Guest Post by Jeff Raz: Rhythms of the Road

Jeff Raz is the founder and director of the Clown Conservatory at Circus Center, San Francisco, CA. Their website is http://www.clownconservatory.org.

His personal web site is www.jeffraz.com.

Jeff was a teacher of mine at Dell’arte, and has been working as a clown, performer, actor, playwright, director, and teacher for over 30 years. For the last few months, Jeff has been performing the lead clown role in Cirque du Soleil’s Corteo. Here are some of his reflections on his time with Cirque.

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Rhythms of the Road

I did my first performance as ‘The Dead Clown’ in Cirque du Soleil’s “Corteo” on December 18, 2006; I did my 200th performance last week; I will receive my ‘one year’ jacket in October; my contract and my sabbatical will end in December, 2007.

Time is different on the road and this road-time has taken me a while to get used to. The first rhythm that got into my bones is the show rhythm – from make-up to warm-up to the cue to lie on the bed in the middle of the stage to the organ riff that starts the show; the ebb and flow of scenes, costume changes, checking props, intermission. Then the second act, flying the bike across the stage for the last scene, the bow and finally taking off the make-up four hours after I put it on. Unless it’s a two-show day, in which case I eat, nap and get ready to start all over again.

At one hour before show time, the whole cast does a vocal warm up followed by a quick meeting where the ‘artistic team’ tells us about any changes for the coming show (there are always a few small ones, sometimes there are really big ones if someone is sick or injured). Then we play ‘sticks’.

I love sticks. We stand in a circle, 15 to 50 of us, each person holding a 4′ wooden doweling about 34″ in diameter. We touch the floor to start, grounding ourselves. Anyone can throw a stick at any time to anyone else and everyone needs to be prepared to catch a stick from anyone at any time. It takes a kind of intense but soft focus; when I get too attached to the idea of throwing to a certain person or look to see if someone is throwing to me, I usually get surprised by a stick coming from somewhere else. Each day the game has a different personality – sometimes it feels like every hand is miraculously in the right place for every catch. Other days, it’s a mess. ‘Sticks’ is a perfect metaphor for performing, especially in a complex show with performers almost constantly in the air and the audience seated on both sides of the stage.

After sticks, I have a half hour to do a physical warm-up. I am now used to stretching my 50 year old, ex-acrobat body right out there with a bunch of Olympic gymnasts half my age. But, I try not to bounce on the trampoline right after one of the cast members’ kids bounce since I do the same moves as the 3 year olds. Some days I juggle, some days I do doubles acrobatics with a couple of the gymnasts, which is great for both my body and my ego.

At 15 minutes, I get my headset mic from the sound booth, get into my funeral costume – a grey suit of a mid-19th century design – and walk on the track under the bleachers over to stage left, shaking hands and saying ‘good show’ in as many languages as I can manage.

“Corteo” is the dream of an old clown; I dream of my funeral. The first scene is a funeral procession, the cortege of the title, with me lying on a bed center stage. Then the show spins into a series of ‘idealistic’ flashbacks, scenes from my life made rosy by time – four ex-lovers in 19th century lingerie flying on chandeliers, children romping on trampoline beds – and circus acts performed by the funeral guests.

In all, I have 16 entrances, some as short as walking across the stage chasing a pair of clown shoes and some full scenes – flying in a bed, getting a pair of wings from an angel, learning to fly and sailing up into the cupola at the top of the tent. I ride a bike through the air, play tuba and water filled wine glasses; I do scenes with a live marionette and a woman floating under 6 huge balloons. What I don’t do is any circus skills, save for 5 seconds of juggling. The man who created the role is an actor, not a circus performer so, ironically, I’m playing a character called ‘The Dead Clown’ in a big circus tent for the biggest circus organization the world has ever known and it is an acting role.

The rhythm of a week is less complex – Mondays to rest; Tuesday, Wednesdays and Thursdays, after I make my tea, I iChat with my family, do chores and work in my ‘office’ – a MacBook, mobile broadband, a couple of little speakers and a cell phone are my office/entertainment center. It’s summer, so most of my work is preparing for the Clown Conservatory to start in September; reviewing DVD auditions and getting the new students enrolled, reading evaluations of last year, working on curriculum, hashing out schedules, planning our annual retreat, hiring new teachers and more curriculum. Here in Denver, I get on my bike about a half hour before my call and get to the site in plenty of time for afternoon rehearsals and the evening show; Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays are two show days – mainly rest until it’s time to get in make-up.

Denver is my fifth city with ‘Corteo’ so I’m now used to the rhythm from city to city: the easy first few days with only a couple of rehearsals and time to get used to a new site, a new apartment and a new city. Then the dress rehearsal audience that is loud and rowdy followed by a more staid opening night crowd that rowdies up at the after-party in the VIP tent. Then a month or two of nine show weeks before we get to the closing week. In the last week in every city, our population of 140 performers, technicians, cooks and other support folks suddenly swells to over 200 with local hires and ‘fly-ins’ (tear down/set up specialists from Montreal). On Wednesday, dozens of forklifts appear on site and creep closer to our tent every day. As the closing week progresses, things start to disappear – an awning goes, then the weight lifting set, the trampoline, chairs, the mats, half of the cafeteria, etc. The final show in a city always feels like a race – will we finish the performance before they take the tent down?

Immediately after getting out of costume and make-up, the performers strike the insides of the artistic tent, including the dressing consoles, costumes, drapes, etc. I love this time – 60 folks working hard and fast, huge boxes flying around, sweating and grunting to load a few of the 62 semis that move our show. It’s like ‘sticks’ done with road cases. 45 minutes later, we’re done. The tech crew and fly-ins will work all night and for 10 more days before Corteo is set-up in the next city. I say ‘good bye’ in as many languages as I can manage and head back to my apartment to pack for my week at home.

Corteo will open in LA in a month and we’ll be in Southern California into 2008 – I’ll finish up and be home for New Years. Then I will need to rediscover the rhythms of school and family.

2007 Jeff Raz www.jeffraz.com

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