Clowning | Our Town | Chicago Reader

Clowning 

"We're looking for people who take their silliness seriously."

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In the dance studio at DePaul University's Alumni Hall, about 30 people, grouped into pairs, are flashing exaggerated smiles, taking large, awkward steps, and lunging at each other in failed attempts to shake hands. Every so often, half of a pair might step off to one side for a moment, frustrated, and then come back to stomp on his or her partner's foot. Then the whole routine begins again.

These people are trying very hard to be silly. They are auditioning for the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Clown College.

Supervising the proceedings is a short man in a yellow orange wig, a red rubber nose, striped suspenders, and white gloves. He is Steve Smith, a clown for 18 years and the director of Clown College.

During the ten-week program, he says, would-be clowns work on improvisation and character development, learn how to do clown makeup, study the techniques of such famous clowns as Lucille Ball and Red Skelton, and practice unicycling, juggling, and stilt walking.

"This may sound strange," Smith says, "but we look for people who take their silliness seriously. They have to have a sincere desire to make people laugh."

Clown College got its start in 1968, when Irvin Feld bought the circus from the Ringling family. "He realized he only had 13 clowns, and they were all about 62," Smith says. "The joke went, if they took a fall they may never get up again." Feld established the school in Venice, Florida, the winter headquarters for Ringling Bros.

Applicants audition in front of Clown College employees (there are two units that circle the country). Then, if an applicant is still interested in clownery, he or she sends in the application form and a Polaroid snapshot taken at the tryout.

The audition--supervised as often as possible by Smith and videotaped for future reference--consists of a series of exercises that are supposed to test coordination, timing, and lack of inhibition. This year, the first exercise is to reproduce a scene between two clowns that Smith has demonstrated with the help of an auditioner pulled from the crowd. The clown hopefuls are in the process of rehearsing.

The small room is packed with people. The number auditioning, Smith says, is about twice the usual. The auditioners face a mirrored wall, along which sit 30 or so audience members--children and their parents, reporters and photographers, and a few graduates of Clown College.

When their five minutes of rehearsal time is up, the group sits down with the audience, and one pair at a time acts out the scene.

During this exercise--and throughout the audition--it's easy to spot the real talent. Some of these people just move like clowns: their actions are clean, big, and precise. Compared to them, the other auditioners are sloppy, their improvised jokes unfunny.

A lot of them aren't very serious about trying out. Marie, 25, says she has an acting degree but really came just because she likes clowns. "I go to the circus every year," she says. "I heard about the audition, and I just thought it would be a fun way to spend a Saturday."

Smith wears a pair of wirerimmed glasses over his clown makeup. He hams and cracks jokes, but the audition is businesslike. "If you're not here to audition, please keep the chatter down," he tells the audience. "Try to stick to the basic routine as best you can," he tells the auditioners.

About half-way through the two hours, he sits the auditioners down and gives them a pep talk. "At Clown College we do internal inventory work," he says. "You can't just go flap your arms around and be funny. There must be truth in your comedy; otherwise it doesn't work."

In one of the last exercises, groups of auditioners have to laugh-at increasing levels--for about five minutes. As the time passes they grow red-faced and sweaty; they squint, clutch their stomachs, shake their heads, and dab their eyes. A woman rolls on the ground in feigned hysterics and real exhaustion; later, a recovering man says, "Geez, worse than sit-ups."

By this time, half the audience has gone home. As the rest watch the laughing exercise, some smile, some chuckle occasionally, but no one laughs uncontrollably; the auditioners are working too hard.

Among the 15 or so remaining audience members is Lanore, 24, who graduated last year from Clown College. She currently works in a noncircus position as a costume designer; today she is wearing a Ringling Bros. T-shirt, a bright blue jumpsuit, a pink bandanna, and pink high tops.

"I didn't get a contract with Ringling Bros., but I'm pursuing another circus, and I do some clowning," she says. Clowns can find free-lance work, she explains, with parades and conventions. "There are always birthday parties, but I'd rather not be categorized as a birthday party clown."

The tryout is over, and the auditioners have seated themselves in a loose group around Smith, asking him questions. Smith tells them first-year clowns make $180 a week and perform 600 times in 11 months. He tells them that Clown College will accept no more than 60 students out of the anticipated 2,000 auditioners. tells them that their expenses could be as much as $2,000--students don't pay tuition--and that no more than 20 graduates will get a contract with Ringling Bros.

When he tells them that the school rarely accepts students older than 40, one of the auditioners, a gray-haired, balding man, groans.

Smith smiles sympathetically, but gives the logical answer. "You gotta be able to do this every day," he says.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Jon Randolph.

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