Feature Article Vol. VIII, No. 7

Steve and Ryan Confront a Creative Crisis

“I can’t do this anymore.”

This startling announcement was delivered by a fed up Ryan Combs. It was aimed at his long-time partner Steve Copeland shortly after they had finished a performance of their much admired clown act on Circo Hermanos Vasquez.  “I don’t want to be a clown anymore,” he continued.  “I find it incredibly limiting.”

“We could only be as good as that archetype that was in Steve’s head,” Ryan explains now.

That statement prompted a major turning point in their joint career. “I said let’s go street perform,” Ryan continued.  “Then we will have to listen to the audience.” It was at that point that Scotty O’Donnell, executive director of Circus World Museum and Dave Saloutos his ringmaster offered them a little clown show that was the perfect set up in which to try out new material that they would not do on the circus.  Ryan and Steve jumped at the chance, and their show was bought sight unseen.  “That was our opportunity to try creating something unique to us, and that’s what we did there.”

The two had met when they were both on Ringling in 2003, and they began working exclusively as a duo in the summer of 2008. They have now been together professionally roughly 10 years.  But the scene related above was not the first time Ryan had had a creative crash landing.  After having spent his entire life dreaming about being a Ringling clown, it didn’t take long for the reality to disillusion him.  His creativity was constantly being thwarted. “I got sick of being on Ringling,” he says, “so I left and did my own thing for a bit.”  This included being a salesman at a Walmart.  Eventually Steve also got sick of Ringling as well and tried freelancing.  After getting a job clowning in a Myrtle Beach show, he called Steve and told him to apply for a job in the same venue. Once they began working together Ryan broached the subject of forming a team and working together.

There was never any serious discussion about how they would do that. They simply agreed to share anything they earned fifty fifty. Steve explains that their natural abilities dictated who would do what in the partnership.  “Ryan is much more handy and much more artistic and I know how to use a computer,” he explains, “so I got the business side of things. I negotiate our contracts and I am the one who searches for work and reminds agents that we’re out there.”

So far there has never been any problems between them like those dramatized in Neil Simon’s play The Sunshine Boys. However, Ryan points out, “We are two people who spend a lot of time together so obviously we get on each other’s nerves at times. And as similar as we are in many respects we also have many differences.”  But they don’t let those things become big issues.  What keeps them together mostly is that “We are similar in what we find funny.”

Despite his life-long ambition to be a clown Ryan confesses that he has always had a nagging desire to work not dressed as a clown. However, when they started with Kelly Miller they decided that they were going to have wigs and big noses and clown shoes and “all that kind of stuff.  Because there weren’t many clowns doing that anymore.  Most people were edging toward lighter makeup and not much use of  wigs.   So we wanted something that would stand out bigtime. So that’s what we did, and besides it looks good in pictures.”   Ironically, Steve points out, their images were put on posters, and the trucks for Kelly Miller and the advertising for Vasquez.

“We are on posters for circuses all over the world,” Ryan adds. Many of which we have never worked for or received any royalties or payment from.”

As they worked together it didn’t take long for Ryan to say, “Okay we did that. Now I want to do something different.  I wanted to lose the clown makeup because I felt that when a clown comes out the audience already has a preconceived idea of what they are going to see, so it’s hard to surprise them.  Or they may have already decided they don’t like clowns.  So I said let’s just be ourselves and there won’t be that stigma of being clowns.  Here [at the Big E]they call us comedians, by the way, but we are not comedians.  We are still clowns we are just not wearing makeup.  We’re doing all the same things that clowns do.”

“And we still get recognized as clowns,” Steve says, “With these costumes [extravagantly checkered pants and wing tip shoes] or even tuxedos we are recognized as clowns. A character should be recognized by how they behave, not just how they look.”

