Wednesday, February 23, 2011

From One Clown to Another

Jamie Adkins is at The New Victory Theater with a new solo show called Circus INcognitus. He is a seasoned circus performer, as well as a funny and touching clown. I had a conversation with Jamie a few weeks before he came to the New Vic about what it is like to be a clown, how he started and how a young person could follow in his footsteps. This is just a little of what we talked about.

Josh: What was your process for making this show?
Typo (New Victory 2004-2005)
Jamie: For me, my last show Typo was about a clown sitting down at a typewriter to write a show - which is impossible! You don't write a clown show at a typewriter. You come up with a basic idea and you get in front of the audience and you work in front of the audience to develop the material. With this show (Circus INcognitus), I started with the idea that I have the show and am looking for the audience. The show begins when I find the audience and present to them what I have created, and what I have created is a circus out of everyday objects.

Josh: It’s interesting that you come on stage and start the show by finding the audience. What is your relationship to the audience like?
Jamie: I think of the audience as a partner. Especially as a solo clown; there is no fourth wall (meaning the performer recognizes that the audience is there). The partnership is if an audience member sneezes, I have the liberty to react to it. I do a show with a lot of circus skills, where a lot of mistakes can happen; perhaps I might drop a juggling ball. [Any] juggler might run to go get the juggling ball, [but] I stop and watch the ball to see where it goes. And if it goes into the audience I might play around a bit. That's the gift of being a clown; you get to acknowledge “I made a mistake.”

Bill Irwin
Josh: How did you start clowning?
Jamie: When I grew up I thought of a clown as someone who had white face and big shoes and sold hamburgers; I had no perspective about what clowning was. Now I have such a high regard for clowning that I separate when I first started doing street shows and when I first started doing clowning. Back then I was just trying to get laughter through circus skills - which is somewhat what I still do. I would much rather get laughter than applause any day. Later on, I started to see really great clowning, like Bill Irwin and David Shiner to name a few, and I realized that is physical comedy, that is clown. When I was twenty- two I started off [on my quest to be a clown] with the Pickle Family Circus.

Josh: It's interesting to hear you talk about the difference between what a comic performer is and what a clown is, I would love to hear where you think the line is.
Jamie: I think a clown knows who he is and how he gets a laugh. I was on stage for years getting laughs and not knowing why or how to make it better. It takes a long time to be able to stand in front of an audience and do nothing. A lot of kids after the show ask what is the hardest trick I do, juggling rings or walking on a rope, and I tell them just to stand in front of the audience and do nothing is more challenging. You have to have uber confidence to just stand there and breathe and still have an energy that is captivating and interesting. When I was younger I might have tried to hide behind the trick I was doing: "Don't look at me, look at these five clubs!"

Josh: For me it is something about the personality. I think the clown can juggle or play the ukulele, but they don't have to, the clown can reveal the secret of everything by doing something simple.
If someone wanted to pursue clowning for a living what advice would you give them?
Jamie: There are two different things you need to study when you see a guy like me perform: the skills and the arts. With the skills it’s just like anything, I would say practice. Practice for hours and hours; if you want to achieve anything at a high level you have to practice. You will get out of it what you put into it.

Photo: Amanda Russell

The other side is the art and the ideas. For this show it was not [learning] the skills that were difficult...what was difficult was coming up with the ideas - how do I make a joke out of this piece of paper? Or how do I make a routine out of this grape and fork? I am not a mind reader. I can't predict what an audience will find funny, so I put in this show all the things that make me laugh, present it to an audience and let them decide.

I would say you have to look within yourself, try to find what you find beautiful or funny and how you can extend that to people. When I come up with a routine, I will improvise for a few hours. I put myself in a room and try to see if I can make myself laugh. [Then] I know I have come up with something real that comes from a place I really find funny and I can put that in the show.

Working on the ideas does not come from only watching comedy, it comes from poetry, it comes from listening to music you find beautiful, [and] trying to elicit that passion, trying to light that fire yourself and show that fire to other people.

In talking with Jamie it is so clear that his passion for his craft is deeply personal. One part of the conversation we had that impressed me is how much his work is a family affair - Jamie is joined on tour by his daughter Penelope as well as his wife Amanda Russell-Adkins (who is the Production Director for Circus INcognitus as well as being the web site designer for He is inspired to continue to find who his "clown" is and he's truly committed to spreading joy in his work.

New Victory Teaching Artist, JOSH MATTHEWS is an actor, clown and teacher in New York City. He has co-created four shows with Under the Table Theatre, touring across the country and internationally. Josh currently teaches drama at the Friends Seminary in New York City and circus skills at The Point in the Bronx and has taught workshops at Sarah Lawrence College and with The New Victory Theater. Josh is also a member of the Big Apple Circus’ Clown Care Program and will be appearing in the Big Apple Circus this spring. Josh is a graduate of the Dell'Arte International School of Physical Theatre.

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