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Clowning in DFW: Shed the fear, get to know these clowns

Posted 7:04pm on Wednesday, Jul. 23, 2014

We can’t pinpoint the actual moment that people turned on clowns, but they did.

While many people have fond childhood memories of being at the circus, rodeo or birthday party and delighting in the talents of performers with crazy outfits and a red nose, and maybe a magic trick or two up their sleeve, others profess to be either freaked out or repulsed by the thought of clowns. Perhaps they were scarred by the images of those murderous psychopathic clowns, such as Pennywise from Stephen King’s It, or serial killer John Wayne Gacy — or something frightening in its own way: the music of Insane Clown Posse.

There’s even an official term for fear of clowns — coulrophobia — but people with that affliction are, in truth, far fewer in number than you would think.

“There has been a big backlash against clowns. It’s the idea of the sad hack who drinks in the back of the party,” says Jeffrey Colangelo, a Dallas-based theater clown. “In my opinion, being a clown is being the most human person in the room.”

Despite the fact that trashing clowns has almost become a parlor game — akin to hating Justin Bieber or anyone named “Kardashian” — the vast majority of modern-day clowns are devoted comedians whose sole purpose is to make ’em laugh, make ’em laugh. Even the fabled “sad clown” has a way of cheering us up.

Like the standup comic pacing a bare stage, a clown has to rely on his or her wit and physicality, and coax the audience into shedding their skepticism and inhibitions, tapping into that primal thing that makes us laugh out loud like we did when we were 8 years old.

No easy feat, especially when you’re often in makeup and your avocation has its own clinical phobia assigned to it.

We say it’s time for people to jump off the curmudgeonly “I hate clowns” bandwagon (OK, maybe more of a Volkswagen). It’s time to peek beneath the red rubber nose. It’s time to send in the clowns.

And the moment is right, because North Texas seems to be having a renaissance of clowning right now. It’s not that circuses, kiddie birthday parties or rodeos are on the rise but there is new growth in the field where the art of clowning all began: theater.

You can see it this summer not only at Fort Worth’s Hip Pocket Theatre, where theatrical clowning has had a home for nearly four decades. You can also find it in the newish Dallas outfit Prism Co., whose co-founder Jeffrey Colangelo is beginning his clown career with such shows as Playtime, currently seen in the Festival of Independent Theatres, and this spring’s terrific Galatea.

Also in Dallas are the NY Goofs, aka Dick Monday and Tiffany Riley, both well known in national clown circles and with long histories with circus and theatrical clowning. They currently devote much of their time to Funnyatrics, an organization that helps patients (kids and adults) in the hospital by bringing a big dose of funny into their lives.

All that, plus Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey’s Built to Amaze will open Wednesday in Dallas, and Aug. 13 in Fort Worth.

The idea of what constitutes a clown is wide-reaching, with clowns taking on as many forms as humans themselves. Sure, to most people, clowns are heavily made-up characters with colorful, frizzy hair, a silly hat and big shoes, probably seen at a circus, amusement park or Halloween party. But others — the ones that stem from millennia-old theatrical traditions — might don less gaudy attire, and maybe even no makeup, with just a red ball for a nose.

Such is the case with the clowns in Hip Pocket’s Rose Nose Rhapsody, written and directed by New York-based Lake Simons.

“I wish all actors had time to study clown,” says Simons, daughter of Hip Pocket founders Johnny and Diane Simons. Lake’s clown show is playing at Hip Pocket through Aug. 3. “There’s something about [clowning] that is so raw, it’s like ‘Here I am, I’ve stripped myself away, and all I can do is experience all of the things as much as possible for a performer for the first time, every time.’ Being vulnerable, that’s one of the biggest things for the success of being a clown, for the kind of work I do.”

Clowning is a tradition as old as civilization itself, documented as far back as the ancient Greeks, and carrying through Medieval times (court jesters) and Elizabethan theater. Shakespeare’s plays, even the tragedies and histories, are filled with clown characters. Around the same time, the Italian commedia dell’arte form (on which Hip Pocket is modeled) gave birth to well-known clown images such as the French harlequin.

In modern pop culture, the image has been kept alive by clowns from Bozo to The Simpsons’ Krusty to Fizbo, Cameron’s alter-ego on Modern Family. Granted, those are all big-haired figures with bold, bright makeup and colorful outfits that might be described as “unmatchy-unmatchy.”

