Send in the clowns
by Bronwyn Wilson
Senior Staff Reporter
As a child, did you ever fantasize about riding an elephant bareback under the Big Top? Did you want to perform in a glittering outfit under bright lights as wild tigers obeyed your command to leap through fiery hoops? Did you give serious thought to running away and joining the circus on the days your mother told you to clean your room and do your homework? Maybe.
But you didn't run away. You made your bed, hung your clothes and some of you even did your homework. Your fantasy of an exciting life in the circus remained with your dreams. But for Traci Livingston, who will be teaching a class on clowning at Lockwood Elementary beginning Feb. 1, it's a whole different story.
Her professional career in the circus began as a whim. Livingston was a drama student at the University of Washington and while reading the school's bulletin board one day, she spotted a notice advertising an audition for Ringling Bros. and Barnum and Bailey's Clown College. Livingston thought it would be fun to try out.
"My parents said, 'Don't audition for that, Traci,'" Livingston recalled.
Her parents were concerned that she wouldn't finish her studies at the university if she were accepted to clown college. During the audition, she was asked to perform improvisations, such as showing the various facial expressions she'd use while watching a movie in a theater.
For Livingston who is naturally expressive and animated, the audition was a piece of cake. Not only was she chosen to attend Clown College, but she was the only person chosen from Seattle. In all, only 18 to 20 applicants were chosen from all the auditions held in the United States that year.
Clown College lasted for eight weeks. Livingston studied juggling, gag development, makeup, acrobatics and more. At the end, she was offered a contract to join the circus. Though many clowns live in a circus train with cramped quarters, Livingston was part of a pilot project that allowed clowns to live in hotel rooms and travel from circus to circus in a van.
She stayed with the circus for a year, then returned to the U of W and received her BA in interdisciplinary visual art. Today, Livingston works for Clowns Unlimited and performs as Yoo Hoo the Clown at corporate events and birthday parties. She has also performed for King County Parks and Recreation and has worked with television celebrity, Bill Nye (The Science Guy). As for Clown College, it has since closed for financial reasons.
The word clown is derived from the word "cloine" or "cloyne" which meant clumsy fellow or fool in the late 1500s.
But Traci Livingston doesn't even come close to this description. She can sling colored hoops in the air and juggle them with perfect coordination, timing and rhythm.
She is a whiteface clown, which is one of three categories of circus clowns ‹ the other two are auguste and character. Each has a specific makeup style, costume and act. The whiteface clown has neatly detailed facial features in red and black with a loose fitting outfit and ruffles around the neck.
The auguste clown wears light-colored makeup and performs a great deal of slapstick humor. The character clown performs different personalities. For example, the most famous is the tramp.
Livingston's job in the circus was to meet with the audience before and after the show, and at intermission.
"I chased people around, danced and threw popcorn," she said of her act.
Dancing and running may not seem like a big deal. But if you're wearing shoes the size of snowboards, then every move could pose a hazard. Livingston's size 18 clown shoes are pink leather Mary Janes with orange bows.
"They're very comfortable. In them, I could run very fast up the stairs in the arena," she said of her gigantic shoes.
But there was much more to her "clown look." Clad in striped tights, her outfit poufed around the hips. Her white hair wig stuck up and out like an explosion held together with hair clips. And, of course, she had a big red nose.
"I had trouble keeping mine on," she said. Wearing clown makeup all day was one of the few things about clowning that Livingston found uncomfortable. "On Saturdays there were three shows and you were in your clown makeup all day," said Livingston.
On the other hand, there is much about clowning that she loves.
"I can be as wild as I want to be. It's socially acceptable to be crazy as a clown.î Her favorite part of being in the circus was, ìthe constant excitement.î She enjoyed watching, along with the audience, the trapeze artists catapulting through the air with incredible speed.
ìThe lights (shining on circus acts) are just gorgeous,î said Livingston. ìItís really a cool thing to be in it.î One thing that she misses now that sheís no longer a part of the circus is the heavenly aroma of cotton candy. However, once she was back in Seattle, she bought some cotton candy scented perfume so she could have a reminder of her circus life.
ìPeople like to be amazed,î she said recalling the premise for P.T. Barnumís career as a circus owner. ìHe would say, ësuch-and-such exhibit is a total fakeí and then people would want to see it more. It was brilliant.î
Her ìClowning Aroundî class at Lockwood promises some amazement of its own. She will combine traditional elements of circus clowning with the fun skills of juggling, slight-of-hand magic, and balloon sculpture. ìThere will be lots of improv games,î she adds.
Livingston summed up the goal of her class, ìThe thing I really want people to learn is that their clown character is actually them on a more exaggerated level.î
To enroll in ìClowning Around,î call Bothell Parks and Recreation at 425.486.7430. Classes will be held once a week through April 5th from 6 to 7 p.m. for ages 10 to adult. There will be no class on February 22nd. The cost is $50 per person.
Traci Livingston can be reached through an e-mail link on her website: www.totallytraci.com