2007_03_eric_davis.jpgWhen I think of the word clown, I think of Krusty, not a small theater in West Chelsea, but that's exactly where one of the premiere clowns of our time, Eric Davis , works as a teacher at The PIT . Davis, who was recently hired by Cirque Du Soleil, discussed what clowning means to him, how he became the clown he is today, and what he expects of clowning in the future.

What does clowning mean to you?
For me, a clown is someone who feels and thinks on the outside of their skin. They have a great generosity to show their inner impulses, for better or worse, and expose their ridiculous qualities. You can find the clown in many places- on the street- the subway, the circus-the theater- in contemporary movies, television and sometimes in the mirror. There are many people who have their own rigid definitions of the clown, too. Some say he's an idiot. Some focus on a childlike innocence. But I like to think that if we are adults our clowns are too.

What were you like in school?
I was painfully shy, cried too much, knocked my knees together when I ran, and yes eventually in high school I was a class clown. I love making people laugh.

How'd you get your laughs growing up?
Complete and utter stupidity. My mother and I used to play "make me laugh" by setting an egg timer to 60 seconds. We took turns trying to make each other laugh. The only rule was you couldn't touch the other person. Other than that, anything went. I loved to make up ridiculous songs- repeat the previous weekend's Saturday Night Live sketches. And I recall making a very lewd choose your own adventure book about my school's faculty with a soon to be hoodlum friend.

What are some of your earliest memories of seeing or hearing things that made you laugh?
I remember an uncle would pull his hood sweatshirt up and stick his hand in it as if his face were a hand. Then he would talk to me for long amounts of time as "Handface". I thought it was the funniest thing in the world. I loved to be tickled by my father. I also remember in 1st grade looking at some homework on my desk. It was a triangle with a cartoon face on it. My teacher said, "Isn't that a funny face?" So I started looking at it and I was like, "Not really," but then, as if hypnotized by the power of suggestion, it started to become funny. Then funnier and funnier. Then I realized that my teacher was yelling my name and that the entire class was looking at me. Apparently I had been in some sort of crazy laughing trance and was freaking everybody out. Is that the moment I became a clown? The Native American's believe you're chosen. Maybe I was chosen by that crazy face triangle on the funny smelling copy paper.

Are you able to pinpoint the first time that you were consciously aware that you were able to make people laugh?
I suppose It was probably with my mother or being in a party after I should have gone to bed and realizing that I could buy extra time by doing stupid physical tricks and making the grown ups laugh. It's a pretty universal experience and most clown teachers take people through a similar exercise.

How did you decide that you wanted to be a clown?
I began to explore it out of curiosity. I enjoyed it, seemed to excel at it. One day a few years ago, I looked at my resume and realized I hadn't done straight acting for quite some time, it was all me being a clown. And I thought I think I'm going to stop telling people I'm an actor and tell them I'm a clown. When I embraced that, the world began to open up for me. I also took a Clown through Mask workshop with Sue Morrison in Toronto. It was AMAZING. Opened a lot of possibility to me and what clown can be. She said one day while working on a show, "You could be one of the great clowns of your generation".. and that absolutely terrified me. Why? Failing that? The responsibility of reaching my potential. Currently I'm getting ready to go into a Cirque du Soleil show and am studying with 2 of the greatest living clowns, David Shiner and Rene Bazinet. I couldn't be in better hands, and I'm learning about a whole new game- Clowning for a 2500 seat circus tent. It's amazing and an adventure that will require a lot of work. And play!

Describe your journey to becoming the clown you are today.
A clown grows over a lifetime. Watching Shiner or Bazinet, who are now in their 50s, I see that it will grow over time. It's something to look forward to. I started clown with a sense of being physical and having a ridiculous emotion, but not necessarily connected to the audience. After working with Morrison, I have an extremely intimate connection to the audience and our conversation is the centerpiece of my shows. I try to be naked on stage. Sue directed my clown show, Absence of Magic and had me wear nothing but a dance belt, so there you go. Completely exposed. The Circus will teach me lessons to
come. I think economy, precision, rhythm and scale. Also, though I am very physical, I've also been very verbose of late. That will not happen at Cirque. Can't happen when laying to international audiences- so this will be a good lesson for me.

