LA JOLLA — There I was, quietly taking notes on a clowning class at the La Jolla Playhouse when someone yelled "Niagara Falls!" and--mmmphhh!--two cream pies clapped like squishy cymbals on either side of my head.
"With pie all over, you can't see and you can't hear, so I didn't put it on your face," 14-year-old Brett d'Elia graciously explained.
Such good manners didn't seem to be on her mind earlier. Ten minutes after we were introduced, she leaned over in her fake nose and glasses and squirted water all over my chest. (A trick nose, I learned too late.)
Theater critics just get no respect.
It was the third week of Stephen Gray's "zany class in the creative foolishness of clowning" for high school students. The Sunday afternoon class is part of the La Jolla Playhouse Young Performer's Conservatory, held at UC San Diego.
By the time it was over, all four beginning clowns, their instructor, the visiting journalist, and students innocently waiting for an acting class were covered with thick globs of sweet-smelling shaving cream. The fluffy white stuff covered the floor and walls and left sticky trails down the hallway to the bathrooms. We all had a wonderful time.
Gray looked like the kind of teacher any kid would love to have. He had a shiny red nose pushed up on the top of his head, rainbow suspenders, drooping red tie and shaving cream dripping off his ears and nose.
The pies (made of shaving cream because whipped cream smells sour and stains) were the grand finale of a sketch the class had been working on since their first day. Much of it was created on the spot, but D'Elia explained that she and her three male classmates (ages 15-17) tried to include everything they had learned so far--silly walks and voices, ear pulls, nose punches, shin kicks and stumbles.
Playing a drunk in the sketch, Gray took the first pie in the face. He confessed later that it wasn't a brave gesture. He knew that if he wasn't first they would all gang up on him in the end.
The 35-year-old instructor is an old pro with cream pies. He put himself through college as a masked pie "hit man" for hire, waltzing into ballrooms with his "ammunition" and clobbering his target. He said he got a lot of anonymous publicity, but no one ever caught him white-handed.
He is also a professional actor and instructor whose most recent credits include work at South Coast Repertory Theatre. As manager of education at the La Jolla Playhouse, Gray tours local schools and teaches classes in stage combat, mime and mask techniques during the four-week conservatory.
"He's just unpredictable," said 16-year-old Stuart Lindland. "When he comes to our school, you just don't know what he's going to do. The first time I saw him, he was doing something on Shakespeare and then the next thing he was being a Samurai warrior in our class."
Lindland, who is also enrolled in Carla Kirkwood's acting and improvisation class, was a little surprised to be throwing pies in the classroom.
"I've had a lot of fun," he said. "The first day I thought he would outline the class and all, but we just jumped into the sketches and doing things. It's not hard. He just choreographs a bunch of things and he asks for us to put in whatever we want to do, too. We collaborate and make a whole big sketch."
After they practiced their pratfalls and put on a funny hat, baggy skirt, yellow rain slicker or silly nose, Gray reminded Lindland; D'Elia; Jeff Kaimi, 15, and Ted Clark, 17, that a comedy sketch has three parts, "like an ice cream sundae."
First comes the vanilla ice cream, or the who-what-where set-up. Next, the "hot pickles"--the nuts and sauces--"where things get hotter and faster." Finally, the cherry goes on top.
"The hardest part of all is to find how to put the cherry on top because it has to be something that is unexpected as well as funny," Gray said. He gave as an example a sketch in which a man is eating an apple and finds a worm inside. The capper is when the man chooses to eat the worm because it tastes better.
Shaving-cream pies are the easiest, Gray said, because they always work.
D'Elia, who enrolled to prepare material for a talent show at her school, said being the only girl in the class isn't so bad. She knew what to expect because Gray is her stepfather.
"I get a little more embarrassed sometimes, I don't know why--maybe because I am a girl," she said. "Today I had fun because I was under my costume."
For Elizabeth Friedman and Rachel Overton, both 16, the more conventional acting and improvisation class seemed like a good way to meet people from other schools, to have fun, and--oh, yeah--to work on their acting skills.
After mopping up the floor and themselves, Kirkwood's students had taken over the room.