Today I’m celebrating the Day of the Dead. People always ask, “Where did the idea for the chickens come from?” I figured this is the perfect day to tell the story. Normally when I’m asked, I mumble something about Shakespeare’s wise fool in King Lear who wore a cock’s comb, or I blabber about how most fools depicted on medieval woodcuts have rooster combs. Below is the real story with some of the names redacted to protect the innocent.
After I finished directing at Disney in the summer of 1992, I returned to Minneapolis with a fire in my belly to create new and more challenging art. The secret to Walt Disney’s success was that he believed real magic was created through great story telling. He was a true wizard who wove a magic spell upon America’s imagination with his talking ducks and mice.
Long before I directed at Disney, Rosie and my Chicken Routine was the finale of our original red nose show. To this day we still close our street show by bringing an audience member up on stage, and making him strut, cluck, and crow like a rooster, before laying an egg, which he then cracks into a pan to magically appear a live chicken at the end.
My new inspiration was to create a show where Rosie’s character believed she was a real chicken, and my character was born with an egg-shaped head. I was excited to start working on it together when Rosie became pregnant. Tragically our second daughter Katya was born at home with serious complications, and rushed to the hospital. We held her until she died in Rosie’s arms at six days old. Then our eldest daughter Liza helped Rosie and I give Katya a bath. Afterwards the nurse asked Liza to help dress her sister in a frilly dress that the hospital had available for just such a sad occasion.
With a mailbox full of unpaid medical bills, I flew to New York the day after Katya’s funeral in time for opening weekend of the Sterling Renaissance Festival, while Rosie stayed home recovering. If you’ve been to Sterling you know it’s one of the most magic places on Earth. The artistic director, Gary Izzo drills his cast with improvisational theater games for a month before the festival opens its gates. When the public arrives they are treated to a day as magical as Brigadoon. It is the same brilliantly simple scenario everyday. The town of Warwick, which is the birthplace of William Shakespeare, is honored to host Queen Elizabeth on the happiest day of her life.
In order to escape my grief I threw everything I had into my performances. I remember after my last show on the first day I ran into the town Sheriff who had decided during rehearsals that his character suffered from a fear of clowns, and naturally chose to brutally harass me, the red nose clown. At the end of the day I found myself weeping alone backstage in the woods.
A Renaissance Festival is a comedy war zone. On a good day you kill, and on a bad day you die. With steely resolve the next morning when I saw the Sheriff at the Opening Ceremony I pressed a penny into the palm of his hand. I knew as a trained actor he had to accept my proposed bribe under the rules of improvisation.
The Sheriff looked at me with a wink and smiled, “We’re square for today, Clown.” However, the next morning when I held out my penny the Sheriff coldly said, “The price has gone up today, Clown.” Without missing a beat a plucked a silver dollar from his ear and handed it to him with a flourish. The Sheriff and I enjoyed playing this game of wits for the rest of the summer.
The last day I knew I had to top all my earlier bribes, so the night before I bought an uncooked whole chicken along with a bag of vegetables. In the morning I happily started washing the vegetables, but when I held the chicken under the warm water I began to weep when I realized it felt just like bathing Katya.
At the Opening Ceremony I handed the Sheriff a dozen carrots with the greens still attached, a red cabbage, and the chicken. After the Queen exited the Sheriff immediately dropped the raw chicken on the exposed hairy belly of a mud beggar, who squealed like a baby pig. For the rest of the day that chicken was lightening in a jar.
The mud beggar quickly handed the chicken off to a less squeamish actor, who made it into a dancing puppet using some twine. The dancing chicken was then put on trial before the Queen who sentenced it to be dunked in the Froggy Pond. At the end of the day the actors strung up the battered chicken as a target at the Axe Throw Game, which drew a huge crowd that cheered with delight when it exploded with a lucky hit.
I’m told years later that when Gary Izzo was asked to recall his favorite bits, the chicken made his short list. It was sublime to watch that poor bird that I had baptized with tears be transformed into a vessel of playful joy. The lightening in a jar that I discovered that day is what eventually hatched those daffy Wacky Chickens into the world.