Barry Lubin Takes Grandma on a World-Wide Tour
Since leaving the Big Apple Circus Barry Lubin has been performing all over the world, introducing new audiences to his clown character Grandma. He is about to takes her to a new and unique venue. In preparation for that he spoke with Spectacle via email, answering questions posed by the editor.
Photos by Paul Gutheil
At this stage of your career, with steady work no longer guaranteed from a single source, what is involved in staying steadily employed, finding and booking gigs, getting invited to European festivals? Do you work as your own agent? What do you have to do to make that all happen?
I am freelancing in the USA and act as my own agent here. I have found at this stage of my career that I am able to create work for myself, meaning I have been able to work with local arts organizations all over the US to provide workshops, mentoring, and performances. My credits seem to open a lot of doors at this point. I also take various circus bookings offered in the US and act as my own agent, since I understand the economics and enjoy negotiating. I also do not price myself out of anyone’s budget, partly because I know the sky is not the limit with circus budgets, and partly because I love the work.
Interestingly, there are some who, I have come to understand, will not even contact me because they assume I am too expensive. Frankly, I believe my prices are more than fair, and I am undaunted by the number of shows being proposed, nor the number of appearances in each show. I am generally contacted by producers who either have worked with me before or know me by reputation. Email is one way I am connected to that world,” the old school email: firstname.lastname@example.org. I do not advertise in any location for work, so it is almost 100% word of mouth. I really don’t send my pictures or resume or videos to anyone in advance looking for work. Once contacted, I refer them to my video links on www.BarryLubin.com, on www.circopedia.org/Barry_Lubin, or just good old www.youtube.com if they search Barry Lubin.
In Europe and Asia I have several agents who contact me for circus, theater, and festival work. It is far easier for me to work with agents in markets I do not know very well in terms of price, arrangements, travel, and artistic questions. It is well worth paying commission for those services. More and more, in both the US and abroad, Facebook messaging is the way I am contacted.
Since we are doing this interview via email, and we can’t meet face to face, where in the world are you now and what are you doing there?
I have been working all over the world recently, and just returned from China where I acted as an agent for two world class acts at the Third China International Circus Festival in Zhuhai. The year before I performed at this festival and was asked to recommend acts and clowns for the festival to be staged in 2016. I accepted under the condition that they hire me as a consultant. Instead they suggested that I act as an agent for whomever I recommended. I submitted a total of 12 acts and clowns, and they accepted two. One was a Polish aerial hoop artist, Aleksandra Kiedrowicz who had just won Poland’s Got Talent, and the other was a Cuban act on Chinese Pole who won Silver at Monte Carlo, Leosvel and Diosmani. The job requirements included all communications with the producers of the festival regarding technical and artistic needs, prop transportation, applications for working visas, travel planning, staging, rehearsals, providing video and high resolution photos, and many other small details. I earned 10% for this work, and perhaps the best thing I learned was how to make something this complicated successfully happen while pleasing a difficult government and circus organization in China. Who knows if this expertise will ever come in handy again, but if they ask again I will accept. I enjoyed dealing with the artists, and was happy with the results. They showed great professionalism and really shined on the world stage. I also noted that people certainly viewed me differently as an agent than as a clown. Though I really do not plan to pursue being a circus/variety agent, a number of people asked me to represent them, or expressed that they wished that I had represented them for this festival.
Agenting was an eye opening experience. I am not sure I would want to do it again, but there is a certain expertise I gained in dealing with the various issues of working in China. Presently I am working in a winter circus in Europe, and happily so. Forgive me for saying, but I am not a big fan of the holidays and the best gift throughout my career, to the world and to myself, is to perform during this period. My next work will be performing, mentoring, directing, and teaching in San Francisco, with an itty bitty trip in between to Antarctica. (More on that later.)
What are the various venues you have been working in since leaving the Big Apple Circus?
I have done freelance clown work for the most part, including Shrine Circus dates, independent circus dates in the US and around the world, clown theater shows in ensemble and solo form, and much more directing, teaching and mentoring of various clown and variety artists in the US. I continue to write in the hopes that one day I will land on Broadway with a project of my own, but who knows how that will go.
What differences have you found between working abroad and in US?
The perception is that circus overseas is healthier than in the US and I believe that perception is changing. There are many successful touring shows in Europe, but more successful in my view are the shows which have specialized shorter seasons, especially winter circus. The great work in Europe for many clowns and variety artists are the government and corporate sponsored spring to fall outdoor variety festivals. Those often pay very well, and part of the enjoyment for me is the gathering of artists from all over the world to perform in these festivals. I was able to catch Bello Nock in early November in a winter circus in Lille, France and learned that it is a law in France, or at least a requirement, that companies of a certain size must provide a holiday gift of some sort to the employees and their families, which can be show tickets. Many such companies in France choose to give circus tickets, and this tends to fill seats quite well to everyone’s advantage and pleasure. The shorter runs and winter circuses are flourishing all over Europe, as are the sponsored outdoor festivals in spring and summer. I work in a festival in Germany every year which is sponsored by Duckstein Beer. Believe it or not, artists often judge the quality of a festival in small part by the quality of the breakfast at the hotel.
The outdoor festivals generally occur on multiple stages, sometimes spread throughout a park, or throughout a town or village, almost always out in the open, with technical people assigned to each stage. Rain or shine, the producers and sponsors hope to keep performances going for sometimes tens of thousands of locals and tourists who come just for the vast variety of entertainment offered. Audiences are generally fantastic in these festivals, especially in Germany and Austria. There are many artists in Europe who perform in these festivals from May to September and make an entire year’s worth of income from these appearances.
