Very Committed Clowning
BY DUNCAN OSBORNE | Sitting on the set of “Legends,” the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus that is performing in the New York area through March 23, DJ Weiss was carefully applying the clown make-up that he would wear through media appearances and two performances.
“A lot of people think it’s a mask,” the 22-year-old out gay clown said. “It’s really not. It’s to accent your natural features.”
The make-up is applied beginning with lighter colors then darker colors, with occasional applications of talcum powder to keep it from smearing. Then comes a red nose that is held on with two-sided sticky tape, then a wig. And finally, his brightly colored costume and Weiss becomes DJ, the skateboarder who cannot skate.
After winning the job with Ringling in 2012, Weiss developed the character with production staff. The look and costume have small touches, such as a single rhinestone on one cheek, that will never be visible to the audiences he plays to in very large spaces. Even the make-up cannot be easily seen from a distance. It is the complete look and the physical comedy that make the clown.
“We have to play all the way up there,” said Weiss as he pointed to the highest tiers in Brooklyn’s Barclays Center that seats nearly 12,000 people for each performance.
His character and appearance are “more traditional,” Weiss said, adding, “It was very important to me to have that look.”
In each two-and-a-half-hour show, Weiss will wrangle goats, juggle, stilt-walk, walk on a globe, and engage in the pratfalls, sliding, and broad humor that are associated with clowning.
“We’re very physical,” he said. “I want to make a connection. I want you to feel joy and excitement.”
Recent media reports of a clown shortage notwithstanding, there is stiff competition for clown positions. Hundreds, even thousands turn out when Ringling holds an open call, as it will do on March 12 in Newark. The calls are not for jobs, they are for an opportunity to participate in a further evaluation.
Weiss has wanted to be a clown since he was a child. His mother was a Ringling clown in the 1980s and now runs a clown school in Minnesota, where Weiss was raised. His sister is a clown in Ringling’s other major circus unit. Each unit has roughly a dozen clowns.
“Since I was five years old, I wanted to be a Ringling clown,” Weiss said. “We grew up with clowning, but we didn’t grow up in the circus… I plan on staying with Ringling for as long as I possibly can.”
The circus, which is owned by Feld Entertainment, has two major units and a third that plays in smaller cities and towns. Every show has a theme, such as “Legends.” The two major units alternate the cities they play in so that in any given year audiences in a particular city are seeing a new show.
The circus will give 400 performances in 43 to 47 American cities in one year. The performers and crew travel in a mile-and-a-half-long train that is their home for the entire tour. They get meals in the “pie car.” Some performers travel with their spouses and children so there is a nursery and a school.
It is a tough schedule. Weiss and the other performers work six days a week and do 11 to 12 shows a week. When not performing, they may participate in promotional or charity events.
“I always say circus isn’t a job, it’s a lifestyle,” Weiss said. “We play games with each other, we play jokes on each other. It’s all morale. There’s always a different show going on backstage.”
Weiss clowned or worked crew for smaller circuses before his Ringling job. He worked backstage for Ringling before moving into the role he has wanted for his entire life and that is a central feature of the circus.
“Clowns are such a staple for the circus,” Weiss said.
Remaining “Legends” dates in the New York area are at the Prudential Center in Newark, Mar. 13-16; and at the IZOD Center East in East Rutherford, NJ, Mar. 19-23. Complete information and tickets at ringling.com.