When attending the obligatory cocktail party/wedding reception/fundraiser/social event, there is one question that looms over an actor’s head – ready to drop at a moment’s notice.
“What do you do for a living?”
If, when asked this, an actor replies with “I’m an actor,” it invariably invites an entirely new line of questioning.
“Which restaurant? hahahaha”
“Are you famous?”
“What movies have you been in?”
“Do you know Tom Hanks?”
I don’t mind this. I often enjoy explaining to new acquaintances that although I’ve dabbled in TV and film, and on both the east and west coasts – as well as outside the US – I actually prefer appearing on the stage. In the Midwest to boot.
However, if I’m feeling a little adventurous, I can answer “What do you do for a living” with a sentence that will stop my inquisitor in their tracks.
“I’m a clown.”
The responses to this statement run the gamut from glee to incredulousness. Often the person across from me begins to squint, as if attempting to envision me in a curly wig, red nose and oversized shoes, eagerly twisting animal balloons at a child’s birthday party. (That isn’t the type of clowning I do.)
However, it is true that while simultaneously training as an actor, studying the works of Shakespeare, George Bernard Shaw, Tennessee Williams, Moliere, Eugene O’Neil and Oscar Wilde, I was also studying the art (yes, art) of being a clown. Not a clown with a rainbow wig, garish white makeup and a jumpsuit with pom-poms running down the front – but rather a different type of clown.
The type of clowning I do is referred to as “Character Clown” or “Theatrical Clown.” This is an archetype that represents spontaneity, joy, possibility, innocence, play, and above all – laughter. This type of character finds its roots in the classical theatre of the Greeks and Romans. Some historians even point to clown references dating as far back as the fifth dynasty of Egypt, around 2400BC.
Why would I commit to the study of being a Clown alongside my study of Shakespeare? The answers are numerous. Among them; to gain another perspective on my work as a classical actor, to provide another creative outlet for myself, and to make people laugh.
There are few things in the world as gratifying to an actor as the laughter coming from a live audience. Actors feed off of it. We discus audience laughter backstage. We measure the evenings performance in terms of the frequency, length, and quality of the laughter coming from the audience.
We love it. I love it. The knowledge that I’ve succeeded in giving the audience a moment of joy, an evening of entertainment, the gift of laughter. It is a gift that gives back to me as well.
As an actor I’ve appeared in everything from Shakespearean tragedy to Marx Brothers-inspired comedy. As a clown I’ve been part of the New York based Big Apple Circus for more than 10 years, and appeared on vaudeville stages throughout the Midwest.
In North America, clowns in general have developed somewhat of a bad reputation. The irrational fear of clowns is diagnosed as “coulophobia.” Stephen King’s “IT” and John Wayne Gacy have contributed to the problem. This is unfortunate.
One of my personal missions in life is to wage war on this inaccurate stigma. I’ve met so many people who profess a dislike of clowns, (I, myself, am NOT a fan of the bright colored wigs and makeup). but after I explain what it is I do, they soften their position. True clowns – real clowns – exude warmth, idealism, curiosity, exuberance and joy.
From time to time my worlds of clowning and acting collide, as they are now in Peninsula Players current production of “The 39 Steps.” Based on the Alfred Hitchcock film of the same name, “The 39 Steps” is a high-energy spoof of Hitchcock’s oeuvre as well as film noir in general.
In adding to the sense of adventure, the script calls for only four actors, with two of those actors responsible for portraying nearly every character the hero encounters on his journey. These characters are referred to in the script as “clowns.”
This marks my 22nd production at the Players, but the first time the word “Clown” has appeared in my character’s description. These clowns don’t wear red noses or circus makeup. We are multi-dimensional, multi-character, shape-shifting storytellers. As played by Joe Foust and myself, we manage more costume changes in a single evening than most actors do in an entire season.
The cast (including Erica Elam in her own variety of roles and Neil Brookshire as the hero, Richard Hannay) approached the script in true “clown” fashion – with exuberance, joy, curiosity and playfulness under the direction of Karen Sheridan. The creative team of designers and technicians followed suit – collaborating in the spirit of “clown.” We help bring an epic adventure to the Peninsula Players’ stage – complete with cars, plains, trains, femme fatals, London music halls, secret agents, the highlands of Scotland, international intrigue, romance, chases, escapes, heroes and (of course) love.
So be sure to see “The 39 Steps” at Peninsula Players which is running through October 16th. You’ll experience a fun-filled evening of Hitchcock parody. You’ll see four actors play a multitude of characters. I hope you enjoy it. I hope you laugh at me. Really. I’m a clown.
For information or tickets phone the Box Office at (920) 868-3287 or visit www.peninsulaplayers.com.
Kevin McKillip is an award-winning actor who has performed more than 20 roles at Peninsula Players and is the recipient of the Rubber Chicken Award from the clown alley at Big Apple Circus.