Friday, March 29, 2013

Clowns on Clowning: A Conversation with New Vic Teaching Artists

Time Magazine has called Bello Nock, the creator and primary performer of Bello Mania, “America’s Best Clown,” and while he’s arguably the most recognizable clown to have crossed our stage, he is not the first. From Bill Irwin to Jamie Adkins, The New Victory has a long history of presenting clowning. But we also have a few clowns on our staff: Teaching Artist Josh Matthews ran away with Big Apple Circus last year, while Teaching Artist duo Seth Bloom and Christina Gelsone have toured with world as the Acrobuffos.

I reached out to two other New Vic Teaching Artists—Summer Shapiro and Billy Schultz, clowns and circus artists in their own right—to get their insight on this classic art form and the ways Bello Mania captures the energy and history of clowning.

Blake: Thank you both so much for agreeing to be a part of our blog. To begin, I want to know: how would you define clowning?

Billy: Clowning is a playful and exaggerated theatrical performance in which the performer has a direct relationship to the audience. But I’d argue that we might need to take a small but important step back to define ‘clown.’ A clown is someone who engages with the world in a way that is imaginative, playful, sensitive, honest and buoyant.

Summer: To me, clowning is the act of being completely present and available to your surroundings, while engaging in orchestrated human mishap. Clowning does not require big shoes, make-up, a nose or a whole bunch of odd props, but it does require a way of being in the world that lets the audience delight in the plight of being a human.

Billy: Rather than nailing down a definition, I like to work from a couple of reference points when thinking about clowns and clowning: dogs and 5 years olds. They are the best clown teachers I know! And no, I am not joking. Dogs and 5 year olds are enormously true to themselves. They don’t worry about what others think of them, so they play. And they play BIG.

Blake: What sparked your interest in clowning?

Summer: While I was attending the School of Theater at UCLA, I crammed into the technician’s booth to witness Junebug Symphony—a production by James Thierree (Charlie Chaplin's grandson) that incidentally also played at The New Victory. The actors were simple, honest, vulnerable, imaginative and playful human beings who were experiencing life in an exaggerated setting. Their curiosity for life, and their exploration of mundane and magical happenings hooked me. When I saw this show, something in me broke open and I couldn’t stop weeping. I was moved to say the least. I left that performance and got in the car with my roommate. I was still crying and said, “That’s what I want to do!” And she replied, “So do it.”

Billy: I became friends with someone who hosted a cabaret show. She needed a stagehand and I volunteered, but I quickly became her silent sidekick. I’m pretty tall and got nervous on stage. I just wanted to do everything quickly and correctly and then get offstage. My friend is very short and super confident and got a kick out of my nervous perfectionism, so she started bossing me around. “Put this here” and “that goes over there” she would say as part of the act. “No! Not over there, over there!” People starting laughing and eventually I started to really enjoy myself. A year later we travelled around Spain, Italy and France with the show. After that trip I was sold on clowning and found places to study it in a more formal setting. Additionally, I’ve always been involved in athletics, even growing up, so the physical components of clown performance make me feel very at home.

Blake: What clown or performer inspires you?

Summer: As I just mentioned, James Thierree inspires me to no end, as does Lucille Ball. Lucille had a way about her that let people laugh at life. Instead of worrying about looking good or keeping up appearances, Lucille was gorgeous because she was revealed. She would always tell the truth with her eyes, movements and words—whatever experience she was having, it was honestly happening and she shared it with us. This courage to openly play is inspiring. I aspire to such qualities in my own work and life. I wish I could thank her for reminding us that we are silly creatures and letting us enjoy not having all the answers.

Billy: Pick one? Not a fair question! I like Bill Irwin, Okidok, Licedei, Seth Bloom, Christina Gelsone, and Wile E. Coyote. If I had to pick one, I would say David Shiner. He does a great job of coming up with dramatic clown routines and characters. He can be silly, but he can also be quiet, sad, dramatic, aggressive and provocative.

Blake: What's the most challenging thing about clowning?

