An Interview with ALAN WARE (’95), Ringling clown
by School Director Joan Schirle
Copyright J. Schirle 2003
Dell’Arte grad Alan Ware (‘95) has been with the Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey Circus Red Unit since 2000. Now a Senior Clown, as “Grandpa” he is one of the only mime clowns on Clown Alley. Alan recently donated a large collection of books on acting, mime, and clown to our library.
Joan: Alan, what brought you to Dell’Arte?
I had gotten hooked on mime in the late 70’s – just as it was beginning to die out and breakdancing replaced it. Remember those days? So I got hooked – hard – and did a lot of street busking and I directed a mime group for awhile. I spent my summers as a mime at SeaWorld. But when I moved to Albuquerque in 1988, the options for mime were pretty much dead and there really wasn’t any place to go with it. So I got into theatre. I developed further the characterizations I had with mime and found, actually, that they were a strong resource for acting. Later I got into character movement and choreography that continued throughout during my theatre days in Albuquerque.
After about 35 or 40 productions, I decided to jump into the university and give it 'the old college try,' so I went in to the University of New Mexico. But I became pretty frustrated…I loved theatre of the absurd and I loved farce and I loved comedy. There weren't very many venues within the university to pursue that, so I thought, why no go back into mime? I was good at it and decided to get the training I really need. So I wrote around and scoured the world for info on schools – including Dell’Arte and Marceau’s school in Paris, and came across the Goldston & Johnston school in Ohio.
I had met Gregg Goldston, the founder, years ago when I was in high school – he was touring his own one-man show. I called him and lo and behold, not only did he have a pretty successful school, but Marcel Marceau was actually going to be teaching there that summer! So I jumped in. I didn't know how I was going to afford it – I'd just broken away from the university, quit a dead end job and threw my cards up and pursued what I really loved. In a leap of faith, I went to the Goldston school and studied with Marceau.
JS: What led to the transition from being a mime/actor to clowning?
I had heard about Dell’Arte School from an ad in American Theatre. Any school that focuses on mime and physical comedy, I thought, must be for me! I love Moliere. And I love commedia. I wanted to follow up what I learned at the Goldston school and to go into a more intensive program, so I entered Dell’Arte School in 1995.
In Blue Lake, I encountered a few grads of Clown College and had met some others at the mime school. The fact was I didn't care for clown very much and it wasn't until I went to Dell'Arte –when we went through the clown segment – that I really fell in love with it, understood it. Our teacher, Ronlin Foreman, did a show there that blew me away – he had a wonderful gag with a door that flipflopped and he sang Madame Butterfly on spring shoes – what he got away with in terms of the audience…! It was so immediate, I didn't realize you could have so much rein over an audience. And I know it's a delicate balance… I'd learned a lot of that in my busking days. You learn what person to pick up on, who to avoid…. But it was Ronlin's work that really blew me away.
Some other lessons I learned at Dell'Arte kept me very, very hungry to get into clowning, So I thought “why not?” I knew some clowns, notably Steve Smith who was dean of Clown College at the time. I graduated from Dell'Arte in Spring of ‘95 and a few months later applied for the Ringling Clown College. I entered in 1996 in Sarasota. I got a full scholarship – based on my previous training both at Dell'Arte and the Goldston school. Then I was awarded a performing contract and toured from ‘96-‘98 with the Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey Blue Unit. I left the road for awhile to help a friend in very poor health, but then returned to Ringling in 2000 with the Red Unit and I've been on the road ever since. Finally I've paid my dues – I'm a Senior Clown now. It's been really good…I've been very fortunate inasmuch as I've always maintained my character.
JS: What do you mean, “ maintained your character?”
It was never my aspiration to become a 'Ringling-type clown' per se. When the show came to my home town in Albuquerque in ’96, a few weeks before I went to Clown College, I saw the show a couple of times and thought – OK, these are the clowns who made the cut; I have to think of a way to stand out above them to make the cut. I kept hearing Carlo saying, “Contrasto! Contrasto!” And it worked –I went in as a character clown. It was in complete contrast to what the other clowns were doing. So to this day instead of running amok and acting like a loon, I have a very strong character clown.
As Grandpa, I go in and hobble slowly around the ring and it sometimes takes 15 minutes to get from the portal around the hippodrome track. He's a great character – he's second nature now. I've played him foreve r– if we do 450 shows a year and multiply by five years you have an idea how long I've been doing this character!
JS: How did you create your clown character?
I always favored character parts back in my theatre days, and a couple of times played very old men. I took a lot of the Stupino character we studied at Dell'Arte, plus Pantalone and sort of melded them both together. It wasn't really based on people I've known, but on stock characters that we've studied. There was a lot of development, particularly in the first year at Ringling. There was a lot of physical strain in the character, compared to what I do now –I now use about 50% less energy than I did. And what I was doing was not the norm for a Ringling clown… When I first came in, a lot of the road clowns were saying “what the hell are you doing?" Or they wanted to know what my gimmick was – juggling? rola bola? And I said, “My gimmick is MIME.” And they sort of stopped and blinked and said, "No, really, what do you do?"
JS: With so many shows every year, how do you keep your character fresh?
I've been real lucky. I've paid my dues. A lot of people say “why are you still here?” I come in and do the show every night. And it's there. Artists will go to the studio and practice and make sure their performance is honed. I'm fortunate to have the opportunity to test out my material on the people. The people change from city to city, the flavor and humor of people who come to show change with each city. So I do a lot of improv. Most of the good clowns that you find other than those who are heavily skilled – balancing or juggling and so on – most of the good character clowns have a great instinct for improv. Those are the kind I like to work off of and partner with, because they have a really good chemistry. Or you work off the chemistry of the audience. I still get emails to corporate – either emails of pity or emails of umbrage…from outraged seniors thinking it's a teenager making fun of them, or emails begging corporate to let this old clown retire! It’s a character, not a caricature. You've got to be honest –one thing I learned about clowning. It’s very immediate but also very honest. Bill Irwin said that as an actor you're seldom clowning, but that as a clown you're always acting.
JS: And now you’re a Senior Clown. Any advice about studying, or auditions?
My main motive when I came in was to give the producers and the audience an image they won't forget. Really. It's like what we learned in mask – to 'present' the mask. You didn't have all this spaghetti and woo-woo and that stuff--you actually gave them a solid concrete image, all the stuff you learn at Dell'Arte in terms of the commedia and the mask work: the rhythm, the musicality of the character, the size of the character, the movement, how the body supported the mask. The lessons we had at Dell’Arte in melodrama, in mask, corporeal mime – they were very important – not just to physically support the face but to learn to act 340 degrees as opposed to a proscenium – to relate the size of what I'm playing to the size of the arena.
JS: And I have a very strong impression of your back walking around the ring… Thank you, Alan.
In 2006, two more Dell’Arte grads were hired as Ringling clowns: Daniel Fernandez and Jamarr Woodruff.