In the Tradition of Laurel and Hardy,
Tom Dougherty Takes a Partner
Tom bring us up to date with his career in a conversation at the Monte Carlo International Festival of Circus
For over thirty years Tom Dougherty was a solo clown. After graduating from Ringling’s Clown College, his earliest professional clowning was accomplished in an early stint with the Blue Unit, followed by another with the Big Apple Circus and then two engagements with Ringling’s Gold Unit and finally, back to the big show in 2008 in a production called Over the Top in which he was featured and when everything changed. Also in the cast of that show were a pair of diminutive clowns billed as Pepe (Silva Rodriguez) and Royo (Eric Sanchez). According to the show’s loosely knit plot Pepe and Royo were the assistants to the ringmaster Chuck Wagner, and whenever Tom managed to get his hands on the ringmaster’s top hat, he would bring on the silly acts. Pepe and Royo would then try to steal it away from him and give it back to Chuck who would then bring on the serious acts.
That all worked fine until the middle of the tour when Royo suddenly quit, leaving something of a hole in the plotting that somehow had to be fixed. In an act of self-preservation, Tom and Pepe put their heads together to figure how to make it work with one less character. In talking together the two seemingly disparate clowns realized that they actually had a lot in common: a similar approach and love of clowning and comedy, which Tom points out, is “mostly Laurel and Hardy,” which they both love.
By the end of the tour, it was becoming clear that management was changing the direction Ringling was about to go, and there would be no lead clown spot anymore. Necessity was about to spawn invention. “As we wondered about what to do next,” Tom recalls. “Pepe proposed the idea of a partnership.”
Tom recalls thinking that although he had already done solo clowning for so long and had done a lot in that field, there was still more he could do artistically within a partnership. As it turned out Pepe was booked into a prestigious festival in Spain that introduced new talent that hadn’t been seen in Europe before. Since that description fi the new partnership perfectly, they took the spot as a duo, and thus began a period of experimentation, exploration and discovery that continues to this day.
Pepe began his career in the circus with what was the first social circus in the world, Los Muchachos, founded by a Spanish priest. He eventually attended the Fratellini school in France as a wire walker and worked with both Annie Fratellini and Pierre Etaix learning the circus business from the ground up. That experience, he says had a profound effect on him, bringing him to a deep understanding and appreciation of the collaborative nature of circus.
What makes this new partnership work is that they share a lot of ideas about comedy, and especially they share a love of the clown despite coming from two different worlds and having different ways of seeing things. “It has taken a little time to find ourselves as a partnership,” Tom readily admits. Five years into their collaboration, it’s still an ongoing process of finding their synchronicity. “We have the same heart and love,” they agree, “but we come from different approaches and how to do the comedy.”
In the beginning they took all of Tom’s routines that he had developed with Ringling, the music routine, the baby routine and struggled to make them into duo routines. “At first it was like using training wheels, but then we found our connections, and we started to develop some new material,” Tom explains. The music routine, for instance, became very different from what it had been as a solo routine. “It truly became a duo routine. Now we have new material that we are developing that comes from us as a team.”
Following their debut in Spain the new duo received a contract for a full season with the French circus Artlette Gruss, a period Tom describes as one of “groping” to find their way. Pepe had often worked with a partner before teaming up with Tom, whom he regards as a master clown, but of the experience he says, “I learned a lot from the process. It took time to find our way,” but slowly they came to a working relationship that Pepe refers to as “making songs.”
For Tom the experience was a bit more difficult. “As a solo clown,” he explains, “you have a very different kind of focus which is just you and your relationship with the audience. It’s just that direct. With a partner you have a relationship with your partner and also with the audience. So it’s definitely an adjustment because my instincts were developed from thirty years of doing solo. I would hit a moment and turn to do something that was instinctive, and I would find I was excluding my partner and I had to go, ‘wait a minute that is not right.’ It’s not two solo clowns; it’s two clowns coming together as one unit. That’s what makes it, for me, so beautiful. That was the hardest adjustment, developing a trusting relationship. I was sure about my instinct, but I was not sure about our instincts. That took a little bit of time. Now we’re getting there.
“Our work together in the long range of things is really a very short time. It’s only been five years. Arlette gave us a full season but we eventually decided that we weren’t as interested in full seasons and started doing festivals. But there would be big gaps between gigs. We would do Krone in February and then I would go back to America, and he would go back to Paris, and I wouldn’t see him again until August. So when Europa Park offered us a job, we realized it was just what we needed.”
In assessing his learning curve insofar as becoming a clown is concerned, Tom insists he wouldn’t be performing in the Monte Carlo if it weren’t for Clown College and Ringling Bros and Barnum & Bailey. “One of the greatest things about Ringling was working every day, getting sometimes two or three chances a day in front of an audience to learn how to be a clown. In Europa Park we were there six days a week. We did a stage show in the fall, and then in the winter we did the circus, three shows a day, every day, every week. So just that repetition was what we needed. That’s why we’ve done Europa Park the last two years and it has been a big help in getting the foundation we needed to work together smoothly.”
