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Untrained clown posse: Students go for a gig under the big top

Aspiring merrymakers Thamas F. Raymond (left) Brendan Tetrault demonstrate some shenanigans during “clown college” auditions August. | JOHN H. WHITE~SUN-TIMES

Aspiring merrymakers Thamas F. Raymond (left) and Brendan Tetrault demonstrate some shenanigans during “clown college” auditions in August. | JOHN H. WHITE~SUN-TIMES

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Updated: December 12, 2012 6:17AM

‘It’s my job here today to add to your experience as a clown, to give you things that you can absorb and work on. And it’s your job today in my workshop to think of not what you would normally do, not your safe choices, but to push yourself.”

So proclaimed Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey instructor Karen Hoyer at the start of a recent mime and physical comedy workshop in Chicago. Held in a large Joffrey Ballet dance studio not-so-high above State Street at the end of August, it was the first step toward big-top glory for 25 aspiring clowns from all over the country.

Ultimately, only two were invited to stay on board and attend “clown college” in Rosemont. They’ve been training, along with a handful of other finalists from Houston and Los Angeles tryouts, since Nov. 1. Recently graduates were offered contracts, which means they’re likely to see clowning action alongside such veterans as “boss clown” Sandor Eke at the tail end of Ringling’s current Allstate Arena run and when it comes to the United Center starting Wednesday.

“What we’re really looking for is that true clown,” Ringling Bros. vice president of talent David Kiser explained the day prior. A former clown himself, Kiser performed with Ringling from the early 1980s until the mid-’90s and knows the gig from bewigged top to floppy-shoed bottom.

“We’re looking for that inner clown that’s just dying to get out. You’re mistaken if you think that a clown is an actor playing the role of a clown, because anyone who plays the role of a clown is immediately called out as fake. A clown has to be inside.”

To varying degrees that appeared to be the case with Hoyer’s striving students, most of whom — save for one guy in full clown regalia, including a red foam nose and a raggedy tailcoat — wore comfortable clothing and sneakers. They ranged in age from 20s to probably 50s and came in all body types, from lithe and limber to less lithe and less limber.

Alex Sula, 28, of Wheeling was among the former. “I’m actually saving up for a big-top tent of my own,” the Paris-trained mime said, “because I want to do a tent show.”

Before long, it became obvious who had the goods and who didn’t. While some participants merely looked the part, others displayed the physicality and broad emotionality required to actually play it.

“You’re getting to know this space,” the curly-haired and large-lunged Hoyer loudly told her charges once they’d vacated their seats on several rows of risers and found spots on the gray vinyl floor.

“You’re not following anyone, you’re not going in any particular pattern. You have an energy, though. We want to see that energy.”

For their first exercise, she told them, they would move and freeze on her command.

“Annnnd … go!”

A cacophony of squeaks filled the room as vinyl met rubber.

“Freeze! Control.”

Stillness. Looks of extreme concentration abounded.

“Balance,” Hoyer reminded them. “Now, as you’re there, frozen, you’re a frozen statue of yourself but the energy keeps going. You haven’t died. You still have that energy.”

There was a sense of urgency in Hoyer’s voice as she paced about the space.

“I’m going to clap my hands,” she announced, “and with a very quick [here she made a clapping sound] movement, you’re going to change your shape completely. So from this sculpture to another frozen sculpture.

“Each sculpture,” she went on, “has to be very, very interesting.”

No small task. Earnestness increased accordingly as Hoyer’s pupils strove to please their temporary mistress.

“Change! Change! Change! Make the change radical. From very high to very low. From wide to thin. Use your body and your face.”

And so it went, though not always as intensely, for a few more hours. Shape-making, silly-walking, expression morphing.

Several folks were perspiring profusely. Some looked downright pooped as they scampered around, trying to impress Kiser and a couple of other besuited Ringling scrutinizers. Individual auditions using prepared material — juggling, miming, plate spinning — came last. After a brief break to determine who’d stay and who’d go, Kiser stood before his eager and exhausted assemblage. “Everyone had a moment of brilliance today,” he said, being generous but seeming genuine.

Unfortunately, only two would move forward.

Scarlett Sullivan was one of them. Along with Brendan Tetrault of Orlando, Fla., she’s been learning tricks of the trade at clown college in Rosemont.

A graduate of Columbia College, where she majored in theater, the 23-year-old New Jersey native lives in Chicago and is enrolled at Second City’s conservatory.

“I’m more comfortable onstage than I am off,” said Sullivan, who performed press-handstands during her audition.

Asked if she was ready for life on the road and all it entails (including 13 shows a week), Sullivan replied, “Absolutely. As long as I can take my cat, we’re good.”

Seeing as Sullivan just inked a standard two-year Ringling contract, she may have to make special arrangments. While clown trains — yes, they still travel on trains — aren’t pet-friendly, they are vastly improved from the veritable hobo cars of yesteryear. Nowadays there are laundry facilities, wireless Internet connections, satellite dishes, showers and larger bedrooms than the three-foot-by-six-foot veal pens that used to be standard.

So said veteran clowns Karen DeSanto and Thom Wheaton, who now traverse the country doing PR for Ringling. They were seated off to one side discussing all things clown-related with a group of eager wannabes.

Despite interior upgrades, the fully clowned-out DeSanto explained in her smoky voice, clown trains still “typically park you in the worst part of town. … You’re out in the middle of nowhere. Thank goodness for cell phones. When I was on the road, we didn’t have those.”

DeSanto and her clown husband Greg planned their wedding during a cross-country circus tour and married on a Monday at a Catholic church in Boston. The proceedings, she said, were very traditional. For the most part.

“We did have dwarves, and they ran through my aunts’ dresses during the dancing portion,” she recalled.

Wheaton remembered how, when he first came off the road, getting to sleep proved difficult without the train’s comforting chugga-chugga-chugga to lull him into dreamland.

He also smilingly blamed “the media” for perpetuating an image of clowns as “aggressive, in-your-face, scary.” Think serial killer John Wayne Gacy’s birthday party alter ego Pogo the Clown or Pennywise the killer clown in Stephen King’s horror novel “It.”

Kiser acknowledged the issue and admitted it can be somewhat problematic.

“There are those who are afraid,” he said, “and all I can tell them is clowns are just real people who have a special gift. And that gift is not one of malice or menace, but it’s one of heart and spirit.”

Although society is not as “simple or as innocent as it once was,” clowns must still “find the innocence.”

Because “we all want that innocence,” Kiser went on. “We all want that simplicity. So the clown is there to show that it still exists — that a child exists in every person regardless of how old they are.”

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