What's the process for writing one of your shows? Is it similar to how a comedian would write a routine?
I suppose it varies. Sometimes, I think something out and write it from a voice (as in Red , my buffoon). In Absence of Magic, my Director provoked me in a theater for 3 weeks. Everything was videotaped and transcribed. And I mean EVERYTHING- it took forever. 200 pages of text were whittled down to 10 pages of golden texts, crisis, joy and mayhem. I hated the show at first because It completely captured me- and I did not want to be that person, but then I came to realize that was okay, people could relate to that
person and it was funny.

What's it like when clowns get together? In your experience, what are clowns like beneath the make up?
Most of the clowns I know are very intelligent people, unlike the stupid icon. There are some people I know, too who I consider to be clowns, but they don't' know it. They just make me laugh- for some ridiculous quality. And I love them.

How do you punish a misbehaving clown?
Take him off of the stage. We hate that!

How do theater clowns, circus clowns, and birthday party clowns all feel about one another?
Oh, Man! Well every profession has its status cliques. I'm a Co-Director of the NY Clown theatre Festival and we know them all!

I'll just say- if a person is small- they build walls between people. If a person is generous and confident- he is okay with himself and others. There is a similar theme between these types of clowns- but the venue and the purposes are different. An audience of kids requires different things than a room full of 30 something NY hipsters.

Is clown college a thing of the past?
Ringling Clown College was shut down- as fate would have it. I just met the last person to have received a diploma from them. His name is Josh and he's going to be in a new touring show with Cirque.

What is your comedic philosophy?
Foremost, have fun. Cause if you're not- nobody else will, either. Other than that- you can't pin it down. It's a gut feeling.

What are some of your favorite pieces of clown literature or cinema?
I love this movie by Todd Solondz called Fear Anxiety and Depression. It was his first movie and It's hysterical. You can't get it on DVD, but it's on VHS at art house rental places. Run and rent it tonight cause it's not on Netflix. He won't release it cause he doesn't like it. For me it's my favorite film.

Have you ever dealt with Coulrophobia?
I suppose. My clowns are pretty edgy and probably not what most people think of when they think of the stereotypical clown. A lot of people have come up to me after a show and said, "You know, I never saw a clown I liked until tonight." Which is kind of sad. I don't think there are a lot of great clowns out there.

What do clowns fear?
Not being funny. We can be touching, poignant, etc. But ultimately we want to make people laugh.

What are some misconceptions about clowns that you'd like to clear up?
Think what you want! Like I'm going to change your mind? Next question. Okay- I will say- There is something out there other than the garish make up American Circus clown. Clowning can be very intimate. It can be highly politically charged, intellectual, sexy, scary, dangerous, transformative and even religious. Some Native American societies, the clowns were children of the gods- and a clown had just as much power as a chief.

What are some projects that you're currently involved in?
I've just directed an INCREDIBLE show called the Bouffon Glass Menajoree - It's a pack of dark twisted anti-clowns who are doing a version of The Tennessee Williams play. Very funny. It's playing at the Brick Theater in Williamsburg. I'm in the middle of creating a new Red show, which I hope to tour Europe and US with next year. And currently working on Quidam for Cirque du Soleil. We're also in preparation for the NY Clown Theatre Festival, which will happen in October of this year at the Brick. It's an international festival featuring great clown work from the US and abroad with tons of shows and workshops for experienced clowns and newcomers.

What's the best place to go see some clowning?
Bouffon Glass Menajoree at the Brick, the NY Clown Theatre Festival in October at the Brick theater. There's also a monthly cabaret that happens on Astor Street . Here you can see people from very novice beginners to very experienced trying out clown turns once a month.

You can watch a 45 minute performance of Red Bastard if you follow this link .