Pennywise (Tim Curry) from the TV movie “It” was far from an innocent clown. | John H. White~Sun-Times
FROM RINGLING BROS. AND BARNUM & BAILEY CIRCUS
Wednesday through Nov. 25
United Center, 1901 W. Madison
Updated: December 12, 2012 6:25AM
‘It’s my job here today to add to your experience as a clown, to give you things that you can absorb and work on. And it’s your job today in my workshop to think of not what you would normally do, not your safe choices, but to push yourself.”
So proclaimed Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey instructor Karen Hoyer at the start of a recent mime and physical comedy workshop in Chicago. Held in a large Joffrey Ballet dance studio not-so-high above State Street at the end of August, it was the first step toward big-top glory for 25 aspiring clowns from all over the country.
Ultimately, only eight were invited to stay on board and attend “clown college” in Rosemont. Only two of those eight accepted the invitations and have been training, along with other finalists from Houston and Los Angeles, since Nov. 1. Graduates who were offered contracts are likely see clowning action of some sort when Ringling comes to the United Center starting Wednesday.
“What we’re really looking for is that true clown,” Ringling Bros. director of talent David Kiser explained the day prior. A former clown himself, Kiser began with Ringling in the early ’80s and knows the gig from bewigged top to floppy-shoed bottom.
“We’re looking for that inner clown that’s just dying to get out. You’re mistaken if you think that a clown is an actor playing the role of a clown, because anyone who plays the role of a clown is immediately called out as fake. A clown has to be inside.”
To varying degrees that appeared to be the case with Hoyer’s striving students, most of whom — save for one guy in full clown regalia, including a red foam nose, a raggedy tailcoat and oversized kicks — wore comfortable clothing and sneakers. They ranged in age from 20s to probably 50s and came in all body types, from lithe and limber to less lithe and less limber.
Alex Sula, 28, of Wheeling was among the former. “I’m actually saving up for a big-top tent of my own,” the Paris-trained mime said, “because I want to do a tent show.” (Sula made the final cut but didn’t attend clown college.)
Before long, it became obvious who had the goods and who didn’t. While some participants merely looked the part, others displayed the physicality and broad emotionality required to actually play it.
“You’re getting to know this space,” the curly-haired and large-lunged Hoyer loudly told her charges once they’d vacated their seats on several rows of risers and found spots on the gray rubberized floor.
“You’re not following anyone, you’re not going in any particular pattern. You have an energy, though. We want to see that energy.”
For their first exercise, she told them, they would move and freeze on her command.
“Annnnd … go!”
A cacophony of squeaking shoes filled the room as rubber met rubber.
“Where are you looking?” Hoyer shouted above the din. “Let’s think of a person who’s looking out and up and has a certain amount of energy.”
Stillness. Looks of extreme concentration abounded.
More squeaking and frenzied movement.
Again, everyone halted suddenly to the best of his or her ability. Limbs invariably twitched and balance was lost. Piano music drifted from another rehearsal room nearby, where a bunch of Joffrey hardbodies displayed the most impressive motor control of all.
“Balance,” Hoyer reminded them. “Now, as you’re there, frozen, you’re a frozen statue of yourself but the energy keeps going. You haven’t died. You still have that energy.”
“Annnnd … go!”
Spastic motion resumed.
“Freeze! Be aware of all the people in the room. Be aware of the space around you. Be aware of filling the space with energy. Run! Go!”
Some folks looked pooped already as they scampered around, trying to impress their besuited Ringling scrutinizers (including Kiser) perched in risers and around the perimeter.
“Freeze! Hold it. Keep that energy of running going even though you’re frozen. Hold the shape that you’re in. Think about what the shape is. Is it tall? Is it close to the ground? Is it in-between?”
There was a sense of urgency in Hoyer’s voice as she paced about the space.
“I’m going to clap my hands,” she announced, “and with a very quick [here she made a clapping sound] movement, you’re going to change your shape completely. So from this sculpture to another frozen sculpture.