Usually the outdoor festival performances are 20 to 30 minutes long, and I started doing these in Germany in 2008. I chose to go solo because of the economics. I simply chose not to split the money, and put together several bits which I originated at Big Apple Circus or from Ringling or Hanneford days. Essentially I would walk through the audience to start, helped up onto the raised stage by audience members, popcorn bits, lip synchs, treadmill, horn act, hula hoop act, ending with something like my lip synch with audience to the song “Unforgettable.” The shows are silent but I do have a technician to run sound cues and a microphone on microphone stand to make odd noises into. The shows are generally scheduled once every hour to an hour and a half, three times per day. The audiences usually have a schedule and run from show to show during the day trying to choose which acts to see. I am Grandma from New York, so I suppose the New York aspect is a draw. The audiences are usually very good, often great.
How is clowning received outside the US, in particular relative to your character Grandma?
I realized years ago that Grandma is an international character. By that I mean that Grandma has been able to work well in markets everywhere. She doesn’t speak, so there is no language barrier, and little old ladies do tend to be loved by their families, and perhaps that is who I represent to audiences. The significant difference to this acceptance was oddly in Taiwan where the audiences never reacted even slightly to my doing a headstand on a whoopee cushion. Everything else seemed to work, but I found this to be amusing, even if they didn’t.
Any thoughts on retiring?
I can’t afford to retire or die, I like to say, but the fact is that I don’t want to retire. I love what I do more than ever, and this work helps me fight my age by staying active. I am 64 but surely don’t feel 64. After doing the treadmill act sometimes I feel like 164. I am teaching and directing more and more and perhaps all this touring this year will satisfy my wanderlust, but I tend to doubt it. I am a self-described adrenaline junkie and that requires remaining active, on the move, with an eye on the next adventure. Next stop. Ushuaia, Argentina, my port of embarkation for the voyage of a lifetime. Destination: Antarctica.
What are your plans for the Antartic adventure? How did it come about?
I am still fundraising for this planned expedition. https://www.generosity.com/celebration-fundraising/1st-clown-in-history-to-perform-on-7-continents
My hope is to raise enough to be able to go and perhaps using social media isn’t enough. I have to find a way to reach my fanbase in New York and Boston and other markets without it costing me enormously. It isn’t like I can take out an ad in the New York Times. My plan is to arrive in Argentina a few days before the voyage begins on January 8 and to perform during one of the 4 or 5 landings on the Antarctic Peninsula. It might consist of taking off my winter coat and doing a little bit or two in front of my fellow expeditioners from the ship, and my dream is to have a photo as Grandma taken performing in front of a colony of penguins. The idea came about once I had performed in South America and Africa during my Fall 2012 Semester at Sea voyage, where I taught aboard a ship as we traveled from the US to Europe to Africa to South America and back to the US. Semester at Sea is literally a university at sea program, and I was Artist in Residence during that fall semester, teaching The Unique Genre of Physical Comedy. Once I had performed on six of the seven continents, I found myself interested in doing a show in Antarctica as an attempt to become the first professional clown to perform on all seven continents in history. It isn’t a world record so to speak, just a world first.
What are your thoughts about what has happened to the Big Apple?
My belief is that Big Apple Circus was in a position where it had to go out of business in order to possibly come back to life as a world class circus. Crushing debt not only impeded various aspects of business, it hung over the heads of all the employees and even potential cast members who had always wanted to work with BAC. It is hard to put together great shows with that business mentality I believe, and it must have been difficult that past few years for the employees working there to worry that the bottom might drop out at any time. I am guessing there was some donor fatigue, as well, which must have made the not for profit state of the art even more difficult. How many times can you ask people for money? My belief is also that the circus wasn’t able to roll with the punches of the economic downturn and the outside forces which made the viability of future productions more difficult, like weather related events and the Boston Marathon bombings. If the company reforms, it will be in streamlined form or the troubles of the past incarnation of the company return and quickly. The future Big Apple Circus productions will probably not look like previous ones, for better or worse, and I would hope that the public embraces the new Big Apple Circus just as it did in the past. I personally hear all the time about how heartbroken fans are that the show is not up and running this year. We shall see.
Let’s talk a bit about the art of clowning and your approach to it. Since it is impossible to silence the voice inside our head that keeps talking to us, when you are dressed and working as Grandma, whose voice are you hearing, Barry’s or Grandma’s?
During performances there is something inexplicable that happens. It isn’t forced, nor is it false. There is a sense of play which is layered on top of my own personality. There is an intention to make people laugh but it isn’t something I think about. There is an imperceptible change inside me to a quiet sort of concentration. And accompanying all of this, my love comes to the forefront. Grandma loves the audience, and that love leads me to a creative place so that I am able to turn in a performance. The voice of Grandma is what you, the audience experiences. That voice is mine.
I was inducted this past summer into the International Circus Hall of Fame, the only inductee of 2016, and it surely is a great honor. The induction ceremonies and banquet were held at the River View Funeral Home and Event Center in Peru, Indiana. I mean, I have died plenty of times in my career, but this takes dying to a new and very convenient level. The building formerly housed a bowling alley, and dinner was served, buffet style on a bowling lane mounted on legs. I had the spare ribs. My speech included such memorable moments as, “Thank you for voting me into the International Hall of Fame for 2016. I am just curious, show of hands, how many of you voted against me?” And having observed a priest, an 8 year old kid, and the Mayor of Peru in attendance I started with this: “Ladies and gentlemen, as I look around the room this evening, I realize I can’t really start off with the joke I wanted to tell. But I will give you the set-up line. A priest, a Mayor, and an 8 year old boy walk into a bar.” At the conclusion of my speech, I received a 5 minute standing ovation. That was mostly because it took those in attendance that long to stand up.
The truth is, I am incredibly proud to be the most recent inductee into the International Circus Hall of Fame.