In License to Kiss, the current production at Teatro ZinZanni, Jope Lutz plays a formidable character – the stern, unsmiling maitre d’, Monsieur Lutz. He is the epitome of a white clown, austere, and unrelenting in his pursuit of order over chaos. Naturally, all of the other clowns in the tent respect his position, and, whenever possible, goof on him.
In real life, Jope Lutz is far from unapproachable. Warm, good humored and at home in his skin, he walks into my office at the tent for our interview as though he’s strolling around the farm he and his wife live on back in Germany.
We met to talk about the role of the white clown, what it was like to grow up and become a clown in the German Democratic Republic (GDR), where he was when the Wall came down, and what changes to his character he has made for this particular show.
Here’s how our conversation went:
Beth Brooks (BB): When did you first start with Teatro ZinZanni?
Jope Lutz (JL): It was 2002 in San Francisco.
BB: Can you describe your character?
JL: I’m a white clown. Mr. Lutz’s existence is a cry for love. He’s in a situation… I like to show the innocent side of this character, you can see it in the first moment. He breaks out when I perform the song [“I’m too sexy”] – it’s the base for success. People don’t see this coming so it’s a big surprise.
BB: What’s been your quest to find your inner clown?
JL: Monsieur Lutz is fixed. I started creating this character in 1990 in Germany. In the beginning I was a simple waiter, but in changing the hierarchy of the show, I’ve turned into more of a maitre d. If you are open to creating, you’re always thinking about the character: what’s his relationship to women, what does he think about this or that. You’re always searching for a new question to decide what possibilities he make take on. It’s not easy to explain where he comes from.
I’ve lost my country. Usually I don’t like to say I’m a German because it’s not important, it’s not important to this character. If you say I’m from Sweden, or I’m from Germany, people stereotype you, and the character. I didn’t want this character to have a stereotype associated with a country. They put you in a box. I don’t want to be in a box. I’m homeless in a way. Lutz is alone, especially if I’m acting in Germany or Austria.
Monsieur Lutz doesn’t like guests, or children because he has to interact with them. He doesn’t like children because children will grow up to be guests… he likes to be alone. People think what’s wrong with me… it’s not something I have against them personally, it’s a problem Lutz deals with interpersonally. This is one of the messages I try to convey to people, that we understand that we have problems with ourselves, but not with others. If you know this, if you are ready for it, it may help you to think differently about your problems.
BB: So Mr. Lutz doesn’t have a home, but you have a home. You’re from Dresden. How did you discover that you wanted to be a clown, and what was it like growing up in Dresden?
JL: I’m not a “clown” clown. One time I was acting in the circus to help out, but I wouldn’t consider myself a clown. I got an offer from one of the biggest German circuses but that’s not my world. I’m a theatre clown. It’s important for me for the direction I act because I’m a clown for adults, not for kids.
BB: When did you first know this is what you wanted to do?
JL: I started in school for fun. I was always the one making jokes and cracking everyone up. I was last in line… it was safe to make stupid things. Then later I started with a little theatre group, a youth theatre… really amateur. It was a time to try and go to school for acting, but it was a disaster because I had big problems speaking. Later I changed to a large mime group… maybe more than 30 people. I got the base of pantomime and clowning. Our boss was a professional pantomime in Dresden.
BB: Was there any Soviet governance or structure in the program you studied?
JL: In normal everyday life the Russians didn’t habituate our lives. It was an East German administration. We were just clown entertainment, but growing up, it was fine. A smaller group formed out of the large pantomime group, at first we called ourselves “The Inner Ring.” If you are interested in something, you work hard and you don’t need a supervisor. It comes from within. This is how it was with our group. Eventually we became “Salto Vitale.”
BB: What does “Salto Vitale” mean?
JL: It’s a jump… a summersault. And “vitale” means life… so “jump into life.” It was a very creative time, very fast. Eventually the larger group format made it hard for us to progress and we split from the group. It was hard for our teacher to accept us. It took a long time. We created shows and programs, then we started very early the creating of programs of political background. The problems that we had in the country were everywhere – so we created a show, most of little clowning scenes and stories, very funny, the clowns were nonstop. The stories were five, maybe ten minutes long and we can put something out or a new one in. It was always running great. The show was so versatile we could perform for a small club with 25 people in the audience or a huge theatre.
