A clown finds his role Profile: An actor in high school, Steven A. McGinley tried computer science but found being a clown was his real calling.

January 02, 1998|By Donna R. Engle | Donna R. Engle,SUN STAFF

Steven A. McGinley was not the class clown in his South Carroll High School graduating class.

But he's made up for lost time since then.

After graduating in 1991, McGinley planned to become a computer scientist, but he couldn't resist the lure of greasepaint. He sought to bring new depth and meaning to familiar stage roles such as Hamlet, King Lear and Willy Loman.

Instead, he got serious about professional clowning.

The former Mount Airy resident, a 1996 graduate of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey's Clown College, is again enrolled in a class full of clowns, mimes and theater students at the Jacques Lecoq School of Mime and Theater in Paris.

"He walked through the doors that were open to him and was fortunate to find what he wanted to do," said his father, Terry McGinley, who lives in Mount Airy.

What Steven McGinley, 24, wanted to do became clear gradually.

He played pretend with costumes when he was a child and acted in skits in Boy Scouts. He appeared in high school plays and in the school's annual Renaissance Fair, which led to a job in the Maryland Renaissance Festival's Young Actors Program. He won a best-improvisation award for his portrayal of a blacksmith's apprentice.

When it was time to register at Frederick Community College after high school graduation, McGinley had second thoughts about a career in theater.

"I kind of got a panic attack. This theater thing is really unstable. So, at the last minute, I signed up for all computer science courses," McGinley recalled.

One year into computer science, doing dinner theater in his spare time, McGinley decided he had to do what he wanted to do. He enrolled at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York City.

"I was going to be the most classical and profound Shakespearean actor," McGinley said.

But he discovered commedia dell'arte, the comedy that began in Italy in the early 1500s, when street performers donned masks with exaggerated comic features and improvised skits. The form came down through vaudeville and Charlie Chaplin to Mel Brooks and Gene Wilder.

Something in McGinley rebelled at the serious approach to drama and found an outlet in comedy. He transferred to the New Actors Studio, where he spent a year studying mime and improvisational theater.

In New York, McGinley heard about the Dell'Arte School of Physical Theatre in Blue Lake, Calif. He had to go. At age 19, he FTC found himself in a town that made Mount Airy look like a metropolis. Blue Lake had one bar, one gas station and a community of loggers, who were the audience for the school's mimes, jugglers and performance artists.

McGinley met a mime who taught him how to convey sadness without words and a former Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey clown who taught him how to ride a unicycle and "what it means to be physically funny," he said. He learned to improvise, to create without a script, and he loved it.

McGinley came home from California and found a job at the Fun Factory and Comedy Sports, an Alexandria, Va., comedy club, where he worked for nearly two years. He developed a children's show called "The Imagination Factory." At the club, he met a former circus clown who urged him to consider circus work.

"The circus had not occurred to me as a possible venue," McGinley said.

But he went to an audition when the Ringling Bros. circus was in Washington and was immediately caught up in the energy of the big top. He was one of 34 students chosen for the Sarasota, Fla., clown college from about 1,500 applicants.

McGinley's class was the first from the clown college to perform at the Children's International Festival at Wolf Trap Farm Park in Vienna, Va. With English-speakers in the minority among the performers, McGinley said, "I discovered the common language of mime and the common language of laughter."

McGinley graduated from the eight-week clown college in 1996 and returned to Maryland, where he did free-lance work with Theatrics! in Ellicott City and met a former clown college professor who had trained at the Lecoq school.

McGinley decided he had to go. He boned up on French and worked 16 hours a day, seven days a week, to pay his tuition.

Paris dazzled the young man who had never been outside the United States. He loved the fashionable people, the formal gardens. "I don't think my words would ever be able to do Paris justice," he said.

Students at the Lecoq school are Swedish, Spanish, Canadian, British and 18 other nationalities. They create performance pieces, working without scripts. McGinley said his work at the school is "my strongest as a performer. Also, I'm very, very pleased with what we're doing. I have no doubts."

The Lecoq course is a two-year program. McGinley said he would like to return to circus work, but doesn't want to limit his options.

"Much more important than being profound is falling on your face and wearing a red nose," he said.

Pub Date: 1/02/98

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