Given how Philly folks talk about ourselves, it would be tempting to say, “Of course.”
As in, “Of course, Philadelphia has a national reputation for clowns.” And perhaps, “Most are driving on the Schuylkill Expressway.”
Thing is, Philadelphia really is a national center for clowns, along with Los Angeles and New York. Not the red-nosed Ringling Brothers type, but the kind who work in physical theater like circus arts — acrobatics, juggling, and trapeze-work.
For evidence of clown and circus ascendancy, look no further than this year’s Philadelphia Fringe Festival with its 300-plus performances in dance, music, theater, and film (through Sept. 24).
“The amount of circus is notable and important,” said Shana Kennedy, executive director of the Circadium School of Contemporary Circus, a state-licensed professional circus arts school at Mt. Airy’s Circus Campus, which will host over a dozen acts as part of the Fringe.
“We’re finally seeing what has been building over the decades,” Kennedy said. “There are a lot of circus artists in Philadelphia.”
Reasons that are quintessentially Philadelphian, like inexpensive housing, community support, and networks everywhere. Plus an audience open to theater that looks different.
“Clowning is such a hot button for a lot of performers, particularly for comedians and clowns, because no one will give you the same definition,” said actor Justin Jain. For the Fringe, he became a clown, grafting the experiences of being a gay male Filipino onto Russian playwright Anton Chekov’s solo play, “The Dangers of Tobacco.”
The ideas behind contemporary clowning don’t involve slipping on banana peels or scaring people with Stephen King–style horror.
Quinn Bauriedel is program director of the Pig Iron School, which is affiliated with the University of Arts and includes clowning in its curriculum. In conventional theater, he said, “the actor’s job is to pretend to be somebody else in a different place and a different time.” The clown’s job, on the other hand, is to be extremely present, engaging with the audience
The fourth wall — that unspoken barrier between viewers and performers — simply doesn’t exist.
“For me, the clown is a mode that doesn’t pretend the audience isn’t there,” said Alexandra Tatarsky, a Pig Iron graduate now clowning around Germany performing before returning here to present “Sad Boys In Harpy Land,” at the Fringe later this month.
“The audience is there — and those people make the clown feel a certain way,” Tatarsky said.
Philadelphia audiences identify with the underdog, so the clown’s innate humanity resonates, she said. “We all fall down, and we all have to get back up and that’s what life is all about.”
Philly has a circus past. America’s first circus building opened at 12th and Market streets, with an inaugural performance on April 3, 1793. Later in the season, President George Washington attended a show.
Centuries later, some Swarthmore College performing arts majors got interested in the craft of expressing things more by movement than words. In 1995, they created Pig Iron Theatre Company, collaborating with the innovative Headlong Dance Theater, founded here in1993.
“None of us was from Philadelphia,” recalled Bauriedel, one of the original Pig Iron members. “We could all live here really cheaply, so we could spend more of our day making plays,” he said. The college generously provided free rehearsal space.
In 2011, Pig Iron developed a graduate program. It now has 125 alums schooled in physical theater, circus, and clowning. They are everywhere in the Philadelphia circus/clown scene.
What kind of clowns can audiences expect at the Fringe?
In “Shitter,” clown Jeff Evans sits on a toilet delivering commentary on life, our bodies, and our thoughts. Clown Crackhead Barney (that’s the name on the program) promises a “performance from the depths of hell” in “Cooning into the Metaverse.”
For red-nose fans, “Clown in the Round” by the Id Circo Theatre Group offers popcorn and Shakespeare for families. For a take on post-9-11 America, clown Sohrab Haghverdi presents “Ohnonononononoooo 9/11MANComesREALLYreallyhardTONIGHT.”
Catch the shows
Philadelphia Fringe Festival:Through Sept. 24. This is the main ticket-buying hub. You can buy online, at the FringeArts building (140 N. Christopher Columbus Blvd.) or by calling the box office at 215-413-1318.
Cannonball Festival: Through Sept. 30. Hubs: Icebox Project Space (1400 N. American St.), Fidget Space (1714 N. Mascher St.) Maas Building (1320 N. 5th St.) and Liberty Lands Park family programming (913 N. 3d St.)
Circus Campus Presents: Through Sept. 24, Circus Campus (6452 Greene St.)
Bazzar by Cirque de Soleil: Sept. 26 to Oct. 22, Greater Philadelphia Expo Center, (100 Station Ave., Oaks).
Cannonball Festival, a mini fest within the Fringe, was developed by the Almanac Dance Circus Theatre, a contemporary Philadelphia-based company led by Pig Iron graduates.
“Once there are enough like-minded folks, there’s a community that will come and see your shows,” said Almanac co-founder Ben Grinberg. “We spend so much time on our phones, so much time consuming media that it can be great to have an experience that is about connection.”
Kennedy, of the Circadium School, thinks people are drawn to circus and its physicality because “humans achieving incredible things is always going to deeply resonate and uplift.”
It was Philly’s reputation for circus arts that drew her and husband Greg Kennedy here, inspiring them to create Circadium and the Philadelphia School of Circus Arts. Now their students are everywhere.
Greg, who toured with Cirque du Soleil from 2009 to 2014, specializes in juggling.
For him, Philadelphia’s circus scene and its many clowns are a matter of momentum. “When you build it, they will come.”
Editor’s note: A previous version of this article incorrectly described artist Sohrab Haghverdi‘s show as providing an Arab and Muslim perspective. That was an inaccurate assumption and we apologize for the error.