Colossal Clown Turns “The Grand Tour” Into a Circus

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Joel Jeske in The Grand Tour. Production photos by Maike Schulz.

The Grand Tour is what The Big Apple Circus’ new show is called, and it seems wonderfully anarchic and apt. Ambitiously conceived and created by Joel Jeske, and directed by the ever-inventive Mark Lonergan (artistic director of Parallel Exit, the three-time Drama Desk-nominated physical theater troupe), the show transports audiences back nearly 100 years to the Roaring 1920s — which, as any lay historian will tell you, was something of a circus itself. It was — specific to this show– the era in which world travel modernized, with globetrotting at last feasible via ship, plane, train and auto. So, accordingly, there’s talent in The Grand Tour from virtually every corner of the planet — from aerialist Sergey Akimov to ninth-generation circus performer Chiara Anastasini to the Dominguez brothers’ defiance of gravity to the African acrobatics of Zuma Zuma to the Dosov Troupe taking off on the teeterboard.

There are many glories to The Big Apple Circus, but the fact that the audience is never seated more than 50 feet from the stage makes it arguably the most intimate and, if you prefer, intimate circus you’ll see in the U.S. And so the clowns, jugglers, acrobats and aerialists (and assorted ponies and puppies) feel nearly in your lap. All of which is leavened with laughter courtesy of Jeske, one of the most serious clowns in the field.

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Check out just a snippet of his bio:

Joel Jeske…joined Big Apple Circus Clown Care in 2001 as Dr. Yadontsay, and has since then continued work with the BAC, directing two Circus After School programs, performing in Circus To Go and hosting the circus’s 2006-07 Big Top show Step Right Up! With the physical theatre company Parallel Exit, Joel created and starred in Off-Broadway hits This Way That Way and Cut To The Chase, and co-created Room 17B. For the latter two, he was nominated for Drama Desk awards, and he received his third Drama Desk nomination for Parallel Exit’s latest show, Everybody Gets Cake! As a clown, Joel toured and created clown acts for Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus and Cirque du Soleil…

The Grand Tour — representing the 38th season of The Big Apple Circus — runs through Jan. 10 at Lincoln Center. For tickets, click here.

And now, 5 questions Joel Jeske has never been asked:

BAC092315MS_ show_061What’s the most perceptive question anyone has asked you about your work?
When someone is really interested in what it is like to be a clown, I will be asked: “How does your performance change with international or non-English speaking audiences? Do you think laughter is universal?”

What’s the most idiotic question anyone has asked you about your work?
Everyone wants to know the same thing: “How do you fit all those clowns into one little car?”

What’s the weirdest question anyone has asked you about your work?
A mother asked me when I was describing performing in the circus: “You don’t do anything ‘clowny’ do you?”

As someone who understands the mechanics of humor as well as its more ineffable qualities, how would you define “shtick,” “slapstick” and “comedy”? Do most performers get these differences?
“Shtick,” “slapstick” and “comedy” get mixed up by performers and audiences alike. But, with all the confusion, it is remarkable how most people refer to these three things correctly even if they don’t know why. I use all three in every show with the Big Apple Circus, and Big Apple Circus is one of the few places you can see all three still being performed for a live audience.

“Shtick” refers to an individual bit a performer will do to get a laugh. It can be a funny face, a double-take to the audience, an exaggerated reaction, or a goofy way of walking. Performers can do the same “shtick,” but no performer does the same “shtick” the same way. It is very individual and personal depending on a clown/comedian’s style and where they’re performing.

“Slapstick” is a complete style of performance, like a slapstick movie or television show. It is conflict and violence that is played out in an exaggerated way to allow the pain to be viewed at a distance. Distance can be achieved with the use of comic sound effects, speeding up the action, or the performers exaggerated reactions. “Slapstick” is mainly used by clowns and physical comedians.

The term “comedy” today literally refers to anything that makes us laugh. There are many kinds and styles of comedy from the romantic and satirical to stand-up and sketch. No matter how different the styles may be, the goal is always to make an audience laugh.

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When I perform in Big Apple Circus, I will use my own “shtick” in our “slapstick” gags to create our “comedy” for the audience. In my opinion, I think most performers use all three in their work, but I don’t think they use the actual terms for what they are doing. Many actors and comedians mimic a mannerism or impersonate something they have seen in order to get a laugh. To them, they are simply being funny and don’t worry about the terminology that defines it.

