Wednesday, January 3, 2007
Enter the Clowns!
I n general, the term clowning (in this book and elsewhere) can refer to virtually any type of behavior that results in laughter. In that sense, Adam Sandler, Wayne Brady, and Courteney Cox, and countless other performers who grace stage and screen, are clowns. But in a stricter sense, clowns have a very specific place in the entertainment world. A Special Role What image comes to mind when you hear the word clown? Most of us think of a painted face, complete with bulbous nose and enormous lips, an image that’s bound to elicit a smile. Clowns divert and entertain audiences by performing comical routines, often while wearing unusual makeup and costumes. Actually, they are actors and comedians whose job is to make peo- ple laugh and have a good time. Often they wear outlandish cos- tumes, paint their faces, and use a variety of performance skills to entertain audiences. To accomplish this, they may juggle, dance, walk on stilts, perform magic tricks, work creatively with bal- loons, make use of body antics, and employ a host of other skills. Some clowns perform in large groups, as they do in a circus. Circus clowns often perform routines while the rings are being prepared for other acts. They might sing songs, tell jokes, or do acrobatic stunts. Some of the routines they perform are written specifically for them (or they write routines for themselves). Oth- ers are well-known comedy routines. Clowns need a good sense of timing and balance and must be able to adjust their performances to the audience. They must have a good sense of humor, enjoy working and interacting with peo- ple, and be able to shift gears and adapt quickly to the way an audience responds to the act. Clowns come from all walks of life, but one thing they all have in common is that they are creative people who love to entertain. In becoming clowns, they often develop a distinct stage persona for their acts or routines that reflects aspects of their personality or a personality they wish to portray. How do you develop a clown character? Three key elements are (1) overall appearance, including costume; (2) makeup; and (3) personality. In order to correctly project their personae, the respective clown characters must wear appropriate costumes and makeup. Clown Types There are three basic types of clowns. Which appeals to you most? The White-Faced Clown Typically, the white-faced clown is the "straight"clown in skits. He or she is easily identified by the makeup, which has a base of white greasepaint. The "straight" clown is the one who acts very serious but who ends up being the brunt of the skit or the punch line. The costumes of white-faced clowns are usually more formal than those of other clowns. This means that the colors tend to match and the costume flows together. Other clown types tend to wear more gaudy or mismatched colors. Makeup of the white-faced clown is typically simple and high- lights natural features (eyes, lips, cheeks) already prominent on the face. Variations of a white-faced clown are unlimited. There are no specific guidelines except the basic white base. The Auguste Clown The silly clown in skits is usually the Auguste clown. Makeup for these clowns is a bright flesh-tone base. Auguste clowns usually appear to be unaware of what’s going on in the skit, but somehow they manage to escape being the brunt of everything (a technique called the blow off). Costumes of Auguste clowns tend to be gaudy, mismatched, and very bright. Primary colors are most popular, and the clothing is usually oversized. The makeup is also bright and exaggerates the natural features already present in the face (large nose, large mouth, and so on). Again, there are many variations, and all clowns adapt their own special features, which become their trademarks. The Character Clown The character clown is just what you would suspect—a character who is exaggerated into a clown. The most popular example of this is the Hobo or Tramp clown. This clown is usually seen with tattered clothes, including a worn hat, a red nose, makeup that suggests a week’s worth of beard, and other exaggerated features. Character clowns can represent almost any walk of life. Some of the other well-known examples are police officers, women, or babies. Where to Find Clowns You might be surprised at the variety of places where clowns work. They can be found in circuses, movies, television shows, fairs, musical plays, fairgrounds, or amusement parks. Many clowns work for commercial employers. Probably the most famous is Ronald McDonald, who is almost synonymous with McDonald’s franchises. Some clowns work at rodeos, entertaining the crowd between events. Bullfighters also dress like clowns, but their job is to distract the bull when a cowboy falls off a horse. This is serious work because dealing with huge, angry bulls is a risky business. Other clowns are self-employed and may entertain at parties, birthday celebrations, school shows, senior-citizen events, country or state