Fall 1997

Clowning Around is
Serious Business

by Michelle Brescia ('91)

Lisa Chapman ('92) works as hard as anyone - possibly harder. She puts in long grueling hours, six days a week, 11 months a year, traveling from city to city by train without a break, cramped into one room. She constantly practices and perfects her professional skills, designs and makes her own wardrobe by hand, deals with thousands of people at a time - and keeps a smile on her face all the while.

And there's the juggling - literally.

For this Ringling Bros. & Barnum and Bailey Circus clown, performing in the Greatest Show on Earth is a serious business. And this modern vaudevillian has thought so since she was 4.

"No real 'something' sparked my interest. I just knew that's what I wanted to be," explains the Martinsville, Va., native. "I truly consider it my calling because it always felt right."

Chapman's early and adamant career choice prompted her mother to take her to the circus every year.

"I would always cry when the show was over because I wanted to be with the clowns," Chapman remembers. "I liked the pretty lady clowns the best."

As a child, she dressed up as a clown every year for Halloween and became a clown enthusiast, collecting everything from stuffed animal clowns and figurines to clown clothing and books. Her parents were supportive of her dream right from the start, but many of her teachers tried to discourage her or convince her that clowning around was just a passing whim.

At JMU, Chapman majored in theater, concentrating in costume design. Her acting, improvisation and stage combat classes proved to be especially helpful down the road with her career in clowning.

After graduation, she applied twice to Clown College in Baraboo, Wis., which is owned and operated by Ringling. Her audition included improvisational exercises and a chance to showcase gags and specialty skills like acrobatics or juggling.

"The hardest part was the application," says Chapman. "There were about 200 really unusual questions that asked you all about yourself - when was the last time you cried, what are your five favorite books ... . It's really an in-depth personality study."

The suspense was finally over in June 1993, when she was notified of her acceptance from more than 2,000 applicants.

"It was certainly worth the wait," says Chapman. "I was absolutely ecstatic. I'd been waiting for this opportunity for as long as I can remember."

And so Chapman went back to college, where she trained with veteran performers in miming, makeup, props and character development for six intensive 14-hour days a week for eight weeks. "It's mentally challenging and physically tough because you can only talk with your body," says Chapman.

Clowns-in-training also learn about clown and circus history, and during meals, watch cartoons and old movies featuring the comedy of Buster Keaton (Chapman's personal favorite), Carol Burnett and Lucille Ball for tips on how to incorporate semantical comedy into their routines.

At the end of the program, the college's 30 rookie clowns performed a graduation show for Ringling's producer Kenneth Feld, who picked 10 of the new graduates to sign contracts with Ringling. One of them was Chapman.

"I can't even put into words how happy I was," she says.

Chapman was promptly assigned to Ringling's Red Unit and began touring the country by train with the rest of the circus, which fills 52 cars. Chapman has her own room, which is just about the size of a college dorm room.

"You'd be surprised how much you can fit in a train car. I travel with almost everything I own, including my TV, VCR and stereo," Chapman says. "Three hundred and twenty-five people travel with the circus, so we're just like a small town that just happens to move around by train."

The circus tours for two years straight, with a month off for training at the Tampa, Fla., winter headquarters.

Circus life can at times take its toll.

"For me, the hardest part about being on the road is the day-to-day inconvenience I occasionally run into like not being able to find a laundermat or a post office when I need one," says Chapman. "It's also really hard to date when you don't have a permanent home. But at this time in my life, I'm willing to put that on hold to pursue my career in clowning. I love it that much."

Chapman considers the close-knit circus community her second family.

"I see these people every day. We all look out for each other and really count on one another," says Chapman.

Chapman has created her own white-faced clown character with an unusual hot pink wig shaped like a question mark.

"This character is really my own personality magnified 10,000 times," Chapman says. "When I'm performing, I'm always Lisa Chapman. But my character has got to be big enough for everyone to see to really enjoy it. I can portray any emotion, but it's got to be larger than life."

Chapman works six days a week, with one day open for travel to the next city. She usually performs 10 shows a week, with multiple shows on weekends.

Her favorite part of the performance is the 30-minute opening, called the "Come-in," when she has an opportunity to showcase her gags and to interact with the audience. During the show, Chapman and her Clown Alley cohorts perform eight different production numbers, including a laundry gag in which the clowns try unsuccessfully to wash an article of clothing at the laundermat and another routine with an Egyptian theme, featuring Chapman as Nefrititi, in which she jumps over King Tut's tomb. In other skits, the clowns walk on stilts and dress up as penguins, instruments in a clown band, and the members of a film crew, where Chapman plays a wardrobe lady.

"I always try to give my best possible performance," Chapman says. "Once I get out on the floor, and I hear the crowd cheering and the children laughing, it can immediately lift me right out of a down day."

Even when things go wrong - like the time a kiddie pool filled with bubble soap suddenly deflated during a gag, spewing 10 gallons of suds onto the arena floor.

"All I can say is you have to be ready for anything," she says with a laugh. Chapman loves the one-on-one interaction with the audience, especially with the children, who are so excited just to meet a clown, get her autograph or have their picture taken with her.

"When I see a child smile, it makes me feel like I can make a difference," Chapman says. "I only hope that by making people laugh and bringing them into the fantasy world of the circus, they can escape reality, even if for just a moment, and just have fun. That's what it's all about. I remember feeling that way when I would go to the circus, and that's why I'm here now."

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