Outside of the Big Top tent under gathering angry-looking clouds heavy with rain, seven Smirkus clowns are working hard to perfect the latest variation of a routine before the downpour that is sure to come.
They are working under the direction of Smirkus artistic director, Troy Wunderle. Wunderle and others have been working hard on this routine. The group consists of Sam Gurwitt (George Washington), Magnus Giaever (King Louis), Anna Partridge (viking), Chase Culp (caveman), Sarah Tiffin (engineer), Liam Gundlach (time traveler), and Maia Gawor-Sloane (soldier) and each is working hard to stay in character and remember the “beats” and pace at which the act moves.
Troy paces eagerly around the ten square yards of grass the group has allocated for a practice space. In his head, he has a version of it planned out. Now the task is to make it visual.
“So one more time,” he says to Sam, “it’s a beat, then notice Liam and Sarah, brush yourself off and then notice what’s in your hand. You two – look at him, shrug, then follow.”
Four minutes later, the routine has changed again. New ideas are presented and incorporated. If they can appear effortless and can be executed naturally, they stay and will be tested in the show. Often, smaller houses can be helpful in determining what elicits the best response from an audience and the clowns can develop that fine sense of what works, what can be improved, and what simply just needs to be cut. But tonight, the audience will be a large one nearly sold out. They will try it anyway.
The first drops of rain begin to fall and every one looks anxiously toward the shelter of the tents by the “pie car,” where dinner is waiting. But before they make a break for it, they run through the act one more time. This time it is nearly flawless. Nearly. So they rewind to the start and work their way through the motions again, marching, crawling, slapping, and tripping over each other until the end of rehearsal.
Clowning at its highest form is a delicate game of action and response, of discovery and reflection. Timing is everything. Three versions of this bit have been written, edited, and eventually rewritten. This is the newest, and tonight it, like the others will be tested in front of an audience. The clowns are persistent. And they will keep working until they get it right – until you laugh so hard your sides hurt.