“Theatre is the extreme sport of acting – you just gotta be at the top of your game.” So states John Leguizamo at the outset of Tales from a Ghetto Klown, a new PBS documentary that charts the journey from page to stage of Leguizamo and his one-man Broadway show. The film comes at an opportune time for Canadians currently engrossed in Fringe Festivals and the army of solo shows that come with them. An engrossing look at the artistic method, the documentary reveals both the process of creating a solo show and the need to reinvent oneself in pursuit of artistic growth.
Although trained in the theatre – his acting teacher claims to have known right away that he was an “unusual talent” – Leguizamo is known to most for his varied film career (Moulin Rouge, Romeo + Juliet, the voice of Skrat in the Ice Age series). Despite this success, Leguizamo purposely took a step back from the movies to refocus his career. “[Hollywood]’s not just a meritocracy,” he tells us. “Your talent isn’t enough. It’s being ambitious and being really tough skinned. I don’t know if these things really go together with being an artist.”
Leguizamo was re-bitten by the stage bug after performing in a revival of David Mamet’s American Buffalo. The show closed in a week but it succeeded in reminding Leguizamo where he wanted to be. He has a firm history of solo shows, such as Spic-o-rama (1993) and the Drama Desk award winning Freak (1998), each centred around the conflict between his Latino identity and the rest of the word. With the show that would become Ghetto Klown, he decided to focus on the impact his Hollywood career had on his personal relationships.
“I wanted to enjoy the [development] process,” Leguizamo says. “I didn’t want it to be a race…I just wanted to really enjoy doing my thing.” This focus on process over final product is hardly revolutionary for Canadians – our various funding bodies tend to favor projects that focus on development – but south of the border it’s slightly more unique. Leguizamo spent months creating the show with director / actor Fisher Stevens and eventually turned to a tradition that was once a staple in the American theatre: the out of town tryout. At one point, Leguizamo’s producer, Arnold Engelmann, dryly understates the risks ahead: “Broadway is a very unforgiving situation,” he deadpans.
At times, the film’s exclusive focus on Leguizamo’s professional life risk turning it into the sort of featurette found on a DVD. Yet in the last twenty minutes the story takes a sharp turn when Leguizamo makes the extraordinary decision to translate the show into Spanish and perform it in Colombia, where his parents are from. The catch: Leguizamo didn’t speak Spanish. Here, the drama becomes more engaging as we watch Leguizamo struggle with his translator / tutor, Rosie Berrito. Later, when he arrives in Colombia, he is nearly incapacitated by sickness brought on by oxygen deprivation (Colombia is miles above sea level).
There’s no denying Tales from a Ghetto Klown is an inside baseball sort of film. While it’s gratifying to see a minority succeed in the whitewashed world of Hollywood and Broadway, the non-artistic may find themselves bored by the struggle of some guy whose biggest problem is putting on a play. Still, it’s hard not to become engaged by the travails of Leguizamo and the production team. And his artistic commitment is equally inspiring: “I knew I went after some dangerous, something that meant a lot to me,” Leguizamo says towards the end. “I think that’s why I went back to the theatre, because it was the only place that allowed me to say the things the way I wanted to.”
Tales from a Ghetto Klown directed by Ben DeJesus will have its broadcast premiere on PBS on July 13, 2012 at 9:00 PM ET. For more information about the show visit www.ghettoklownonbroadway.com