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Surely, They Jest

Think it’s all fun and games being a clown? Think again. Clowns from across the globe discussed competition, screwed-up skits and perfecting the art of clowning at the Clowns of America International conference in Saratoga Springs

By Kathryn Mora

Skittish: A group of clowns practice their routines at the Sheraton in Saratoga Springs. Photo by Teri Currie

Notcho Trouble gave new meaning to the saying “the show must go on” during the Clowns of America International group-skit competition on Friday, April 19. “I could feel it coming,” says Paul Camiller, also known by his clown name, Notcho Trouble. “But I knew the most important thing: I have to get through the skit—can’t stop in the middle. I said the last line of the skit and threw my hat down, stormed off the back of the stage to thunderous applause. No one noticed, not even the judges, that my mouth was full of blood and the front of my shirt soaked.”

He had a nosebleed that wouldn’t stop. Although it did not deter him from finishing his skit, it did alert the emergency medical technicians to rush to his rescue after he dashed off the stage, heading for the closest restroom.

“I couldn’t let the other people [in the skit] down or keep the audience from getting the full message,” Camiller says. “[It’s] good to start new things, but to finish right is important.”

Camiller, along with 500 other clowns, traveled from almost every state in the nation—and overseas, too—hoping to learn more about the art of clowning at the recent 2002 Clowns of America International convention, hosted by Schenectady’s Electric City Clown Alley. The convention was held at the Sheraton Hotel and Conference Center in Saratoga Springs from April 16 to 21. COAI is an international organization with 6,000 members dedicated to the “advancement of the clown art,” with headquarters in Richyville, Pa. Members of the Electric City Clown Alley entertain at community events, in parades, hospitals, schools and nursing homes. The membership is open to all clowns, and they meet in Schenectady once a month.

During that week, the Sheraton hotel transformed into a clown wonderland, adorned with balloons in all the colors of the rainbow and bursting with big-hearted, good-natured clowns of all shades: red-nosed Auguste clowns, white faces, sad sacks, tramps, tattered hobos and elegant bag ladies—wide, small, tall and little, young and old, sad, pouty, funny, glittered and brightly made-up. They rushed to their classes, competitions and parades, dressed in stripes, patches, bold prints and rainbow bouffant dresses, pinafores, trousers and knickers. They had big hair, little hair, curly, straight, long, short, fire-engine-red hair, chartreuse, purple, lavender and blue hair, topped with hats, caps and bowlers. They wore snazzy shoes, 2 feet long, two-toned saddle, checkered red, yellow and purple.

During the weeklong convention, 70 classes, workshops, lectures and seminars were taught by award-winning, seasoned professionals, including Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey College trained clowns. Subjects covered in classes included balloon art, hospital clowning, magic, juggling, marketing, puppets, performing for schools, storytelling, costuming and much more.

Locally, Hudson Valley Community College, Schenectady County Community College and the College of Saint Rose all offer clowning classes. The “alleys” (alley is the traditional name for the area off the circus midway where clowns had their dressing rooms; these days, the word refers to a group of clowns who join together to share ideas and routines) have Klown Kollege programs and also camps, such as Mooseburger Camp in South Haven, Minn., and Clown Camp at the University of Wisconsin, La Crosse, that offer varied comprehensive programs for clowns. Regional conventions also put on educational programs throughout the year, and the annual COAI convention is given in the spring in different states each year.

Although clowns and court jesters have been traced back to the courts of ancient Egypt, clowns must still continually educate themselves, learn new skills and practice daily. But, even more important, clowns must give with their hearts.

“Clowns provide a mystical opportunity for healing of the body, mind and spirit,” Camiller says. “We set that stage in others by giving of ourselves. We share talent, knowledge, wit, smiles, laughter and love in a way that is easily understood and accepted. Laughter is a close cousin to love, and we get to share it so freely.”

Unusual and unique people choose to become clowns and attend clown conventions for different reasons. Take Janice McCaffrey, for example.

McCaffrey is a petite, youthful-looking woman in her early 40s from Jackson, N.J., with a perpetual smile and a spirit that could melt an iceberg. She is a new clown, also a wife and mother of four, ages 28 to 16.

“After I saw the Patch Adams movie, starring Robin Williams [about a spirited doctor who turned to clowning during his hospital rounds in order to bring hope and life to his patients], I knew I wanted to be a clown,” McCaffrey says. “There was a connection.” However, she did not realizing it took training.

Shortly after seeing the movie, she attended her first convention as a spectator, and she was amazed by all the education available for clowns.

“When I was at the convention, I knew I belonged,” McCaffrey says. “I felt at home—I knew I was supposed to be there.”

She wandered into the dealer’s room, where convention attendees could purchase everything from costumes, shoes and makeup to magic tricks and unicycles. “I bought a purple wig, even before I became a clown,” says McCaffrey. “It’s my favorite, favorite purple wig.” She has three purple wigs now.

“There are people to help you in the clown community whenever you need it,” she says. Makeup artist Jim Howell helped McCaffrey create her clown face. She didn’t want a complicated face, but instead, something easy to apply that would capture the character and spirit of her clown persona, Giggles. McCaffrey was pleased with the results—Giggles was too.

McCaffrey decided to attend the 2002 COAI clown convention on the Sunday two days before it started. “I would have been miserable if I didn’t go,” she says.

Since her kids are almost grown, she says, for the first time in her life McCaffrey will soon have free time. She has decided to use this newly found free time as a clown, volunteering in the hospitals working with kids who have cancer. During the convention, McCaffrey took a class called “How to Create a Caring Clown Unit,” offered by Electric City Caring Clowns and taught by clowns Peppermint and Tickles. The class even performed a skit for a senior center in Saratoga Springs.

