Interview with Bonnie He, multi-award-winning Asian American clown and physical comedian

"Clowning is all about embracing failure and reveling in being stupid and low status, which is the antithesis to what was expected of me growing up."

Interview with Bonnie He, multi-award-winning Asian American clown and physical comedian

Could you first introduce yourself to the reader?

I’m Bonnie He, multi-award-winning Asian American clown and physical comedian. This is my international debut. A Terrible Show for Terrible People's team is myself, performer and producer, Bruce Allen, director, and James Carroll, producer. We are first-timers to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, independently produced and completely self-funded.

How would you describe your show?

A Terrible Show for Terrible People is a raunchy, physical comedy show with only 2 words. It’s suitable for perverts, feminists and your mom (not mutually exclusive). It’s Mr. Bean if he were a sexy lady.

What is your favourite part of your show?

My absolute favourite thing about my show is the audience reactions. My new favourite thing I’ve discovered in Edinburgh is that without fail, there’s always one man in every show who, during some point, completely doubles over, burying his head full into his hands with laughter, as if to say, ‘This is completely batshit.’

If your show had a theme song, what would it be and why?

Actually I use a whole album's worth of fun songs inside my show, since I only say two words, so I'd do a theme album of my show's songs with a bright pink cover. Plus the two words I say as a bonus track.

What is one thing you hope audiences will take away from your show?

I just want them to enjoy themselves and have a great time. At the end of the day, this is a stupid, silly clown show, and if people have laughed until there are tears from their eyes, I have done my job!

If you could add a surprise celebrity cameo to your show, who would it be and why?

Rowan Atkinson. Obviously.

Why do you want to perform at Edinburgh Festival Fringe?

I’m from Los Angeles, but ironically I feel it’s easier to get opportunities here. It feels like there’s no bridge from theatre to film in LA and there’s little respect or understanding for theatre actors from the people making hiring decisions for TV and film. And despite major successes for Asian-led movies lately with Everything Everywhere All at Once, Crazy Rich Asians, Shang-Chi and Joy Ride—so many successes I can name them on one hand—it’s been a struggle being an Asian American artist back home. The audiences here in Edinburgh have been incredibly receptive. We've been a total-sell out show since we previewed, and we’ve been getting a good number of arts industry and press coming to the show, something that has been a perpetual struggle to receive in the States!

This has been a dream of mine to come here since I visited in 2019, but it’s such an insane, large festival that I wanted to make sure I was equipped with a capable team before making the trek over here. I have an absolute dream team and this show could have never come over without them!

What differentiates it from other festivals?

To be honest this is only my third fringe festival and my first international one so I don’t have a lot of festivals to compare it to. I’ve done the Hollywood Fringe Festival and the Orlando Fringe Winter Mini-Fest, and did very well in both, but I’m now in the largest artist hub in the world! The top shows around the globe come here, and everyone must feel like a small fish in a big pond. But one thing remains the same: having a good show creates good word of mouth, and people will eventually hear about it and come!

What is one thing you would change about the Edinburgh Festival Fringe?

I’ll probably sound like a broken record but I’m sure like many other artists, it has been prohibitively expensive to put on our show here. All of my team have day jobs that have funded this trip (and I'm still working half days the entire month). We calculated that if by some miracle we were to sell out the whole run, we would just manage to pay for the accommodation.

How has your background, upbringing and education had an impact on your artistic career? 

Oh my, this is quite the loaded question that demands a multi-part answer! 

Background: as I mentioned above, it's been a struggle to gain traction as an Asian American artist in the States. Being in LA feels very much like screaming into a void. So I took a chance to present my show in Edinburgh.

Upbringing: My parents are Chinese immigrants, so I was very much a part of the 2nd generational experience. (FYI, in Chinese culture, immigrants and 1st generation are synonymous, and those born in the new country are considered 2nd generation. I'm technically 1.5th generation: Born in Shanghai, and moved to the States when I was 2 years old.) Being a clown is the last thing my parents would have expected from me, and it's honestly the last thing *I* expected myself to be. But I'm so grateful I discovered the artform. Clowning is all about embracing failure and reveling in being stupid and low status, which is the antithesis to what was expected of me growing up. Mind you, what was expected of me is NOT necessarily completely emblematic of Chinese culture--minority people have more pressure to present as successful in a new land. I certainly felt that, and since clowning has come into my life, I feel more free to be me (a perverted feminist).

