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Sex, drugs and monasticism

Getting “spiritually incorrect” with Alan Clements

Alan Clements is all over the map.

He’s been an athlete at the University of Virginia, the first American ordained as a Buddhist monk in Burma, a war journalist in Yugoslavia, a heartbreaker in California, a worldwide leader in meditation, and now a spoken-word performer and author based in Vancouver, B.C. He’s been on anti-depressants, booze, Valium, sleeping pills, hallucinogens, cigarettes—and now he’s off. Now he uses four-syllable words the way the rest of us use “like,” and though he could talk for hours about the life experiences that have led him to his current spoken-word, “spiritually incorrect” Burning Bush Tour 2004, which he is bringing to the Crystal Theater this Friday and Saturday, he can also boil his message down to this:

“It’s very simple,” he says over the phone from Vancouver. “I’m an entertainer first and foremost, and I’m an entertainer with a heartfelt message, which is to think beyond the box—not to sound clichéd—but to challenge existing structures and systems that are oppressive, and I feel that satire, comedy and good drama mix well to create a theatrical activism, if you will.”

If that doesn’t sound so simple, don’t fret. While Clements’ message is inspired by a decade of monastic life in Burma, followed by a journalistic career witnessing genocide in Burma and Yugoslavia (his current tour is dedicated to raising awareness about Aung San Suu Kyi, the incarcerated Burmese Nobel laureate who has been nicknamed “Burma’s Gandhi”), his message is, in fact, one that could be learned growing up in Anywhere, America: Be yourself. Drop the persona you put on for others and be fearless. Show the world your flaws. Learn to love you.

“One of the most unsexy qualities in a human being to me,” says Clements, “is the lack of self-doubt.”

He says he speaks well “to the marginal, the people on the outside of the rich and the elite, and everyone who thinks they’ve got a problem.” After a recent university performance attended by what he described as 250 tie-dyed, pierced, hippie-types, Clements says that about 75 people lined up to meet him afterward. He recalls responses like: “Thank you for saving me the journey to India and back. Thank you for saving me thinking I need to meditate four hours a day. Thank you for saving me thinking I need Prozac. Thank you for taking me out of the box and thinking I need to be in psychotherapy to overcome these things I hate in school.”

Sounds well worth the $13 price of admission. But what is it, exactly, that Clements does up on stage?

Never the same thing twice, he says. In the four years he’s toured (he’s aiming for 100 performances in 2005), his show has been different every time. He calls what he does “deep comedy.” “Not that it’s deep in the sense of, I’m some mega-intelligent human being,” Clements says. “I’m probably more flawed than most, but [the comedy] is deep, and I delve directly, uncensored, unscripted into the universe of duality, of polarity, of contradiction, of opposing appetites, and try to bring as much honesty and humor to that which we normally censor or condemn or consider obscene or pornographic. That is my way,” he says, “of elevating the status of human life through entertainment.”

The topics Clements covers in a performance are myriad: “I do theme-streams,” he says. “Human identity is huge for me. Who are we? Who are the selves inside? The subselves? What is life? The inner alien? The outer alien—” Wait, stop. The outer alien?

“Who is the person inside,” clarifies Clements, “that contradicts the person who behaves in the world. How do we mimic ourselves? The role of pretense, the role of censorship, the role of putting one face on to the world and then censoring the other self for which you feel people would condemn you—”

He’ll cut the show down to 80 minutes when he has to, he says; when he says he’ll go on for hours, you believe him. He says performing energizes him. He says he delights in what he does. “A lot of my work,” he goes on, “is a psychological, existential kind of catharsis, if you will—that it’s OK to be that which you fear in yourself.”

In his shows, Clements is quick to share the subjects that “have brought me to my knees.” Topping that list are love, women, romance, war, meditation and having an open mind. “But women,” he emphasizes, “have been the key to unlocking my insanity.”

Does he talk about women during his performance? “How could you not?” Clements answers. “I talk about women. I talk about sex. I talk about obscenity. I talk about relationships. I talk about what it means to be single. I talk about the complicity with violence inside and out. But mostly I talk about, hey, if you can’t laugh at yourself, you are really hopeless.”

Clements isn’t so sure that President George W. Bush can laugh at himself. He named his tour The Burning Bush Tour 2004, he says, “primarily because of [Bush’s] unquenchable desire to be seen as a good Christian.”

“The core of my message,” he adds, “really is redemption, and I really do feel that we have a moment here with George W. Bush and company [in which] they could very well win the Nobel Peace Prize if only they would become the religion that they seek to be.”

Not that Clements is suggesting Bush combine church and state. Rather, he’s addressing again that unsexy quality of lacking self-doubt:

“That’s the number one thing,” he says, “if I could talk with George W. Bush or Rumsfeld or any other leader that thinks that self-doubt is some kind of pussy weakness. I say that you have to be extremely confident to have self-doubt. If you cannot say, ‘I made a mistake,’ and seek forgiveness…” he pauses. “This is called the Taliban.” Clements takes the position that we should be aware of people who are too certain, too absolute. With those kinds of leaders, he warns, “we run the risk of metastasizing…into fundamentalism, orthodoxy, nationalism.”

“I feel,” Clements says, “as an activist and as a performer, that the last 3.5 years under George W. Bush—having lived under a dictatorship in Burma [myself], having seen war in Yugoslavia—that I don’t want the children of the world finding me complicit with the seeding of fascism in our beautiful democratic country. So this is the time to act.”

Asked if he’s had any formal acting training, Clements gives an emphatic no.

“I turned to the stage as a way to further my activism, to further my journalism, to further my expression in the world,” he says.

So, again, what does he do on stage?

“My performance is an anti-performance,” he says. “I do not want to fake people out. I think the missing thing in life is truly a genuine experience of being who you are as you are, the good, the bad, the debauched.” It’s also, he says, about acknowledging that façade you put on and asking yourself: “When are you going to lay it down? Or are you going to just take your persona to the grave?”

No doubt, Clements isn’t afraid to ask the Big Questions. But that doesn’t mean he’s expecting any answers.

“I don’t rely on my audience to do anything except be the most beautiful, profound, natural person they want to be,” he says.

And in return: “I share with people how I think and feel and dream when I’m alone.”

To ask the Big Questions and be brought to your knees, see Alan Clements’ Burning Bush Tour 2004, “Spiritually Incorrect,” with performances on Friday, Oct. 1, and Saturday, Oct. 2, at the Crystal Theater at 7:30 PM. Tickets cost $13 in advance, $15 at the door.

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