Clowning around at the circus
Realising many people’s childhood fantasy, Fiona McCannruns away to join the circus, but discovers after only one day that being a clown is a serious business
I’VE RUN away to join the circus. In contrast to childhood fantasies, alas, I’ve only run away for the day, and it involves a train to Mallow rather than hitching a ride alongside some exotic stranger on a coloured wagon passing through town. None of this detracts, however, from the fillip of excitement as the bright blue Fossett’s tent looms into view and I take in the scurry of circus folk transforming Mallow Racecourse for tonight’s performance.
I’m becoming a clown for a day, following in a long circus tradition that stretches back to the legendary Joseph Grimaldi, which leaves me with some pretty big shoes to fill (kaboom-tsssh!).
It’s a task that would seem monumental were it not for the on-hand assistance from some of the best in the business: after all, the Fossett family has been in the circus game for six generations now, tracing their legacy all the way back to one George Lowe, a Mallow man who honed his skills as a performer on Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show.
Ringmistress Marion Fossett emerges from a wagon and surveys the work in progress on the big top. “It’s our job to create magic,” she says. “The most romantic thing people have about the circus is there’s a field with nothing, and then we arrive. By the time they arrive, we’ve transformed it into a village of colour.”
The nature of the show has changed since Lowe’s original troop made its way around Ireland in 1888: the Fossetts don’t work with animals any more, and the technical side of things has become much more complicated.
“In essence, it’s the same show but it’s what’s built around it, the production values, the concept [that are different],” says Robert Fossett, the creative director of the circus.
He’s watching a complicated lighting rig being erected as an empty tent transforms over the duration of the afternoon into a big top, with seats, lights, curtains and a central ring, in which I’m to make my debut in a matter of hours.
It’s not the only transformation taking place. Marion, who took over from her father when he retired as ringmaster not long before his death in 1998, emerges from a wagon all spruced and sparkling in top hat and tails. Though she spent a sojourn away from the circus as a singer, something drew her back: “You can take the sawdust out of your shoes but you can’t shake it out of your blood,” she says. “The circus is home.”
It’s home, too, for her mother Herta, Ted Fossett’s widow, whose father was Czech and whose mother was German, but who was “christened in France and grew up in Switzerland”. Born into a circus family, Herta has never known any other life and still joins her family – children and grandchildren – on the road every summer season, despite being 79 years’ old.
“I love it,” she says simply. “I’m born and reared in it, I wouldn’t know anything else. . . This is our life, this is what we know to do best.”
And though she admits it’s not an easy life, “the reward is seeing people leave happy.” Being on the road with her family also affords Herta time with her extended brood, including a clatter of grandchildren who are already developing a taste for circus life.
One of these, Edward Fossett, is the circus’s resident clown at just 22 years of age. “It’s the best job in the show, in terms of enjoyment,” is how he sees it. Edward – or Otto, when he’s in full clown garb – is in charge of my make-up and training as a fledgling clown.
I ask him about clowns that have inspired him, and he namechecks Fumagalli, a well-known Italian clown who also happens to be Edward’s uncle. “He’s the funniest man I know.” I’m ashamed to admit that my own clown knowledge doesn’t extend beyond Krusty from the Simpsons. Is there any truth, I ask by way of deflection, to the rumour that clowns are sad creatures sentenced to make the rest of the world laugh? Apparently not. “I can be a bit miserable at times, but clowns are generally quite happy people,” he says.
And so to my make-up.
It turns out that many clowns spend so long perfecting their look that they go to great pains to patent it, which involves submission to the Clown Museum in Wookey Hole, in Somerset, where each original look is painted on an egg for posterity.
My own transformation to “Fifi” takes a mere 30 minutes, and involves some serious backcombing, a lot of hairspay, lashings of white make-up and a red rubber nose. The latter is believed to have originated from the portrayal of the clown as a drunk, stumbling about stage in oversized shoes (check!) and ridiculous, bright-coloured clothing (also check!).
THE TRANSFORMATION is magical. So much so that when I leave the tent post-make-up but before I change into my costume, a child skipping up to the tent is stopped in her tracks. “It’s a clown!” she says with wonder in her eyes, and it takes a moment to realise that she’s talking about me. I don’t even have to say a word – she already believes.
Once the tent fills up and Otto has run through our routines together briefly, it’s time to go out and entertain the children.
I am quaking in my size 52s.
I step into the ring, and the children are instantly cheering.
Their leap of faith as soon as they see me emerge with red nose and big shoes is touching: all they can see in this dressed-up, face-painted hack is a real clown, and they are so ready with their laughter that I am instantly assisted into character.
My first clown act comes as part of a routine called Singing in the Rain, which mainly involves making fun of a hapless adult volunteer. All that is required of me is to man a watering can and tip it at the right time over the right umbrella. It may sound simple, but thanks to the ingenuity of this particular circus gag, it leaves the audience in titters.
I am exhilarated, and ready for my second act, which once again involves dragging up some defenceless dads from the audience. We sit the fathers on the chairs, which we then proceed to remove one by one until the poor dads are left hovering over empty air. One push from Otto, and they’re in a heap on the floor, and once again, the children are convulsed with laughter.
Now I see why Edward loves his job. With my transformation to Fifi, I manage, for two short acts, to make a tent of children grin. I’m almost tempted to sign up for life, but for the sheer exhaustion of a full day of circus life.
Clowning is strangely draining work, and knowing that the circus folk often do two shows a day, six or seven days a week – every week – over the summer season makes me reconsider. Edward has no qualms about his chosen career, however.
Doesn’t he ever wish he’d just become an accountant? He looks aghast. “Run away and join an office? No thank you.”
Fossetts Circus will be performing as part of the Clonmel Junction Festival from July 9 to 11. The festival, which is celebrating the art of the circus, runs until July 11. More information at junctionfestival.com