As beloved as they are, they’re not necessarily cited as inspirations for many who are serious about the art of clowning. Instead, you’ll hear names like Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, Sid Caesar, Danny Kaye, the Three Stooges, Lucille Ball and Carol Burnett — well-known performers most of us wouldn’t consider clowns. What these comedic performers all had in common, though, was a special talent for timing and wild-but-controlled physicality.

Still scared?

“Most people say they’re afraid of clowns, but it’s rare to find someone who actually is,” says Dick Monday, who was head of Ringling Bros.’ Clown College from 1993 to 1997. “When I hear someone say this, I feel it is my duty as a professional clown to get to the bottom of it and talk people through it.”

In the spirit of talking people through it, we enlisted the help of a handful of different types of clowns — theater clowns, a circus clown, rodeo clown and a birthday party clown. Let’s get to know the humans beneath the rubber noses, and maybe, — just maybe — put those Pennywise nightmares to bed.

Taylor Albin

Age: 27

Type of clown: Circus clown, currently the “Boss Clown” for Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus.

Makes his home: On the circus circuit, but he grew up in Mineral Wells.

How did you get into clowning? “I used to go see Ringling Bros. every year growing up in the Fort Worth Coliseum or in Dallas. I remember looking at the clowns and thinking it’s amazing that someone can get so many people to laugh. Most kids, they go ‘I want to be president’ or whatever, and they end up being [something else]. I was like ‘I still want to be a Ringling clown.’ I was working on a physics degree in Tennessee, and in my senior year found out about an audition in New York for Ringling clowns. I went, and was picked.”

You had to have something to be chosen. “I grew up in Mineral Wells, and I attribute a lot of my acting experience to Mineral Wells Church of God, where I was able to do dramas and skits and that’s what helped my stage presence. After that, I watched Ringling shows and videos of clowns; I loved seeing how I could incorporate clowning into the things I do. When I started, I could barely juggle three juggling balls, and now I’m juggling fire in the show, I can pass and juggle juggling clubs, and that’s something I learned on the road. As long as you have the heart and passion for it, you can do it.”

Were you the class clown? “In school, I was Best Dressed. Honestly I really wasn’t the class clown. I was pretty quiet in school.”

How do you handle people who say they’re scared of clowns? “There are people who say they are afraid of clowns, but especially when people come to our show, we’re trained not to go out and scare them. With children, if they look like they’re afraid, we step back, we get down on their level, and we don’t let parents force their kids on us. We’re there to give the family a fun time.”

Who is your clown inspiration? “ My heroes are Ringling clowns, like Tom and Tammy Parish, David Kaiser, Greg DeSanto, Lou Jacobs and Otto Griebling, those are the clowns I look up to the most. … The vaudeville comedians are key: Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, the Three Stooges, even people like Dick Van Dyke and Carol Burnett.

What do you do when not clowning? “I tour with the circus 11 months out of the year, and come home to Texas about one month a year, spend time with the family. I’ll be performing in Texas this year, so I’ll get to see my family and friends. I love having my family and friends get to see what I do for a living.”

Where to see him: Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey’s Built to Amaze, which runs Wednesday through Aug. 10 at American Airlines Center in Dallas; and Aug. 13-17 at the Fort Worth Convention Center. Buy tickets at www.ticketmaster.com

Dick Monday and Tiffany Riley

Ages: “We like to think clowns are kind of ageless.”

Type of clown: Theater and circus clowns who are involved in the growing “medical clowning” movement, providing laughs and outreach to patients at various hospitals through their organization Funnyatrics.

Make their home: The husband-and-wife clowns live with their two children in Irving

How they got into clowning: Dick and Tiffany, also known as the NY Goofs, have a long history of clowning. He was once the head of the Ringling Bros. Clown College, and they both hold clown workshops around the country, including a May intensive at University of North Texas, and a fall intensive in New York. Dick was a Radio/TV/Film major at University of Maryland when he saw an audition notice for Ringling Bros. Clown College, and — remembering a dream from when he saw the circus in a small Nebraska town — auditioned. Tiffany was an NYU Tisch School of the Arts theater grad who saw Dick in a show in L.A., and they started working together. About a year after meeting, they were dating. They have two children, Chet, 13, and Lily, 10.

