The craft of clowning

Let’s play a little guessing game. We are thinking of a noun. Some people are scared of them, some people love them, some people know nothing about them, and others have dedicated their entire lives to perfecting the art of being one. Do you know what it is we’re talking about?

If you guessed a garden gnome, don’t go out gambling tonight because that’s not a lucky guess. However, if you guessed a clown, well, thanks for looking at the cover photo before reading this article; you’re right.

As long as there has been comic relief (since the beginning of humanity we suppose), there have been clowns of some sort. You know, we are talking about those few people with the ability to crack a joke to relieve the most uncomfortable of situations.

However, somewhere between medieval jesters and Ronald McDonald, the craft of clowning has encompassed mainly those who actually practice the ancient expertise.

Just like you, we were once on the outskirts of the clowning club, but succumbing to our need to educate ourselves on the unassuming facets of entertainment, we indulged our curiosity at the mercy of the incredible clowns of Cirque du Soleil.

Hocus and Pocus of "Zarkana"

Hocus and Pocus (Maxim Fomitchev and Jimmy Slonina) of “Zarkana”

The clowns of Cirque play a vital role in each production, conjuring laughs among the audience throughout each show. Unassumingly holding as much on-stage importance as the show’s acrobats, it got us wondering just how much effort  it takes to be funny… turns out, it’s a lot.

“I think some people forget how difficult clowning is because it is a science,” explained Terry Bartlett of “O.” “You rehearse, there’s a lot of intellect involved, a lot of procedural thought to actually get through the routines and make them enjoyable and laughable at all levels and at the root of that, I think that you’ve got to enjoy being a bit silly.”

But before we go any further into the topic at hand, let us assure you that Cirque clowns are not your run-of-the-mill hired birthday party entertainment or backyard circus acts; these professionals paint an entirely new face on their characters to create something truly unique.

“When people think of clowns, they think of circus skills – automatically, the big shoes or the flower that shoots water, so for us, it’s more about comedy and the conversation with the audience and that relationship between us and the crowd,” explained Shannan Calcutt of “Zumanity.”

The sex experts (Shannan Calcutt and Nicky Dewhurst) of "Zumanity"

The sex experts (Nicky Dewhurst and Shannan Calcutt) of “Zumanity”

From the moment audience members start taking their seats and relaxing at a Cirque show, the clowns are already hard at work priming the crowd for an entertaining evening with childlike antics and innocent tomfoolery.

But how does one get hundreds of people laughing? Bartlett jokes that “It really helps if you’re funny.” But, funny as a clown may be, we learned that it is not always the clown’s fault if an audience is unresponsive to the humor in the act.

“There’s alchemy to it that the audience is a part of,” said Jimmy Slonina of “Zarkana.” “The audience is part of the comedy, you know? And I feel that if there are a few people who are having a great time, it infects other people. So we could be doing a great show from one day to the next and if the audience isn’t with us or if there isn’t that pocket of influencers that help out, then we could fall flat.”

So while the audience has a big role in feeding energy to clowns when jokes land, the relationship dynamic between clown duos, which is what most Cirque shows feature, is crucial for comedic success.

Brian Dewhurst of "Mystére"

Brian Dewhurst of “Mystère”

“There’s actually a term for it. There is a white clown and a red clown,” explained Slonina. “Basically, the white clown is kind of the boss, the one in charge and the red clown is the one who’s trying to chip away at him and be the mischievous one to try and screw things up. The white wants order and the red wants chaos. But even with us, if that’s established, it switches and that’s when it gets fun because the audience has established, ‘OK, he’s the boss of him and the other one is the annoying one’ and then all of the sudden the white decides to be mischievous and then the red has to turn into the white. So, it’s those reversals that I think are really satisfying to an audience.”

Explained in a different way, Bartlett said, “Opposites attract; It’s the paradox, the opposite energy. One clown is very intelligent but actually stupid while the other clown is stupid but actually acting intelligent; one falls, the other catches; the other moves out of the way and catches his fall and he falls… It’s always the opposite but in our energy, although we are opposite, that’s all that we have. We have each other. So despite being opposing, we are actually very pleased.”

Much like traditional circus clowns, (with the exception of the clowns of “Zumanity”) Cirque clowns speak in an unintelligible gibberish language. The only devices left for storytelling are a few props, body language and expressions.

Cirque’s only deaf clown, Maxim Fomitchev of “Zarkana” explained that in order to be an effective clown a little less talk and a lot more action is the key to success. “Try talking less. I’m deaf and I’m telling you, less talking. Try it! Find a way to verbalize, get your message out through mime, technical, physical; show your message. You have more power than words – a lot more power.”

Considering all of the hard work that goes into clowning, one would think that a clown’s career would most likely be short-lived but that couldn’t be farther from the truth. In interviewing a collection of Cirque’s clowns (who Nicky Dewhurst of “Zumanity” reminded us are real people too) we discovered one common thread — that passion of the art keeps them performing through the good and the bad times.

cirque-o

Terry Barrlett and Valery Slemzin of “O” photo courtesy Cirque du Soleil.

Brian Dewhurst of “Mystère” has been performing as a clown for 70 years and said, “Making people laugh is a wonderful thing. You live and learn by living and dying on the stage.”

Many other clowns agreed that it was the instant gratification they receive from an accepting audience. “You’re out there in front of a live audience and you’re doing something and the feedback is instantaneous,” explained Bartlett. “There’s no waiting around, it’s instant gratification and it’s never quite the same. There’s always a little tweak, a little something in your performance and you get instant feedback from a live audience so it’s very special.”

Of course, the otherworldly acrobats of Cirque du Soleil are largely responsible for putting the production on the map but without the clowns, Cirque just wouldn’t be the same.  “A clown director once told me that we were acrobats of the soul,” Slonina said.

We couldn’t agree more.

For more information on Cirque du Soleil in Las Vegas, visit Vegas.com.

Comments

Trading one desert for another, I moved to Las Vegas from Arizona nearly three years ago. It was something about the sparkling lights and the all-encompassing entertainment factor that persuaded me to swap cacti for casinos and dry heat for well…even drier heat. And while I do love a good show, I will always keep true to my country girl ways seeing that I am an absolute sucker for a good country concert and will always indulge the opportunity to go out country dancing! But in a city that undoubtedly has some of the world’s best cuisine, a wild assortment of endless experiences, and of course phenomenal shows, Vegas certainly has that unparalleled good time vibe that can make a city slicker out of just about anyone… including myself!