Travels in Clownland: Part 3
7. Popup Clowntown
If you had a map of Clownland in your hand, you would see a popup clown-town that appears now and then in different places. It is a collection of intimate modern speigeltents, each one with a distinctly different flavour. The owners of this popup collection of venues fill them with a rotation of short clown shows.
The word Ukiyo is Japanese for ‘The Floating World’; the pleasure seeking quarters of ancient urban Japan where clown and burlesque happened in the theatres and geisha houses and bars. The speigeltent in this clowntown is Ukio modern. An anime of a classic cherry tree in blossom woodprint creates the illusion, when you are outside it, that you are in fact in a Japanese cartoon.
Next to it stands Hendrick’s Parlour of Curiosities. The doorway to this wooden tent opens into a decadent, plush, opium-esque den; a fringed and velvety Victoriana. The bar where you buy drinks is built of glass-fronted cabinets full of stuffed ducks and other birds, bottles of strange liquids, bones and carvings.
Next to it the Rastelli is modernist design of red and green, the traditional colours of madness and lunacy. The Little Palais is a shocking, striped arte deco minimalism. The Castello is, as you might expect, a little castle. In front of it sits an almost traditional looking clown who has been cross-bred with a businessman. He wears very large black shoes, a suit, a blonde comb-over to an off-centre quiff, and an implausible nose. This is Enrico. Enrico, it seems, is the boss of this clowntown, even if only in his own mind.
Enrico is a personage of Nigel Martin, a.k.a Mr. Spin.
‘How did you start performing clown?’ I asked him. I have heard this story before, but I would like him to tell you, in his own words.
‘I started dancing when I was seven,’ Nigel said, ‘and I trained really hard and I got into the Australian Ballet School which is the most prestigious ballet school in Australia. It has a great reputation around the world and I think there are about four thousand students that audition each year and I was one of the twenty that got in to start, and then it would end up with eight of you at the end.
‘I got through and ended up in third year and of course we were all trying to get jobs and stuff. I was hoping to be in the Australian Ballet or the New York City Ballet, but just before graduation there was a job going in the opera Aida, in Japan, and there was an opening in one of the main dancing spots. We didn’t have mobile phones back then, and I had to do this final call to see if I was the one that got the role, so instead of going to the ballet that night I went to the pub with my friends. I had two beers with my mates then it was seven o’clock; time to call these people. I went down into the mall in Melbourne, and made the call. They said: “you’ve got the job” and there’s this much money upfront to get you here – fantastic pay – all of which I was completely thrilled about.
‘I was really excited so I came out of the phone box and went running down the mall, did a leap off a park bench and came crashing down. I landed wrong, and my foot ended up beside my face with my leg behind my back, and I pulled on my leg which flipped me on my face and it was throbbing and pulsating and stuff. Luckily some police saw me, and they called an ambulance. And while all this was happening the ballet had finished and all the students that had been up there watching the ballet, like I should have been, were all coming out of the theatre to get their trams home and stuff and there I was lying on the ground, my leg twitching and stuff.
‘And yes, that was the end of it all, because there was over a year of recovery to be able to dance like that again. So I spent a lot of time getting my music together and juggling instead.’
It was around then that Nigel developed the theory that it was possible to learn any trick if you devote yourself to it for three weeks.
Nigel’s first clown was called Mr. Spin. You would usually find Mr. Spin at the top of high unicycle, juggling baseball bats and talking as much to himself as he talked to the audience.
‘At the Australian Ballet they said that the way you practice will be the way you perform on stage, and so you should always practice with a smile on your face as if there is a crowd in front of you, so that even if you slip into your practice mode it is still a good performance. So I always used to pretend there were crowds in front of me when I was juggling, saying: “go Mr. Spin, we love you” and I’d go “thank you thank you”. And as you were saying earlier, yes, that’s quite delusional.’
I nodded. ‘Yes, in a normal person that is a sign of madness.’ I asked, ‘How would you define your clown?’
