Inside Clowning

A clown's story

One of the articles in Play & Humor (IC#13)
Originally published in Spring 1986 on page 41
Copyright (c)1986, 1997 by Context Institute

Diane: How did you get into clowning?

Dino: I started doing magic shows in fourth grade, as lots of kids do, and I just never quit. I did magic shows all the way through high school, and some, though not as many, in college. After college, I worked as a preschool teacher in a daycare center because I really wanted to work with kids. Ultimately I thought I was going to be a first grade teacher. To supplement my knowledge of kids, I went to school again at one of the Seattle area Community Colleges. In one of my classes, somebody came in a clown suit to demonstrate puppets, but I was more captivated by the clown suit than by the puppets. The next time I got a call to do a magic show for a birthday party, I went as a clown instead. I didn’t know what to do, but I had some rope in my pocket and we played walk the tight rope, jump rope, tie up the clown and everything I could think of. The mother loved it. I thought, "Well, that was a success," and I charged her $5.

I decided to try it again, but I needed more knowledge. I went to trick and puzzle stores and wrote down the phone numbers of all the clowns listed on the bulletin boards. I called them all, asking what they did, writing down as many details as I could. They did basically games and stories. I then went to the library but found nothing on birthday clowns. (I’m now writing a book on how to be a successful birthday clown.) Then I just started clowning professionally. Each year I decided to learn a new skill. I began by learning and collecting games because I already knew a lot of games from summer camp. I now have a repertoire of over 600 new games that I’ve collected in my head.

I started taking story-telling classes and balloon twisting from Dave the Balloon Man. I needed to develop a personality, so I took Grover from Sesame Street and J.P. Patches and combined their voices. I found that every clown has a fake voice, so I had a goofy clown voice for years, too. But as the years have evolved, I’ve learned that kids really like you better if you are yourself. When you talk to them in a fake voice and then talk to an adult in a real voice, there’s a double standard there and they feel they’ve been cheated or lied to. So now I talk in my normal voice when I’m a clown; and the kids feel a lot more drawn to me because I’m honest with them.

As the years went on, I decided that if I was going to be a clown, I had to learn how to juggle. This was a big ordeal that took me a long time. Next I decided to learn to ride the unicycle because I had made all these other friends who could ride them and I couldn’t even get on one. I spent years learning how to work the unicycle and I’m still working on it. I just kept expanding my skills. One year I took tap dancing, another year I concentrated on roller skating, and still another, sky diving.

Diane: I enjoyed the violin addition to your act. How did you happen to bring that into your clowning?

Dino: Well, I started that in fourth grade. In fact, I had a really neat violin teacher who thought that violin exercises were boring; so he said, "Don’t practice scales, practice fiddle tunes." Basically fiddle tunes are nothing more than scales anyway and they’re fast, which makes it fun for the kids. Why just drill in a standard position? So he taught me how to play on my head, behind my back, under my leg and in my mouth – just to keep the interest going and to build my muscles to hold it up there. Learning the violin this way was a big boon to me, something I’ve used ever since.

Diane: What different types of groups have you encountered for clowning?

Dino: Birthday parties are first; company picnics are second. And then there are banquets like Blue and Gold Dinners, Father/Daughter, Mother/Son, etc. There are conventions and adult gatherings with banquets and evening entertainment afterwards, and occasionally stage shows.

I had no idea that birthday parties would become repeat business, but some families have me back year after year. I have to change my act every year!

Diane: Where do you see this aspect of your livelihood and personality fitting into your life’s plan?

Dino: I want to make a living making people happy. At first, I had thought of being a lawyer, a doctor, a dentist or one of those things that dealt with people’s problems all the time; but I thought, "No, that just doesn’t feel good." I loved kids and I also wanted to be self-employed; those were two givens for my life. From there I thought, "How could I branch out?" I liked education rather than just pure entertainment. I want to have something stick.

Diane: How has being a clown affected you?

Dino: Being a clown is like intense personal therapy. First you see all your own problems reflected in all the other people that you deal with; and in order to deal with those people, you’ve got to deal with the problems in yourself first. By being a clown, I have become much more centered and grounded. I am a completely different person now than I used to be. I used to be negative, critical, complaining, comparing and a perfectionist. Now I have learned to have fewer expectations, not to assume anything, and to flow with how things are going without trying to control them. I don’t just do a gig for the money either. I go out to be my very best self and by putting a lot of myself into it I find I get a lot out of it.

I’ve learned it is very helpful to find out what people laugh at because that determines what kind of people they are, what their attitudes are and what their whole world view is. A lot of people laugh at what they’re most uptight about, but I’m beginning to realize that’s only part of it. It’s more like finding out what their patterns are. First you have to know what your own patterns are before you can know if you’re locking into each other. Once you’ve figured out another person’s patterns, without being critical or judgmental, that basically says, "Now I understand you, now I know how I can best fit in with you, and help you or relate to you." The best way to develop rapport with anybody is to match their energy level. You can learn to closely match another person’s energy level and language (people speak either visually, orally or tactically), and be aware of how they use their eyes and their body movements. The more we match each other the more symbiosis we’ll have, and the more we will be able to go into a deeper level of communication with each other.

What I try to give others is a feeling of self worth. I want them to feel that even if they think no one else in the world likes them, Dino the Clown does. Even if they feel totally incompetent, I can see that they’re able to do something. I want to build up their self esteem. That’s number one because so many people have low self esteem. Second, I want to be totally honest with them so that they know that I’m talking to them and not at them. By being honest, hopefully my example will rub off and they will then be honest and open with other people.

So that’s what I’ve been working on as a clown recently – doing that with every person. With that attitude, you like everybody. It becomes unconditional love. There is no reason to not like anybody.

I immediately look for good qualities in whomever I’m with and try to bring those qualities out because I know, as a clown, I’m only going to be with them for a short time. It’s my only chance to, for example, just plain look into their eyes. When I’m blowing up a balloon for a child, making a balloon animal, I have a choice of looking at what I’m making or looking into the child’s eyes. It’s so much more fulfilling to make that balloon animal while I’m looking into that child’s eyes, even just for 15 seconds. It makes all the difference to me. It feeds me energy when I do that, that’s how I can keep going; and it just makes me really love that person.