Star-Bulletin Features

Thursday, September 6, 2001

Top, juggler Steve Patient is surrounded by other cast
members during rehearsal of "The Clown of God."


"The Clown of God" looks at
the world behind the painted smiles

By Scott Vogel

I didn't know very much about clown college -- that's right, the place where you go to become a clown -- though I had my ideas. I imagined seminars in pratfalls, lectures on the virtues of juggling five balls rather than three and tips on how to create exciting-yet-manageable small explosions. As it happens, this is exactly what goes on at clown college, as a graduate, Steve Patient, recently explained.

"It was both a boot camp and a training ground," he said just after arriving on our shores to star in "The Clown of God," Mark Branner's play that begins tomorrow at the University of Hawaii at Manoa's Earle Ernst Lab Theatre. "It was very short but incredibly intensive. On a typical day you'd get up in the morning and immediately put on makeup, not only for practice putting it on, but to get practice spending an entire day in makeup. The day consisted of learning gags, how to write them, how to make pyrotechnics, how to take falls, how to walk in stilts -- which is very dangerous -- and then how to work as a group."

Casper Collins and Claudia Elmore are two lovers
in a scene from the play.

Chartered in the late '60s, the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Clown College was, until its closing in 1997, the premier venue for studying the thrilling yet serious art of clowning. It's there that Branner and Patient first met, in an intense 2 1/2-month program that left little time for, well, clowning around.

"In 1968," Patient said, "most of the clowns were over 60 years old, and (Ringling Brothers) realized that they didn't have a crop of young clowns in the United States who were trained in the very specific kind of Ringling-style clowning." Because the U.S. circus circuit requires performing in large amphitheaters -- places like New York's Madison Square Garden, say -- clowns must learn gags and expressions that can fill an entire arena with merriment. In short, they have to know how to play the cheap seats.

In its heyday the college in Venice, Fla., would have 3,000 to 5,000 hopefuls auditioning for fewer than 40 slots each year, Branner said, a statistic that makes Ivy League admission seem like a breeze.

"You literally ate, slept and breathed comedy," he said.

Casper Collins, right, and Claudia Elmore rehearse
"The Clown of God," opening tomorrow at UH's
Earle Ernst Lab Theatre.

The curriculum included tutorials in the various arts of Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin. Once classes had ended, both he and Patient were hired as Ringling Brothers clowns, which, as I found out, was a mixed blessing.

EVERYONE has their suspicions about what circus life involves, whether you think of it as one of the last great tours of vagabondage or the filthy, brutish life it has often been rumored to be. Novice clowns, it turns out, are as in the dark as you are.

"I had a lot of preconceived notions about what I thought it would be like," Patient said. "I thought, 'What a crappy place to raise a kid,' and that it would be horrible and that the people would be dirty and nasty. Nearly all of those were not true."

This is a bit hard to believe at first, especially when you consider that the clowns perform three shows daily before retiring to their rooms on the Ringling Brothers train, tiny cells that measure just 3.5 feet by 6 feet. (Branner, by the way, is 6-foot-4.) And when you factor in the work schedule -- Ringling clowns perform over 500 times a year -- perhaps it's a good thing that their smiles are painted on.

"But we were a traveling family," Patient continued, "so it didn't feel like a hardship at the time. And as far as the children who travel with the circus, I have never met more intelligent, mentally stable kids. I've completely changed my mind on the circus, although you're never going to get rich doing it, and it is physically difficult."

Branner agreed, which may be one reason he's moved on to theater directing ("Clown of God" will complete his MFA requirements at UH). "It's a very hard lifestyle," he admitted. "We didn't get paid very much, and we worked incredibly hard -- a lot more than somebody would on a 40-hour-a-week job."

COINCIDENTALLY, or perhaps not, Branner's "Clown of God" features a central main character, Pedrolino, who learns the importance of "doing what you're doing because you love it, not because it brings you fame." Based on a legend that's at least a few hundred years old, this allegorical fantasy follows the exploits of a young man from the streets whose talent for juggling eventually leads him to the greatest palaces of Europe. But complications force him to confront the nature of his talent and his devotion to a craft.

"The show is about a simple gift and the pure and simple satisfaction and joy you get from using a gift because it is a gift," said Branner, who incidentally is not quite able to juggle five balls. (Hence his hiring of Patient, whose résumé informs us that he can keep seven balls in the air at once. Other talents include juggling bowling balls, knives, fire torches, cigar boxes and chain saws.)

For an evening of theater about the importance of prioritizing and maintaining balance in life, it's hard to imagine a more apt metaphor than juggling. In fact, it's almost too obvious a metaphor.

But never fear, there's more to the piece than juggling, just as there's more to juggling than keeping balls in the air.

"There's something about the rhythm of it," Branner said. "It's almost like music, like a jazz riff. It's going to be a spectacle that can be enjoyed purely as spectacle -- or as something else."

In the air

"The Clown of God"

When: 7:30 p.m. tomorrow and Saturday; 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday
Where: Earl Ernst Lab Theatre, University of Hawai'i at Manoa
Cost: $9
Call: 956-7655

Do It Electric
Click for online
calendars and events.

E-mail to Features Editor

Text Site Directory:
[News] [Business] [Features] [Sports] [Editorial] [Do It Electric!]
[Classified Ads] [Search] [Subscribe] [Info] [Letter to Editor]

© 2001 Honolulu Star-Bulletin