For a guy who plays a silent clown, Gale LaJoye answers questions as if he hasn’t spoken to another soul in years. It is that passion and drive that have sustained him through setbacks and trials.
When LaJoye opened his solo show, “Snowflake,” at the Southern Theater in 1990, he fervently wanted his wordless, Charlie Chaplin-esque work to find an audience. But his hopes were punctured.
“The critics panned it because we put it up so fast, we weren’t ready,” he said. “But we knew we had something.”
A native of Marquette, Mich., who studied clowning in Florida, LaJoye (lah-JOY) worked on “Snowflake” over the next two years, and that “something” turned into his life’s work. The tender show, fashioned from discarded objects and centering on marginalized characters, has been a hit around the globe.
Now, LaJoye is opening a run of the show at Children’s Theatre, in whose scene shop it was created. And “Snowflake” may be coming home to rest as he is seriously thinking of hanging it up.
“I stopped counting how many performances I’ve done at 1,500,” he said. “But we’re somewhere between 1,800 and 2,000. And it’s hard to see doing it much longer, and definitely not another 25 years. Not in this body.”
That body is 64 years old, although LaJoye moves with the agility of someone decades younger.
“Snowflake” had an odd beginning for LaJoye. In 1979, while returning home late at night from a nightclub he ran on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula (he’s had a hundred odd jobs), LaJoye veered onto a sandy patch and wrapped his car around a tree.
He broke his neck, and doctors did not expect him to walk again.
“But I’d watched those old movies and knew that if I could wiggle my toe, I’d be all right,” he said. “In the hospital, I was paralyzed in my leg, my right arm, but I could wiggle my toe. I knew I was good.”
It took three years of rehabilitation, but he eventually became ambulatory, and sought to take the stage again. “But I couldn’t do as I had before,” he said. “I couldn’t do physical tricks. So, I had to come up with a show that fit my body.”
“Snowflake” is that show.
The production was inspired by Don Stenglein, a quasi-homeless man in Marquette whose routine was so regular that people informally used him as a clock and a signpost in the small community.
LaJoye, who got to know Stenglein when the man lived in a rooming house shared by college students (including LaJoye’s girlfriend), was struck by his simplicity and lack of guile.
“He had this innocence, the lack of judgment,” he said. “I said to myself, I’m gonna mark that character and keep him in my mind for some future work.”
LaJoye ended up making a show that draws on Stenglein’s essence, but not his life story.
“After it premiered here, I took it to Marquette and invited him to see it,” said LaJoye. “He had lost both legs then to diabetes, so he came in and sat in the front row. And I watched him the whole time, curious to see his reaction. Afterward, I ran to catch up with him as he was leaving, and asked him what he thought. He just smiled at me, and gave me a thumbs up.”
A descendant of French-Canadian immigrants, LaJoye’s family moved often as his dad, a master mechanic, followed construction work on the Upper Peninsula.
“By the time I got to Northern Michigan University, I’d gone to 17 schools,” he said. In college, he intended to become a lawyer; but then he took an introductory theater class, which required auditioning for a play, Chekhov’s “Three Sisters.” He got the role of the doctor.
“At the end of the first performance, I got good applause, and that was it; I was hooked,” he said.
LaJoye spent three years at the university and left for Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Clown College, then in Venice, Fla. He would travel the country with the circus for a year, and in 1984, he moved to Minnesota. He met lots of theater people, including the then-production manager of Children’s Theatre, who allowed LaJoye to use the theater’s scene shop at night and on weekends.
LaJoye also met composer Victor Zupanc.
“Gale played me some samples of existing things so that he could tell me the styles he liked, and it was pretty highly electronic, New Age-style,” said Zupanc, who composed, arranged, produced and performed the score of “Snowflake.”
“Ninety percent of New Age music is crap — baby food,” he said, “but his work is deep, so I needed to do something that matched that.”
Zupanc had worked with the clown and actor Bill Irwin, so he was excited to work with LaJoye.
“With Bill Irwin and Gale, they don’t need to speak,” he said. “They convey something magical just in how they move. You look at Gale’s facial expressions, they’re rich and meaningful. People come away sobbing from the show, grinning and laughing.”
The props in “Snowflake” include a pair of skis, a feather and other detritus that a homeless man may gather. The show also includes a discarded puppet that comes to life as Snowflake’s companion.
“Gale took these objects and brought such life and tenderness, such moving back stories to them,” said Peter Brosius, CTC artistic director. “Gale has this gorgeous comic sensibility. When I first saw the show, I literally flipped out. That’s the feeling you get when you’re in the presence of a master of comic invention.”
The morale and the message are intertwined in “Snowflake.”
“It’s a junk show about finding value in things and in human beings,” said LaJoye. “Snowflake may be on the fringe, but there’s a lot of value there. We get overwhelmed sometimes, but we can’t just look past people, our fellow human beings. Each of us is born and loved.
“The whole message, done through humor, of course, is about valuing each other.”
In 2002, LaJoye did a four-month tour of “Snowflake” through the Midwest under the aegis of Children’s Theatre. During a workshop in 2002, he worked with Dean Holt, and was impressed by the dexterous CTC company member who also has done silent shows. Holt is understudying LaJoye, and will go on for some performances.
“Dean has a good sense of movement,” said LaJoye. “His falling down is as pretty as anything you would want to see.”
Would he like to see Holt take over the show?
“Perhaps,” he said. “I love the show but I know that there are phases and seasons for everything. I’d like to create something else.”