Karen Hall: Reimagining Classical Music Through Clowning

by Kyra Palmbush

The lights dim, and the stage is empty, except for a woman wearing a long, black evening gown. The oddity of the scene is instead of holding a cello as the audience anticipated, she is holding a sandwich. She slowly devours her meal and then demonstrates her cello mastery by playing “Suite Number One in G Major” by Johann Sebastian Bach. Her demeanor is conversational, and her striking but relational presence carries through the performance. She shares deeply personal anecdotes from her past that instantly connect her to the audience. Through her honest, emotional exploration of failure and play, Karen Hall ’09 combines two unlikely disciplines– classical music and clowning.

Long before starting her one-woman show, Delusions and Grander, Hall applied to APU as a global studies major but switched to music after receiving a scholarship for her audition tape. After graduation, Hall worked as a contracted cellist for Glee, the hit American musical comedy series. “I was the most consistent on-camera cellist for Glee which led to other on-camera work. I ended up doing some commercials and got connected to an agent,” she said. Hall’s agent encouraged her to take improv classes. “When I found improv, it was revolutionary, this idea that the audience was informing my performance. I like improv for all the reasons I like music; there is group mind and teamwork.”

While exploring improv, Hall stumbled upon clowning. She loved how clowning engaged the audience in a way that classical music performers were missing. “Connecting with the audience is the whole idea of the clown. The clown exists to see and be seen, to feel and to display those changes publicly,” she said. Hall explained that there is a relationship between the audience and performer during clowning involving both parties. “It's this balance of making sure the audience is happy, but making sure you're not surrendering your joy either; being able to enjoy it with them,” she said. “Improv is my brain's happy place, but clowning is my heart's happy place,” she said. Hall explained that the childlike personality of the clown can be seen in their sense of optimism in the face of failure. “To show your feelings, you have to fail a lot and you have to do uncomfortable things. The clown provides this eternal hope of next time I’ll get it.” Hall encourages people to see a reflection of themselves in the clown as the clown is a reflection of them.

As a highly skilled musician, Hall has persevered through the physical and mental tolls that come from a demanding career. In response to her struggles with mental health, she founded “The Musician Health Resource,” a company intended to help musicians as they work through internal and external struggles. Hall felt the need to take additional steps to support her community and invest in the well-being of her musical peers. “I have never been a person who is afraid of my voice. I have a lot of musician friends who feel comfortable saying what they need to say through their instruments. I feel the opposite. I feel at some point in time I have to get out from behind it and say something directly, which is probably why I am so obsessed with clowning.”

Hall grew up in a Christian home and continues to invest in her faith and apply it to her daily life. “My faith is very personal, but I believe it’s meant to be done in community,” she said. Hall went through debilitating heat stroke in 2017, and the church played a central role during this turbulent period of her life. “I was giving up what my life was, and I found that everything and everyone disappeared except church. I was grateful for that experience and that grounding in a time when I was really in survival mode.” Through this experience, Hall realized that the obstacles in her path gave her a chance to feel closer to God as she relied on Him. “I know that people will let me down at times, but God never will. He is interested in what will come out on the other side of the difficulties.”

Hall is grateful for the unique experiences she had while studying at APU. She realized during her junior year that she could capitalize on the opportunities APU provided. “I made an attitude and mental shift of this has been given to me, and I have to make the most of it. I took every opportunity to get skills I thought I would need in the real world.” Instead of letting moments pass by her, Hall understood that being mentally checked in could change her experience and prepare her for life after college. She experienced success by “...getting into studio classes, saying yes to things other players were saying no to and advocating for myself.”

Hall continues to be involved with the APU community and is a regular guest speaker for Dave Beatty’s Music Career Development class. Hall advises APU students to take advantage of the opportunities they are given. “Once you’ve tried something, you can make a thoughtful choice rather than a fear-based choice,” she said. Trying new creative exercises was the way Hall found clowning. She explained that it takes intentional exploration to discover your passions and interests. “Find your lane and stay in it, but you only know what your lane is by giving other things a shot, so don’t rule anything out.”

When developing her show, Delusions and Grandeur, Hall intentionally chose a name that echoed her performance. “The Grandeur is the cello, and the Delusion is this clowney sense of play within my failures, my questioning, and my grappling,” she said. Hall hopes that her audience will feel a mutual investment in the performance. She recognizes the power of “sharing in the doing” and how the audience craves being intimately involved with what’s occurring on stage. After Hall performs, she understands the audience will leave with a personal understanding of her show. “It’s not what we say, it's how people interpret what we are saying. I do my best to read the audience, and I read them well, but ultimately what they leave the theater with is what the show was for them,” she said. Hall is excited about the ways the show reaches people and initiates conversation. “It has a life beyond me. Dr. Sutton told me his students are having not just thoughtful conversations but very emotionally driven conversations about the content. That’s the kind of impact I want my show to have.”

Kyra ('23) is a public relations intern in the Division of Strategic Communication and Engagement.