What is medical clowning? [Tiffany] “I think that medical clowning in this country is right on the verge of catching on; we’ve had to fight against the idea that if you’re a clown in a hospital you’re a volunteer. It’s been a challenge to find a way to up the game without alienating the people who are giving their time, and to carve a place for humor in the healing process. … We are very involved in a lot of different kinds of procedures, where the medical institutions have enlisted our help, we are present for procedures, we provide a great distraction for the patients. Sometimes we play games with the kids and help them do things, like go for a walk, or eat, when they don’t feel like it.”

How much can you make clowning? [Tiffany]: “I would say that all of our income comes from clown endeavors of one kind or another. As far as money, freelance work is always fluctuating, but we consistently manage around $100,000 per year.”

Who are your clown inspirations?: [Dick]: “Jonathan Winters was a big inspiration for me. As a teenager, I had a little black and white TV in my bedroom, and after my parents went to bed I would watch Johnny Carson, and people like Jerry Van Dyke and Jonathan Winters would do these routines. With Winters, I said “This is crazy but hilarious.” His characters are so strong, and that got me looking at a wider scope. My next line in research was Sid Caesar. Then for more contemporary, I like Steve Martin. I always felt like Steve Martin had a similar point of view to me.”

[Tiffany]: “Lucille Ball and Carol Burnett are who I watched growing up; there weren’t many female clown role models. Today, I love people like Tina Fey, Amy Poehler and Kristin Wiig; it’s great to see so many great women being funny.”

What about fictional clowns? Dick says Mr. Magoo; and Tiffany mentions Fozzie Bear and the Muppets. Tiffany says “my least favorite is the clown from It [Pennywise], I think 95 percent of people who say they’re afraid of clowns are afraid of him.”

When not clowning: [Tiffany]: We are raising two super theatrically active children who are always rehearsing, training or performing somewhere. I also had the bright idea to pursue a masters in liberal studies at SMU in hopes of developing a future degree for medical clowning, so I am doing that as well. Dick enjoys gardening and painting the house. We both aspire to become professional golfers.

Where to see them: Catch them every Saturday morning at 11:30 a.m., performing a family fun show at the Galleria in Dallas. They will also be the lead clowns at Lone Star Circus’ holiday show, Oh La La, Dec. 27-Jan. 4 at the Dallas Children’s Theater. Get Lone Star Circus tickets at www.dct.org; and see more about them at www.nygoofs.com

Cody Sosebee

Age: 42

Type of clown: Rodeo clown

Makes his home: Based in Charleston, Ark.

How he got into clowning: Based in Charleston, Ark., Sosebee is a barrel man, or rodeo clown, for several professional bull riding circuits, including the Fort Worth-based Championship Bull Riding. He was raised in the rodeo by a bull-riding father and barrel-racing mother, and became a championship bronc buster.

“One night I was in a show and the clown didn’t show up, and I was nearing the end of my career, in my early 30s. They talked me into being the clown, as a dare. I was this tough guy, but they put make-up and the clothes on me, and even my buddies didn’t know who I was. I’ve been doing it ever since.”

There’s a major difference between rodeo clowning and other types of clowning: the bull: “It’s like telling a joke standing in the middle of the interstate — the potential for danger is always there. You could face 25 bulls in each show. You have to take it on the fly, and you have to respect the animal.”

Have you been injured? “Oh, yeah. I’ve been run over, hooved, I’ve broken bones, ribs, my sternum, and pulled every muscle and ligament in my body.”

Did going from bronc busting to clowning change your opinion of clowns? “When you start doing it for a living, you look at it at a whole different way. When it’s what you’re doing to put food on the table, you are serious about it. … I work a lot. I can be milking a goat in the morning on my farm, and flying to Las Vegas that night for a show. I call it making serious funny money. That’s how I pay for my house, my truck, my motorcycles, my dune buggies, all of that.”

Describe your clowning style: “I’m a very petite 275. I’m the chubbiest most in-shape guy you’ll ever see. I use that to my advantage. I can take off and outrun a bull or out-maneuver him; I’m like a big-time glorified cheerleader.”