‘I would call myself a post-modern clown. I am wearing the big shoes and the red nose, which is rare these days. They don’t put the nose on a lot of the time, the modern clowns, but I enjoy the nose. It’s not easy being a clown; people think it’s some kiddy thing. I don’t think clown necessarily has to be ‘kiddy’ and if everyone thinks it is kiddy then that’s where it’s going to go. So someone’s got to be the one that turns it back around here, because in Europe its not kiddy, you’re an artist. But a lot of people are scared of clowns. A lot of girls go: “I don’t want to go in, it’s a clown”, and their friends will go in, and then come out and say: “Oh yeah we had a great laugh”, and they’ll come in later. They’re more scared of the white face, which I don’t do.’
We’re walking through the back end of the Garden of Unearthly Delights, past the old shipping containers set up as offices and caravans, and I’m really shocked to see a whole pile of carnival rides here; the sort you would see at the Agricultural Shows.
Nigel said, ‘There’s lots of carny rides now, and there’s some really scary clowns with their faces on and they come out with chainsaws running and they say: “Come to the Fright Train”.’
I looked where he was pointing. A haunted hotel loomed over us, dark and menacing. I knew it was only plywood but it was still quite unnerving somehow.
Nigel nodded. ‘They come out as clowns and they wear those horrible rubber masks and they come out and scare the people.’
I changed the subject before fear of clown overtook me. ‘And then you worked with (legendary Australian award winning filmmaker) Rolf De Heer?’ I asked.
‘Yes. The Dr. Plonk role happened purely because his kids used to go down to the beaches here in Adelaide, where I would do my shows, so he would watch me all the time with his kids. He loved the way I would improvise as a clown. One of the musicians I worked with also worked as a photographer with Rolf on some of his other movies, so he was able to get my number and one day he decided to do the silent black and white movie and wanted me to do the lead. It’s funny because I love Rolf de Heer’s work. I loved his movies Bad Boy Bubby and Tracker. My brother and I were quite addicted to Bad Boy Bubby, and we used to send it to friends and they’d be quite disturbed by it, but we loved it. My brother comes and sees my shows in Europe and Australia. He even calls me Mr. Spin, which is lovely. And he’ll say “Mr. Spin you’re famous” and I explain that I might be famous very, very, very briefly for a moment at a festival, but it passes very quickly, which I really like. Some street performers buy into it and think it is real, and it goes to their heads a bit, but I like it, and then it’s gone and you are no one again, and unrecognised, which is lovely because you’ve still got a lot of your freedom and stuff. So I’d say to my brother: “No I’m not famous. The day I’m famous is when Rolf De Heer asks me to do a lead role for his film” and we both laughed at that. Then of course two years later he did ask me and when I told my brother he thought I was joking, and I’m like, no, I’m serious …’
‘So, Mr. Spin and Enrico, they are defined, separate identities to you?’ I asked.
‘No I think there is always you in there. It’s like an extension of me. The clown can get away with a lot that you, a normal person, can’t. So Mr. Spin is an extension of myself. Mr. Spin is clean face clown. He looks like a normal person. He is sort of cool but he’s not cool, but he doesn’t have to get away with so much because he’s just silly. But because he’s a clown he’s allowed to be silly.’
‘And Enrico’s got really big shoes,’ I commented.
‘Really big shoes,’ Nigel said, ‘red nose, suit, and a small, stubby tie. He hasn’t done it up properly, but he thinks of himself as really well dressed, you know what I mean? He can get away with a lot of stuff, but he also does little bits of skill, and he’s very influenced by George Carl. He’s an amazing clown, George Carl. So Enrico’s got a lot of problems, which clowns should be fine with. I find it hard watching clowns that have a problem and it becomes such a problem to them that they’ve got a problem. I find that frustrating. I find that Enrico’s always got problems. He’s a clown; he’s got problems happening all the time. In a way he sort of enjoys them. Like he’s getting on with stuff while this problem’s happening, because in a minute it’ll just disappear and I find that more funny than being too attached to his problem.’
