Note: this is an extended version of an interview that appears in this week's paper .
The sets are gone, and the costumes, and that giant blue-and-yellow tent. Master clown and performance maker John Gilkey  has ended his fourth stint with Cirque du Soleil since 1996. But if the wiry, often wild-haired Gilkey and his Muppet-like mug are no strangers to the big time, they move just as ferociously through a bare stage in a small venue wearing not much more than, these days, a bushy beard.
It’s been three years since Gilkey last performed in San Francisco — flanked by comedians Alec Jones-Trujillo and Donny Divanian, the deadpan naïfs of his avant-comedy trio, We Are Nudes. Just as the very funny yet vaguely unnerving, off-center style of Nudes occupied some indeterminate territory between sketch comedy and Dadaist destruction, Gilkey’s latest venture — the Los Angeles–based eight-member improvisational ensemble known as Wet the Hippo  — takes its audience beyond the usual endpoints of improv.
Born out of his Idiot Workshop classes in clown, Wet the Hippo is a big brand new baby of a beast, only four months old but charging forward with gusto — and an edgy, searching brilliance Gilkey is clearly thrilled with. He is frankly in love with his cast members, with whom Gilkey interacts as director, prodding them from onstage and off. Ahead of their first tentative tour (a three-stop zero-budget swing through Arcata, Placerville, and San Francisco), Gilkey picked up the phone from his LA roost to talk Hippo-thetically.
SF Bay Guardian Wet the Hippo is quite a change from Cirque du Soleil, more low-to-the-ground, very much autonomous.
John Gilkey Yeah, what we’re doing now — there’s eight of us, there’s no budget. Yeah. Low-to-the-ground is a good way to put it.
SFBG It’s a big contrast, but maybe there are similarities?
JG One way I describe the show: I’m taking everything I learned from Cirque about the creation process they have — although I should be clear about that: The creation process changed after Franco [Dragone] left. But when Franco was still there. And also when I was on Franco’s creative team for [his independent Las Vegas spectacular] Le Rêve — I’ve taken that process and I’ve applied that to this ten-dollar-a-ticket show with eight people. It’s an amazing contrast. And in some ways it’s quite similar. When I’m working with the performers, I work with them similarly to Franco in that he’s trying really to get to the nut of the person. His number one question is, “Who are you?” He’s trying to figure out what is it about this person that’s interesting. Their strengths, their weaknesses, their physicality, their voice, all this stuff — how can we magnify this person into an interesting stage presence?
I do that with my little cast here. It’s why I’ll do things like try to play with the juxtapositions — surreal qualities that Franco looks for, taking things that don’t belong together and squishing them together, layering the mise-en-scène, so you’ve got different things going on. Things that if you don’t hit it just right they conflict or distract. But if you get it just right, in the pocket, somehow they’ll come together into a holistic focus.
SFBG It’s an improvised show, but it’s clearly not the Harold  — or other improv forms we’re familiar with.
JG It’s something new that we’re trying to do, so we’re learning about it, discovering it as we go forward, as we search. It’s an evolving process. But what I’m looking for as the director, both offstage and onstage — or the conductor/director when I’m onstage — is to try to get everybody buzzing, ringing, in tune, and then see how they harmonize. I think when we hit, it is music. It’s on a level you can’t quite put into words. This is when we succeed. We don’t always succeed. Part of the show is us searching for that, which is also fun. We play a lot with success and failure. When we’re failing we try to really make sure that we acknowledge it and somehow use it to our advantage.
SFBG How can failure work to your advantage?
JG One thing we’re discovering is that the highs aren’t as high if the lows aren’t as low. So that’s one reason to fail. And I tell people when we’re rehearsing or in the classes that I teach (all of this came out of these classes): This is the spirit of clown. You’re always looking to get yourself into danger. You want to be in danger. That’s where the drama really comes. Instead of pretending, we try to really get into danger.
SFBG It seems that really good clown toys with disaster, really, or death, ultimately. It’s horror and laughter at once in the face of mortal truth.
