Interview: Inside ‘Outside Ethel: Inside’ with Christine Moynihan

Playwright-performer talks the art of clowning to explore themes of loneliness in anticipation of her new solo show's Quebec premiere

Writer-performer Christine Moynihan in her solo clown piece Outside Ethel: Inside (Photo credit: Maylynn Quan).

It’s the Toronto Fringe darling that had our own Montreal theatre heavyweights heartily moved (local Fringe frontmen Amy Blackmore, Helen Simard, and Kenny Streule have all solemnly sworn by it). “It’s a gem of a show”, I’m told by Blackmore, who attended its debut run in Ontario this past summer. She’s since insisted on bringing it across provincial borders, and has done so with much anticipated buzz as the 2020 Bouge d’ici Festival – of which she is co-founder and Artistic Director – opens this week at the MainLine Theatre.

Having just crossed said perimeter with the Quebec premiere of her solo show only three days away, I sense playwright-performer Christine Moynihan’s reciprocated anticipation from the other end of the phone line. “I’m anxious,” she admits (in the best of ways, we presume), fully disarming in her humility and humour.

Now in her late 60’s, the modest Dora-nominated Moynihan is no newcomer to the national stage, with acting credits at the Saidye Bronfman (now Segal) Centre, Centaur Theatre, Young Peoples Theatre, Nightwood Theatre, Canadian Stage Company, and Theatre Calgary, to sample a formidable few, to her name.

And yet, her regard and respect towards the challenges of her craft mirrors that of a gracious lifelong learner.

Indeed, after a celebrated 35-year career in arts administration (notably, 15 years as the Executive Producer at Equity Showcase Theatre in Toronto and 10 as Executive Director of the Dance Umbrella of Ontario) and a life of raising 3 children as a widowed mother, Moynihan only just recently came out of “retirement” to study clowning.

“I keep trying to retire,” she jokes warmly. “I haven’t been very successful at it, but I keep trying.

“But I’ve missed acting, and when I realized that I finally had the time and freedom to do it again, that’s when I decided I was going to go back to it.'” Outside Ethel: Inside marks her return to the stage.

“[As an actor], you never really finish studying.”
– Christine Moynihan

After completing (“although… you never really finish studying,” she observes) her red nose clown training with director John Turner (who himself is best known as the “Smoot” half of award-winning Canadian clown duo Mump & Smoot), she soon forayed in applying to the Toronto Fringe.

“I thought to myself, ‘okay, I’ll apply, but I won’t get in, and then I’ll just carry on'”, Moynihan muses. “But then I got in and it was like ‘oh… well I guess I have to create a show now, don’t I?'”

After toying with numerous premises for an original play, “the one that kept nagging at me was the issue of loneliness,” she reveals, “and for people my age, especially. As you get older you just don’t go out very much anymore, and it’s alarmingly easy to become secluded. I wanted to further examine that and I thought, ‘what better way to do so than to go back and learn about clowning?’ It doesn’t seem logical, I suppose, but it absolutely seemed logical to me.”

From there the concept for the eccentric red-nosed Ethel developed: a lonely, controlling, self-protecting being earnestly seeking joy and freedom, but who is also afraid of having that very joy and freedom that she longs for. Outside Ethel: Inside exposes the trauma in Ethel’s background, and builds on the tension of desire versus fear.

The story is a “dramedy” that certainly resonates with mature audiences in relating the aches, pains, and frustrations of no longer being able to do what you were once able to – the disconnect between mind and body – but there is a universality to the narrative’s central theme of isolation that has allowed the piece to transcend generations.

“One of the most interesting things that surprised me as I was performing this [in Toronto] was discovering how many young women seemed to be taken by it,” she shares. “I hadn’t expected that at all. They appear to really identify with the show, and I don’t know if it’s because they are startled in seeing their present or future selves in it.”

Moynihan suspects that these current times of social media may be a part of the explanation. “We have so many ways to connect to each other nowadays, yet we still seem to not be doing very well at it.”

“We have so many ways to connect to each other nowadays, yet we still seem to not be doing very well at it.”

“I’m excited to see how the show will be received in a new city. Toronto and Montreal audiences are different. I’m going to get in such trouble for saying this, but – I think Montreal audiences are more profound. The relationship between most of Quebec to art is different; there is stronger history of support for the arts there and people have a more intimate connection with art.”

Audiences will either recognize themselves or their loved ones in Ethel, and her interpreter points to the nature of theatrical clowning in enabling her to devise a fully fleshed figure that is as wildly idiosyncratic as she is thoroughly relatable.

“This is going to sound really conceited,” Moynihan begins “but clowning opens up the unconscious to a more universal sense of character. [Ethel] does not represent any specific person that you might meet on the street; she’s more of an archetype in a way. It puts things into a world of metaphor. And because a clown can do things other people can’t, you can safely dive deep into human questions and behaviours. […] Clowning opens up tremendous creative possibilities, and that’s what makes it such a challenging, fun, and occasionally profound art form. It teaches you so much about who you are, about being present in the moment, and about being able to deal with anything that’s thrown at you. That’s the key reason why I went back to study it.”

With Outside Ethel: Inside, she aspires to “live up to at least a little bit of that”. Charmingly unassuming. “All I can ask is to come to the show with opens minds and open hearts.”

NACS Productions presents the Quebec premiere of Outside Ethel: Inside at the 2020 Bouge d’ici Festival

Performances: January 9-11, 2020 at 8:00pm
Venue: MainLine Theatre (3997 Blvd. St-Laurent)
Admission: $15 / $12.50 students, seniors, QDF members
Box Office: 514-849-FEST or

Camila Fitzgibbon

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