We paused for a moment, and drank our coffee.
Then Nigel continued, ‘I think there is always a lot to learn. I mean I never thought when I was Mr. Spin that I was the best, or anything. That’s where some people go wrong with Clowning and performing, their egos can get in the way. And it is very interesting seeing some of the egotistical clowns are the ones that you don’t seem to like and the ones that have these problems. They’re going: “I’m the great clown I’m going to teach you …”
‘But the secret is to not be trying to be the great clown, because it is not about that. I learnt that really early on, back in the Australian Ballet School. I had this thing about ambition. There’s this theory in some religions that if you kill ambition then you are going to do well in life. So I said to myself, I’m going to kill all my ambition. It doesn’t mean that you can’t strive to go places and do things. It just means that it’s not about how you have got to be the best, how you’ve got to get to here or there, but if you just have a go you will get there in the end, as long as you’re walking that path. If you stop, you won’t get it, but if you keep walking that path you will. You don’t have to be the best, but if being the best happens along the way then all well and good.’
8. Circus Royalty.
Imagine, you work at home, with your family. You have a few animals. One of them is really, really old. It was born the same year as you, at the place where you live. Your parents brought up its parents. This animal doesn’t look beautiful, no matter how much you wash it, and it costs a lot to feed, but you don’t mind. In fact you go without a few things to keep it fed. It can’t do much anymore, but that’s ok. You just want to make this animal’s last years as comfortable as possible. And you know that if you gave it away it would die; the shock and loss would be too much. You know animals. They have always been around you and have been treasured parts of your life, your father’s life and his father’s.
Then suddenly you are in all the newspapers and people with placards picket your family business. They are saying you mistreat your pets. They put pictures of your favourite, the oldest, looking old, and don’t print that the animal is over a hundred years old. They gather donations to help fight to take your pet away. Those donations go into paying themselves to get more press. They get lots more donations when it is you and your family they attack, because your family is circus. Your favourite pet is an elephant, an elephant that was born into your arms.
Fighting for the rights of elephants is a fluffy, feel good, romantic audience pleaser, and a good revenue raiser. Fighting for the rights of the domestic pet isn’t going to get as much media and fuss. For the media the statement that a circus animal is well treated and happy is not a good story, so they don’t play it that way. You are defamed in the media, and in every home. There are thousands of people hearing and reading lies about you.
This is an excerpt from a public letter from Gary Brophy, written in 2010:
The latest battle against extinction is being fought here in Australia under striped and star spangled coloured canvas. It is a battle not only to survive, but a battle for the right to continue in a centuries old traditional style of living and working …
I was born in the circus industry. I am fourth generation circus. My wife Caroline Belli is fourteenth Generation; that makes my children fifteenth generation circus. Our families have been involved with animals our whole lives, my father-in-law Rudy Belli has trained fifty-five elephants around the world. My wife’s family started in Circus in 1648 in Italy, long before Australia was even discovered by Europeans. It would be a shame if my children can not keep this wonderful life we are so lucky to have going as we are from one of the oldest circus families in the world.
So I am a voice for our industry.
These so called activists have no idea what they are talking about. Nor does the mis-informed media. For example the media said the first baby elephant was born in Taranga zoo last year. False. The first elephant born in Australia was with Wirths Circus in 1904 in Sydney.
So our industry had the first and last circus elephants – that’s a story the public should know … Yes, there has been abuse in circus and that was many years ago. But there is no record at all of animal abuse from the Perry Bros Circus. I have known them my whole life and they are good animal people, they would know more about elephants than anyone else in Australia as they have lived with them for over fifty years.
It is sad that she (Saigon, the elephant the activists are protesting should be returned to the wild) is now alone, as the other elephants have passed on from old age. But Saigon was a loner, she did not mix well with some of the others. Her mate is Perry Maynard who has been part of her life for forty years. They have grown up together and she trusts him. Nobody can give her the attention she needs other than the Perry family.