Summer: Surrendering to the unknown, a commitment to always tell the truth and knowing you can’t know what will happen. There is a rigor to writing and rehearsing a production that establishes the audience as a character. Because a clown is always checking in with the audience and reacting to their reactions, the audience is a variable that will never be fully known until you perform. The challenge is creating a foundation or template for a story while anticipating an audience's ever-changing experience. It’s a very complex puzzle.

Billy: I would have to agree. Since much of a clown’s performance is dependent on a relationship with the audience, rehearsing can be difficult. You don’t know how people are going to respond to your performance until you show them. Showing other actors or directors isn’t the same. You really have to present the material to an audience. It can be scary!

Blake: What's the most rewarding?

Billy: I’ll make this short and sweet: sharing playfulness and sincerity with the audience.

Summer: The challenge is also the reward. Once I take that risk to listen to and guide the audience in the same moment, it is the most fulfilling experience. I have had moments where it seems as though I can feel the audience breathing—the theater gets very still and every chuckle, gasp or nervous giggle feels like it is dancing atop a current between the audience and me. This current drives the story onward and upward. Doing the preparation that is there to be done: knowing the choreography, the timing, the falls, the trips, the moments the props break is essential, but for me it is also essential that once I step on stage I can forget it all. When I step on stage I give all my attention to the present moment with the audience, like nothing else exists in the world. From there, we create something together. That is the most rewarding part of being a clown.

What do you admire or appreciate about Bello Nock?

Billy: First, his discipline and dedication to the art of clowning. The physical comedy in his show requires constant training. It requires concentration and great physical health. I also envy his hairdo.

Summer: I appreciate Bello Nock’s commitment to his craft and skill. They give him the strength to do superhuman tasks, and through them,he shows us that humans can do amazing things. Most of all, I admire that he shows us the priority and power of play. 

Billy Schultz specializes in devising and performing original dramatic, comedic, and experimental theater. Among the many festivals in which he has performed are Le Festival International de Théâtre deRue (France), Mercantia Festival (Italy), Berlin-Lacht International Theater Festival (Germany), FUSEbox Contemporary Performance Festival (Austin, TX), New York Clown Theater Festival and The Comedy in Dance and Collaborations in Dance Festival (Brooklyn, NY). He has studied or worked with Polina Klimovitskaya (Michael Howard Studios); Norman Taylor, Richard Crawford and Virginia Scott (Movement Theater Studios); Orlando Pabotoy (Christopher Bayes Clown Technique), Jango Edwards (Nouveau Clown Institute, Spain); Steve Cook and Pilar Garcia (Stella Adler Studios); Antonio Fava (Scuola Internazionaledell’Attore Comico, Italy); Gregg Goldston (Gold Mime), Ronlin Foreman and Joan Shirle (Dell Arte International); Sina Heiss (Columbia University); Jeff Wirth (Wirth Creative); and Scott Heron, AudreyCrabtree and John Towsen (NY Physical Comedy Lab). He is currently playing his solo show, Behind the Curtain. For more information, visit or

Summer Shapiro writes, directs and performs theater productions fueled by a fascination with everyday life and exploring the magic in the mundane. Shapiro's Legs And All, co-starring Peter Musante of Blue Man Group, won Best of The Best in 2009 Bay Area Theatre from SF Bay Times, best in show at the 2010 FRIGID New York Festival and the 2009 Ticketholder Award for Best Special Event/Performance from Los Angeles Entertainment Today. Her original solo show, In The Boudoir, shared the bill with Cirque Du Soleil veteran John Gilkey and headlined the 2009 WOW Festival. She has been a company member and teaching artist with The Medea Project: Theater For Incarcerated Women as well as assistant director for the San Francisco Shakespeare Festival's The Merry Wives Of Windsor. Shapiro has trained, performed and taught in San Francisco, Los Angeles and Ireland, and has performed on the streets of Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador and Berlin. She currently balances her stage time with teaching devising workshops as well as writing and teaching experiential performing arts lesson plans for The New Victory Theater. Shapiro is premiering her newest work this May 2-18, 2013 at The Tank.

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