JG Yeah, absolutely death. There’s this beautiful book, I don’t know if you ever read it, The Death and Resurrection Show. It’s out of print. You sometimes can get it online for like 200 bucks. Rogan Taylor. Anyway, his thought is that all modern entertainment can be traced back to early shamanism, to healers, and that even many modern performers have gone through something like the shaman’s journey. In fact, it’s the same as the hero’s journey — you get taken away from the place you know, you get torn asunder, you go through this process of learning how to put yourself back together, then you go back to this place that you’re originally from, and you share what you’ve learned. You learn about Charlie Chaplin growing up poor and unhealthy and having to survive that kind of childhood, and then anything that he creates is infused with those lessons he learned.
So death is always a part of it. We talk about dying onstage, when we’re doing comedy. It’s super visceral. We want to touch people on as many levels as we can.
SFBG In the show, you’re onstage and off as the director-conductor, prodding people. Where has that come from? Your work with Franco? Your work in the Idiot Workshop?
JG Yes, exactly. It’s inspired by my work with Franco and how Franco worked with the performers in Cirque. In turn, I think Franco got a lot of inspiration from working with guys like Philippe Gaulier, who was originally a teacher at the [École Jacques Lecoq] in Paris, and eventually went off on his own. He and Lecoq and this guy Pierre Byland were all credited with developing the modern clown form. So to be fair, Franco was heavily influenced by that. We, influenced by Franco, were in class and in rehearsals really trying to push the performers into the place where they don’t want to be — again, getting back to this danger and death idea. It’s that that’s where they become vulnerable, and that’s when you really see who they are.
So in rehearsals we often talked about am I going to be part of it, or do we get rid of me before we go onstage? As things developed, we [found] that with me there we could get into more danger — because I could help us get out of it. And I could push the performers into danger by being onstage. Also it just added a weird, wild element that was hard to define for the public. It kept the questions going, which felt engaged. There’s no fourth wall, so we want the public always to be engaged. When they’re not, that’s when we’re done.
In fact, all of the performers, except for the musician, have a fair amount of improv experience. And they’ve all felt limited by improv, because despite what it sounds like, there’s a lot of structure in improv. In terms of rules, but there’s also an imposed structure in terms of how you play as an actor, what’s accepted and what’s not. If you go too far, you freak out your fellow performers. So you have to stay in a particular window of commitment. There are certain emotional colors that you can share, and certain colors that you can’t, because otherwise you just freak people out and they don’t know how to follow you.
But we push to real extremes. I think that’s one of the things that makes us kind of special, that there’s this trust among us. We can go super far and the other [actor] can match us, no matter how far we go. We challenge each other with that.
SFBG This reminds me of a solo piece of yours, the one where you’re running in slow motion to a swelling score and you get shot down, and you get back up and get shot down again, and it goes on and on and on. It’s hilarious, at first, and then it’s something else, something more. You pass through the laughter to a mixture of horror and beauty.
JG Right. And that’s our goal. We want to find those moments. And we realize that to do that we have to push super far. It’s like when sense becomes nonsense, but somehow makes more sense. Earlier, in the beginning of the conversation, we were saying it becomes musical when we’re hitting. That musical quality is the sublime, another way to say it. It’s resonating on so many levels that we’re not quite sure; we’re not accustomed to processing it emotionally.
SFBG This is an exploration that goes beyond the usual endpoints — something riskier, unknown?
JG In standard improv, in standard comedy, you’re going for the laugh, always. I believe there’s something that is greater than the laugh. Maybe the easiest way to say it is that it’s the sublime. And the way to get to the sublime is to ask an actor to play at their most genius level—either absolute smartest or absolute stupidest. It’s not a linear progression from stupid to genius; it’s circular. It’s where they meet. It’s where the genius in you meets the idiot in you that you become so beautiful that you hit sublime. It’s beyond laughter. It’s the moment where you get your mind blown.
WET THE HIPPO
Mon/26-Tue/27, 7:30pm, $10 (advance tickets here )
Venue TBD ("Look for the skinny violinist at 22nd St and Valencia at 7:30pm; you will be escorted to the venue from there"), SF