The biggest variety theatre in Europe in Berlin is the Friedrichstadt Palast, we were therein 1987 or 88… we learned very fast to handle different stage situations with equipment and lights and sound. We got experiences with dressing with opera, with joining them in the theatre for example The Tempest… so by this time, now I’m a professional.
But to become a professional in the GDR and be granted a license, we had to perform for a special commission in order.
My old teacher was in the commission… it was a bad day for us because the audience was sitting in this little clubhouse and they were all from a retirement home. They were all very old, so half of them weren’t able to see and the other half wasn’t able to hear… so it’s like we were acting in front of a black hole. We gave and gave and we weren’t getting anything back. So one year later we tried it again in a different way.
One year later we tried again in Dresden. The first time we were a small part of a long show with many other artists and singers. This time we had our own show in a small theatre over a weekend; there were over 300 hundred people each day who came just to see us. We had the best conditions, different light, different sound, and they liked it! In the commission’s meeting after the show, a member of the commission from Berlin stood up in our defense and said “what’s the matter they gave a great show? You all must give them your praise and their license.” This was our first license so now we were professionals. It took a lot of steps though.
So we started touring a little bit, but even though we had no visas or passports, we went to Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Russia and North Korea. It was unbelievable. We got an offer from Austria but it wasn’t possible because we didn’t have passports. There was a moment when I was the manager for the organization and I was helpless. I was at a dead end.
A friend of ours made contact with a man who was in a high position in our organization and I was telling him our problems and he said I can help you. He gave us a car, which was very hard to get… a little bus, and he got us passports. Again we had problems in Dresden with the passports because the Stasi (East German Secret Police) checked all the people for a long time. There were maybe over one million people somehow involved with the Stasi at the time. Many of them were undercover informants.
I was also in my army time in a special troupe that was nearer to the Stasi than the normal army. After the Wall fell down we became more in the line of shots. We had nothing to do with the Stasi but for the people.
It was interesting that the youth organization was like the party… our socialist party. They had power because they had their own section for passports, visas, etc. We performed at a big youth festival in West Berlin and luckily everybody from our performance group came back, they weren’t tempted to use the opportunity to flee. There was a moment when the Stasi in Dresden couldn’t say no anymore… we just came back. Then we got our real passports; this was the spring of 89.
We got a lot of offers and met a lot of people. When the Wall came down, the day before we were in Paris. There was some separation and confusion from the East German cultural center and we didn’t get any information about the Wall coming down. We went back to the GDR in the late afternoon. I was driving… soon it was night and in the morning we came near to the border. Everyone was sleeping and then I realized more and more East German cars were going the other way. When we were passing a pedestrian bridge it was about 5 o’clock in the morning, very early, and it was full of people. They were waving, but not in our direction. We got nearer and when were passing the West German control center, they just waived us through. Everybody was stopped there was so much traffic. When it came our turn there were three lanes of traffic crowding a two-lane street.
We asked a female officer what was going on… she looked very helpless and she didn’t know. She didn’t get any information, other than to let the people pass. We were driving and driving, and there were traffic jams. That was the day the Wall came down.
BB: The Wall symbolically represented a limitation of personal freedom… what made it finally come down? How was the adjustment?
JL: It was a hard adjustment period for most people… to become a democracy and become integrated… It was hard for Germany to finally see the segregation lifted.
It was a long process. In our history, we had moments where we tried to change the direction. In East Germany in 1953 and in 1968 in Prague… Russian tanks came right past us, right down our streets, to protect the old system, to keep Checkoslovakia from changing.
In the mid-1980s, surrounding countries like Poland and Hungary started to change. For example in Poland, the Solidarnosz got more and more power and was able to change the system. It wasn’t a closed front anymore against the West Block.
