Turning laughter into serious business Artist: Circus veteran Tom Dougherty says the job of a clown is to 'give a voice to the better part of human nature.'

December 14, 1997|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

On stage, Tom Dougherty performs as a silent clown.

But catch him out of makeup and Dougherty has a lot to say. A whole lot. It's as if all the words he represses on stage suddenly come gushing forth.

A tall man with close-cropped hair and a prominent nose (even when it's not covered with a red ball), Dougherty waxes loquacious about: his philosophy of clowning; the silver medal he won last month at a circus festival in Vietnam; and "A Holiday Gift," the show he's directing at the Baltimore School for the Arts, where he teaches clowning.

But whatever the topic, one thing remains constant. Dougherty, 41, a veteran of three years with the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, is extremely serious about the business of making people laugh.

"The clown has the gift to make people see that the magic that exists in the circus tent actually is everywhere," he says in a typical philosophical moment at the Oella headquarters of his theater company, Theatricks.

Clowns are basically "gentle anarchists," he says, explaining that traditionally, the court jester, or fool, was the only one allowed to poke fun at the king. "The biggest difference is that an anarchist tries to destroy and a clown tries to rebuild and to support that which is best in us -- to give a voice to the better part of human nature."

Dougherty's seriousness is not surprising considering that before he became a clown, he was trained as a Method actor by the esteemed teacher Sanford Meisner. In 1978, Dougherty was in his second year at New York's Neighborhood Playhouse, studying Meisner's approach to acting as "living truthfully," when a little lie -- faking a medical emergency -- allowed him to cut class and audition at Madison Square Garden for the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Clown College.

The Brooklyn native was not one of those little boys who dreams of running off and joining the circus. In fact, on his application he answered the question, "When did you first think of becoming a circus clown?" by writing, "At the audition."

That audition was the turning point of his life.

"Clown College is a life-changing experience. I had no idea what a clown was about. I had a very limited view. I was into theater," explains Dougherty, probably the only Ringling Bros. clown ever to come out of the Neighborhood Playhouse.

"I could make a very strong argument that clowning is the oldest performing art form," he says, hauling out books from the corners of Theatricks' rehearsal space, which overflows with cartons, packing containers, props and painted backdrops. An avid researcher, he's soon flipping pages, showing pictures of clown characters from African, Egyptian, Asian and Native American cultures.

Nineteen years after he graduated from Clown College (wearing a yellow-orange wig and red hat in place of a mortarboard), Dougherty continues to marvel that he has managed to make a living as a clown and that his career has taken him as far away as Hanoi.

For the past two years, part of his career has consisted of spending Friday afternoons teaching clowning at the Baltimore School for the Arts. Donald Hicken, head of the school's drama department, admits there were some raised eyebrows when he hired Dougherty.

"For a while there it became a sort of running joke around the school that we now have a clown course. It looks wonderful on the report card that you have 'acting' and you have 'musical theater' and then you've got 'clown,' " Hicken says.

But, he adds, "You don't have to spend too much time with Tom to realize that this clowning is serious business, and when you're talking about clowning you're talking about a whole wonderful tradition. ... Tom is very discerning and very precise and very demanding in his class. He doesn't settle for shortcuts."

"A Holiday Gift," which will be performed Friday and Saturday, is a double bill consisting of a choral concert and a series of clown scenes about subjects ranging from street-corner Santas to caroling to gift giving. The clown cast features all 14 members of the senior acting ensemble, who have studied with Dougherty both years he has been at the school.

At a rehearsal last week, the class warmed up by spinning plates, balancing sticks and juggling. A few wore red clown noses -- one sporting a large nose ring. "This is the first class where I don't get in trou ble for being the class clown," said Galit Levi, 18, the student with the nose ring (which Dougherty informed her would not go over well at Clown College).

Ignoring jet lag, Dougherty returned to the school only three days after his triumph in Hanoi. The invitation to compete there in the First International Circus Festival came from Ringling Bros., for whom he teaches at the Clown College in Sarasota, Fla.

Among the first Americans ever to appear in a Vietnamese circus, Dougherty performed two acts in Hanoi -- a solo and an act with Elizabeth Furfaro, one of the original members of Theatricks, and Dougherty's partner on and off stage.

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