parks, trade shows, or conventions. They may work at automobile shows or shopping malls. Their job is to attract the attention of passersby and direct their attention to the event. Many clowns work an established circuit to make a living. Shrine Clowns Shrine Clowns typically belong to the International Shrine Clown Association. These clowns strive to cheer up children who are in Shrine hospitals, and they work in a variety of other ways to raise money for Shrine causes. As members, they receive newsletters and may attend conferences. Members report that they reap great personal rewards when engaging in the International Shrine Clown Association’s efforts. Circus Time Circuses come in both large and small sizes. The smaller ones entertain in shopping malls, at state and county fairs, and in sim- ilar locations. Circus people travel. They may set up their shows in fifty or sixty towns between April and October. Large circuses such as Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus may tour from January through November. The stay in any one place may last only a day, two or three days, or as long as five weeks.Winter quar- ters are often in Florida and California, but they can also be found in Texas, Missouri, Oklahoma, or New Jersey. At one time, circuses traveled by train and used horse-drawn wagons to parade through towns and set up the big top. Then trucks began to move equipment around the circuit. Today, it is more common for compact truck and bus convoys to carry equip- ment, performers, and animals. Performers may travel in their own air-conditioned motor homes. Some circus people stay at motels or hotels when they perform in one place for several days. At every town, a circus staff member picks up and distributes per- sonal mail to the performers. Generally, large circuses perform indoors in stadiums, arenas, and large halls. Some small ones, however, still play under canvas tents. No two places are the same, and each stop presents special restrictions. The circus must obey local safety and health laws. Many towns insist on inspections and permits before they let the circus perform. While the arena may be large and comfortable in one city, the next city’s circus site may be smaller or a more diffi- cult place in which to perform. Circus performers on the road have few free hours. Although their acts take only a short time, they give two shows a day, and sometimes three, afternoons and evenings, Sundays and holidays. They must also rehearse between shows. A flawless performance and perfect timing come only after years of hard work and a great deal of practice. Performers take care of their costumes, set up and take down equipment, put on makeup, and handle other tasks related to the performance, and they may have other assigned tasks. Their time is seldom their own. Clowns in the Spotlight With their comic antics, the clowns relieve the tension of danger- ous acts. Many clowns are physical performers. They may ride horseback or do tightwire acts. Some are jugglers, acrobats, or musicians. When the ring conductor blows the whistle to signal the start of a show, all entertainers and animals join the opening parade around the arena track. A circus performance consists of three to four dozen acts. The band conductor and musicians play the music for each act. All acts are timed, and acts under way in all three rings finish at the same time. Becoming a Clown The road to clowning varies from one performer to another. Like other actors, clowns benefit from a solid education. A high school diploma is not required by most circuses, but a diploma and a col- lege education certainly help a clown’s job prospects. Employers in the motion picture and television industry also prefer to hire per- formers who have diplomas. While attending high school or college—or at any time—it’s a good idea to develop some basic performing skills. Many high schools offer drama or dance classes for students. Shows are put on regularly by high schools and community centers. Experience in acting or performing in plays is very helpful. Dance academies, schools for dramatic arts, and colleges and universities offer classes in pantomime and dance. Clowns need to move well and be able to use their bodies to communicate. Training in magic, juggling, acrobatics, clown makeup, costuming, choreography, and the history of clowning can also be helpful. Some clowns also need to learn to project their voices. Debate or public-speaking clubs or classes can help to develop this ability. Every trip, fall, and stumble that a clown takes on the arena floor has been intricately choreographed long beforehand and is the result of months, even years, of intensive training. In develop- ing the skills of their profession, clowns learn to perform somer- saults, backflips, and tumbling runs. They may learn to launch themselves over a specialized vaulting horse in any number of comedic positions or undertake other types of acrobatic falls. The next time you see a bumbling, stumbling clown