Clowns, then and now Circus: In the future, these well-trained performers will be more contemporary, just as they used to be.

March 19, 1998|By Tamara Ikenberg | Tamara Ikenberg,SUN STAFF

If circus clown Bryan Fulton had to change the image of his Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey colleagues, he'd inject a little testosterone.

"I'd kinda like to be a superhero, all suave out of makeup," says Fulton, a 19-year-old Baltimore native wearing knee socks, shorts, checked blue and red vest and oversized red tie. "Then, I'd go into a phone booth and come out as Super Clown."

Fulton, in Baltimore for performances through Sunday, may have his chance, because the 127-year-old circus is changing the way it approaches clown training.

The Ringling Brothers Clown College, which was established in 1968 in Florida, is closed, and the circus is developing a Clown College Graduate Program. The program is still in the planning stages, but representatives of Feld Entertainment, which owns Ringling Bros., say it will include more specialized, theatrically oriented Masters of Comedy Workshops. The workshops will be tailored to the interests of performers looking to expand on basic clowning skills, including the approximately 1,500 graduates of Clown College.

The number of college programs and workshops nationwide that teach clowning basics have rendered the original Clown College unnecessary, according to spokesman Rodney Huey.

"There's no need to get those kids right out of high school," Huey says. "It's a different world."

The new workshops will also make clowning more contemporary, since other elements of the circus have become increasingly modern. Acts now involve basketball players unicycling to techno music, professional daredevil in-line skaters and an audience-participation "Macarena."

In the future, clowns may appear in Seinfeldian skits satirizing everyday life and doing contemporary gags centered on computers and the tribulations of today.

Throughout their history, clowns have been relating to contemporary events, according to LaVahn Hoh, a drama professor at the University of Virginia at Charlottesville who teaches the class "The Circus in America."

In the American one-ring circuses of the late 18th century, talking was common for clowns, says Hoh, who also taught at Clown College. In the late 18th century, a clown named Dan Rice appeared with his pig Lord Byron and mused on politics, and the pig would snort.

Rice, who wore a red and white suit and top hat, was the model for Uncle Sam. But as circuses evolved into three rings in the 19th century, gags had to become broader to work in the larger setting, and the talking clown became extinct. Still, Hoh says, clown acts remain relevant.

"There are a lot of stock bits that clowns do that poke fun at society," Hoh says. He said the pie-throwing routines have always been a vicarious outlet for aggression toward society.

Dominique Jando, associate artistic director at the one-ring Big Apple Circus in New York City, disagrees, saying clowns in the three-ring format can't relate to the audience. He sees Ringling's new clown training as an opportunity to instill the skills that were developed in the more intimate one-ring format.

Jando says the three-ring circus developed because entrepreneur-owned circuses were very popular in America in the late 1800s, and the owners thought that by adding more rings they could attract bigger audiences.

"That's an American accident," Jando says of the three-ring circus. "That killed clowning in this country."

Clowns shouldn't be the broadly humorous, exaggeratedly made-up characters in today's circuses, Jando says. Instead, he thinks they should be witty commentators on the human condition with whom audiences can identify.

Rice and the clowns of his age satirized society, and so did the bald-headed buffoons of ancient Greece who are considered the earliest ancestors of the clown. They were secondary characters who mocked the more serious actors in farces and mime acts. The look evolved in the acts of medieval minstrels and jugglers. In the late Middle Ages, the Italian commedia dell'arte's Harlequin introduced acrobatics into the clown repertoire.

The first professional stage clowns came from the Elizabethan theater. Shakespeare has been credited with coining the word "clown." During this time in Germany, the clown costume we've come to know -- floppy shoes, waistcoats and hats -- developed. But the makeup wasn't grotesque, Jando says. American clowns are the only ones with cartoonish makeup designed for recognition from a distance, Jando says.

The circus clown as we know it today appeared in 1805 in England. The late 19th century saw the birth of the American circus clown.

In the '60s, former Ringling Bros. owner and producer Irvin Feld noticed that the clowns in his circus, most of whom learned their skills through apprenticeships, were getting old. So he created the now-defunct Clown College, an eight-week program that accepted only about 30 of nearly 2,000 applicants annually.

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