Funny thing about Going Down in Flames? Danny Mankin's tragicomedy about the mental deterioration of his famed clown sister Joan "Queenie Moon" Mankin, which makes its world premiere at the Headwaters Theatre this week, didn't seem nearly so personal at first, though the concept was her own.
“We’d sometimes brainstorm about projects,” says Mankin, “and she came to me saying it would be fun to do a play about a clown that gets Alzheimer’s. That was interesting because people with dementia have a lot in common with clowns. They don’t understand the polite rules of society. They say what’s on their mind. They’re inappropriate. If that happened to someone who was kind of outrageous anyway, how would that gray area play out in a dramatic scenario? So, we worked on the piece, we did some readings in San Francisco, and, then, around two years into the process, my sister started to show signs of dementia.”
Timing, as they say, is everything.
While this may sound like an especially macabre example of an artist exploring trauma through her preferred creative medium, Mankin swears Joan hadn’t the slightest inkling.
“There was no foreshadowing,” says Mankin, “unless she internalized or something. It was just one of those bizarre happenings where art imitates life in a particularly cruel way. My sister, at the time, was 64 and very healthy. She was very vital, very lively and very outrageous. This was the thing that made it hard to diagnose. People with this disease break all the rules, but she did that all the time anyway—consciously working on the borders between reality and clowning.”
Given how closely her “normal” persona echoed the more exaggerated behaviors spurred by deterioration, it took some time for Joan’s condition to suggest itself to loved ones.
“As a comedian, you have this internal editor to say you’ve gone too far,” Mankin says. “It had reached the point where that was no longer in place. She wouldn’t pick up on the signals that other people were uncomfortable. She would pee in public. She would egg people on. She’d try to kiss or hug somebody. The big warning sign happened when my sister, a lifelong feminist, got fired for sexual harassment from coming on to this stage manager. No one knew at the time, but that was exactly what was going on.”
In September 2015, little more than a year after her diagnosis, Joan Mankin died of the accelerated ravages of the disease, and, soon afterward, her brother returned to the script they had begun. Recognizing that fate demanded a new central character, he refashioned the play around Joan, incorporating personal anecdotes and her trademark joke (whose punchline became the show's title), and sent a copy to Joan Schirle—respected actor, Dell'Arte International founder and family friend.
"When you're a clown," says Schirle, "it's very difficult to distinguish what's weird. People automatically perceive you as weird anyway. So, in the course of the play, Danny's written some wonderful sections and worked in a lot of wonderful, very traditional shtick."
Says Mankin: “The show is meant to be funny, but it’s mixed with the sadness of somebody losing their mind yet trying to stay aware of what’s going on. It’s a very dark moment, but people always say the clowning helps.”
Catharsis aside, the process of putting on this show furnished Mankin with an unexpected sense of closure, and he wants the production to alleviate the pain and confusion others feel. To that end, Thursday’s premiere will also serve as an Association for Frontotemporal Degeneration benefit.
“So many people have family and friends that are going through this thing where the person you knew is becoming somebody you don’t and behaving in ways that you can’t understand,” Mankin says. “I’m hoping that the humor and the story will help them find some release. Writing this play was in some way saying goodbye but also honoring my memories of her. It gives Joan one more shot, and that’s some indication this funny story we created together needed to be told. I like to say that she gets the last laugh.”
SEE IT: Going Down in Flames is at the Headwaters Theatre, 55 NE Farragut St., No. 9, witd.org. 7:30 pm Thursday-Saturday, 2 pm Sunday, May 30-June 9. $20-$28.