tumbling into a heap, remember you’re watching a trained professional in action! There are a number of classes and programs that you can attend around the country to learn the rudimentary skills of clowning or to advance your existing knowledge. Mooseburger Camp is a five- day annual camp that offers classes such as The Business of Birth- day Parties, Circus and Stage-Show Skits, Clowning 101, Comic Movement and Mime Skills, and Prop Building. Various clown associations and organizations also hold seminars and conven- tions where there may be educational opportunities. Clown Compensation Although there are no set salaries for clowns, the following repre- sents average salaries. Remember, however, that clowns usually do not receive paid vacations or retirement benefits. • Birthday parties—$50 to $250 for a thirty- to ninety-minute show • Festivals or rodeos—$100 to $300 per engagement • Circus acts—$200 to $600 weekly (may also receive room and board) • TV or film—$300 to $1,500 average weekly income during peak season From a numbers viewpoint, the outlook for people who want to work as clowns is not very promising. There is a tremendous amount of competition, and the field is overcrowded, as are other segments of the entertainment industry. Wages may be controlled by unions. Like most performing artists, most clowns are not per- manently employed and must repeatedly audition for positions. Too, clowns often don’t receive the proper recognition for their work. Getting Started in Clowning If you want to become a clown, one way to get started is to find a circus and ask the manager for any work available. Often the cir- cus needs workers to sell tickets and refreshments or to water and exercise the animals. Some performers have a booking agent or personal manager. Others put ads in trade magazines or on websites. Performers who have a good act might ask the directors or managers of state and county fairs, television shows, and nightclubs for an audition. Per- formers not yet established may find work at carnivals, amuse- ment parks, ocean piers, rodeos, ice and water shows, and other places that draw spectators. Some modern-day clowns run small businesses out of their homes, typically on a part-time basis. They perform for children’s birthday parties, school events, or other activities. Words from the Pros Introducing Charlie the Clown Charlie Stron, also known as Charlie the Clown, is an entertainer based in Las Vegas, Nevada. "I always considered myself to be shy," he says."I never thought I would be so comfortable in front of crowds." During high school in South Africa, Charlie used to go to a chil- dren’s youth circus group that practiced all kinds of entertainment seen in circuses. He emulated what he saw and found that he had a natural ability to juggle and balance. While playing in this way, he developed circus-type skills and found himself enjoying the attention that he gained by doing the things he had learned. After high school he was drafted into the South African army, and after basic training he was transferred into the Entertainment Unit. This experience in the army led him into the professional circus circuit in Europe, where he worked with a flying trapeze act called the Star Lords. Then he did a juggling act. Eventually he ended up in the United States, working for Disneyland with Rin- gling Brothers Circus. He also worked as a Clown College instruc- tor for Ringling Brothers Clown College before he moved to Las Vegas. "I love my job," Charlie says. "Not that it isn’t difficult some- times. Don’t underestimate what is involved. Still, I wouldn’t trade it for anything in the world. When I’m on the road, I entertain at different kinds of fairs. Part of my act consists of four one-hour shifts on stilts using different costumes. I meet and greet thou- sands of people, pose in pictures, make balloon animals, and jug- gle on the stilts. You could consider it dangerous, but—knock on wood—I have never fallen.It is a lot safer than the trapeze act I did before and pays a lot better." For Charlie, one of the best things about working as an enter- tainer is the chance to meet all kinds of other entertainers at dif- ferent events. He especially enjoys meeting old friends a few years down the road when they work together again. "To be successful as a clown,you have to love people and be able to keep a big smile on your face," he says."Remember, you should be a nice guy or lady by nature and not by demand. When it really comes down to it, you’ve got to entertain from your heart." Introducing Gumdrop the Clown Melo Dee Pisha, also known as Gumdrop the Clown, attended a traditional college and then went on to a succession of clown sites, including Clown Camp at the University of Wisconsin, Moose- burger University at the University of Minnesota, and clown con- ventions and workshops in the United States and England. She also sought instruction as an actor-director and trained others in theatre and clown skills in local schools and park