ART: How a Blue Man Learned to Clown Around and ‘Sleep No More’




Ever consider running away with the circus? It wasn’t far-fetched for Tim Heck, who describes himself as a “curious physical performer with a background in contemporary dance, acting, choreography, teaching, and most recently, clown.” A winning smile and engaging personality goes a long way, opening doors for Heck while he entertained audiences as a former Chicago cast member of the Blue Man Group, Le Tigre Tent Ensemble artist and with the marching band, Mucca Pazza.



Currently, you can catch him juggling multiple roles in the cloaked and shadowed off-Broadway (and, oft sold out) sensation by Punchdrunk, Sleep No More. In the following interview with Tania Fuentez Media, Heck shares what he’s learned clowning around, his best night out on the town and how to “bask in the communion of audience and performance.”

NOTE: All photos provided by Tim Heck.

TFM: Without giving away too much, please fill me in about the goings-on at Sleep No More and the fabulous McKittrick Hotel. There’s a lot of history and intrigue at play, so I’ve heard. How did you prepare for the role?

TH: I first took in Sleep No More last August. After being transfixed and transported inside the McKittrick, I was dumped back out into reality and had to take some moments, up to the beautiful rooftop with my brother and his wife in tow, to wrap my head around what had just had happened. I immediately and humbly hounded one of the cast members to see if there was any way of getting one’s foot in the door. Luckily, there are periodically auditions.

The production is a fully immersive world that audiences are allowed to wander at their own pace with encouragement to be curious. It is composed with a significant hand from Shakespeare’s Macbeth set in a shadowed, multilevel, Hitchcockian landscape. The construction of the space is wildly detailed and transportive. I continue to be in awe of the designers. The performers play a slew of characters, many from Macbeth, though with plenty of intertwined additions. Each one lives their story independently while intersecting with the other players. Most of the storytelling is done without language with a high amount of physicality.

In learning the show and preparing for it each night, it is a joy to have both my acting and dance backgrounds required of me. There are narratives at work for the characters that must be fully reconciled (it has been inspiring to continue returning to the text of Macbeth for certain roles – there’s so much meat there), and the very physical elements of the show demand precision, awareness and strength.

TFM: How and when did the acting bug bite? Were you always inclined toward the more avant-garde side of theater and performance art? I can envision you as a kid who dreamed about running away with the circus. How cool that as an adult, it really happened!

TH:  I think the acting bug hit pretty early (I remember getting an award for acting in a class-project movie in sixth grade), though it really set its teeth a bit in high school after my brother got into theater and never turned back.  (He still hasn’t and is doing quite well.)  Around the same time dance came in as a more official element (taking class, etc.), and satisfied a niche I’d gotten from playing soccer growing up.  Both proved to be fun, communal, imaginative activities.

My love for the more avant-garde came in doses as I was exposed to new and exciting performances.  I can still document five to six shows I saw in high school and college that blew my mind and ignited a delight, thirst and zeal for new possibilities.  I am still a bit addicted to getting my next fix of “eye-widening and life breathing Unexpected” – that space where I am thrilled because I am being affected emotionally and utterly baffled by the rules, as I yet know them, that are being shattered. This played a big role in my pull toward Sleep No More.  Along with that addiction, I have also solidified my preferences and desires over the last many years, realizing that even if I am not getting boundaries shattered, I am drawn to performance that has both the emotional vulnerability and presence of good acting with the physical availability and presence more ubiquitous with dancers.  In the last couple years, I have unexpectedly found this marriage in clown. . . which unexpectedly led me to practically joining the circus. . . which unexpectedly led me to creating my own short theater pieces. . . onto the next question!



TFM: As a former Blue Man, what was that experience like and did you find it liberating at times? Does any aspect of the Blue Man Group‘s philosophy reflect your personality now?

