The life of a clown doctor

The Art of Clowning: An exacting director and coach in Commedia d'ell Arte — "art of comedy" — is called in to diagnose and cure a Cirque du Soleil production that just isn't funny enough. Part 2
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The White Clown from <i>Corteo</i>, playing in Seattle through June 1. (Richard Termine)

The Art of Clowning: An exacting director and coach in Commedia d'ell Arte — "art of comedy" — is called in to diagnose and cure a Cirque du Soleil production that just isn't funny enough. Part 2

Second of two parts

In mid November of 2007, the Cirque du Soleil show Koozå had previewed in Canada and was to embark on its U.S. tour. My family and I flew to San Francisco for the premiere. It bore very little resemblance to what I had seen on the storyboard walls almost two years ago. When I asked David about the transformation, he explained that halfway into the process they had to abandon most of the concept and simplify the production story line. The original plot was barely discernible in what I saw, and although several of the principal characters were still there, they were not as funny as one would expect in a show created by one of the greatest contemporary clowns. Shiner was concerned that something wasn't working yet — he himself is a very funny man and knows what's funny in other clowns' work. He invited me to return to the show during the California run, and do some "clown doctoring." So I ran away and joined the Cirque in San Jose a few weeks later.

To prepare, I viewed a DVD of several performances and took copious notes on elements that I thought we could address and work on — mainly entrances, characters and relationships, and hierarchy. Once in San Jose on the next leg of the tour, I began to work closely with Daniel Ross, the resident artistic coordinator. He is a 12-year veteran of Cirque du Soleil whose stage management experience informs his very organized approach to his work, and his excellent judgment. This is important because scheduling time for warm-ups, workshops, and rehearsals for performers on the road is quite a complex task. Ross balances space (the primary need), against each performer's need for practice time, against the technicians' need to devote attention to the complex rigging before each performance, against a rigorous schedule of sometimes eight to 11 shows per week.

Every minute is accounted for by a superb team of stage managers because the acrobats must always be in training and ready to go on stage. Anthony Gatto, reputedly the best juggler in the world, practices his "tricks" for two hours every morning and during the hour-long first act before he stars in the second act. He is so spectacular a juggler that I had to freeze the DVD in the middle of his act to be able to count how many rings and balls he was throwing to the top of the tent and catching. Anyone can juggle three items, four is good, and if you can do five, you can call yourself a juggler. Gatto builds up from the basics to seven clubs, then nine rings, and keeps them in the air, not just 'flashing' them once. That's more than world class; it's beyond human endeavor.

Cirque du Soleil shows travel with a complete technical department, video/computer programmer, costume and prop department, full kitchen commissary (with three complete meals served daily), a trainer, a school for the children accompanying their parents, a physiotherapist, accountants and full training tent attached to Le Grand Chapiteau, the Big Top. The security staff and ushers are all local, and the touring company is bused to and from the site from the apartments rented by Cirque for this army of performers.

An observation backstage brought the reality of theater to the performance. These are young, committed, and skilled international athletes who are strong, healthy, and simple. The beautiful trapeze artist who is like an Amazon on stage, strutting, flipping, and flying with the grace of an eagle, is barely 19 and actually frumpy and almost invisible backstage. But onstage she is like Wonder Woman with her magic lasso in her transparent airplane.

Ten shows in six days would be unthinkable in the sports world. Imagine playing double headers all week with only one day off and beginning your warm up and review every mid-morning. The Cirque performers eat in the commissary together, use the on-site laundry facilities, ride in the buses together (though some have their own motorcycles, bikes, or autos). Due to the closeness of the company and the rigors and dangers of the athleticism, injury and sickness are strenuously avoided. Signs posted everywhere read, "Have You Washed Your Hands?" There are few understudies, and if an injury occurs, which is frequent, a fellow performer must cover from within the troupe. Acts are occasionally dropped if a performer is too badly injured to perform. The young acrobat who balances on one hand atop a dozen chairs injured his shoulder and his act was dropped until he was fit again.

One of the clowns received a concussion during a scene shift and had to be replaced by an emergency understudy who was the wife of one of the musicians and an actress, who happened to be traveling with her husband and daughter. She was assigned to work with me during my second week with the company, and we worked to further develop her clown character for several performances by the end of the week. She is now the permanent 'stand-by' for the rest of the tour, and is being groomed to play a feature role — a very satisfying accomplishment for this clown doctor.

My standards are the likes of Buster Keaton, Laurel and Hardy, Sid Caesar and Benny Hill: very high, to be sure. As a veteran of Commedia d'ell Arte and a lifelong lover of silent films and vaudeville, I try to sense the intuitive abilities of young performers who show a kind of vulnerability, imagination, and (most importantly) the potential that together make up a genuinely funny point of view. That is the quest! It is more than a sense of humor or being able to do 'funny' things. It is a way of looking at the world and seeing the hazards, conflicts, struggles, and successes of the Everyman.

The working life of a circus performer is short because they are professional athletes in the big leagues. It's always astonishing to know that a pitcher is nearly at the end of his playing career in his early 30s, when most professionals in other fields are just getting started. For the circus clown or acrobat, the thrill is to be perfect or funny every time in front of thousands of spectators. These people are risking their lives to raise the bar, push the envelope, try the impossible — all attempting to do something that has never been done before. They deserve every bit of cheering and all the gasps they inspire. However, because they cannot maintain this level of achievement forever, some look to extend their careers by turning to clowning. With proper training, these athletes could be an incredible source of future clowns for Cirque. A clown with acrobatic skills is an extraordinary creature — think of Buster Keaton. A pratfall isn't funny if the performer actually gets hurt. We must have absolute confidence that they are physically able to handle all the 'abuse' they are subject to in their act — otherwise we can't laugh; it would be cruel.

After 25 years of continued success, Cirque du Soleil seems to be at a crossroads. The spectacles they mount — there are currently five in Las Vegas and one at Disney World, with six on the road and several more on the planning board — have redefined and redesigned the ancient tradition of circus. Their use of lights, music, costumes and the world's greatest skilled acts make the spectacle appear seamless. In the old days, we could see the roustabouts quickly rigging an act, while clowns and animals kept the audiences focused away from the nuts and bolts of scene shifts. With Cirque du Soleil, your eyes are always popping when your jaw is dropping.

The performers of Cirque du Soleil travel the world and recently have been venturing into more shows with story lines. Sometimes there is actually a plot, with characters, relationships, and objectives. By moving gracefully away from the traditional circus experience and structure, Cirque is moving slowly toward theater and its stories of human situation.

Enter a veteran stage director in the guise of a clown doctor. Many years ago, I performed a white-faced clown act as a busker, improvising with the crowds: a non-verbal jokester doing sketches on stages and at banquets, clubs, and coffee houses. I wanted to be Sid Caesar, or Danny Kaye, or even Jonathan Winters. Eventually, I found my métier as a director and teacher for many talented young theater aspirants. Little did I know that I'd one day finally grow up and actually run away to legitimately join ... the Cirque-us!


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