dis- tricts. She has performed in plays such as Charlie and the Choco- late Factory. Her challenges have included casts of up to fifty children, ages eight through eighteen. Her career got its start when she answered an ad in the Worces- ter, Massachusetts, newspaper looking for someone who was will- ing to learn clowning and to assist another clown. Since she had a theatre background and was looking for something fun to do, she decided to give it a try. "I had always loved to be funny," she says. "In high school I would dress up as Harpo Marx (with a few friends filling out the Marx brothers’ team) and entertain at basketball games. When I started clowning, it was as if a whole new world opened up to me. I was center stage! The audience loved me. And I loved being able to make people so happy, to help them forget their worries for a few minutes." At first Melo worked as a clown about four or five times a month, but after more training, she says she fell in love with every- thing about being a clown and actively marketed herself so that she could work more often. "On a typical clown day, I spend about an hour putting in my contacts, slapping on the greasepaint, combing my wig, and get- ting dressed," she says. "I have different bags or suitcases for each event I am doing that day. So I make sure each one is packed appropriately for the job with the right magic tricks, balloons, or face paints. Sometimes I don’t carry any props or balloons and just clown! In any case, whatever I wish to take with me that day (including a sound system, if needed) gets loaded into the van, and I’m off!" Melo notes that as a clown, she has to be ‘on’ whenever she is exposed to the public. Since she is not following a script, she must think constantly about upcoming actions and dialogue. After all is done and it is time to go home and take off her clown costume, she says she is very tired and limp. But she enjoys most clown moments. "I love the expression on people’s faces when they are having fun and are really into what I’m doing," she says. "Also, clowning has opened up many doors to me personally that I am sure I wouldn’t have experienced otherwise. This includes being able to throw out the first pitch for our local baseball team and being part of a parade in Disney World! I have also formed many dear friendships with other clowns, which helps to keep up my desire to continue." On the downside, she sometimes gets the impression that some people think what she does is unimportant or isn’t a real job. "They still think of professional clowning as a hobby or something you might do for Halloween," she says."Clowns spend many hours on preparation, and like other professions, we have to keep attending classes and workshops to learn new and ever- better techniques. We are usually very skilled—not just in the technical clown skills, but also in child behavior, marketing, and management." Melo advises others interested in entering this field to first contact a professional clown. If that is not possible, she feels it is wise to check out clown organizations (see the list at the end of this chapter). Introducing Mama Clown and Friends Mama Clown heads Mama Clown and Friends,a full-service com- pany that plans parties and events and provides entertainment. Mama Clown, also known as Marcella Murad, attended Broward Community College for two years, then attended Clown Camp at the University of Wisconsin. She also has completed advanced studies in the art of clowning and attended Laughmakers Confer- ences and numerous conventions and seminars. She has earned several awards for her work. "To live my life performing as a clown is not something that I planned," she says. "It happened little by little as I learned to love what I do with all my heart. It didn’t take long to realize how lucky I am to have found a career that pays me to act like a child, make a difference in a child’s life, and lift people’s spirits. I have always been an easygoing person with a good sense of humor. Clowning came very naturally to me, and in my years of clowning, not once have I wished to be doing something else." She says she enjoys all aspects of her job. That includes per- forming, writing articles for clown magazines or books on the subject, creating new products, and serving as an instructor. A typical weekday for Marcella starts at 7:00 A . M .with breakfast and a visit to the gym. Then she takes care of tasks such as taking mail orders to the post office, writing a new show, preparing for a show, or actually performing a show. On a typical weekend, she entertains at an average of four events a day. This is exhausting because it takes so much energy, but it is extremely rewarding to be part of all the celebrations. "What I love the most about my job are the smiles and friend- liness that my character brings out in children of all ages,"she says. "I love my work because it is so much fun, and it keeps me young at heart. There aren’t many downfalls, except maybe the few times when I encounter rude people