I (Gary Brophy) have had to put my horses in agistment because animal activist have managed to stop local councils renting vacant land to us to put on a family circus. So now I do not have any animals in my show and I miss them a lot.
These people are destroying our way of life. We are animal lovers not abusers. What is the difference between us having the knowledge to train animals and others having family pets doing some basic tricks?
Please help us to stop these people from destroying our business. No traditional circus in Australia has ever received any Government Grants or any assistance what so ever … We have travelled the whole of Australia doing this without any help, only relying on ticket sales to keep it going.
I think it is time that our voice is heard and not just the ringmaster shouting Ladies and Gentlemen and children of all ages, may all your days be circus days …
Gary Brophy, Circus Sunrise
Lorraine Maynard of Perry’s Circus was offered the sum of two million dollars for Saigon and Minyak. Why didn’t they accept this offer? Lorraine explained: “That’s easy – we were not interested. Our elephants are priceless. I wonder how pet owners would feel if suddenly one of your two beloved dogs, cats birds etc. passed away and people who you have never met in your life started telling you to get rid of your remaining animal and how horrid and cruel you were for keeping it. I bet you would tell them to go to hell and mind their own business. I’m not comparing elephants to any other animal but the sentiment is the same.”
My own research in Wirth’s Circus Archives found that, at the end of the 1890’s the Wirth family went on an adventurous world tour, and while in south-east Asia they noticed the extraordinary abilities of the local elephants and purchased a couple and brought them back to Australia to assist in the heavy lifting and manoeuvring involved in a travelling circus. It was after they had developed relationships with the elephants as domestic workers that they began to appreciate their skills at performing. Their elephants featured in the family photograph albums and were discussed in journals and diaries as if they were human.
In the 1920s Wirth’s circus thought that their elephant Alice might be too old to make the ocean voyage from Australia to New Zealand so they gave her into the care of a zoo. On their return to Australia they were shocked to find that Alice had pined and sickened, almost dying, so they took her back. Once she was back with the people she had lived with for many years, returned to her circus environment, she recovered very quickly.
Please excuse me if I digress for a moment and explain that I also have a personal sense of guilt about this. I am from ‘new’ circus, the relativity recent wave of circus that has spread out beyond the circus tent and vaudeville stage. New circus built its popularity on a media platform that announced loudly that we were not that “bad old traditional animal circus” we were new, good, people circus with NO animals. I accepted as truth those defamatory statements and attitudes without finding out for myself.
It was not until I was a guest artist with the Great Moscow Circus and worked alongside the Brophy family and their animals that I realised that these performing animals lived better than any domestic pet. The animals enjoyed performing, they looked forward to it. They knew the musical cues of the acts before theirs, they were ready and excited to go into the ring. And often they performed in the ring freely, at liberty, not leashed and harnessed. That’s when I started realising that ‘new’ circus has played its part in killing the livelihood of the traditional circus, and I think the world is poorer for it.
I know that most of this chapter may seem like a digression, but … I can’t help it. It is important, isn’t it?
Gary Brophy’s brother Warren and I were to meet under the clocks of Flinders street station and go across the road to have coffee. I was quite nervous and not embarrassed to admit it. I felt as if I was about to meet royalty. My hair was brushed, my shoes were clean.
Warren said, ‘Gary’s a clown and I’m a clown. I know others that have tried it but found that they aren’t funny. In yourself you’ve got to feel right for that part. It’s like theatre, I suppose. If you feel like you’re going to do that part and it is working, it’s good. Clowning makes people laugh if you enjoy what you’re doing.
