For Aspiring Clowns, Circus Audition Is Funny, Business
By Matthew Rivera
New York City’s employment market has some way to go before it fully thaws, but at least the circus is hiring.
Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus held clown auditions last Friday under the big top at Coney Island. Applicants were asked to take part in a movement workshop and to perform individual shows in front of a panel of talent scouts.
About 17 applicants showed, from a variety of clowning backgrounds. There were clowns who work at theme parks and clowns who perform in small community shows. Some brought stilts, prop cameras, and juggling sticks, but no big shoes or funny wigs — the circus requested that applicants show up in street clothes and without any makeup.
“Not only are we looking for people to be funny, but we’re looking to understand people’s natural personality,” explained Nicole Feld, the producer for Ringling Bros.
Among the judges was David Kaiser, a clown college alum and former ringmaster who “retired his rubber nose,” as he said, to become director of talent for the circus. “A clown is raw emotion, not an actor,” he said. “Every time you see him out there, he is giving of himself.”
On Friday, Kaiser sat behind a desk along with the other judges, sorting through headshots and resumes in what looked like a warped version of “American Idol.”
Applicants who make the cut get a yearlong contract that includes a salary, housing and medical care. They begin as apprentice clowns; in circus-speak, contract clowns are called a “first-of-Mays”, though contracts are now initiated on a rolling basis. Ringling Bros. offers a handful of these contracts annually, often between two and ten per year, according to Thom Wheaton, a veteran clown.
Jason Andrew for The Wall Street Journal
Standing from left: Nicole Feld, David Kaser and Karen Hoyer watch clown auditions at the Ringling Bros. tent on Coney Island.
Kolinda Jobst, an amateur clown traveled from Winnipeg, Canada, to New York for a chance to make it under the big top. She said that she’s wanted a career in clowning since seeing the circus as a child.
Her audition began with a group movement exercise lead by Karen Hoyer, a mime instructor who has worked with the circus on and off since the early 1990s. The applicants practice miming emotions and playing games to test improv skills.
Wheaton said that the movement exercise helps the judges distinguish between people who can react quickly and those who depend on a character they’ve created for themselves.
The audition functions as a kind of workshop for clowning talent. Ringling Bros. shuttered its physical clown college in 1997, in part because the company was training more clowns than they could employ. Today the company relies on the auditions and alumni to bring in new talent.