or when I see children in pain." She advises others to make sure they genuinely like children. "Children have a sixth sense and can tell if you are sincere," she says. "They will react to you according to the vibes they sense coming from you." She adds that if you truly love what you do, success will follow. It is not easy becoming a performer, she points out, and a great deal of dedication is needed to achieve your goals. "Many people think that to be a clown all you need are baggy clothes, a big pair of shoes, some makeup, and a business card," Marcella says. "Nothing can be further from the truth. Clowning is an art that takes a lifetime to master. Being funny is a serious business, and becoming a professional involves a large investment of your time and money." Introducing Soda Pop the Clown Rick Struve, also known as Soda Pop, is based in Iowa. After grad- uating from high school, he went to college for about two years, focusing on liberal arts and art. He attended four years of Clown Camp in Wisconsin, but the majority of his actual clown training has come about through books and old-fashioned experience. He also continues to learn through clown friends when they get together and share information. His specialties are magic, juggling, balloons, and face painting. He performs at events ranging from birthday parties and com- pany picnics to city festivals. He also runs a clown website and produces an online clown newsletter. Rick recalls that he has always fooled around with magic, but he started reading more and more about it as he grew older. He started juggling, and then he met someone who thought that he would make a good clown and pointed him in the direction of Clown Camp. He performed his first show the weekend after he returned from camp, and he hasn’t stopped since. "In a way, clowning is fairly unique when it comes to prior experience," he says, "because you don’t need any! Obviously, there are classes, books, and videos to make you a better clown, but it is all based on you. Clowning is truly in the heart—corny, but very true. Very few special people can be successful at profes- sional clowning. Necessary talents include people skills, patience, love of children, and overcoming the fear of being in front of hun- dreds of people!" Rick says that one benefit of being a professional clown is that he can be his own boss. The work might include tasks such as advertising, booking shows, and paying the bills, as well as going out to do the job. A normal show includes about six magic routines, one interac- tive song, a juggling routine, and then balloons for all the children. Sometimes he applies face paints to the children’s faces. For larger shows he might produce a live rabbit and let the children pet it afterward. "The best part of my job is when I get in front of the audience, and all attention is on me—people are depending on me to make them smile," he says. "I love performing. The downside of clowning for me is the time it takes to get ready for a show. Stand- ing in front of a mirror for forty-five minutes to put on makeup and then another fifteen minutes taking it off afterward can get very tiring." Rick advises anyone thinking about clowning to begin by read- ing books about performing and other related skills. "Clowning has so many different aspects to it, it is very much up to the individual," he says. "If you like magic, learn as much as you can. If you like juggling, dancing, singing, puppets, or balloons—anything—read up on the topic and make yourself stand out from others. I always find quality clown training extremely helpful, but the best training is to actually put your ideas in front of an audience. You will quickly learn what works for you and what does not. Try to watch other clowns whenever possible—they are all different. You can pick up so much from each one. But never copy them. Just learn to be the best clown you can be." Introducing Shadow the Clown Shadow the Clown, also known as Kathy Lange, earned a bachelor of arts in education at Central Washington University. Her major was elementary education with emphasis in early childhood edu- cation. Combining a love for children with clowning, she took Fundamentals of Clowning at Bellevue Community College in Bellevue, Washington; attended Clown Camp at Medicine Hat in Alberta, Canada; and participated in the Northwest Festival of Clowns, held in various locations in the Pacific Northwest in Sep- tember of each year. She also tries to attend local workshops and conventions each year to gain new knowledge and skills. "Most people who know me aren’t all that surprised that I now put on makeup to be a clown," says Shadow. "I have always been one to be a bit goofy at times." She says she has always loved working with children. Her first job out of college was with a gymnastics facility, working with children in a noncompetitive atmosphere. The program was designed to provide skills not just for gymnastics but for fitness, exercise, and self-esteem. A great deal of