Karen Hines plays Pochsy at York

On Oct. 18, York’s Canadian Writers in Person course and reading series presented playwright Karen Hines reading from her latest work The Pochsy Plays. York teaching assistant Chris Cornish sent the following report to YFile.

I was walking down the street the other day, and this girl came up to me. And I think she was trying to ask me for directions, but there was something funny about her voice, and something weird with how she walked and something very wrong with her skin.

And then I realized: she was old.
If I ever got old, I would just die.

from Citizen Pochsy
by Karen Hines

The late American comedian and mime Red Skelton used to transform into "Freddy Freeloader" onstage to show that his clown character was composed of "a little bit of you and a little bit of me." Canadian playwright Karen Hines (right) likewise transformed into "Pochsy", the titular character of her trilogy of plays, for the Canadian Writers in Person series. As the audience watched, the playwright/performer disappeared beneath a wig and some make-up and emerged as a clown much cuter and altogether darker than Skelton’s affable character.

In a breathy, girlish voice Pochsy introduced herself and promptly chastised a tardy student, "How come you’re late?" Moments later, another student sneezed and Pochsy sweetly said "Bless you!" before describing her job at Mercury Packers: "It’s right across the street from my house, which is great for me because it only takes a minute. To drive." As her book caption says, "Meet Pochsy: the nasty, vapid, utterly charming embodiment of evil – wrapped in a bow." 

Pochsy, a name that references the pox and is an anagram of "psycho", was developed partly through the tradition of bouffon, a form of clowning which combines parody and affliction. It’s a performance style that tends to alienate rather than endear the audience. Hines chose to merge this style with the idea of the personal clown, "an intensely visceral performance entity born from the celebration of the extremities and normalcy of the self." As a result, Pochsy is not just a deformed caricature but a deceptively three-dimensional being. "I take the things that I do that are self-centered and [let Pochsy] take it further," said Hines. "What I try not to do, I let her do and revel in it." Although she is suffering from mercury poisoning, Pochsy’s real affliction is the internal malaise of loneliness and over-consumption of North American culture. 

Wanting to target popular culture with her satire, Pochsy speaks lines that are pulled straight from ads in magazines such as Vanity Fair and People. Hines says that a large box full of magazines and clippings went into the creation of each play. Self-help mantras also become twisted and mangled in her character’s attempt to find meaning.

The humour and improvisational elements of Hines’ performance can be attributed to her beginnings at Toronto’s Second City Mainstage. Though she eventually became frustrated by the "economy urgencies of entertainment", the seed of Pochsy began there with a sketch where she embodied Canada as a sick patient. While collaborating with the dark clown duo, Mump and Smoot, Hines refined the idea through brainstorming, improv and the pressure of performing her first solo show. For aspiring but procrastinating playwrights, she recommends to "enter yourself into a fringe festival before you’ve written a play and you ‘will’ write a play." 

From her first show at the Orlando, and later Toronto Fringe Festivals (friendly and bohemian) to religious Louisville, to Dallas where many in her audience had guns, Hines is always listening to her audience. "It’s aimed at everybody but I dance with whoever comes," said Hines, who adjusts her performance to suit the crowd. She reacts to their engagement, but always with an aim to make them complicit with her character’s twisted take on the world. And really, though she attacks the world, she is the world, and there’s a little Pochsy in all of us.

The Canadian Writers in Person series of public readings at York, which is free and open to the public, is also part of an introductory course on Canadian literature. The series is sponsored in part by the Canada Council for the ArtsAcclaimed poet Lorna Crozier read from her collection Before the First Word on Nov. 1. George Elliott Clarke will be the next in the series, on Nov. 15, reading from Black.