Lorenzo Pisoni has been garnering attention from theater audiences for the past few years in such high-profile productions as the Public Theater’s As You Like It and Much Ado About Nothing, The Signature Theatre’s Harlequin Studies, the Guthrie Theatre’s The Great Gatsby, the Irish Repertory Theatre’s The Devil’s Disciple, and Second Stage Theatre’s Election Day — which earned him a Lucille Lortel Award nomination. Most recently, he starred in the Broadway revival of Equus, in which he doubled as lead horse Nugget and the handsome rider who first turned star Daniel Radcliffe’s character onto horses.
But Pisoni has been attracting attention on the stage since the age of two — which audiences learn in his new and highly acclaimed autobiographical solo show Humor Abuse at Manhattan Theater Club — as a member of the Pickle Family Circus, founded by his father, Larry.
TheaterMania recently spoke with Pisoni about the show, the truth about the circus, his family, and working with Radcliffe.
THEATERMANIA: What does the term “humor abuse” mean?
LORENZO PISONI: It’s two-fold. One is what one endures to create humor, and also how one manipulates humor for one’s own good. While it’s actually quite dark now that I say it aloud; I don’t mean it to be. But every time I come off stage and I have another scratch or a bruise, well, that’s the abuse of the humor.
TM: Is there a misconception of circus performers that you’d like cleared up?
LP: I think there’s confusion between circuses and carnivals. Circuses aren’t and haven’t been, until Ringling Brothers kind of made it so, a freak show. Circus performers have always been highly skilled and very diligent and disciplined people. Sometimes, someone will ask if I worked with a lot of dwarves or bearded ladies. No, I didn’t.
TM: Which idea came first: To do a show about growing up in the circus or to do a show about your father?
LP: I wanted to do a show about my circus background and more generally about clowning. But then I gave the script to Erika Schmidt, the co-scripter and director, and she found the stronger story about my father and we started working on folding in all those ideas. She would give me assignments: write as many stories as you can, think of moments with your father on stage or off, just write, write, write. It’s so interesting because the way I would write is just about my life, and she would have to remind me that I was writing about being stuffed in a trunk by my father and how that wasn’t normal. We all have this incredible transformative relationship with our parents where we slowly get to understand them as people. I’d like to think that that’s part of what people respond to in the show. Yes, my father was teaching me how to trip on stage, but it could have as easily been teaching me to catch or how to catch fish. It just so happens that he’s wearing a red nose while he’s teaching me these lessons.
TM: Is it emotionally demanding to perform a show about your childhood experiences?
LP: It’s an emotional experience, but I don’t feel that I am up there alone because my father is so present in the show. And it’s not as taxing emotionally as I thought it might have been, because the show is more celebratory than angst-ridden.
TM: What about the solo show format?
LP:This is the first time I ever did anything like this. I feel it’s kind of like [title of show]. They were all wonderful because of how comfortable they were with who they are and their willingness to share that. Susan Blackwell especially has that capacity to drop in and reach someone’s soul across the footlights in a way I hadn’t seen before.
TM: Do you worry about the huge physical risks that you take while clowning in the show? And when you’re doing a seemingly dangerous routine like the one with the sandbags, can you feel the fear in the audience?
LP: I’m wearing a lot of padding, and the stage that MTC built for me, the actual floor, is great. And since I’ve never not been performing, I don’t suffer stage fright. As to the other question, if I’ve done my job right, the audience knows I am in control and they are free to have whatever emotion they want. People may get nervous, but somewhere deep inside they know that I know what I’m doing.
TM: Is this show more physically demanding than playing Nugget in Equus?
LP: Because it’s more free-form — and I’ve been doing circus bits since I was two — it doesn’t seem as taxing on the body to me as Equus, which was the most physical thing I’ve ever done. Because the choreography was the way it was on the raked stage, the toll on all of our bodies was more traumatic. Those horse heads were nine pounds each, and we were pitched forward in high heels — except there was no heel. And then to have to carry Dan, even though he’s not the heaviest guy in the world, was intense to do for five months.
TM: Dan put you in the news during the show’s run when he said that if he were gay or female, he’d marry you. Do you feel the same way about him?
LP: Ha! If he were wearing platform shoes — then yes, I would totally love and marry him. But he’d have to wear platform shoes. All the time.