music was used, and she often dressed up in silly costumes during theme weeks. When she left her gymnastics job after four years, she needed an outlet to be creative and still work with young children, so she took a class in clowning. The result was the birth of her clown identity, Shadow. "Being a clown gives me, as an adult, the freedom to walk and talk silly—to make people laugh just by dressing up and making funny faces," Kathy says."It allows me to make a child who might be going through troubled times smile and forget, even for just a few moments, the pain and despair of his or her condition. It might allow me to be remembered from a hospital visit, a parade, or any other venue I might be doing." Kathy is not a full-time clown; she also has a day job. She feels this is the best way to operate so that she does not have to rely on clowning as her sole source of income. This approach helps her avoid stress and maintain variety in her life. A typical Saturday in the busy season (spring and summer) may include a parade and a birthday party. The latter may include a whole new set of props and tricks. "The atmosphere in clowning is what you make it, and it also really depends on the type of gig you are doing," she says. "A parade is relaxed and fast paced as you are moving down the route and doing the same trick over and over to a constantly changing audience. A birthday party can be relaxed or pretty crazy, depend- ing on the age and manners of the party attendees. A company picnic, which I love to do a lot in the summer, is usually relaxed and steady moving." Kathy says she loves the camaraderie with the children involved in her work. She also enjoys the creativity it takes to be a clown— the constant change in finding things that are new—and the abil- ity to put a smile on a face. "In a hospital setting, the ability to make a child who may be hurting forget for just a few minutes and smile is very rewarding," she says. "I also enjoy the crazy look you see on people’s faces when you tell them you are a clown, usually an instant smile and maybe a little envy that they wish they had the personality to be a clown. I love the pure fun of it, to be totally uninhibited, in a good way, when in makeup. Society places constraints on people as we grow up, and being a clown is a vehicle to still act like a child but avoid being ridiculed for not acting your age!" For others considering clowning, Kathy says, "Go for it! Look around in your local area for classes, attend workshops, go to Clown Camp, learn, learn, learn. Don’t think makeup and a cos- tume are the only things you need.You need skills, patience, a love for entertaining, and a love for children. Make sure your clown face is inviting and your costume is neat and colorful. Once you get started, always look to improve. Make things fresh for you and the people you are entertaining. Don’t just do it for the money— visit hospitals, nursing homes, retirement centers. The people who reside there especially need cheering up with a little entertainment to break up the day, and it can be a great pick-me-up for you, too. Laughter is the best medicine. Just have fun!" Here’s another birth name challenge: Dwayne Johnson. For More Information The International Clown Hall of Fame and Research Center is dedicated to the preservation and advancement of clown art. Rep- resented by professional and amateur clown associations, it pays tribute to outstanding clown performers, operates a living museum of clowning with resident clown performers, conducts special events, and maintains a national archive of clown artifacts and history. More information is available from: International Clown Hall of Fame and Research Center 161 West Wisconsin Avenue, Suite LL 700 Milwaukee, WI 53203 www.theclownmuseum.org
Clowns of America International (COAI) is a great resource for learning about becoming a clown and other aspects of clowning. Informative articles regarding makeup, costuming, props, skit development, and so forth are provided through the official pub- lication, called The New Calliope, which is published six times a year. Membership in the organization includes a spring inter- national convention and other benefits. Membership is open to individuals sixteen and older. More information can be obtained from: Clowns of America International (COAI) PO Box C Richeyville, PA 15358 www.clownsofamerica.org Additional organizations that have information to offer about a career as a professional clown include the following: American Guild of Variety Artists (AGVA) 184 Fifth Avenue, Sixth Floor New York, NY 10010 Associated Actors and Artists of America Actors’ Equity Association 165 West Forty-sixth Street New York, NY 10036 www.actorsequity.org International Jugglers’ Association (IJA) PO Box 112550 Carrollton, TX 75011 www.juggle.org International Shrine Clown Association (ISCA) 1723 North Cherry Street Galesburg, IL 61401 www.shrineclowns.com World Clown Association PO Box 77236 Corona, CA 92877 www.worldclownassociation.com