- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 28, 2001

The instructors of an impromptu seminar at Duke Ellington School of the Arts in Georgetown last week looked sort of funny. They acted funny, too.
They told the students to be just like them, at least for an hour or two.
How else would you expect the worlds most renowned clowns to comport themselves?
A sextet of clowns from Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus came to the performing-arts school to share some tricks of the trade and some slapstick with a gaggle of theatrically minded students.
The baggy-pants set met the floppy-shoed clowns and found each group had its own humorous gifts to share.
Gag for gag, the students gave as good as they got.
"Its not subtle film acting. Were painting with broad paint strokes," said David Solove, the boss clown and, at 32, the oldest of the six. "We cant depend on our voices, so our movements must be broad."

Dressed in circus regalia, greasepaint gleaming from their painted-on grins, the clowns showcased their improvisational flair with a receptive audience in the schools gymnasium.
The famed circus is performing around the metro area through April 22.
The clowns led students in a series of exercises to test their physical ingenuity. First, the clowns assumed a number of emotions based on a single directive. Be happy, one clown told his comrades, and they all contorted their bodies to project their glee.
The performers spoke volumes without saying a word.
"Theres a misconception that the makeup is a mask and hides what youre feeling," Mr. Solove told the crowd. His plum-colored hair matched his purple vest and breeches.
Then, it was the students turn to act up. They didnt disappoint. The theatrics-heavy crowd flailed their limbs about with little reservation and did as they were told.
They coiled their bodies and hoisted their eyebrows to their limits while their friends howled approvingly. Even the gags that fell flat drew genial support. This crowd had felt the sting of a dead-on-arrival punch line.
Soon the students were mugging as unmercifully as their mentors.
A few students found it hard to let themselves go, crossing their arms and attempting but a few outlandish gestures. The rest looked as if they could step inside the big tent the next day and make children smile.
The next lesson, "What Its Not," involved turning ordinary objects, such as a hat and a length of hollow plastic tubing, into anything but.
Volunteers bounded from the crowd, turning the tube into a divers air valve, among other novel uses.
Another routine had them pretending to watch a movie, reacting to the imaginary comedy and drama unfurling on the make-believe screen.
Student Jake Minkoff, 17, said the lesson helped his fellow thespians feed off of one anothers comic spark, a key component to live performing, whether comedy or drama.
"I think there are a lot of people here who have a lot of spontaneous energy," Jake said. Onstage, fellow actors "transfer the energy to you" during ensemble bits, he added.
That kind of sincere enthusiasm is crucial for actors repeating the same lines every night during the run of a production.
"You know the end of the play, but you need to be surprised," he said.
The clowns wrapped their performance with a fittingly unconventional fashion show.
Aqua-and-purple matador outfits. Uncle Sam suits gone nuclear. All were painstakingly sewn by a team of circus tailors.
The clowns strutted and slinked their way across the gymnasium floor, full of puffed-up pomposity.
A blunt question-and-answer session capped the afternoon, revealing the students unfettered curiosity about circus life.
The clowns shared their backgrounds and spoke of the grueling lives they lead. The workers become a de facto family as they cruise from town to town, they said.
The boisterous students hushed as the answers came forth.
All six clowns attended Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus clown college in Florida, which closed in 1997.
They even shared some fashion secrets. Their oversize shoes are custom-made, cost about $250 and are more comfortable than any other shoes they have despite their bulk.

Clowns dont make a fortune, but the professions unique rewards more than compensate for any deflated visions of economic gold, the clowns said. They do their own makeup, write their material and frequently visit area hospitals to brighten patients lives.
They spend 50 weeks on the road, working up to six days a week. A Saturday might find them pratfalling for three separate crowds.
Amelia Workman, 15, said she wouldnt mind the life of a clown, if only for a year or two.
"They were very inspirational no one fell asleep," Amelia said of the guest instructors.
The sessions should provide the students with an advantage when its time to compete on a national scale. "Later on, when we go to improv meets, everybody has to pay their dues," Amelia said.
Clowns inspire more than laughter in some young audiences.
"As a child, I was scared of clowns," recalled 16-year-old Melody Goode.
She used to find it just as frightening to perform in front of an audience. Now it comes naturally to her, much as it does to the six clowns, who perform shtick even when off-stage.
"Now its easy for me to go up there and work with them," Melody said. Much harder, though, is making millions laugh without saying a word.
"I never thought it was easy to be a clown," she said.
For Ahjah Dixon, 14, the visit provided a glimpse of a life she said she wouldnt mind leading.
"When I came here, I realized I wanted to be a clown," she said. "Its very hard to do but you dont have any lines to remember."
Even if her dreams arent filled with red noses and floppy feet, the improvisational skills gathered along the way will serve her well.
Clown acting "makes you open for different kinds of theater," she said.
Jake said the clowns visit provided a realistic glimpse of a side of performing his peers may not have considered.
"Its what we needed," he said. "Its funny and uplifting at the same time."


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