Who’s your inspiration? “I like Chris Farley and those kinds of comedians. … I think each kind of clown, they all draw inspiration from other types of clowns. I went to Ringling Bros. last year and had the best time. I like to watch the clowns that do the physical comedy without talking.”

Where to see him: He’ll be in North Texas in September, appearing at a rodeo in Stephenville; he’s in the area several times a year. Find out more at www.codysosebee.com

Pookie

Age: 34

Type of clown: Birthday party clown; her real name is Lindsey Foster.

Makes her home: Fort Worth

How she got into clowning: Pookie has been doing birthday parties — which includes balloon animals, face painting and magic tricks with doves — for six years.

“I was a stay-at-home mom, and I would take my kids out to events, and there would be clowns and face painting there, and I thought it would be fun to do that and get paid for it. I took a course on clowning at Tarrant County College, Northeast, where we learned about the history and basics of clowning. … I usually have five or six parties on the weekends, and more in the week.”

Were you the class clown? “I was head cheerleader” [at Fossil Ridge High School].

How’d you get the name? “From my dad, he called me that when I was a toddler. He passed away about two years before I got into clowning. He was like Patch Adams, but he was a cancer patient, and would wear noses and wigs and would entertain the nurses and doctors and kids at the hospital. He always wanted to be a clown.”

Did he ever embarrass you? “Yes. He picked me up from school one time, in tenth grade, and got out of the car with a bucket on his head and a pooper-scooper, calling my name loudly. That was one of many times. My friends all thought he was the coolest.”

Biggest clowning inspiration: “Lucille Ball. My clowning instructor talked about the different types of clowns, and [Ball] was brought up. She was so fun and a great physical comedian. I have watched every episode of I Love Lucy like 100 times.”

Lots of people claim to be scared of clowns, how do you deal with that? “I don’t run into it too often. People say, ‘I thought I was going to be scared of you, and I’m not.’ 

What do you do when not clowning? “I am at home raising four boys!”

How much does she make as a birthday party clown? About $2,000 a month, sometimes more.

Where to see her: Catch her and her clown partner, Coco, 6-8 p.m. every first and third Tuesday of the month, doing balloon animals and face painting at the Chick-Fil-A at 6650 Westworth Blvd., Westworth Village. Learn more about her at www.partywithpookie.com

Lake Simons

Age: 41

Type of clown: Theater clown

Makes her home: The Fort Worth native lives in New York, but usually has a long visit in North Texas for one show a year at Hip Pocket Theatre.

How she got into clowning: Simons grew up at her parents’ Hip Pocket, which has always loved physical theater such as pantomime, puppetry and clowning. After studying set design at the North Carolina Institute for the Arts, she studied in Paris for two yeas at Jacques Lecoq’s École Internationale De Théâtre, one of the world’s most prestigious schools for physical theater and clown.

“Growing up, it was something that was present, and I didn’t have a clear sense of what other options were. I knew I was in an unusual situation. As a child, I gravitated most to movement and I was drawn to my dad’s mime. He’s very physical, and so am I, and that’s how we communicate. The pantomime was the thing I loved the most, and what I loved learning from him. Making the decision of going to Paris and focusing on this physical theater was important.”

Who is your clown inspiration? “When Hip Pocket went to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in the 1980s, I saw this clown show by Nola Rae. I went to Edinburgh four or five years ago, and she was there again. She’s British, probably in her 50s. She’s very active, and she’s very respected. She’s probably my biggest inspiration. … Also, Bill Irwin [one of the greats of contemporary clown] is absolutely phenomenal. I’ve met him twice and both times I couldn’t speak, it was a like a teenager meeting a pop star.

When she’s not clowning: She’s working in other theatrical endeavors. When not creating a show or performing in one (as a puppeteer, mostly), she works with other theater organizations, building puppets and sets. She also teaches puppetry and set design, as an adjunct, at Sarah Lawrence College.

Where to see her: She’s not in it, but she wrote and directed Rose Nose Rhapsody, playing through Aug. 3 at Hip Pocket Theatre in Fort Worth. She’ll also perform in her clown show, Etiquette Unraveled (which debuted at Hip Pocket in 2011), this weekend at the Physical Theater Chicago festival and she appears in renowned puppeteer Basil Twist’s The Rite of Spring at New York’s Lincoln Center in October.

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