Clowning Around: My clown school experience

In a recent bLog-oMotives post I wrote about my acceptance to clown school to become a member of the Amtrak Cascades Character Clown Corps, the official clowns representing the annual Portland Rose Festival. The course was being taught by Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus "Clown College" graduate Angel Ocasio - a professional clown for the past 28 years.

Prior to clown school I began considering my clown persona. As mentioned to Angel in my audition, I wanted to create a character somehow connected to my business name Jeff Fisher LogoMotives and my personal life long-interest in trains. The suggestion of the name "Caboose" by a Twitter pal evolved into "Toots Caboose."

With a clown name selected, I started collecting elements of a possible costume. I already had a traditional red "Union suit." I searched all over town for striped overalls, but had to settle for solid blue ones found at Sears. A Google search for "engineer hat, Portland" resulted in finding one available at the local menswear institution John Helmer Haberdasher. (Who knew?) I finally found red Converse® high tops after visiting numerous retailers. I was unable to find the over-sized red bandana I wanted and settled for two blue ones I already owned. Along the way I was collecting the make-up and supplies suggested in a list emailed earlier by Angel.

Arriving at Portland's World Trade Center, I had a bit of apprehension about the three-day course. This whole adventure was so far out of my personal comfort zone. Angel was the only familiar face when I entered the classroom and his welcome immediately put me at ease. The 20+ future clowns in the room in the room were not mingling much as I took my seat next to a woman who introduced herself as Debra. I found myself flipping through the packet of information, which included a couple face templates for possible make-up designs (below left), and silently wondering what the hell I'd gotten myself into.

Angel brought the class to order, made a comment about it being the last time we would all be so uncomfortable with each other and asked us to introduce ourselves. What a diverse group. My classmates, from a teenager to individuals in their mid-60's included students, a life coach, teachers, a nanny, a massage therapist, a retired lawyer/judge, a peripatologist, an investment counselor, a restaurant cook, moms with grown kids, an electron microscope technician, an architect and others.

In beginning the class, Angel explained that we would not just be creating a visual clown, but rather meaningful character clown, or "buffoons with a purpose." It was very interesting to learn the differences in the White Face, Auguste, Tramp, Hobo, European and New Circus/New Vaudeville clowns. With the descriptions fresh in my mind I realized that "Toots Caboose" might be a combination of a European and Tramp character. I found myself mindlessly doodling my thoughts on one of the face templates (above center). Following some reflections on famous clowns, Angel moved the class into some of the more physical aspects of clowning.

OK, I could feel my discomfort meter maxing out. I am not a performer and, for someone with years of public speaking experience, I am not comfortable putting myself in awkward situations in front of strangers. My last actual stage appearance had been in a nonspeaking munchkin role in a second grade production of The Wizard of Oz. After several improvisational exercises I was totally exhausted - and very pleased with myself.

Day two of clown school began with Angel going through the process of applying his make-up. It was fascinating to watch him become a new character as the make-up was applied. His facial features changed, as did his mannerisms, and his voice altered. As he explained, and demonstrated, different styles of make-up on two class "volunteers," I continued to fine-tune my concept of what the "Toots" make-up might be. Professional clown Trudi Sang and her daughter also presented a great demonstration of their make-up application.

Then it was time for all of the future clowns to begin their own make-up treatments. With my basic design in place, I was surprised how easy it was to do my own makeup. With my mustache painted in place, I prepared to add the "stubble" I had included in my original design - and I stopped. I found Angel and asked if I should add the beard element. He agreed with my hesitation and said "stop now." The primary visual element of "Toots Caboose" was complete.

With make-up in place, we all started donning our costumes. It was incredible to see so much interaction among the group of people who did not know each other the day before. Everyone was evolving into a clown - and having a lot of fun doing so.

Selecting a nose was not a easy as I thought. Initially, I felt that "Toots" would have a big, round red nose. It was very disappointing to see that the round ones simply did not look good. My frustration must have been evident for Angel to say, "You need something that points up a bit; something with more attitude." Then I saw it - being tried on by one of my classmates - and yelled across the room "There's my nose!" I tried it on and my character's "look" was complete. I was already looking forward to receiving my own professional clown nose the following week. With the nose balanced on my face, my makeup photograph was taken (above right).

The rest of day two was spent learning to be comfortable within our character. We participated in working with props, connecting with an audience, improvising and interacting with other clowns. All hesitations and apprehension were gone. It was as if I was in a room of two dozen friends, who just happened to be clowns.

It was immediately into make-up as our final day began. It was incredible to see everyone become their clown alter-ego with make-up, clothing, hats, wigs and accessories. My classmate Doug (clown name "The Maestro') brought me striped overalls, like I had been trying to find earlier, as a contribution to my costume. All the clowns in the room were helping each other finalize make-up and attire details. It was amazing to realize that we were all actually becoming clowns.

Much of the day's class was spent on each character clown making entrances, introductions and exits - learning the names and persona each individual was adopting for their clown experience. All of my self-consciousness had disappeared as I interacted with other members of the clown troupe. I was actually kind of proud of myself.

Our day ended with each class member making their clown introduction to officials of the Portland Rose Festival Foundation. We received certificates making us official members of the Amtrak Cascades Character Clown Corps, as well as train whistles from Amtrak Cascades, and other Rose Festival trinkets. All 24 of us were now official Portland Rose Festival clowns as the second Character Clown Corps graduating class. The experience was educational, emotional, exhausting, exhilarating and so much more. Clown school was one of the most incredible and rewarding experiences of my life.

I left the building without taking off my costume, or removing my make-up, and drove home. Think about it - me, Mr. Self-conscious, wandering and driving around Portland without a care - as a clown. In fact, someone saw me. A grade-school friend, Joani, saw this update posted on Facebook: "Driving to church. Just saw a clown driving a Volvo wagon, full clown gear...odd." When I got home, Ed said photos were a must. (above) He also made me go next door to introduce "Toots" to our neighbor. Let the clowning around begin.

My first name is "Toots" and my last name is "Caboose."

Here is the schedule of public appearances for the Amtrak Cascades Character Clown Corps:

• Saturday, May 9, 2009 • National Train Day • Union Station • Portland • 11:00 AM to 4:00 PM

• Friday, May 22, 2009 • Portland Rose Festival • Opening of Waterfront Village & Busker's Parade • Waterfront Park • Portland • TBA: Late afternoon/early evening

• Wednesday, June 3, 2009 • Portland Rose FestivalFred Meyer Junior Rose Festival Parade • Hollywood District • Portland

• Saturday, June 6, 2009 • Portland Rose FestivalKey Bank Grand Floral Parade • Memorial Coliseum • Downtown Portland

• Sunday, June 7, 2009 Portland Rose FestivalWaterfront Village closing festivities

© 2009 Jeff Fisher LogoMotives

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