For 146 years, the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus has traveled around the country by train, wowing audiences with spectacular entertainment and exotic animals.
But as you’ve probably heard, the iconic circus is folding its big tent forever. The circus is visiting Atlanta and Gwinnett for the last time. (See box for more information on remaining shows at the Infinite Energy Arena in Duluth.)
In recent years, the circus has phased out Asian elephants and introduced new elements, including bike daredevils. But clowns, with their wild hair, bright costumes and slapstick antics, have remained a constant in the circus. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution recently interviewed two of them: Ivan Vargas, a 26-year-old tenured clown of more than eight years with Ringling, and Matthew Lish, a 19-year-old clown who started with the circus just a few days before the closing announcement was made. (The interviews were edited for length.)
Q: What is your background and how did you become a clown?
Vargas: My family were trapeze artists in the late ’80s. I was born in 1990 when my father was still performing. I was born and raised in the circus. I actually started performing when I was 15. I was doing acrobatics with a troupe from Chicago. When I turned 18, that’s when I became a clown. I’ve always been around circus performers, my parents, my friends. And performing was a dream come true, but there was always something missing. I wanted to interact with people more. And I guess the obvious choice was to be a clown because they are so involved in the show and so involved with the audience as well. There was an opportunity to audition, so I did, and I didn’t think I was going to pass, but I had my acrobatic skills and I used that to my advantage.
Lish: I am what they call a “First of May” performer (a term used for performers new to a show). This is a dream come true. I wanted to be a clown with the “Greatest Show on Earth” since I was 3 years old and my parents took me to see Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus in my hometown of New York City. I fell in love with clowns and have wanted to be one ever since. My dad is also a clown (not with Ringling), and when I was born, I also took an interest in performing, so he and I learned to work together and developed our skills together, and later on, my younger sister got involved in the act and it became a family thing.
I went to an open call in July 2015 at a circus festival in Springfield, Mass., and Ringling Bros and Barnum & Bailey Circus was holding clown auditions. The audition consisted of two parts. The first part was a lot of improvisation exercises. (Then) we had three to five minutes to present our own material. I decided to do something that was purely slapstick. I presented a comedic version of a magic trick. There is a very classic magic trick called the “needle through the balloon magic trick” — you blow up a balloon and you stick a needle in the balloon, and the balloon doesn’t pop. That is basically the magic trick. So as a clown, I kept trying to put the needle through it and it kept popping in various ways, very slapstick. And just by happenstance, I perform that gag that I auditioned with pretty much every day as part of our all-access pre-show.
Q: Tell me about your character.
Vargas: This year I have a different character. I had been more of a hip-hop character, but this year I am more of a big kid. So my costume is a hat, but it has this little spiral thing on top and it is a little different for me. Every time I see something, I am very excited about it, even if it’s something small. I am just a big kid.
Lish: My character is a flight attendant, and so I wear blue dress pants and a blue vest and I have tons of green accents all around the costume, and I wear a green tie and blue dress shirt and bright blue aqua flight captain’s hat, and the thing that distinguishes me from a distance is I wear bright neon-green glasses.
Q: What will you do next?
Vargas: I am not sure yet. I live in Las Vegas and there is probably a lot of stuff there I could audition for, but right now, I am very focused on finishing Ringling Bros. strong and giving it 110 percent every performance. Come May, I will figure it out.
Lish: At the moment, I am not really thinking about it. I am taking it one day at a time and making memories for myself and the audience to look back on for many years to come.
Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Presents Circus Xtreme
Now through March 5. $15-$65. (See website for showtimes.) Infinite Energy Arena, 6400 Sugarloaf Parkway, Duluth. 770-626-2464, www.InfiniteEnergyCenter.com.