Book Review – Another Look at Clowning

Ernest Albrecht of Spectacle Magazine – July 2017

Over the course of the nearly twenty years that I have been publishing Spectacle I have been sent several books on clowning, which I have been asked to review. I was able to actually finish reading very few of them. Most discussed clowning on an abstract, poetic level I found hard to swallow or even make any sense out of. Now along comes a new book by Jeff Raz, The Secret Life of Clowns.

Raz has been a working professional clown for many years, most notably with the Pickle Family Circus, on Broadway and most recently with Cirque du Soleil. He founded the Clown Conservatory as part of San Francisco’s Circus Center in 2000 and remained its director for ten years. Its graduates have worked in every major circus and in numerous venues around the world. So there is good reason to believe he knows from whence he speaketh.

His book is one of those tomes on clowning that I raced through with relish, intrigued and fascinated by his two tiered story and his down to earth approach to clowning.

The book employs an interesting structure that has allowed Raz to review not only what he knows about teaching clowning but also to relate his own experiences as the star clown of Cirque du Soleil’s touring show Corteo, and yes, both are told as stories that have sustaining narrative interest.

By putting the lessons in the mouth of one of his students Raz is able to escape sounding pedantic and still manages to gets his lessons across. Using his own voice to relate his experiences with Cirque du Soleil demands that he be honest and open. Both sections are engaging because in the one we watch a student grow into the professional clown he hopes to be and in the other we participate in Raz’s dealing with his personal anxieties about being on an international tour away from his family and the Clown Conservatory as well as being the kind of clown he has tried to instill in his students. Somehow he and the Clown Conservatory manage to survive.

I personally found some of Raz stories about being a part of a Cirque show of interest because they reaffirmed some of my own observations about the workings of this organization. I had also interviewed the director of Corteo when he was working for Cirque Èloize, and I share Raz’s conclusions about the man wholeheartedly. So the book worked for me on several levels.

I am also intrigued by Raz’s use of the feminine pronoun when referring to clowns in general. What happened to all the men? I should also point out that this is not the first time I have encountered this violation of grammatical norms in a published work. It may be true that more women than men are enrolling in some clown training programs. I know of some programs that are aimed at female clowns exclusively, but they are not in the majority. Just as clown training is based on certain traditions, traditional (standard) grammar has a way of dealing with such issues. Let’s preserve it, too.