James Pelican, professional clown, has directorial debut with Cinnabar’s ‘Ripcord’


Professional clown and actor James Pelican will make his debut as a director on Friday, Jan. 31, with Cinnabar Theater’s production of “Ripcord.” The dark comedy is by playwright David Lindsay-Abaire, best known for the screenplay of the 2010 film adaptation of his Pulitzer-winning play “Rabbit Hole,” starring Nicole Kidman.

A resident of Petaluma for the past decade, by day Pelican is facilities manager for the Occidental Arts and Ecology Center. At night, however, he is part of the trio Clowns on a Stick, which regularly performs original comic skits of very physical comedy.

“Ripcord” may be the perfect show for a first-time director who loves slapstick, farce and commedia dell’arte. In the play, two aging but powerful women, roommates in a retirement home, make war on each other — an escalation both physical and verbal.

Pelican 1The play was suggested to Cinnabar by Kate Brickley, the Equity actor who plays opposite Laura Jorgenson, a much-loved local actor known for her comedy work. Pelican had not previously seen or read the play, but once he did, he saw the potential for great comedy, despite the darker themes in the play. It helps that Jorgenson and Brickley are both highly skilled comediennes.

“The two lead characters are Titans, clashing furiously but somehow bound together,” Pelican said. “Lindsay-Abaire is such a great comic playwright. He really gets how to set up a joke.”

The play and its six characters swing wildly from the comic to the serious, a tricky balance.

“When you have a deadly serious scene right after a comic scene, you must match the comic scene’s energy,” Pelican said, “and the characters can’t become cartoon characters.”

Pelican says, he’s also built “little bits of physical comedy” for between the scenes. To maintain the high-low tension between scenes, the bits are set to Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto.

RipcordCinnabar has carefully trained Pelican his step into the role of director, co-directing five shows with artistic director Ellie Lichensteinover the last few seasons. The training has mostly been in the realms of opera and musical theater, including the operas “Pagliacci” and “The Barber of Seville,” and the musical “Cabaret.” Pelican was allowed to shape scenes and give notes to actors.

“We work well together,” he said of Lichenstein. “I owe her so much.”

A performing clown since 2003, Pelican began his acting career in 2006 by taking an acting class at 6th Street Playhouse in Santa Rosa. He then auditioned for the musical “Man of La Mancha” at 6th Street. The guest director, Lichenstein, took one look at Pelican and thought she had found her Don Quixote —tall, gaunt, comically striking in appearance.

“She wanted me for the role until she heard my frog voice,” he allowed. She put him in the ensemble anyway, recognizing his potential. Once Pelican moved to Petaluma, Lichenstein began casting him in shows regularly. She also became his mentor in the art of directing.

“Opera is a great school for learning how to direct because you’re so confined,” he said. “For one thing, the singers have to be able to see the musical director, which effects blocking, or how and where the singer moves. Also, singers are like high-performance cars or athletes—they have to be treated well. They work hard and have no time for bull.”

[Click HERE to read the full story in the Petaluma Argus-Courier]

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