In a one-‘clown’ Off Broadway show, an actor takes the stigma out of mental illness


When actor Scott Ehrenpreis was growing up, his parents picked one night of Hanukkah to give him and his brothers themed presents: One brother (aptly named Noah) got a Noah’s Ark toy, his other brother got vintage baseball cards and Ehrenpreis got an antique clown figurine. 

A collection of those clowns, neatly lined up on a shelf, are now part of the backdrop for “Clowns Like Me,” Ehrenpreis’ autobiographical one-man show, running through July 28 at DR2 — the smaller, more intimate sister of Union Square’s Daryl Roth Theatre. 

In the play, Ehrenpreis — a Sarasota, Florida-based actor whose credits include regional theater and television and film work — explores his journey living with mental illness; or as he puts it, “a lot of mental illness.” Towards the beginning of the show, he deadpans, “Mental illnesses are like potato chips. You can’t have just one.” 

Ehrenpreis’ list of diagnoses includes autism spectrum disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, bipolar disorder, society anxiety and depression. In “Clowns Like Me,” Ehrenrpreis uses humor paired with vulnerability to tell stories from his life, and share how it feels to be neurodivergent. 

“Clowns Like Me” premiered in Sarasota in 2023. Ehrenpreis created the show in collaboration with writer and director Jason Cannon, as well as with his father, Joel Ehrenpreis, whose organization Lifeline Productions is its main backer. The goal of both “Clowns Like Me” and Lifeline Productions is to break down stigmas surrounding mental illness. To that end, the production is partnering with mental health advocacy organizations, starting with the New York chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness. 

The New York Jewish Week talked with Ehrenpreis, 45, to hear about why this feels like the right time to tell his story, what he sees in clowns, and what he hopes audiences get out of the play. 

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity. 

Why did you decide to create this show? 

I decided to turn my pain into purpose. Mental health is a hot topic right now, but it wasn’t when I was growing up. I feel that I can give a voice to others that are still stuck in their shadow, and be this messenger of hope and healing. Talking about my lived experience, I remind people that they’re not alone, whatever they’re going through. I feel that I’m not disabled, I’m differently abled. Now, I’m able to take the “dis” out of disability. 

What was the writing process like? And how does it feel to memorize your own stories as a script? 

It was really interesting working with Jason Cannon, my brother in arms, my compadre, my partner in crime. We had jam sessions for about a year where he would be asking me questions about my life. He just ripped me wide open, pulling story after story until he got enough content to create. Memorization has never been a problem for me. And Jason made it easy, because he wrote it the way that I would talk.

The play is centered around the theme of clowns. Your parents started giving you clown figurines for Hanukkah when you were quite young. Did you always connect with the figure of the clown? 

I never really connected to it, I was just excited to get them. But who knew that later in life I would feel like a clown. I felt off-centered. I never knew that this would become an external manifestation of the internal life. But growing up, it’s like my parents knew. Clowns are their own entity, their own individuality. We’re all clowns. We’re all a little off-centered, off the beaten path. I think they knew that this is who their son was. But I didn’t know, until the writing started, that this is who I am. 

In the play, you talk about how historically both religious leaders and clowns were thought to be “touched by the divine,” and that you also feel that way. Does your understanding of the divine have anything to do with your Jewish identity? 

I’m not a practicing Jew. I haven’t been to temple for the length of the Bible. I’m still proud to be Jewish, and I was bar mitzvah-ed, but that’s pretty much as far as it goes. To me, being touched by the divine doesn’t tie to my Judaism. It means that I’m blessed, and that I’m not my diagnoses. I’m not a label, or an exclamation point. 

You talk about how acting has always been a safe space for you, where you’re able to become a completely different person. This show is so intensely personal — do you still have that sense of embodying a character? 

I’m playing an elevated version of myself. There are some parts in the play where the playwright takes artistic liberties. But 95% of what comes out of my mouth actually happened to me. And we used some of that rough and tumble-ness to create comedic opportunities, to not make it so dour and dreck. I feel like this is the most vulnerable and naked I’ve ever been. I like the Golden Age of Hollywood; Rosalind Russell is one of my favorite actresses. She said, “Acting is standing up naked and turning around very slowly.” I embrace that; you’re letting the audience into every orifice of your body. It’s cathartic to get it out, to purge. As actors, we lie to tell the truth. But this is not lying. This is just me, warts and all. 

What is your hope for the future of both Lifeline Productions and “Clowns Like Me”?

We’re still strangers in a strange land. We don’t know where “Clowns” is going to go. I’m just focusing right now on being in New York, because the future is fear. We’re just taking it one bite at a time. After New York, we’re going to perform at the Historic Asolo Theater in Sarasota. Then the future is to reach out to college kids who are suffering. We’re looking at a college tour. There’s not enough mental health staff with the influx of kids that are feeling alone like I did many years ago. I want to grab them from the abyss that they’re in, and tell them that you know what, if I can make it, you can make it too. 

“Clowns Like Me” runs at the DR2 Theatre through July 28.