An Estonian clown walks into Woolly Mammoth and … ‘ha ha ha ha ha ha ha’

Julia Masli talks about her award-winning show making its regional debut.

She’s been compared to Charlie Chaplin, called a comedian and a trickster, and is occasionally mistaken for a character who’s fallen out of Waiting for Godot.

She’s also been described as magical, mysterious, and funny.

Her name is Julia Masli, and it’s little wonder that her newest show — a solo performance called ha ha ha ha ha ha ha (that’s seven times ha) — was accorded top honors at the Edinburgh Festival last year.

Julia Masli appearing in ‘ha ha ha ha ha ha ha.’ Publicity photo courtesy of Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company.

Since then, the show has had sold-out runs in New York, LA, Sydney, and London. It arrives in Washington on July 17 for a brief engagement at Woolly Mammoth before returning to London, where Masli, who grew up in Tallinn, Estonia, now lives.

I caught up with Masli in New York, where she was taking a break from her U.S. tour and checking out other shows and museums.

“New York’s energy is inspiring,” she said, as we settled in for a lively chat over Zoom. She had just returned from seeing the new Jenny Holzer exhibition at the Guggenheim, which she described as “getting out of my own bubble.”

“Whenever you’re described as an ‘Estonian clown,’ people laugh,” I said. “Why is that?”

She laughed in response. “It’s because when you say ‘Estonian clown,’ people think it’s a joke! I think it’s because most people have never heard of Estonia.”

Also, the idea that someone would choose to make a career out of clowning sounds silly, she added. Truth be told, if she had her way, she’d call herself an architect.

“An architect of joy!” she repeated, gleefully. Because that, in a way, is what she sets out to do whenever she’s in front of an audience. She’s building connections, using laughter as mortar.

ha ha ha ha ha ha ha is her fourth play to be produced. It’s about problems. Personal, public, and global problems. Literally.

She opens the show by asking members of the audience to tell her about their problems. She then tries, comically and ingeniously, to solve them, often to ludicrous and hilarious effect.

Since the show is billed as “interactive” — meaning that each skit is built on a problem proffered by an audience member — every performance is different. It’s not improv, but the solutions and comedy engendered depend on who is in the audience, and which problems they choose to share.

Is it lost love? The climate? Eating or sleeping? Dating? Or fixing a chair? Those are some of the topics the came up last month at Soho Playhouse in New York.

“Every show is different,” she explained, “because every person is different. Everyone is human, with heart, brains, and guts, but every human is unique.”

Prior to ha ha ha ha ha ha ha, she created Choosh, about an East European immigrant’s struggles in America, in 2022, and Legs, which is about the limbs we walk on, in 2019. Both won comedy awards at the Edinburgh Festival.

A fourth show, Anna Karenina Na Na, performed with the Pushkinettes, was produced in London in 2020 and was a finalist in the Off-West End Awards.

The success of Legs at the Edinburgh Festival was a major turning point in her career. It was an hour-long show, literally about legs, which sprouted improbably from different parts of her body. The audience roared with laughter.

The artificial limbs became a talisman and an important part of her on-stage persona. As a result, when she steps out front at Woolly this month, she will be sporting a gold mannequin leg in place of an arm.

“Is it a sight joke?” I asked. “Or a message?”

“Both,” she said. “But most of all, it’s a private symbol of hope for me.

“Before that show,” she explained, “I had gone through a difficult period where I couldn’t do anything. It ended when I realized that it’s okay to fail. I began with a five-minute skit, called Legs, which eventually grew into a full-hour show. That saved me. I literally got up and started walking again.”

The solution, she added, was accepting the possibility of failure. “I gave up on seeing success as a goal. I started performing because I loved it. It freed me.”

The great thing about the new show, according to Masli, is that it keeps evolving.

“It’s never finished,” Masli continued. “Each show is created in the moment with the audience. That’s my joy and frustration. How simple it would be to know every beat. But it wouldn’t be as exhilarating to perform.”

She and her co-director, Kim Noble, often joke that in 20 years they will still be working on it.

Masli met Noble — a well-known (some say “notorious”) British performance artist and comic — after seeing his show, Lullabye for Scavengers, last year in London.

“I was blown away,” she said. “The show had so much depth and tenderness, yet it was deeply funny.”

She invited him to a work in progress of ha ha ha ha ha ha ha and they teamed up soon after.

“He helped me to go deeper into the material, and not always take the easy route of laughter,” she said, adding that it’s been the best creative collaboration of her life.

Although Masli’s shows often begin at comedy clubs, theaters — and especially Woolly Mammoth, which is dedicated to the production of courageous and invigorating new work — represent a more interesting venue.

“I feel like the show can breathe a bit more in that setting,” she said.

“There’s a big difference between performing at a comedy club and onstage inside a professional theater,” she added. “At comedy clubs, people expect to laugh. Theater is more difficult. It’s more disciplined, but more satisfying.”

On another level, performing on stage is a dream come true. Her parents, who are lawyers in Estonia, sent her off to school in the UK when she was 12 years old, hoping that she would learn English. She did, but she never lost her accent.

That meant that despite her girlhood dreams of becoming an actress and starring in great tragedies, she could not, at age 17, get into a single British drama school.

Unwilling to give up, she moved to France, where she studied mime and other aspects of high comedy under the maestro of clowning, Philippe Gaulier, the now 81-year-old guru whose students have included Sacha Baron Cohen.

Clowning led to the Pushkinettes (described by Masli as three idiots in love with their Russian heritage), then Legs, Choosh, and now ha ha ha ha ha ha ha.

What can audiences in DC expect? I asked.

“To laugh. To feel. To be together, to feel connected in a community of strangers. To feel a sense of hope,” she replied.

And while the clowning around is clearly adult, teenagers are likely to enjoy it too.

“People often see the show, then come back with their kids,” she concluded.

Running Time: 65 minutes with no intermission.

ha ha ha ha ha ha ha plays from July 17 through August 4, 2024, at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, 641 D St NW, Washington, DC. Tickets ($60–$80, with discounts available) can be purchased online, by phone at 202-393-3939 (Wednesday–Sunday, 12:00–6:00 p.m.), by email ([email protected]), or in person at the Sales Office at 641 D Street NW, Washington, DC (Wednesday–Sunday, 12:00–6:00 p.m.).

COVID Safety: Masks are required for the performance on Tuesday, July 23, at 8pm. Masks are optional for all other performances. Woolly’s full safety policy is available here.

Special Access:

  • Thursday, July 25 at 8pm – Open Caption
  • Tuesday, July 30 at 8pm – Audio Described
  • Thursday, August 1 at 8pm – ASL

Assistive listening devices are available for all performances. Transmitters and accompanying headsets and ear speakers are available at the Box Office.

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