McCaffrey remembers an embarrassing moment last year, when she performed in a skit for the first time with her alley, New Jersey Comics. Giggles, so named because McCaffrey naturally giggles a lot, let go of a prop at the wrong time and hit herself in the face. “I’m sorry—I’m sorry,” she blurted out, as laughter and applause exploded throughout the room. “They thought it was wonderful,” McCaffrey says. “But it wasn’t part of the act.”

A 14-year veteran clown, Barbara Manrod, from Buffalo, N.Y., understands embarrassing moments during skits. Years ago, while in a skit competition, her clown character’s wig flew off after she was conked on the head with an oversized rubber mallet. Her clown, Piccadilly, went one way and her wig went the other.

Another new clown, Angela Knight, an attorney in her early 30s, traveled from Barbados, West Indies, to learn more about clowning.

“[It’s] my first time seeing so many clowns in makeup and costumes in one place,” she says. “Barbados only has 12 clowns.”

Knight dreamed about becoming a clown for the last five years because it “livened up her spirit”—something she felt she needed as an attorney.

“Clowning frees up my spirit and rekindles my youth in a legitimate, professional way,” Knight says. “The legal profession can box you in—a certain code of conduct is expected. . . . When someone calls you on the phone, there’s a problem. In the morning your spirit is light, by evening it’s not light anymore.”

But after attending a leadership-network seminar in June 2001, Knight says, “I had a dream, and I knew I had to give birth to my dream—hear it, feel it and see it, do it now—I knew I had to do more.” She registered Sunshine Network, the name of her clown business, before creating her clown, Annie. Shortly after, she began searching for a clown partner, and she studied ballet, jazz dance and voice-over to help her prepare for clowning. She found a partner, Mac the clown, and they have been working together ever since.

During the convention, Knight was bursting with newly acquired knowledge: “Already I’ve learned the difference between putting on makeup and making up as a clown,” she says. “Big ideas for costumes and styles of hats, working more with wigs . . . safety issues, clown insurance, how to develop an act for a hospital setting, mental magic, one-liner jokes, competitions and parades.”

Several times during the convention, Knight says she dashed to a nearby Kinko’s to e-mail Mac about what she learned—and all the changes she has planned for Annie and Mac.

“When you go to conventions, you constantly learn,” says Manrod, an award-winning clown. “It’s nice meeting people who are experts in their fields. . . . You take back information to your [clown] alley.”

Janice Harrington, a 24-year old data entry clerk from Rensselaer, is new to clowning. She has been in constant learning mode since she took clown classes at Hudson Valley College last year. Her future brother-in-law told her about what he called “a perfect class for you,” a 12-week, continuing-education class in clowning. Although it was canceled twice before there were enough people to start the class, Harrington was not deterred—she stuck with it.

After taking the clown classes, she joined Electric City Clown Alley to learn more. “Already I’ve learned how to make balloons,” Harrington says. “Everything is practice. You’re not going to be a good clown if you don’t practice—they told us that in school.” She decided to attend the 2002 COAI convention hoping to learn how to put on a routine, grow as a clown, and develop the personality of her clown character, Jangles.

“I needed to know what my clown was capable of. Is she a little-girl clown or just a girl?” Harrington says. “I think I’ve found some of that—she’s childlike, but not a child, not the little girl. She’s a work in progress—a happy clown.”

“I’m like a little kid in a candy store,” Harrington says, referring to the convention. “I didn’t know what I wanted to see first—I don’t go anywhere without my schedule. It’s my bible for this week.”

Overwhelming feelings also swirled in her head for the first few days of the convention. “‘Oh my gosh,’ I thought, ‘What have I gotten myself into?’” she says. “It’s intimidating for me because there are so many seasoned clowns here. I’m meeting the people who were clowns when I was a little girl, 15 years ago, like Mischief and so many others.”

Kent Sheets, from Fort Meyers, Fla., and his clown characters, KA-YO and Krumbs, empathize with Harrington. When he competed in his first group skit at a clown convention some years ago, he went blank and forgot his lines in front of a room full of people. Now, seven years later, Sheets is teaching classes at the convention on mental magic and how to win the prestigious COAI Charlie Award, given to alleys that best observe International Clown Week.

“The convention has given me confidence,” says Harrington. I’m feeling healthier since I came here [to the convention], more energetic. When I return to work next week, I hope I can keep the same attitude—not enough people laugh.”

Clown conventions offer not only a supportive and nurturing atmosphere and a variety of classes, but they also provide competitions, such as the COAI group skit, which Camiller participated in, and the Red Nose Competitions.

Sheets says that competing helps him become a better clown: He learns to perfect his makeup, develop more stage presence and create better skits. Also, the judges give participants notes on their performances.

Camiller agrees that entering competitions is a good thing, even if it is your first convention, as it was for him. He earned third place in individual Red Nose competitions, and the COAI group skit he was a part of earned a third-place prize, too. “I was just thankful that I tried,” he says.

The doors to the COAI convention closed last week and won’t open until next spring in St. Louis. This year’s convention brought together some of the top clown educators in the country, and provided continuing-education programs for attendees, helping them become more complete clowns. A complete clown is not only a trained performer and entertainer, but also someone who understands that “we share from our hearts, as clowns,” says Camiller.

“Clowning is not like acting—in acting you depict a character. When you become a clown, you are the character,” Camiller concludes. “You have to get the joy and love inside your character so you can share it with people. . . . Clowning is all about how to make people have a good feeling about themselves.”


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