But the people weren’t interested in socialism or capitalism. They didn’t care. They just wanted to have freedom. They wanted to be able to go to the store and buy bananas. Very simple questions were raised… like give us freedom to see the world. People came together to make demonstrations. It’s easier if you have a reason and a base and much more people are going to join. We had a mantra of no violence. That was our slogan. There were some moments where we were really fighting for this, but most of the time it was peaceful demonstrations. We were peaceful people… with famous people on our side. Do you know Kurt Masur? The conductor, Kurt Masur… he was on our side.
BB: How has Dresden changed? Has in been restored to what it looked like before the bombing in the Second World War?
JL: We were really proud that we were able to rebuild many famous buildings like operas and churches. We didn’t wait for 1989, but you have to understand there were some horrible problems in the structure. There were some private houses, but most people lived in government houses. We didn’t have to pay a lot of money to live there, but we also didn’t have enough money to repair and to reconstruct. So the old houses got more and more damaged. In Dresden there were areas that looked like a war zone for years and years. If you don’t repair a roof, it’s not a problem in the beginning, but after five years it’s a disaster. We had many problems.
There’s capitalism and socialism. Ours was a socialist dictatorship. We learned in school that it was a step toward communism. There should be another way because it didn’t fit. There were so many inequities. We ended up with the same problems that capitalism brings. Can we take care of the people? I’m still a little bitter because of this. That’s why I work in the theatre because I can have a make-believe world. This is a world where we let people forget the world outside. For three hours, they can forget their problems, smile and be happy. This is all we can do, and that is enough.
BB: In License to Kiss, your character interacts with Sven (played by Tobias Larsson) and helps him transform to win Sabine. How did this come about, what was the process like in rehearsal?
JL: At first I got the information that I have to play the owner of the tent. I thought about playing this like a Mr. Scrooge, but then the directors decided they didn’t need that part. Very fast I saw that I could change a little about how to play Mr. Lutz. Because of his isolation, my character had to form a relationship with Sabine’s character, especially their previous marriage. Mr. Lutz had to teach Sven how to stand up to Sabine. Mr. Lutz takes away Sven’s silliness and makes him a man. Sven turns around… he becomes his own person.
If you find a story, and the story is very simple, you don’t have to explain a lot. The rest can be felt and developed in the mind of the people. This is my preferred way. Don’t say too much, only give them the base information and it’s much more interesting. Always having to explain things, to have a story make sense, is boring. For me it was unbelievable how the production team didn’t lose the overview. It’s a sweet show and it all hangs together very well. We (the four men in the cast) sing “Unchained Melody” during audience dance and I like it. We enjoy that part but it is a change to my character because normally I’m very strict from start to finish. The song brings me out a little bit. Usually I am very in character until the end when I sing “I’m Too Sexy.” It’s usually then that I’m transformed, so this song brings out a little of me earlier on, which I find interesting. In other shows, Mr. Lutz goes too far and they bring me back into the tent in a straightjacket. But in this show, with these moments, I can change the character.
BB: You’re with us through the end of this run and then where are you going?
JL: I don’t live in Dresden anymore. I’ve spent some time in Berlin and I got the feeling that I lost my home. I didn’t feel good in Berlin. I felt uncomfortable in Berlin. It’s too loud and noisy and dirty. To stay and visit isn’t bad but to live there is horrible. So I found a farmhouse and realized that it’s nearby the place of my birth so I changed it up a little bit because I met my wife and now we live there in the countryside. We have a garden and two barns with hay, we have six chickens and two cats, and a dog and I enjoy it there. I think I will stay in the country. I have one run in the U.S. then I’m done. So four months here, not long, then I go back to Germany.
I have a t-shirt that says “too old to die young.” It means you have to look forward and don’t wait for a good time. Organize it now! I don’t want to live to work; I want to just live. The kids are nearly out of the house and are successful. I’ve organized my life so I don’t need too much money. I don’t need a big car. This is a typical attitude of man… they want everything big and lots of it. I don’t feel that way. I like nice things, but I live very simply. Man’s attitude to show the world how big he is… with a car or a house; it’s stupid to me. I don’t follow this path.
Take care and have fun!