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Performers get lesson in art of clowning

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It takes precision of thought and action, along with grand gestures, to make it as a clown, and participants in a workshop during Venice Theatre’s Festival in paradise got a master class Wednesday in the art form.

Steve Smith, a former Ringling Bros. and Barnum and Bailey Circus clown and longtime director of the Ringling Bros. Clown College, demonstrated the careful planning and movements that go into the oldest and even cheesiest sight gags.

Clown Steve Smith leads a workshop in clowning and humor without words during the Venice Theatre's Festival in Paradise on Wednesday. HERALD-TRIBUNE PHOTO / JAY HANDELMAN

In a 90-minute workshop called “Laugh and the World Laughs With You!” he had participants beaming, jumping around, rolling their necks and building up a routine that could be called classic clown.

His focus was on teaching the class to display “your biggest physical self.” Clowns often perform in big arenas and everything they do has to be seen clearly and understood by people in the top seats. (The back of New York’s Madison Square Garden is about a quarter mile from the arena floor, he said.) Over time, the performers will learn to adjust those movements to the size of the performance space, he said.

Steve Smith, left, leads a group of performers through an exercise in laughing and sharing the stage with other performers. HERALD-TRIBUNE PHOTO / JAY HANDELMAN

He tried some group exercises first to teach the performers the importance of sharing the stage with other actors. He had five people sitting on a bench waiting for a bus. One starts to giggle, nods to the next person, and the giggle soon turns into a laugh and then loud guffaws as each of the five passes the infectious sound up and down the line.

The main focus of the Smith’s program was the creation of a traditional slapstick routine in which two old friends (clowns) meet and try to reconnect with a handshake. But they keep passing each other, before one gets frustrated, knocks out the other and then tries to revive him.

The group broke up in pairs and two performers from an Australian troupe put their own spin on the routine which had Smith laughing himself.

Steve Smith works with Singapore performer Guo Xuqian during a workshop on Wednesday at the Venice Theatre's Festival in Paradise. HERALD-TRIBUNE PHOTO / JAY HANDELMAN

“You have to connect every action to a thought,” Smith told the group. “Everything you do has to come from something meaningful.”

The lessons go beyond clowning to any type of acting.

He spent several minutes working out one part of the routine with Caio Stolai, a Brazilian puppeteer who dazzled the festival’s opening night crowd with his one-person show “Dust Circus.”

“He is amazing,” Stolai said of Smith after the class. “I learned a lot.”

Last modified: February 11, 2011
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