‘We just sort of fell into it, I guess. My parents, they pushed us in the right direction that they thought we might enjoy – the whip cracking and the juggling. They needed a juggler and I tried it, I didn’t mind it, and they needed a clown and I tried it and my brother tried it. My little brother was always into the balancing. We were going to school and doing different sorts of things. Before we started Brophy Brothers we were with Perry brothers circus over in Western Australia. I did a riding act there …
‘Clowning-wise, there’s a number of different skits, like there’s the old telescope act. That’s been going for long before I was born, and is probably one of my best gags. Then you got the old balloon gag where you shoot a balloon from over another clown’s head. I do that one as well … It’s an old gag but you change to your way of thinking and your feel.
‘If you’re too serious being a clown then it just doesn’t happen. You’ve got to look at the audience see that they’re enjoying the act. If you just go on the stereotype – like if you write down the gag and go exactly that way every single time – then it’s not going to work. Any clown in Australia that knows clowning or does traditional clown in circus, they know that.
‘I could probably walk over there, trip over, fall on my face and no one would laugh. I put a rubber nose on, make up, baggy clothes, and I’d get a laugh.
‘I’ve changed my makeup and my hair over the years. I used to have a full face of makeup and I found a long time ago the kids would freak out, so I’ve got rid of most of the makeup and just have a little bit on to sort of try and identify with the kids.’
Me: ‘Do you work with a clown partner?’
He nods ‘My son’s a clown. He is nineteen, and I got a younger son too, a four year old, and he clowns with me too, so he brings stuff into me. My boys have always started young in the ring. They do a little bit of clowning first to sort of get them used to the people and everything else, and then you can’t stop them. My oldest boy, he does rola-bola, slack-wire, whip-cracking and rope-spinning. Anything he can try, he’ll do it, because he’s that sort of kid. Andy, the other one, he does a bit of clowning, he juggles, he’s in the circus scene too, he likes it.’
Me: ‘When you go into the ring or into costume, as a clown, as Brody, does that feel like it’s a different person for you?’
Warren: ‘Once you go into the ring, you got your costume on, you can put on your character the way you feel it should be, and you go from there, but when you go in the back door you’re still the same person. I don’t have to be called “Brody come here” or not have a conversation with someone or anything. I’m me. I’m Warren. I’m still me, but it is completely different. You go in there and you’re there to entertain and give it your best shot.’
Me: ‘I’ve been reading about different clown archetypes like the Commedia Dell Arte, and in circus clown there’s different status of clown. I was wondering if you associate your clown and your performance style with any particular influence?’
Warren replied, ‘In our business, you ask anyone going to the circus “what do you want to see?” and the kids will always say “I want to see the clown.” They won’t say the European style, or the white face, it’s just a clown. And there are a lot of clowns in Australia, different circuses, who have all got their own different styles. Who’s the best? Who knows? It is the way people enjoy your clowning, the way you deliver your lines. The way you get wet, the way you fall over. It’s just the way you feel yourself.’
‘You were saying you pulled back from clown makeup a bit earlier on. You were talking about the kids that get freaked out by clowns. Do you feel that that’s a new thing? Have people always been like that?’
‘No,’ Warren replied. ‘I think there’s that much entertainment on the tv, cinema, the internet, horror pictures like the IT one, Steven Spielberg with the crazy clown. It’s hard to say.’
‘The horror clowns, they are what tainted it?’
‘Yes,’ he said. ‘I think so. I’ve had adults terrified of clowns and normally, before they leave the circus when it’s finished, I’ll go, without makeup, and say, “it’s just me, I’m the clown”. That’s just the way it is, but if it’s the movies or the internet, who knows?’
‘How is Saigon going?’ I asked.
‘She’s fine.’ Warren said. ‘She’s at home, resting peacefully in a massive big paddock. It was just that people got a misunderstanding about the animal. She’s like a family member to us. We’d go without a feed before she does. But that’s the way people are. Once the media hits they say one bad thing, put in one bad photo and that’s it, it’s snowballed.
‘The Melbourne Zoo came down and inspected her. They said: “She’s fine. This is where she is staying, with you guys, and no-one can do nothing about it.” We’re happy.’
