Book Review Vol. V – No. 1

The Education of a Clown

The Education of a Clown. Mentors, Audiences and Mistakes.  By David Carlyon   Part of the Palgrace Macmillan series of Studies in Theatre and Performance History.   ISBN: (Hardback) 978-1-137-55481-9

This slim but detailed- packed book charts the author’s path on the road to discovering what it takes to be a successful clown in a circus that plays to vast audiences in huge arenas. It has been produced from an actual journal that the author kept beginning in 1976 when he entered the Ringling Bros. Clown College and continues into his initial term as a clown with Ringling’s touring Blue Unit, which accounts for the fact that it is told with what amounts to almost total recall.  The journey consists of working his way past what he calls the cliches of clowning, struggling to find some affirmation that he had the talent and intelligence to be a good clown.

Clown College laid the groundwork but it was the daily slog through countless performances, some of which came in six-packs on weekends, where the learning actually took place. What Carlyon eventually discovers is that it is the personal touch, somewhat counter intuitively, working small and intimately before trying to expand his connection to larger segments of the audience that accounts for his most successful clowning in this unique environment.  At times his education requires his relying on his experiences in the theatre and as a dancer

In addition to the author there are many other characters who appear in the narrative—members of the clown college class of 1976 and the clown alley of the 1977 Blue Unit of the Ringling circus. One of the obstacles to fully immersing oneself in this tale is that these other people are identified when first introduced with a brief epitaph or description that tends to be forgotten by the time they next appear, and the reader may have forgotten who they are and may not be entirely able, therefore,  to appreciate fully the current anecdote. It would make the journey a lot richer and more meaningful if we could.

It is also helpful to have some acquaintance with the Ringling performers who are most directly involved with the author, people like Charly Baumann, Bill Ballantine, Irvin Feld, Dawnita Bale, and the King Charles Troupe, but any circus fan worth that label should have no problem here and as a result derive an extra bit of pleasure from the new insights gained from their personal interaction with the author.

In addition to the author’s education, other subjects touched on, such as his relationship with the elephant he rode in the specs should prove to be catnip for fans. Along with his professional discovery the author talks about the loneliness and lack of a sex life he experienced as a Ringling clown.

The author’s final discovery is his proclamation that “Whatever else I’d ever do, I would always be a circus clown.”

The book contains an appendix devoted to the history of clowns, a bibliography and an index.