A Life Under the Big Top
BY Advocate Contributors
July 19 2010 6:45 PM ET
I’ve spent much of my life in careers centered around making others happy. As an actor I believed that my first responsibility was to the audience. They needed to be delighted and engaged by everything I did on stage. This was particularly true of my time as a circus clown. If an audience’s joy depended on me dropping my pants, I dropped my pants. If it meant taking a pie in the face three times a day, so be it. Many may have thought these actions were undignified. I saw it as me doing my job well. It brought me great satisfaction to see families sitting together in a crowded stadium smiling from ear-to-ear.
Every Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey show begins with the ringmaster’s announcement, “Ladies and Gentlemen! Boys and Girls! Children of all ages!…” I love that thought. From the beginning of the show, the audience is told to leave adulthood at the door. Be a kid again. Laugh. Smile. Enjoy!
The veneer of the circus was everything I desired in a career. It was a chance to make masses of people happy, a chance to travel all over, an opportunity to take my silliness very seriously.
There was something really terrific about the history of it all. It made me feel as though I were a member of some insane, exclusive club with its own set of rules and superstitions. One such superstition centered around an area backstage excluded to all other members of the circus, save the clowns- Clown Alley. It’s where the clowns would keep their steamer trunks filled with supplies, costumes, props, and personal affects. It was considered bad luck to witness a clown transform and so curtains were hung keeping the rest of the circus folk, and whomever else from sneaking a peak at the clowns getting made-up.
It was in Clown Alley that I first started to hear disparaging remarks. The words “Fag” and “Queer” hung thick in the air like the clouds of baby powder in the boys’ section of Clown Alley.
It worried me. I was gay. They knew I was gay. They joked about me being gay.
But the laughter didn’t feel the same as when I took a pie in the face. It stung. Sure, I could drop my pants in front of ten thousand people to get a laugh, but I couldn’t deal with this?
Prior to going on the road, I attended a ten week clowning program at Ringling’s famed Clown College in Venice, Florida. Many of the exercises we participated in were around trust. The circus can potentially be a dangerous place to work. Clowning, in particular, involves broad physicality and precarious situations. Trust of your fellow performers is essential.
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