With the recent announcement that The Big Apple Circus will be ending public performances, circus lovers might be worried about where to get their clown fix. No need to worry: the DC-area is home to an array of accomplished clowns, mimes, and physical theatre companies.
Local theater artist Elena Day is likely DC’s most famous clown. Currently working with the world-renowned Cirque du Soleil, Day is recognized for creating one of the Cirque’s signature characters: the Green Bird from La Nouba. When she’s not on tour, Day performs and teaches for local companies including The Studio Theatre Conservatory and The Wolf Trap Institute for Early Learning through the Arts.
Day believes clowning has a universal appeal. “Perhaps this is because the style is often based in physical comedy and situations, specifically involving failure,” she said. “We can all relate to these situations that involve failure and overcoming that failure…. People need to laugh [a]nd the quality of laughter that clowning evokes is emotionally connected.”
Local theater artist Matthew Pauli founded DC’s Clown Cabaret in 2010 with fellow performers Karen Beriss and Rich Potter. The mission of Clown Cabaret is to teach audiences about clowning and to provide clowns a space to practice their craft. The company hosts monthly shows at the Fringe Arts Space that are an opportunity to catch new acts.
“We really want to put as many different styles of clowning out in front of people as we can,” Pauli said. “We occasionally teach classes, but mostly, we let the variety of performers who come to us with their material carry the message.”
Several local theater companies, including Happenstance Theatre and Faction of Fools, have made serious artworks integrating the traditional clowning form Commedia dell‘Arte. Using Commedia dell‘Arte, actors improvise based on established character types signified by masks.
Faction of Fools associate artist Annetta Sawyer first encountered Commedia far from her current home in DC, growing up in Italy. “My cousins would perform the Commedia characters for us,” she said. “I’ll always recall how my neighbor laughed out loud during a school play and I realized – I could make people laugh!”
Sawyer says that the relationship between the audience and the clown performer is key: “[W]hen the audience responds – it’s great! We conspire together! There’s so much room for so many feelings in clowning.”
While the news of The Big Apple Circus folding its tent heralds change, local performers like Elena Day, Annetta Sawyer, and Matthew Pauli aren’t discouraged.
“This work will never die,” Sawyer said, “There’s too much wrong with the world. At least laughter is somewhat of an antidote.” Pauli agrees. “I may sound a bit hokey when I talk about this,” he said. “[B]ut I really do believe that there is something wonderful about the connection that clowning can create between people.”
Pauli also insists that clowning is more prevalent in popular culture than audiences realize: “There are people who say that they hate clowns but love Will Ferrell. Ferrell is a clown, plain and simple. He just doesn’t wear the circus makeup.”
Day added, “It’s hard to run a circus company in America [because] we don’t have the governmental support other countries have. [The closing of The Big Apple Circus] is a big loss for the audience, and all the folks who’ve worked on or in a Big Apple show.”