I wrote to Warren’s brother Gary. I had to write to him because it became so difficult for them to get council permission to put up a show that they went overseas.
He replied ‘We are now performing in the famous Blackpool Tower Circus in England. It is one of the oldest circus buildings in the world.’
I asked what he considers to be the important attributes of a clown.
‘Well, for me it is not trying to be smarter than the kids I am entertaining. Ok, every now and then I can toss in a line that will get a laugh from the adults … And always stay in character as long as you have that face on. You never know who may walk in to the back door of the circus. Why take that magic away from a kid and after the show he or she sees you without your clown nose having a drink, or a smoke, sort of not a clown anymore. That kid’s memory of you will not be the same. Stay the clown until you are behind closed doors.
‘When I put my face and nose on I become a completely different person. Being a clown makes me feel young and I put my self on the same level as a five or six year old.’
I asked both Warren and Gary Brophy who their favourite clown was when they were children. Growing up in a circus surely meant that they would have seen a few. They both replied: ‘Theo Zacchini’, a musical clown performing with Ashtons Circus. The Brophy family often visited the Ashtons socially.
The multi-generational circus families of Australia, I realised, are an intertwined, complex family forest of many trees. As Mr. Robert Perry said, there are three Perry brothers married to three Ashton sisters. It’s a natural thing given that the families visit each other, and work in the same industry.
I asked the Brophy Brothers about this.
Gary replied, ‘Our family is related to the Perrys. Warren is married to one. My sister Shayne’s husband is related to the Lennons and West families. My wife is related to just about every old circus family in Europe; Belli, Gasser, Strassburger, Renz, Quasier, and many others as well. My daughter Bonita’s partner, the father of my grandchildren, is related to many of the old circus families here; Hoffmann, Roberts, Chipperfield, Endreze and others.’
It’s been confusing, in writing this book, to know what words to use in defining the different ‘waves’ of circus. The traditional/new/contemporary thing. Very complicated, especially as the so-called ‘traditional’ are very much also contemporary, just not receiving any of the funding available to the ‘new’ circus movement. It has been quite a dilemma for this journey, talking to so many clowns of so many types and traditions. My solution, and I am prepared to defend it, is to define the ‘traditional’ circus and families as ‘circus royalty’. Because they are. I’d like this to catch on as a general trend of respect.
I asked Gary, ‘In the normal world, I believe that circus families like yours are a shining example of how families should be. Do you have any advice about that? ‘
He answered, ‘Smash the tv, turn off the internet and get your lazy fat ass off of the lounge and take the wife and kids to see live entertainment.’
I asked him, ‘have you any advice for people suffering defamation and slander? What is the best way forward?’ I do not tell him I have a very personal reason for asking it.
‘You are asking questions that I do not have answers for,’ he said. ‘I will give it a go anyway. Build a bridge and get over it, and if you cannot do that then go to Bunnings and buy a can of “Toughen The Fuck Up”, or get the hell out of this business.
I thought about that. Being lied about is different to bullying. Bullying happens to you. Being lied about happens about you, when you aren’t there, so there’s nothing you can do about it. It is like a bushfire that is hard to put out, because the sparks and embers blow around in the wind and can catch again in totally unexpected places.
“Building a bridge and getting over it” is a very different approach to holding your head high and ignoring it. It’s more about understanding that a pathway gets damaged and you have to decide where it is you want to be, and then make the pathway there consciously. It’s not passive, it’s not ignoring the situation, it’s not denial, it’s not pretending nothing happened. It’s a rebuilding and a strong conscious movement forward.
I add that to my list.
NEXT ISSUE: Being handed the keys to the moment.
Judith Lanigan is the daughter of a journalist and a detective. She studied her circus specialty – hula hoops – at the Moscow State Circus School and documented her experiences in A True History of the Hula Hoop, published by Picador in 2009. This series is extracted from her latest book, Clownland, released by Aerofish Media in August 2016 – judithlanigan.com.au