Vagabond clowns entice the audience at Painted Bride [video]

     Jess Conda plays Shirley, left, and is seduced by three vagabond clowns played by Rob Cutler, Tabitha Allen, and Justin Rose in Always Coming Soon: The Future. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

    Jess Conda plays Shirley, left, and is seduced by three vagabond clowns played by Rob Cutler, Tabitha Allen, and Justin Rose in Always Coming Soon: The Future. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

    Rock ‘n’ roll cabaret “Always Coming Soon: The Future,” returning to Philly this weekend, deliberately challenges its audience’s expectations. After a run last spring at the Performance Garage, the show reopens at the Painted Bride on Thursday.

    The show is not about going into the future and “seeing what kind of crazy robots are going to be there,” said director Scott Sheppard. Rather, it is an exploration of the tendency to hope that the next thing we buy or write will bring us satisfaction.

    The performance begins when the audience “wakes up” a trio of misfit, vagabond clowns in their purgatorial home, a trash dump. The clowns try hard to entertain the audience and to convince everyone that the show will get better than what they just saw.

    “The clowns have no material, and they have to convince you they do,” Sheppard said. “So we get into this place of urgent desperation, and that can be really funny.” But they do have one trick in their bag. 

    The show becomes an urgent pitch. Sheppard says it was inspired by trends in American culture, Facebook, and the need to brand oneself. “We get caught up in that treadmill search for something that’s always just a little bit in the future, always coming soon.”

    Jess Conda, the producing artistic director at Brat Productions, plays Shirley, an audience member. The clowns promise her, “Your life’s gonna be awesome! Now! No, wait … now! No, wait … now!” They promise her feelings of admiration, a sense of self importance and satisfaction. But Shirley learns that maybe the future isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

    The show is built around nine songs from musical director Peter Gaffney. He wrote them about five years ago when he was MCing a cabaret show and listening to a lot of David Bowie and Nina Hagen. Gaffney plays accordion and comes from the world of carnival and circus. “It’s music that sounds like a barker,” he said, “like it’s the advertisement for something. I’ve always liked that kind of character, singing to you to sell you something, seduce you, to buy something in the tent, but who knows what’s in the tent. Probably nothing. Or it’s really bad.”

    He is excited about the clash of genres and says that taking a gesture out of more serious, restrained theater and trying to jam it together with clowning, a form of theater that’s overly expressive, creates interesting problems. “I love the fact that they really are in the situation that the characters are in. In a way, that’s the beauty of clown work,” he said.

    Conda says that clown performance can do what scripted theater can’t: It thrives in moments that can’t be created until the audience arrives. When she’s onstage as Shirley, there’s a lot of Jess Conda in there as well. “It’s a clown thing, a blurred line, where your character is your character, but your character is also yourself,” she said.

    “Always Coming Soon: The Future,” runs Thursday, Jan. 15, through Saturday, Jan. 17. For more information, visit

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