Forget birthday clowns and Stephen King's Pennywise. For 10 years, a new clowning duo has left Canadian audiences laughing with their improv-spiced zany shows.
Welcome to the wacky and entertaining world of Heather Marie Annis and Amy Lee, who play the sister clowns Morro and Jasp respectively. In their sixth show, they are once again trying to navigate life challenges as if they’re two adolescents wearing suits for the first time. Morro and Jasp: 9 to 5, a satirical look at office culture, runs at the Factory Theatre until May 31.
In a story plunking the hapless sisters in a new company where they’re pressured to come up with a “high-quality product” before investors arrive, Lee’s Jasp gets stern as the self-appointed CEO while Annis’s Morro remains clueless about her role. The conflicting personalities dish up, once again, a delightful mix of sharp one-liners, Pochinko-style clowning and heart-warming endings, something audiences have come to expect from Morro and Jasp shows.
“In the end, success to us is when audiences respond to the show and that they get the story,” Lee, 31, says in an interview at a downtown bar. “It’s important for us to speak honestly.”
After all, Lee admits Jasp is an exaggeration of her own personality: like Jasp, Lee appreciates tidiness and order. Scheduling is important. But Lee says Jasp is more controlling than she ever would want to be.
Now celebrating 10 years as Jasp, Lee has enjoyed a cross-country route to her full-time job as a performer in Toronto. She grew up in Winnipeg and attended the Manitoba Theatre for Young People, before taking theatre at York University. There she met Annis and they hit it off immediately, playing Morro and Jasp for kids’ audiences at first.
“But we soon realized we had to do adult shows to be fulfilled as artists,” Lee recalls. They dove deep into the Toronto Fringe Festival scene, and quickly became fan favourites. Their shows each develop a theme to carry the sisters through varied adventures, such as reprising the roles from Of Mice and Men to camping in the wilderness to baking dessert. The duo even came out with their own cookbook soon after Go Bake Yourself debuted.
What Lee always appreciates about her Morro and Jasp shows is sprinkling the night with improv. “It makes sense for clowns to get the audience involved compared to other theatre actors,” she says. For 9 to 5, audience members might be called up to play office staff or business advisers, and everyone has to be take part in a group activity by the show’s end.
“We love those unexpected moments. It keeps us on our toes,” Lee adds.
Lee has immersed herself in the theatre community in Toronto, where she also works with Young People’s Theatre and is assistant-director of other productions. Theatre is family, and Lee learned how strong community can be growing up in a Jewish home with parents active in synagogue life. “I’ve seen how Jewish people stress community, and I try to bring that to my theatre work,” Lee says.
If you miss 9 to 5 this time around, rest assured you’ll be seeing those red noses many times this year. Lee says they’re remounting Morro and Jasp Do Puberty at the Toronto Fringe Festival, with their first show July 1 at the Tarragon Theatre Mainspace.
Plus, a video game app starring the clowns is in the works. This choose-your-own-adventure-style role-playing game could be the first gaming app based on a Canadian theatre clown production.
And if that isn’t busy enough for Lee and her team, a TV pitch will be making the rounds soon, with the hope of snagging a TV deal for a Morro and Jasp series.
For now, see Lee and Annis while they’re still underground darlings of Canada’s theatre scene. At the very least, you’ll see the roots of a hilarious family tree destined for greatness.
For more info and tickets go to Factory Theatre.