BAC092315MS_ show_049Whether in traditional theater or The Big Apple Circus funhouse, what are the barriers to winning over audiences and really making them laugh? In performance, are you always sure you’re going about it the right way? Is there a thrill in not always being sure if an audience will respond?
The most important thing to me and all the performers working in The Big Apple Circus is getting to know the audience. Once you have made a personal connection with the audience, they understand who you are and what you are doing. They laugh because they know you and that lets them empathize with you as a character or performer. This doesn’t mean you have to be a nice or happy character all the time. A performer can connect with an audience by being the opposite. My character in Big Apple Circus, Mr. Joel, is vain and conceited. I play an arrogant character because I want the audience to love it when I am the butt of the joke. Whatever a performer’s approach, you have to find the thing that the audience will identify with to get them to laugh.

Any barriers that exist, in my opinion, are the responsibility of both performer and audience. The decision to laugh is the audience’s responsibility. They have to be in the proper frame of mind. If an audience isn’t in the mood, they will rarely respond. When getting laughs, on the performer’s side, sometimes the focus is on the result rather than the process. If the performer focuses too much on themselves and the need to get the laugh from the audience, they won’t be paying attention to where the audience is at that moment. The material will be performed without any connection and be met with confusion, silence, or indifference.

At The Big Apple Circus, I use many different ways to make a connection with an audience to insure a laugh. Not all audiences or performances are alike. There are times in the ring I feel I can do no wrong and I’m everyone’s best friend. There are other times I can’t get through the act fast enough. A clown’s craft comes in when you try to make the performance as consistent and successful as possible every single time. We believe every audience deserves our best performance. Time in rehearsal and experience in the ring give all of us the tools to work any situation in front of any audience to get them to laugh, cheer and enjoy themselves.

I love running out into the ring with material that has not been tested and is brand new. It is completely thrilling and a pure leap of faith. Your hope that it is going to work is only based on your instinct about what is funny. What might work in your mind in theory could bomb in front of the audience. In those instances, you are really relying on your experience to know what to do in any situation. The great thing about Big Apple Circus is the personal side of the show. We get the audience on our side regardless of the situation. If the new material works, we stick to the plan. If it isn’t working, we give ourselves enough wiggle room to get through the material and still create a successful act for the audience. We will do comic takes for sympathy or give an unscripted comment or two to the audience that is close by.

Why do some people hate clowns?
People are scared of clowns for several reasons: First, because it is popular. They see a clown in a horror movie or a Halloween haunted house and they are scared for the moment. When they then see a clown at a circus or public event, they don’t want to be bothered, so they simply say they are afraid of clowns to be left alone and not embarrassed.

Second, if they really have a fear of clowns — or coulrophobia — their reaction comes from confusion rather than actual fear. Clowns with heavy makeup are concealing their features. As human beings, we look to a person’s facial features to determine whether or not they will be a threat. We literally read their face to see if they are friend or foe. When true facial features are concealed, our brain gets confused and immediately jumps to the conclusion that the person is a threat. The same people who fear clowns have also been known to have a fear people in masks and manikins.

Third, clowns can be loud and unpredictable. Due to the size of the American circus in the past, clown gags have became living cartoons in an attempt to reach arena-size audiences. Loud noises, blaring, fast-paced music, and surreal gags quickly overwhelm any audience member new to the circus. An unexpected noise that frightens a child or an adult is quickly associated with the performer, not the thing that actually frightened them. As time passes, they simply associate clowns with the experience that scared them in the past.

Being a clown in the Big Apple Circus, or working for our community outreach program, Big Apple Circus Clown Care, our focus is on our audience and the children we visit in the hospital. We don’t need the heavy makeup or the big props. Our performance is intimate and personal. The laughs we elicit come from the time we have taken to get to know the families and our audience. Our makeup is simple. It called “clown-lite.” It brings out more of who we really are. We want our audiences to know us as people and not hide behind an exaggerated character. Our humor ranges from the silly to the sophisticated. We perform for children and adults. We listen to our audiences first and perform to them as people. I am proud to say that many people who claim to not like clowns and fear them have shared with me that they love Big Apple Circus clowns and the clown doctors of Clown Care.