Radical Buffoons Making Unique Imprint on New Orleans Theater Scene

Jon Greene in “Balloonacy”

Five years after arriving in New Orleans, Jon Greene has set down theatrical roots with The Radical Buffoons, and looks to use comedy to spark big conversations while developing the next phase of theater in New Orleans.

The Radical Buffoons are kicking off their third season this month with “RAP Unzel,” a family production that takes a seemingly radical stance of not being a Christmas-related show despite being staged in December.

Greene grew up attending a Jewish Day School in the Washington area, which gave him the philosophical background for his theatrical work.

“As a Jewish guy growing up in the ‘90s in the Maryland area, I had a healthy dose of Mel Brooks, Carl Reiner, Sid Caesar — the relationship of Judaism to humor as a mechanism for social change,” he said.

“Good comedic work thrives on forcing an audience to accept contextual parts of a narrative,” which echoes his Judaic studies when growing up. “The Talmud is rife with nuance” and isn’t black-and-white. “The Talmud is constantly questioning the primary source… nothing is sacred, because everything needs to be questioned.”

The Radical Buffoons are “comfortable taking swings at the hard conversations with comedy,” challenging perceptions and norms, Greene said.

He attended Boston University, earning a degree in fine arts. He spent the next 15 years traveling as a performing artist and director, including time in Italy, South America and the Dakotas.

While at Boston University, he spent a semester in Italy, studying commedia dell’arte, the Italian street theater that inspired the comedies of today. “Commedia is based on toeing the line between appropriate and inappropriate,” he said, and has a history of standing with the downtrodden in society.

After living overseas for a while, Greene found himself in New York in 2012, going through the end of a relationship. A friend, who was living in the Garden District of New Orleans, “knew how miserable I was in New York,” and urged him to visit for the weekend. He begrudgingly agreed, and the moment he stepped out of the airport in New Orleans “I knew in my bones… I had to live here.”

It took a little while, because he had to finish a contract in Asia, and a couple of other opportunities popped up, such as being in the Dakotas doing a masked comedy play about Don Juan that toured underserved communities and had a message of questioning economic authority.

“Finally, I realized if I didn’t just pick up and move, I would never do it,” so he sold almost everything he had, got a car and arrived in New Orleans in September 2014. “It was probably one of the best decisions I’ve ever made in my life,” he said.

The New Orleans theater scene can be a challenge, because “this city is literally theater everywhere,” from street performers to Mardi Gras parades — so aside from the big shows, there isn’t a tradition of sitting in a room for a couple of hours.

“I’ve always made theater that is like Mardi Gras in a room, so I lucked out,” he said.

It took him a while to adjust “to what it means to be Jewish in New Orleans versus what it means to be Jewish in the northeast corridor.”

When he arrived in New Orleans, “everyone was having very deep conversations about race, antisemitism, our relationship to Israel, Confederate monuments,” and everyone was taking themselves so seriously when talking about these issues. His theatrical training has “allowed me to point the group to asking the big questions, without taking ourselves too seriously,” taking the pressure off and promoting conversations.

While New Orleans “is a challenging city,” it “constantly rewards me,” and is the first place he has lived where he has been able to make his living in theater.

Three years ago, the Rockfire Theatre Company approached him to direct a production of “Mr. Burns: A Post-Electric Play,” which he loves, but he cautioned them about how big of a production it is. He told them he would form an LLC and raise money to match Rockfire’s resources, so they could double the budget. “The project was so big and I believe the work we do requires a lot of work from our artists, so for the production to be equitable we needed to help enlarge the budget so they could be paid for the work they do,” he said.

Greene viewed it as a means to an end, not the start of a new group or a long-term plan for himself. He had always “balked at the idea” of being an artistic director, but enjoyed the process during “Mr. Burns,” which led to a production of “The Dumbwaiter,” and the Radical Buffoons emerged, with him serving as artistic director.

The name came from Lisa D’Amour, a Broadway playwright from New Orleans, who saw one of the shows Greene had written for Le Petit Theatre and thanked him for “bringing all that radical buffoonery to Le Petit.”

The Buffoons are now a fully-functioning theater company, doing three shows a year. “We built our program design on what we felt the community was asking for,” he said.

One track is mainstage adult works that have “big ideas, very physical, very socially provocative, and there has to be an element of humor” and pushing boundaries, he said.

Last year, that show was “Barbecue,” which he described as an “enormous racial satire which flips the script on conversations on differences and similarities of race.” The concept is “a trashy white family” throwing a barbecue for the youngest, wildest sibling, but it is really an intervention. After a while, the lights go down, then the story picks up again — with a black family in the same characters. The story “ping-pongs back and forth,” he said.

“We did that play because it made us nervous,” Greene said. “We had no idea how audiences would react at all.”

There were concerns the show would be divisive, but “actually, it was incredibly unifying. Our incredibly diverse audience laughed together, gasped together and walked out talking with people they didn’t know, asking what the heck was that show.”

The second emphasis is a lab show, an experiment with collaboration as its “core focus.” Last year’s show was “Stories Without Words,” and the idea is what gets created when people involved in one aspect of theater work with others from different areas. “Some performers had done only dance shows, some only theater.”

The third emphasis is young audiences, modeled after what the New Victory Theater in New York is doing. Greene said the idea is that “work for families has to be every bit as artistically and financially curated as the work for adults. Just because it’s a kids show, we can’t punt on design, rehearsal.” He sees it as an investment in “the artistic experience that new audiences have.”

It was during last year’s young audiences show, “Balloonacy,” that another philosophy emerged for the new group. A reviewer asked Greene why they were doing a show in December that had nothing to do with Christmas.

“I love Christmas, don’t get me wrong,” he said, but there are a lot of people in New Orleans who do not celebrate Christmas, and “why not provide a variety of opportunities?”

He asked, “how would I feel if I had a child and I took them to see theater, and the only thing we saw was Christmas plays… and Christmas is the only thing that is important this time of year.”

Likewise, there are plenty of Christian parents who have “seen nine Christmas plays and are Christmassed out.”

Ironically, he had already done Christmas productions in New Orleans. When living in Singapore, he was exposed to pantos, a British farce on Christmas themes, with “stupid slapstick, songs and dances, stock characters… It’s exactly what I love, it’s over the top, theatrical, interactive, it’s a whole event for the audience,” including throwing candy from the stage. When he first experienced Mardi Gras, he figured that “If there was ever a city to do a panto, this is the one.”

The new artistic director for Le Petit Theatre also wanted to do a panto, so he wrote and directed two big Christmas pantos for Le Petit.

This year’s December family show, “RAP Unzel,” is about a boy who has a big head of hair, is new to town and is kind of vulnerable. His father had recently died, and his mother decides that the only way to keep him safe from other kids is to keep him in his room, though he dreams of musical stardom.

“It’s a story about positivity and self-image,” Greene said, and for students who have been in school uniforms for the last four months, there is a sense of “follow your NOLA, kids, be your weird.” It’s also a statement on helicopter parenting.

The show evokes “happy feelings… they’re going to feel all the things you feel at a Christmas play, just not in the context of Christmas.”

Written by Jeremy Rashad Brown and directed by Torey Hayward, “RAP Unzel” is appropriate for ages 6 and up. Performances will be from Dec. 14 to 29 at the Southern Rep Theater’s Sanctuary Stage.

Ticket information is available at radicalbuffoons.com.