“Each sculpture,” she went on, “has to be very, very interesting.”
No small task. Earnestness increased accordingly as Hoyer’s pupils strove to please their temporary mistress. Many were perspiring profusely and breathing heavily.
“Change! Change! Change! Make the change radical. From very high to very low. From wide to thin. Use your body and your face.”
And so it went, though not always as intensely, for several more hours. At one point some sweaty and svelte Joffrey dancers dropped by to observe.
After a succession of duos wordlessly acted out different scenarios, such as struggling to move a box from one end of the room to another, a final portion was devoted to short prepared auditions — juggling, mime, plate spinning, pulling a massive industrial-strength balloon over one’s entire body. Since these vignettes weren’t mandatory, however, some attendees took a pass.
After a brief break to determine who’d stay and who’d go, Kiser stood before his eager and exhausted assemblage. “Everyone had a moment of brilliance today,” he said, being generous but seeming genuine.
Unfortunately, he added, only a handful would move forward.
Scarlett Sullivan was one of them. She’s also among the two who accepted invites to clown college in Rosemont, which just wound down.
A Columbia College grad (she majored in theater), the 23-year-old New Jersey native lives in Chicago and is enrolled at Second City’s conservatory.
“I’m more comfortable onstage than I am off,” said Sullivan, who performed press-handstands during her individual audition.
Sullivan also admitted that she’s a full-blown “adrenaline junkie”
Asked if she was ready for life on the road, Sullivan replied, “Absolutely. As long as I can take my cat, we’re good.”
No word on whether clown trains — yes, they still travel on trains — are feline-friendly, but they are vastly improved from the veritable hobo cars of yesteryear. Nowadays there are laundry facilities, wireless Internetconnections, satellite dishes, showers and larger bedrooms than the three-foot-by-six-foot cubbies that used to be standard.
So said veteran clowns Karen DeSanto and Thom Wheaton, who now travel the country doing PR for Ringling after putting in more than a decade each on the road. They were seated off to one side discussing all things clown-related with a group of eager wanna-bes.
Despite interior improvements, DeSanto said in her smoky voice, clown trains still “typically park you in the worst part of town. … You’re out in the middle of nowhere. Thank goodness for cell phones. When I was on the road, we didn’t have those.”
DeSanto and her husband (a fellow clown) planned their wedding during a cross-country circus tour and married on a Monday at a Catholic church in Boston. The proceedings, she said, were very traditional. For the most part.
“We did have dwarves, and they ran through my aunts’ dresses during the dancing portion,” she recalled.
Wheaton remembered how, when he first came off the road, getting to sleep proved difficult without the train’s comforting chugga-chugga-chugga to lull him into dreamland.
He spoke, too, of what it takes to be a successful clown. Tip one: Be grander version of yourself. Tip two: Refrain from mocking members of your audience. Playful razzing is fine. But mocking — no way.
“If you’re doing a full show and [the audience] sees that you made fun of this person, they’re not going to want to help you anymore,” Wheaton said. “And you’re not endearing yourself to the audience, so they’re not going to like you.”
He smilingly blamed “the media” for perpetuating an image of clowns as “aggressive, in-your-face, scary.” There’s even a term for fear of clowns: coulrophobia. Stephen King’s 1986 horror novel “It,” about a killer clown named Pennywise, was another blow. And years before that was published, Chicago-based serial killer John Wayne Gacy used to masquerade as Pogo the Clown at charity events and children’s birthday parties. Other grotesque examples abound.
Kiser acknowledged the issue and admitted it can be somewhat problematic.
“There are those who are afraid,” he said, “and all I can tell them is clowns are just real people who have a special gift. And that gift is not one of malice or menace, but it’s one of heart and spirit.”
Although society is not as “simple or as innocent as it once was,” clowns must still “find the innocence.”
Because the truth is, Kiser went on, “We all want that innocence. We all want that simplicity. So the clown is there to show that it still exists — that a child exists in every person regardless of how old they are.”