TH: My first introduction to clowning at all was through Blue Man training and performance.  There were many aspects, both exciting and difficult, to that job.  They run a tight ship with many sources of feedback, which could at times be a little dizzying, though all towards a clearly successful outcome.  It was also definitely liberating at times in ways that could allow you to bask in the communion of audience and performance.  The components of those moments were sometimes absurd, sometimes rock and roll, sometimes very intimate, sometimes euphoric, always curious. Some of the elements of clowning I first encountered doing that show have stayed with me and continue to be goals.  The Blue Man character is very specific, though multifaceted.  He is wide-eyed, unflaggingly attentive and constantly invested. All-in-all, I feel like it launched me toward pursuing the delightfully slippery goal of always being fully and really present on stage.

TFM: Best time you’ve had during a night on the town (any town that really stands out)? What’s your take on the state of NYC nightlife in recent years?

TH: This one I had to give some thought to. I’m a bit of a home-body and often err on intimate conversation or smaller gatherings when I’m not working nights.  I also am a relatively recent transplant to the city.  I wish I could ramble a slew of stories from the Marquee (right around the corner from Sleep No More) or any dozen of the innumerable places to get lost in all night here.  The nightlife in New York seems unstoppable, and to be honest it exhausts me a bit when I even think about diving into it.  That may be due to my impression, though, that nightlife means clubbing with $20 drinks until no one can hear each other and everyone is a little sad and spiteful.  That’s never sounded fun.  That’s also an incredibly narrow idea of “night life.”

The best nights in the city have been with friends at the dive bar Grassroots in St. Marks, getting a bit messy then having Dylan singalongs on the street after closing; or going to see a contemporary dance concert at BAM and following the performers to the after-party for an unexpected, throw-down dance party; or standing in on hand percussion with my friends’ folk-rock band, The Hollows, at Sullivan Hall then turning one friend’s living room into a massive person/puppy bed, watching the sunrise on the roof and heading out to get eggs.

The best nights out on any town though are on tour – especially with the marching band, Mucca Pazza. There is something wonderfully open when being “on the town” as a visitor and as a contributor, just having given a show. Doing a Mucca show is consistently a sweaty, joyful, ballistic team effort. When you’re on tour the night out usually ends sharing a bottle with band mates and new friends in some highly unusual homestay – a loft rented by painter, shoe-maker, craft artists in Philly; a defunct, run-down funeral home on its way to a recording studio in Louisville; the occasional beautiful, cushioned home of a band mate’s relative, fading down the early morning quietly listening to a friend play the piano; or gathering with a bandy of world musicians at a hotel pool in Lafayette, LA., having synchronized diving contests with jam-sessions abounding, then everyone pausing as the daughter of a local volunteer serenades the whole gathering with some sweetly singing country fiddle.  Those are the best nights out for me.
Well, that was a longer answer than I expected.


TFM: On your very cool website, I noticed an interesting quote describing yourself. “I believe in the eye-widening and life-breathing Unexpected. I believe in the intelligence and vibrancy of the physical self.” Please explain and offer some insight on the three-year project, Stamina of Curiosity.

TH: Stamina of Curiosity was launched after a multi-year solo project by the Chicago choreographer Molly Shanahan. In her deepening research for that work, she was exploring the quiet, vast movement potential of the body.  When a dancer/performer vigilantly tries to dispel habits with abundant awareness and attention what emerges – emotionally, imagistically, and movement-wise even on a microcosmic level?  And, then how can one keep those avenues open, on a moment by moment basis, in front of an audience?  Can something remarkable be shared?

She took this solo research into a small ensemble setting. There were many lessons pulled from Feldenkrais exercises – a physical practice of analyzing movement and habits.  There was constant choreographic creation as well as continued exploration of years old phrases. We would begin and end every rehearsal and performance with meditation together. The group of us built an exquisitely comfortable rapport.  I think it is through this project that I learned to trust the body as a source of exciting, quiet, complex knowledge that is in a way infinite, as it is constantly changing, adapting and renewing.  And, though the performances could sometimes seem esoteric and a bit insular, the similarities of the work to clown were always very clear to me – the pursuit of being fully open and affected in real-time while on stage. It was a gift to be a part of, and the sharing with an audience, especially after working together for three years, was something special.


Tim Heck:

Le Tigre Tent:

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