compare them—I haven’t seen it, but I’m sure they’re completely different. And that’s where it’s really cool to think about the worlds you’re creating and how language is going to interact with those things. I think there’s an assumption sometimes that acting isn’t a part of those aesthetic conversations, or that acting is just acting and you just try to be a good actor or something, but that doesn’t really exist—you are choosing an aesthetic. You are inside of a specific world and that’s gonna change, and how language is working is gonna change. And so … how the play looks and feels on the page is part of what’s teaching a designer and then teaching an actor. It’s all of those things.
B&W: For people, say, like myself, who are exiting a very secure framework and environment in terms of how to make theater, educational theater … I don’t know if advice is the word I’m looking for, but inspiration to continue making things, living in the city making art … What were your experiences exiting undergrad? How did you find ways to continue making stuff?
CF: Well, I went straight to grad school precisely because I was so scared of that exact question, so I think it’s brave. I think it’s great that you are taking time … I think that that’s really important. It will be hard, because you won’t have those education structures in place to allow you space, really, to work and make things. I know that when I got out of grad school that I experienced that same feeling, and I had had so many opportunities to work and create in an educational setting. I felt very adrift.
Just read plays with friends, write plays. You don’t have to always get to the production stage. There’s a project that I’ve been working on over the pandemic ’cause I finally had time to do it with a director friend of mine and a dramaturg, and we just met on Zoom. We are basically working on this experimental novel. It’s probably a ten-year-long project. We have no idea if it can even possibly be done, but there’s something about being very invested in the exploration of it that is its own reward.
I think for young artists, that is really important—all the sorts of ways you can explore making things, even if it’s just for each other … giving yourselves things that you’re interested in, and allowing your interests and allowing the material to guide you … Just start throwing stuff out there.