A job where clowning around is only natural
PUBLISHED: 10:02 08 February 2015
Following the recent UK Clown Convention in Lowestoft, STACIA BRIGGS takes a closer look at the art of clowning.
A large man sails past on a tiny bicycle while a man in a rainbow harlequin suit adjusts a pair of gigantic shoes and another whips up the filling for a custard pie.
In the nearby dressing room, silver flight cases are packed with panstick make-up and cosmetic glue, red noses sit patiently waiting for their owners and ordinary clothes have been shed in beige and grey piles on the floor as the transformation from chrysalis to brightly-coloured butterfly takes place.
Props are everywhere you look: silly hats adorned with flowers, comedy bow-ties, sequinned jackets, chairs with fake seats and false fronts, flowers that squirt water, comedy horns, juggling clubs, balancing balls and massive magnets.
Something funny is definitely going on at The Seagull Theatre in Lowestoft.
Performers from across Europe assembled for the UK Clown Gathering Convention last week - the first event of its kind, which aims to offer “clowning for clowns”.
There have been workshops on make-up and building relationships with audiences, on balloon-modelling and thinking up new ways to be funny, about the importance of backdrops for performances and managing bookings and the chance to meet other clowns and swap props.
Organiser Andy the Clown (Andrew Davis without the pastel blue clown suit and the red nose) is delighted with the success of the inaugural convention and hopes it will be the first of many.
A clown since 1998, when he stepped up to the role when no-one was available to host a children’s party, Andy has never looked back.
“I’d been a DJ from the age of nine, so I was used to entertaining people but I’d never actually performed in front of people,” he said. “I loved it and I still do.
“What we really need to do as entertainers is keep evolving, keep moving, keep changing and in part, that’s what this convention is about – swapping new ideas and keeping clowning fresh.
“It’s also about bringing us all together. As performers and entertainers, we tend to work alone or in pairs and we don’t get to see other clowns or swap tips.
“Working in the entertainment industry means long, unsociable hours, often away from home, and it can be quite lonely for some clowns, particularly ones who tour.”
Bobo Roberts, from Glasgow, knows all about the tears of a clown.
The 10th generation of circus performers from the famous Bobby Roberts Circus dynasty, he was born in the back of a Morris Minor taxi cab on the way to Blackburn Royal Infirmary, is the son and grandson of a clown and has a young son Logan who looks as if he’ll be following in his father’s footsteps (no small feat, excuse the pun, those clown shoes are huge).
“I don’t know any other life away from the circus,” he said.
“I didn’t go to school and I didn’t make any friends outside the circus because we didn’t stay anywhere long enough to put down any roots.
“That’s why this kind of event is really good – we get to talk to people who know what our life is like.”
Bobo became a clown at the age of 15, studied A-levels under his own steam and now bases his young family in a flat – rather than a trailer – to ensure they have a more stable life than he enjoyed as a child. That said, he still loves what he does with a passion.
“I could have been a horse trainer, but I have no attention to detail,” he said. “I like messing around and making people laugh. If there’s a better job out there for me, I’d like someone to find it!”
In his previous role, Jonathan the Jester from Salisbury might have been able to help. He was working at The Job Centre in 1992 when his mother made him a costume for the local carnival.
“I had the best day wearing the Jester costume and as I was walking home I saw a reflection of myself in a shop window and thought: ‘I really like this,’” he said.
Within three years, Jonathan quit his job and became a full-time jester.
Now, one of his acts is The Escapology Sack of Doom: “It’s won me as many complaints as it has plaudits,” he admits.
Gingernutt, or Ian Thom, who lives in London, started his career in entertainment as a puppeteer but he pulled a few strings and moved from behind the scenes to centre stage.
While performing on a cruise ship, he visited the famous Benneweis circus in Copenhagen and saw a clown act that set him on a whole new career path.
“I fell in love with the Italian clowns who were performing and that was that – it was a lightbulb moment and I knew I wanted to be a clown,” he said.
“When people think of clowns, they think big shoes, baggy trousers, red nose but it’s more than that, it’s an art. People ask if I hide behind a mask but I tell them for me, I use the clowning as a window to look at the world.
“Gingernutt is more outrageous than Ian and he flirts with more older ladies but it’s just playing. As an adult, we lose the ability to play – clowns keep it forever.”
Salvo from South End started clowning in 1968 because he loved entertaining – his family, however, weren’t quite so keen.
“I’m the black sheep of the family. They don’t like what I do, not one bit,” he said.
“A year or two back, I wanted to go and busk in the town where my mum lived just before she died. She said to me: ‘A lot of people know me, a lot of people know you and I have to live with the embarrassment once you go home.’ So I didn’t go.
“Whatever they think, I love this job and I think that clowning will always be here in one form or another. Everything has its cycle - I hope clowns are on the up again.”
Finally, I speak to the most experienced clown at the convention, Arthur Vercoe Pedlar, or Vercoe the Clown, who began clowning in 1948 after being mesmerised at the circus as a child.
He worked at the Cirque Medrano in Paris, spent three weeks with Buster Keaton, has appeared across the world and was the first non-American clown to be voted into the International Clown Hall of Fame. He is, quite simply, Clown Royalty.
“My act is completely silent, which is totally different to most clowns working today. It’s slow, it’s quiet but it’s funny and that’s the key. It’s about the mess I get into and how I try and get out of it,” he said.
“Clowning was only ever my hobby and not my career but it has also been my life. I love the interaction I have with an audience and transforming myself to be a completely different person.
“Being a clown can be a matter of entertaining a few kiddies or it can be an artform that can be enjoyed by all ages.
“There will always be a place for clowns. People will never want to stop laughing.”