But there was more to their change than dropping the makeup and clown shoes. Steve remembers that during their recent engagement in Paris [we’ll get around to that later] “we realized that for a long time it was Ryan who was the straight man, and I was the idiot.  Suddenly we discovered that that felt very unnatural for us.  We perform better with me as the straight man and Ryan as the idiot.”

“But,” Ryan is quick to point out to Steve, “you didn’t grow up wanting to do that.” Steve agrees. “I grew up wanting to be a Ringling Bros. clown and that is what I studied and strove to be.  It took me a long time to break beyond those parameters and perform more naturally and just be funny.”

“In real life people are not just one way,” Ryan adds. “For instance, Steve, in real life, is  smart, witty, and wants to do the right thing all the time and not offend anybody.”  Steve picks up the narrative.  “I don’t want to be noticed.  I just want to go in and do my thing, and I don’t want people to think I am dumb, or inept or strange.”

“But,” Ryan adds, “from working with him I’ve seen that he seems to have no spatial awareness, no ability to see how shapes fit together or how things go together in a logical order.” “So,” Steve says, “I was playing on that when we first started.”

“When I joined Ringling,” Ryan recalls, “all the clowns were playing goofy and dumb. So I figured if I want to work I better change what I am doing and become the straight man.  So we worked that way for a long time, but we played characters.  And we did routines that were set, and we worked very hard on them. We choreographed them so that they did not alter from performance to performance.  The acts were so set I got fed up with that and that’s why I said I can’t do that anymore.  I was tired of working like a robot.  If the audience laughed at us they laughed because we were lucky.  They happened to find what we were presenting funny.  But if they didn’t think it was funny, they wouldn’t laugh.  We had no wiggle room to change because the act was the act.”

“Someone once told us,” Steve points out, “that we don’t allow ourselves time to be funny. Greg Desanto told us that we were technically perfect. But that didn’t mean we were necessarily funny.”

“It meant,” Ryan explains, “you hit a pose, and then you run to the next spot and pick up the prop. It was like a machine.”

Of the present incarnation of their act, Steve says, “now we are behaving more natural and like ourselves. We are not playing characters, but going for being entertaining and adapting to each individual audiences needs and being more open to what’s going to happen.  Before if I was supposed to throw a hammer at Ryan and hit him in the head, and I missed, I would get angry at myself.  Now if that happens, and I miss we find a funny way to get out of it and that’s what clowning really is.  Now I can go out and be open and try to have fun.  And make people laugh.  Before I was puttying so much pressure on myself to be technically perfect.  The idea before was to be like the clowns on Ringling.  All that involved was posing, hiding behind makeup and costumes and props and not really opening yourself up to an audience and being able to accept what they are giving you and giving something back.  You are never vulnerable so you can never progress.  You were on a stop watch.  How good a clown you were on Ringling had nothing to do with the ability to make people laugh or entertainment people.”

“In the past when we would creating new material,” Ryan says, “I would write it up and draw pictures. We would always lean toward acts that were heavy with props.  Ringling-like gags.  It was like the props did the work for you, and you knew it would get a laugh.  When I centered on just us, about two people being funny together, in a funny situation and having to react to that, Steve would shy away from that.  Now it’s just the opposite.”

So the question became how to get Steve to come around to this new way of approaching the team’s comedy. Mainly he recognized how unhappy his partner was.  “He was just fed up,” Steve says. “even though we had begun doing our own show, it still got to the point of being routine on my end. We had mics so I had a little room to improvise verbally.  I do better verbally than improvising physically.

“He’s good at words and uses them to be funny,” Ryan interjects

By the end of their second summer at Circus World “Ryan was kind of at the end of his rope, and even though he had said it many times before, this time it finally clicked with me.  Every show was the same, and that idea just flipped a switch in my brain, and I was able to perform more in line with what we do now and I got better and better as time went on.”

Ryan butts in again “Together we did that.”

