It Takes a Clown 

Developing a clown character is "an alchemy," says "unashamed" jester Jaff Raz.

Once upon a time, Alameda "nouveau circus" legend Jeff Raz accepted the party line that the mark of a juggler's prowess was how many balls (or axes, or flaming torches) a performer could keep in the air. "Now my favorite juggling act," Raz says, "starts with one ball, and ends with three balls, set to a piece of Bach music." Not that technique isn't important -- it takes six hours of practice a day to produce a world-class juggler, Raz says -- but these days, his focus is on quality over quantity. "I'm more interested now in how to use juggling as an expressive tool. The number of words you can say is somewhat important, but it matters more what words you choose." If Raz sounds like a feng shui adherent in his desire to strip performance down to its essence, this simplicity only exists onstage. Offstage, there is nothing simple about the boy who found his calling at the age of fourteen, juggling at the Renaissance Faire. Raz has spent the past thirty years clowning, acting, directing, writing, and teaching. Nowadays Raz carries with him a neatly typed list of potential projects -- solo shows, performances, lectures -- that fills two columns. All reflect Raz's deep commitment to his work, and his belief that clowns have much more to offer the world than red noses and overstuffed Volkswagens.

In a short-sleeved plaid shirt and khakis, carrying a fat leather portfolio, Raz doesn't look like a clown. He's certainly sizable -- an oft-noted characteristic that makes his "Pino and Razz" partnership with the five-foot-tall Diane Wasnak especially striking -- but his is a gentle bigness; his broad shoulders are well-suited to being the "bottom mount" supporting a stack of acrobats, his height the perfect foil for a routine he does with Wasnak where she wears a silver tux and he sports a puffy pink strapless ball gown.

It's nearly impossible to list the things Raz has done -- and with whom -- in any linear order. Around here he's probably best known for his work with the New Pickle Family Circus, as well as stints with Vaudeville Nouveau and Make*A*Circus. He's been integral to the development of puppeteer Liebe Wetzel's "object animations," helping write and direct Snake in the Basment and The Wrapping Paper Caper. A graduate of the Dell'Arte School of Physical Theatre, Raz has taught at the (now defunct) Ringling Brothers Clown College and the San Francisco School of Circus Arts, where he helped found the Clown Conservatory, the only professional clown training program in the country. He's written solo (non-clown) works, including the wrenching Father-Land about his experiences as a secular Jew coming to terms with the Holocaust, and the more recent Birth Mark, a humorous account of the journey he and his wife made to adoptive parenthood. This month he will return to playing the jester at Yosemite's Bracebridge Dinner, a 17th-century style extravaganza of costumed performers and lavish food that was dreamed up by Ansel Adams to encourage wintertime tourism in the valley.

A man who thinks nothing of balancing an eighteen-foot ladder on his chin or writing a solo show requiring him to play twelve distinct characters, Raz is finding that parenting his four-year-old son Micah is as challenging -- and profound -- as anything he's done onstage. Still, though fatherhood has slowed Raz down a little -- he no longer spends six months a year on the road -- it hasn't stopped him from constantly examining and refining the many different kinds of work he does. Indeed, Raz is almost as proud of his other child, the Clown Conservatory, a rigorous program in which students from as far away as Portugal and Africa spend fourteen hours a week -- not counting reading and written homework -- learning character development, Chinese acrobatics, body awareness, equipment handling, and other skills essential to the well-rounded clown. Raz has long been interested in the "new circus" movement, where the traditional animal acts are replaced with a focus on clowns and shows with overarching themes. He explains that while acts like Cirque du Soleil, with their complex acrobatics and electronic music, have "a veneer of newness," they are rooted in the same soil as his work, drawing from American clowns of the 18th and 19th centuries who had to move easily from juggling, acrobatics, and ropewalking to schlepping props. Some of his students want to be professionals, some are just "clown-curious," and some want to use clowning in a community context such as relief, therapeutic, or political work. "My heart swelled at the use of puppets and clowning [at the WTO protests] in Seattle," says the man who describes "very political" as a Berkeley kid growing up in the '70s.

Raz describes developing a clown character as "an alchemy, an art" -- one that is increasingly rare in this country. Though he decries characters like Ronald McDonald who are "filtered through a corporate media, and really antithetical to clowning," he praises American clowns Wavy Gravy, Charlie Chaplin, and Bill Irwin -- none of whom are afraid to embrace high silliness. "Some clowns try to 'pass,' distancing themselves from the hokier forms of clowning -- you know, making fun of balloon animals and whoopee cushions and stuff. But that's wrong. That's all part of our language. It's just trying to pass. It's like Jews getting nose jobs. It's trying to pass for being not-clowns. But all of that is part of our heritage."

To that end, unashamed clowns and physical performers of all stripes who want to get in touch with their clown roots will have an opportunity to study with Raz when he brings an intensive workshop in "Creating Physical Characters" to the MotionFest Physicality and Performing Arts Festival in San Francisco the weekend of January 3-6. Besides Raz, MotionFest is studded with luminaries -- Avner the Eccentric, Wasnak, Joan Mankin, original members of the Flying Karamazov Brothers, comedians and comedy writers -- many of whom will be performing as well as teaching and discussing the deeper aspects of their work.

"The role of the clown is critical," Raz says, "because clowns will go to places that other people aren't willing to go -- scarier places, or sillier places. Hopefully they'll go there to reflect back to their community things nobody wants to deal with. And sometimes the tools for that are just stupid and embarrassing. In my opinion, there's not a real premium on originality of form, or of structure. But the paradox is that clowning mines your particular idiosyncrasies. So if we're doing something really stupid like sitting on a whoopee cushion or making a balloon dog and if we're doing our jobs right, it'll say something about the world; it will be funny; it'll entertain the people we're with right there; and the way you do it, the way I do it, will be very different."


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