When you're a professional clown, making fun is all in a day's work

January 06, 1995|By Rona Hirsch | Rona Hirsch,Contributing Writer

Tom Dougherty loves to clown around.

But as a professional who performed for Ringling Bros. and Barnum and Bailey Circus, he also uses his skills as a trained actor to present shows that mix theater with traditional clowning in comic vignettes.

He and two other clowns will present a clown revue, Circus Berserkus, at 2 p.m. and 3:30 p.m. Sunday at Smith Theatre in Howard Community College. The production is sponsored by the Candlelight Concert Society's Performing Arts Series for Children and Families.

"They are professionals, very creative," said Bonita Bush, executive director of the Columbia-based concert society. "They use character sketches to pick up on the quirks of human nature. The concepts are intelligent, and the show is interactive."

A typical Circus Berserkus production features broad comedy, audience participation and an up-close look at the art of clowning.

"The show is pure entertainment," Mr. Dougherty said. "It gives the feel of the circus clown on the stage in a more intimate environment. You see their characters and get involved in the clown's world."

Mr. Dougherty, 38, is the founder of Theatricks, a 6-year-old children's theater company in Frederick that produces Circus Berserkus.

Theatricks, which has performed in 30 states and Canada, has six members and contracts with 12 performers for its shows. For Sunday's performance, Mr. Dougherty will be joined by theatrically trained clowns Elizabeth Furfaro and Tim Marrone.

Theatricks is a member of Young Audiences of Maryland, an organization that provides educational entertainment to schools in the Maryland State Arts Council's Artists in Education program.

For elementary school-age children, Theatricks presents "Unraveling Circus," a solo clown act starring Mr. Dougherty, and two shows aimed at raising literacy: "Hooked on Books", featuring clowning, and a musical, "In the Nick of Time." For more sophisticated audiences, the company performs "Faces and Clowns and Angels," a show that deals with the spiritual nature of clowns.

Theatricks performs at such places as the National Theater and the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., Wolf Trap in Virginia and the Walters Art Gallery in Baltimore.

But Mr. Dougherty has cut back on the tours so that he can find a more permanent facility in Baltimore for a children's theater where only youngsters would perform. Theater and circus skills also would be taught.

A native of Brooklyn, New York, Mr. Dougherty stumbled into clowning after studying acting at New York's prestigious Neighborhood Playhouse School of the Theater. To broaden his acting skills, he decided, at 22, to audition for the Ringling Bros. Clown College in 1978 at New York's Madison Square Garden.

"I had no interest in joining the circus," he said. "I wanted to be able to juggle and do pantomime and acrobatics for my resume."

After performing improvisation, he became one of the 50 students accepted for Clown College in Venice, Fla. In 2 1/2 months, he learned how to be a clown.

Instructors gave lessons in ballet, juggling, unicycling, floor acrobatics, slapstick, creative make-up, and designing and making costumes and props.

The students also had to develop their own persona. Falling back on his theatrical training, Mr. Dougherty became a sad-faced clown.

"It required the most acting and least amount of skill," he said. "I never juggled in my life, so I gravitated to character clowns, the ones that required acting."

At the program's end, Mr. Dougherty became one of 10 students accepted each year into the circus.

He traveled to 42 states for 11 months of the year during two two-year tours. He performed at the White House and on the Ringling Bros. annual television specials.

In 1986, he became artistic director of the Penny Bridge Players in New York, performing in inner city schools. There, he wrote the musical, "In the Nick of Time," a story about a boy who played baseball instead of studying for a history test. His uncle then gives him a history book that comes alive.

He had trouble in New York getting the play produced. But he moved to Frederick in 1989, and two weeks after he started Theatricks, the play was accepted by Young Audiences. He also started clown arts workshops for children.

"The beauty of clowning is that it's for everyone," Mr. Dougherty said. "There's not a lot of entertainment that gives that experience. Clowning makes everyone laugh. Adults think when they come to the show it's just for children. Then they discover it's just as much fun for them as for the kids."

The Performing Arts Series for Children and Families will presen Circus Berserkus at 2 p.m. and 3:30 p.m. Sunday at Smith Theatre in Howard Community College. Tickets are $6. Information: 715-0034.

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