Education: In grade school, we had lovely arts education programs, and that's where my love of theatre began. During a PSA skit about seatbelt safety, I had one line, which was 'STOP! There's a COW in the road!' which I projected with such conviction, I was complimented for it afterwards. Huh, now that I'm thinking of it, it started with a cow, and now here I am, at Underbelly.

What is your favourite thing about performing for a live audience?

A Terrible Show for Terrible People is an interactive clown show, so there's nothing quite like being able to play with the audience in real time. I do try hard to be sensitive to the audience, so I'll assess and pick those who seem game. It's my job as a clown to read people properly and make sure they're enjoying themselves.

What is the strangest thing that has ever happened to you while performing?

More hilarious than strange but on the second day, two people straight up walked out of my show which I took as a badge of honour at the time. I later found out that what happened was that during a part of my show when I reveal the title of my show on my underwear, they read it and realized they were in the wrong place.

What's the most challenging or unconventional venue you've ever performed in, and how did it impact the overall experience?

I honestly can't think of any venue that has been an issue for the show. I try to scope out the space beforehand so that I know what to expect. The first show I watched at Edinburgh Festival Fringe in 2019 was Viggo Venn's clown show, Viggo the Viking, and it was in the exact space I am in now, Iron Belly at Underbelly Cowgate. When applying for this year's festival, I knew that was the exact space I wanted. It's intimate, has raked seating, has a manageable-sized capacity (60 seats), and has enough floor space for my physical actions. It's been my dream venue for A Terrible Show for Terrible People and I'm so happy I was able to get it! 

Is there a piece of feedback you've received from an audience member or critic after a performance that’s stuck with you? 

The first review was from the Quinntessential Review, giving us 4 stars and declaring that we "will be one of the smash-hit successes of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe 2023" and we are FLOORED by the great response.

What is your favourite thing to do in Edinburgh when you're not performing? How do you relax and look after your mental health?

What is this 'relax'? Is that a real word? I haven’t had a moment to relax. I’m still working half days at my day job, doing variety shows and supporting other shows when they have reviewers or tapings when I can. If I find time to take a nap or rest, I will. There’s so much to do and keep up with, I’m lucky I can rely on my team.

This will sound austere, but my team and I didn't plan to have fun. We considered this as a work opportunity, and mentally prepped ourselves for the grueling month, just as we have worked relentlessly in the months leading up to this festival. We are very serious people about this very unserious clown show.

For mental well-being, we are all actually quite normal, boring people who look after each other and keep each other sane. For physical well-being, we just make sure to eat well and stay healthy. And all the walking keeps us fit, coming from LA, where there's a car for every man, baby and dog.

But we do like finding fun new places to eat! The food in Edinburgh has gotten VERY nice since we were here last, and The Black Grape and Sen have been two of our favourite places so far.

Is there a show you’re excited to see when you’re up there?

I've already seen some great shows, but hopefully after the first week calms down, I can catch more shows, including Sophie's Surprise 29th, Top Gun the Musical, Tim Murray is Witches, Furiozo: Man Looking for Trouble and Troll.

What is one piece of advice you’d give to someone thinking about taking a show up to Edinburgh? If you’ve never been before, what would you say has been (potentially) the most useful?

Please find a producer or someone, ANYONE, to come with you if you're taking a solo show. This festival is far too extensive for one person to handle all the admin, logistics, finances, marketing, publicity, networking AND performing.

If you've never been before, the most useful advice I have is to talk to as MANY people as you can who have done the Edinburgh Festival Fringe to get their experiences. After the producers (James and myself) definitively decided we were coming for 2023, I called up everyone I knew starting in December (and maybe I should have even done that much earlier) to just talk to them. Keep in mind, everyone's goals are different, but it's still incredibly helpful to get as many perspectives as possible.

Header Image Credit: Bruce Allen

Author

Tom Inniss

Tom Inniss Voice Team

Tom is the Editor of Voice. He is a politics graduate and holds a masters in journalism, with particular interest in youth political engagement and technology. He is also a mentor to our Voice Contributors, and champions our festivals programme, including the reporter team at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe.

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