Former Cirque du Soleil clown (and Clown Conservatory director) Jeff Raz has written a great new book The Secret Life of Clowns that marries two jobs that he put his heart and soul into. For a brief time, Raz was doing both of these demanding jobs at the same time, and now, about 10 years later, he’s decompressed enough to write about them.
I should say that I know Raz both as a teacher and as a performer – he was my teacher at the Dell’arte school in 1991, directing our final project and teaching the business end of the business. I’ve featured him on the blog before: in fact, a guest post of his that I posted in 2007 is an early version of something that is in the book. I’ve also seen him perform multiple times as a clown, actor, and juggler. Jeff is a great teacher, and a great performer, and apparently he’s also a great writer. He’s an inspiration.
The book cuts back and forth between the two worlds, the conservatory and the circus. The conservatory world is a fictionalized story of a student, seeing the conservatory through the eyes of a fictional student named Jake. Jeff credits this idea of the fictionalized student to Stanislavsky’s excellent trio of books (the most commonly known is An Actor Prepares), but it is also in Dario Fo’s excellent book Tricks of the Trade. It’s a great device, because the student stands in for us, and the specifics become universal. (This is a very Stanislavskian lesson!)
While the student may be fictional, he may well have been me at Dell’arte, or me at the Trinity Rep Conservatory, or me at any of the schools I’ve ever attended. Jake’s classmates weren’t mine, but I had equally interesting characters in my class, and they interacted similarly. (I’ll also note that Jeff was a graduate of Dell’arte as well) Although in lots of ways my story is nothing like Jake’s in the specifics, it is my story, just the details changed. Jeff really nails the feeling of uncertainty, revelation, wonder, fear, and hope that a younger clown/circus student enjoys/endures.
At the end of each conservatory chapter, we see Jake’s journal, which are neatly diagnosed summaries of the big ideas that happened in the chapter, as well as takeaways and aspirations for the future.
Contrast this with the chapters about Cirque, in which Jeff details the exciting and sometimes humdrum life of taking over the lead clown role in the Cirque du Soleil show Corteo. He travels from town to town, he is away from his family, things go wrong in the show, etc. We meet lots of interesting characters, get an inside look at his fears of flying, of failing, and of failing to be able to do what he was teaching his students to do. Once again, my story (and your story, no doubt) are different in the specifics, but are universal in their scope, and thus apply directly to the reader.
Interspersed between these two stories are two page SPOTLIGHTS of clowns and circuses that Jeff has worked with in the past, or we should know about. He spotlights his former clown partner Diane Wasnak, former student Joel Baker, master circus trainer Lu Yi, master clown Yuri Belov, and many others. These don’t encompass everybody he has worked with (that would be a long list) and I specifically noted he doesn’t mention the Vaudeville Trio he was most known for in the 80’s and 90’s (Vaudeville Nouveau)
Overall, this book was great and well worth reading. If this were a juggling routine, I can confidently say “No Drops.” Jeff touches on a lot of the philosophical ideas of what he thinks makes a great clown, he shows those ideas in practice, and he gives us what feels like a real and honest inside look into his work, and as he says, “his truth of training professional clowns and touring with Cirque du Soleil.” I think it should be required reading for clown teachers and for aspiring clowns.
Jeff is now the Bay Area Casting Partner for Cirque du Soleil, the Artistic Director of the Medical Clown Project and a director with the global consulting firm Stand & Deliver.