Europa Park is in Germany, near Strasbourg, France. It’s a theme park, the second most popular park in Europe after Disneyland. The Mack family who owns the park builds roller coasters and have built many of the ones in use here in America. Unlike an American park Europa stays open even when it’s cold. It has three seasons basically, the first starting In March and running through November. Around September, it switches over from summer to Halloween, which is getting more and more popular in Germany. The Germans have embraced the holiday. The Halloween season is probably the park’s most well attended. They hire an American man who comes over and sets up the haunted houses. After Halloween the park is closed for two weeks and then reopens with the winter season and, as is a tradition in Europe, it includes a winter circus. They bring a tent in. Joseph Bouglione from Cirque d’Hiver comes in and directs the show, so of course it’s a quality production.
Ian Jenkins, the entertainment director of the park was an ex-figure skater, who knows how to handle artists. “He would hire you and say, ‘Here’s your stage; go do your thing, boys. Go be funny.’ Then he would leave us alone, trusting that we were going to put some good twenty minutes on that stage. It was wonderful to have that trust, because then we could try new things, discovering for instance that the audience laughs at this but not at that. So we would take out what didn’t work and all of a sudden after a few weeks we had a polished gem.”
A couple of the routines that Tom and Pepe were performing in Monte Carlo came from their collaboration in Europa Park. The two agree it is a wonderful place to work. They will be going back again later this year.
In addition to learning how to work as partners, the two clowns are also discovering the differences in audiences around the world and what they find funny and how they react to comedy. “There are some images that Americans have in their mind to laugh at right away,” Tom has observed. “Americans are more free with their laughter. They want to play more. The French are more reserved, but they appreciate the artistry involved in clowning. We did a real carpet tramp, sensitive routine in Arlette Gruss. It was the first time I put on my tramp outfit since 1982 when I first left Ringling. It was a beautiful opportunity. To do it in a circus was special. The character is very special to me. I felt we don’t see that character in a circus anymore. So I created a very poetic routine, and the French loved it. Then we took it over to a festival in Budapest, Hungary, and they hated it. That was our first education in discovering that not all images are universally accepted. We died a horrible death on that one in Hungary. You learn and pick up the pieces. The German audiences are a little more vocal than the French audiences, but they like to mess with you a little bit. Spanish audiences are similar to those in America, in their love of life. Spanish people are full of life and love to play. They see the clown and they want to play with you.
“We played a circus in Madrid, Spain, in a modern circus building built in 2008. It was a beautiful show and audiences enjoyed it. David Larible came in and directed it. He is a great director. Of course being a clown, I have learned that in the circus the clown is often an after thought. Managers don’t always appreciate that the clown is delicate, that he needs time to adjust to the environment, to the show itself. Often times we are changing things to fit in where we are. David understood that and featured the clowns beautifully so we were fortunate to work with him.”
Following that train of thought, Tom pursues the idea that clowning is a delicate art form. Timing has to be just right. That is why Tom and Pepe brought their own technician to Monte Carlo, to make sure the timing of the technical aspects of their bits was just right. They are fully aware that the people who stage the Monte Carlo festival put together two entire three-hour circuses in three days, and subtle things can go wrong which may not bother other acts but they do for clowns. “We are trying to do our best to keep it as easy for all the people involved technically and still get what we need, when we need it,” Tom explains.
Here his partner Pepe interjects, “I think it is very important to say that clowning is a delicate job because people think it’s all noise, but a good clown is more delicate.”
“With the clown,” Tom picks up the thread, “you’re dealing with a different set of emotions than the thrill of watching a juggler or a high wire artist. There is an emotional response to that, but with the clown you’re dealing with something more human, something with the heart. We are that connection between the people and the impossible things being presented in the ring. We are the humanity between the two and it’s a hard thing to do. It’s hard because the circus is a very different environment than the theatre. Or the street. That’s where you mainly find clowns. The circus nowadays is fast, fast, fast. It used to be the European clown, for instance the Fratellinis, would go out and do fifteen or twenty minutes. You come here, and it’s ‘get in and get out.’”
“When I was with Los Muchachos, I worked with Charlie Rivel,” Pepe recalls. “He would be in the ring for twenty minutes. The kids did the first part of the show, and he did the second half for almost as long.”
Another thing that is changing about clowning in the circus is that circus producers are bringing in comics or comedy magicians who are slowly replacing the clown. “We were in a show where they had a wonderful comic,” Tom recalls, “and it was very difficult to balance his comedy with our clowning.”
The other inescapable fact is that the audience is changing. Ringling has been trying very hard in recent years to adjust the show to fit the changing tastes which are changing so rapidly these days. In addition there is a loss of innocence in our society now. Clowns who are symbols of innocence and joy are having to compete with humor that seems to be getting more biting.
In contrast, Tom says, “We are trying to preserve a sense of innocence and tradition.” The first reprise that they tried in Monte Carlo was from Fratellini’s old entrée “Trying to get a job at the circus.” “We adjusted it a little bit for the times,” Tom points out. “It is a throwback to the traditional clown entrée. We are proud of it. Whether or not it works, we’ll see.
“A lot of clown work is not tangible,” Tom observes. “A juggler’s act doesn’t change no matter the audience; his act is not built on audience interaction no matter its size. It’s built on his skill. A clown’s skill is creating interaction.“
Pepe adds a final note. “I like to think we are the artisans, artisans of joy. We need to keep going and connecting with the past because if we don’t, something essential will be lost.”