Beyond Bozo

A little levity can soothe tragic times, and San Francisco's Clown Conservatory has a new generation of entertainers eager to provide it

There is, of course, some irony in the notion of a clown conservatory.

"The idea of clowns sitting still in chairs, listening to a clown teacher, is a bit ridiculous, isn't it?" says Pickle, Cirque, and Disney veteran Hoyle. "Yes, there are techniques that must be taught, and things about clowning that should be studied. People need to think about this stuff; we can't be anti-intellectual about it. But we don't want to box ourselves in, either. As soon as we do, we must kick it down. The intellectualizing of clowning is a path fraught with danger, yet we have to go there to save the craft."

As the conservatory's head teacher, Raz understands the contradictions of placing the freewheeling subject of clowning in an ivory tower. The first essay assignment for his students poses the question, "What are the features of a school environment that nourish your creativity?" Yes, there are essays in clown school -- and required readings. But to Raz's credit, most of the 14 weekly class hours are spent balancing plates and learning tricks on the rolla bolla (a rolling wooden board). Chinese acrobatics master Weng Xio Hong is another part of the school's principal teaching team, as is character teacher Leslie Felbain, who heads intense motivational sessions and prods students to dig deep within themselves to tap raw emotions.

"She puts you through some very trippy mind gymnastics before you can step into character," current student Woolverton says.

Clown school is not easy. Students leave class physically sore and mentally drained, but the program is tough for a reason: Until now, the great clowns had to take their lumps on the streets.

"The conservatory is an extremely laudable and wonderful idea. We need such a school, because there are no longer the kinds of venues around where people can learn and work on their craft like I could 30 years ago," says Hoyle, who studied to be a mime in Paris and earned a theater arts degree in England. In North America before the conservatory, the only offerings were individual clown classes at theater schools, with no full-time curriculum. Even Ringling Bros.' clown college program lasted only eight weeks (though its days were an intensive 14 hours long). Raz took his formal training at the Dell'Arte school of physical theater in Blue Lake, Calif., which he supplemented by joining any ragtag traveling troupe he could find.

One can no longer simply run off to the circus, as today's middle-aged clowns once could. When Hoyle and Raz were in their late teens and 20s, they earned their chops and honed their skills "catch as catch can," as Raz puts it. "I want to give my students something I didn't get: a systematic grounding in all the basics, an understanding of what it means to be a clown, in one place that pools together all the knowledge and offers a real education," he says. "Then we'll let them explode out in the world. Why should they all struggle like I did?"

Hoyle concurs, but with caution. Though he agrees that young clowns have a handicap when it comes to learning the ropes on their own, he feels they mustn't be completely coddled in a school, either. "The kids definitely need to get out there, start something, and get the corners knocked off them. The more worn you are, the better your work. Life will do that to you," he says. "Ideals are good, but they need to be seasoned."

Clown legend Irwin welcomes the energy and idealism exhibited by students like Wright and Woolverton. "It makes me certain that clowning will not go away, that there will always be clowns," he says. "Here's to their developing and changing, and here's to the younger ones showing us they'll start something that will delight us and make us jealous -- the best compliment for an old clown."

When Raz auditioned this year's crop of students, he looked not only for those who possessed natural talent, but also for some who might give clowning a much-needed infusion of new life. It's no accident that his class comes from diverse backgrounds, ranging in age from 18 to 36, half female and a quarter minority. Among the 16 students, Jonas Woolverton is an aspiring filmmaker, Randall Wright is an expert in martial arts, and 26-year-old Mina Liccione -- a striking, nearly 6-foot-tall woman whose nickname is Olive Oil -- has already had a professional dance career (including roles in Stomp and MTV's Grind).

Each student wants to incorporate clowning into his or her respective discipline, and Raz is happy to train them to be clown operatives within their fields. "You really see a spark of funny when Mina is onstage. Jonas comes [in] very serious and focused about what he wants to accomplish. So does Randall; there is an absolute intensity in his body and brow," Raz says of his students. "If I can just give them some structure, a little clown history and idiom, who knows what they'll surprise us with."

Liccione's impressive dance training includes a stint under one of Martha Graham's protégés. Before she came to the Clown Conservatory, Liccione had built a respectable performance résumé in New York. But she experienced an epiphany when she was cast in the one comic role as part of the physically demanding percussion and movement show Stomp. "I had a full-on mind and body connection," she says. "In that role, my job was not only to move, but to create characters to make people laugh. It felt exhilarating to be that ball of energy. Now I am free to create my own world, not just in the standards of Stomp, but in the standards of Mina. Clowning is like that."

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