“Ryan was always afraid of hurting my feelings,” Steve acknowledges. “Finally it got to the point where he said,  ‘You’re not being funny.’  Yes, it hurt a little bit,  but it got us better in leaps and bounds faster.  After eight years of working together there was a noticeable difference in a short period of time in the audience response and the way we felt about working together.”

The creative crisis had passed.

“Now that we have this new way of working,” Ryan says, “it doesn’t matter what we go out and do, we are not selling gags.  What we are selling is friendship and fun.  And when people look at us that is what they see.” Steve adds. “We enjoy being together and we remind people of what it’s like hanging out with friends whose company you enjoy.  Sometime it takes me hearing something over and over again before I get it.”

“Killing Time,” the second piece the team performed at the Big E recently was pure musical comedy.  Ryan agrees: “Steve has always fancied himself a singer and a musical theater buff.  So one night I couldn’t sleep and at four in the morning I thought about the idea of having to kill time in a show (I had earlier watched the musical Chicago and there is a part in it where the lawyer does a metaphoric dance.  It was very creative.)  What would we do if we had to kill time?  Tap dance.  We could have a platform to work on.  And we could sing about killing time, and then we could play our trumpets and juggle.  So I sat down and wrote the structure, and I said let’s not dance before we play the trumpets because we might be out of breath.  And then we could juggle and have a kick line with blow-up dolls, a chorus of blow-up dolls.”

Eventually they gave the idea to their friend and composer Larry Lees, with whom Steve and Ryan have previously collaborated on special material. Besides being musically creative Lees also has a great sense of humor. He asked for a list of jokes which he would fit into the song.

Lees is a member of an entire team of creative friends who support Steve and Ryan. Josh Shack directed their show Nothing but Nonsense. He and Ryan met when they were both on Circus Smirkus.  There is, in fact. a whole force of people the partners are lucky to have working to help them look good.

Before fulfilling an engagement at the Big E Steve and Ryan enjoyed an extended run with the annual show at Paris’ prestigious Cirque d’ Hiver. That came about when the they were working on Circo Hermanos Vasquez.  That show was directed by Joseph Bouglione, who is also the director of the Cirque d’Hiver show.  Impressed by their work, he invited Steve and Ryan to join the cast of his coming production in Paris.

In Paris they worked much as they had on Kelly Miller but without makeup. They also performed a short musical excerpt from their Nothing but Nonsense show.  Their work there was one of the best professional experiences they have ever had as clowns.  “It was the best show for clowns,” Ryan says, “In other shows I always felt that we were on the lowest rung of the social ladder. In Paris we were treated with the same courtesy as every other artist.  And they didn’t tell us how to do our act.  There was nothing like that.  We improvised every show.  That’s how we gave our audiences the best show we could.”

As to that improvising, Ryan adds, “Every time we step into the ring we are working on improving, and it’s always changing according to the venue. That’s how you learn.  It’s the fun part for me.  I love the process.”

That first appearance in Europe has led to another job this coming winter, the Wereld Kerst Circus or World Christmas Circus at the renowned Royal Theatre Carre, Amsterdam. They are also talking about Stuttgard for the Christmas season in 2021.

But it hasn’t all come easily. “We were not encouraged in the beginning,” Ryan remembers. “We were told there could be no production gags on a mud show.  All the clowns in Kelly Miller before us worked on the ring curb filling in during a rigging change. It was that way at Vasquez, too, in beginning.”

“It’s kind of amazing what two kids who are not from a circus background have accomplished,” Steve observes. For their next trick they are looking at other hobbies.  Ryan who is now 33 is looking at animation, a talent for which he has demonstrated in the story boards he has created for the team’s various acts.  “It is my new thing,” he says.  “The best books on clowning are about animation.  We are getting older.  If we draw ourselves we can continue.  A pencil line costs a lot less to produce.”  Meanwhile Steve, a year older, is into comedy writing, the verbal part of the act that has always been his specialty.  So we can expect to hear more from Steve and Ryan.