A Review of “Life in a Clown House: A Manual and a Memoir”

Life in a Clown House

“I read a book about snails and how this woman was bedridden and she described the life of the snail, and how its movement across a space was like the biggest travelogue you could imagine. How her every little action became so big in dealing with its tiny world. As I became sicker, I wondered if you couldn’t stop time in the same way that the writer did so successfully. To grind the reader to a halt and make them aware of small things they usually miss.”

Julie Goell lived. Growing up abroad, she gravitated toward mime and commedia dell’arte, and dedicated her life to the performing arts. From busking in Rome’s Piazza Navona to trodding the boards on Broadway; as a teacher and lifelong learner, Goell is a paragon whose example performers of all stripes may learn from.

“The clown is sustained by The Game itself, the ongoing riff of life, and everything is fodder for her imagination. She is driven by her compulsion to play The Game.”

Reading Life in a Clown House is like stealing a glimpse into someone’s private journal or diary, but the techniques and pieces of Julie Goell’s life are shared freely by the author. As a gift. Part memoir and part grimoire, Goell weaves her magic while showing you how it’s done.

“Make clear choices about the basics, or you’ll find yourself swimming upstream.”

Indeed, the vignettes from her life are set up and told like the pantomime scenarios described in the front half of the book. These vignettes are as riveting and engaging as good theater. Goell is a master storyteller, and Life in a Clown House is a master class.

“Someday, I thought, I would write a travel pamphlet on cooking decent meals with ingredients from 7-Eleven.”

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Julie Goel in Carmen the Mopera at West End Studio Theatre. Photo: Steve DiBartolomeo, Westside Studio Images. #1040

This is a book I wish I had been around in my youth, and which I would commend to any young performer today. It describes both the wide-eyed wonder and the workaday effort needed to carve out a place onstage. To carve out a stage.

But I’m a not a young up-and-comer, and I’m old jaded so-an-so. Yet, I still feel inspired and enriched by the lessons in Goell’s book. Not just the practical advice for making an entrance, working with props, or involving an audience; the lessons from a life well-lived, ended too soon, and destined to resonate for many more years to come.

Life in a Clown House: A Manual and a Memoir is of course available on Amazon, but I would recommend buying from the source.

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We Long for a Place

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We long for a place where individuals can shine on the strength of their individuality. Where being far out is seen as a strength and not a handicap. For a world of magic and of elbow room, of freedom and nature and adventure: of horses, gypsy wagons, campfires, hoppable freight trains; long walks down dirt roads, of meeting a constant stream of strange, eccentric characters–“fellow travelers”–other ungovernable, perverse, and willful idealists for whom town life is simply too bleak. We need escape from our “shiny metal boxes,” from superhighways (where towns are passed through at eighty miles an hour and never savored, never cherished), from cages, cubicles, phones that ring no matter where we are, and jobs at “One Industrial Park Boulevard.”

This is why vaudeville will always triumph, for it is merely an expression of people’s longing for surprise, invention, joy, laughter, tears, transcendence. It is the theatrical embodiment of freedom, tolerance, opportunity, diversity, democracy, and optimism.

Trav S.D., No Applause–Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous

This is a fantastic survey of the history of vaudeville. Exhaustive but not exhausting. A broad overview that dishes delectable details. Buy it and read it.

“Acrobats of the Soul”: A Revisitation and Review

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Out of print, but used copies are widely available.

I recently revisited a book I haven’t read since college, Ron Jenkins’ Acrobats of the Soul: Comedy & Virtuosity in Contemporary American Theatre. It is a time capsule from the late eighties, each chapter sketching a portrait of a variety artist or circus. Performers such as Paul Zaloom, Penn & Teller, Spalding Gray, Avner the Eccentric, and the Flying Karamazov Brothers; Circuses ranging from Cirque du Soleil‘s then-nascent techno rock show to the scrappy one-ring Pickle Family Circus.

When I first read the book, I did so with the wide-eyed wonder of a teenager in Arkansas, amazed that such performers exist. Coming back to it about a quarter of a century later, as someone who follows in the variety arts tradition both as both a solo artist and as one-half of Mr. Snapper & Mr. Buddy, my appreciation for the performers and their acts is much deeper. Jenkins’ book is a great jumping-off point for further discovery, providing descriptions of acts and some script excerpts.

Paul ZaloomWhere it fails for me is in Jenkins’ attempt to politicize the performers and acts. Granted, he doesn’t have to read much into the politically charged work of Zaloom or Gray, but his analysis of Cirque (as a for instance) feels particularly contrived. Jenkins is attempting to make an overarching point about the resurgence of variety artists in the ‘80s as a reaction to Reagan conservatism.

Without a doubt, opposition to the powers-that-be has always been and always will be a powerful motivator for great art. The fact that these same artists continued to thrive through the Clinton years and beyond speaks to a more fundamental quality, something that defies mere politics. And this is the greater lesson I take away from the book now: commitment to one’s craft, and active concern with audience engagement is more lasting than the heat of the political moment.

Avner the EccentricIt speaks to our moment, as well. One of my greatest pet peeves is when performers make a meal out of low-hanging fruit. Going for the obvious gag, playing fan service to an audience who already thinks the way you do. Low-hanging fruit is at best a light snack; a fun size Snicker bar that gives you a burst of endorphins but little actual sustenance. The acts in Jenkins’ book had and have staying power precisely because they provide sustenance.

Off-the-cuff jokes about Reaganomics may have given audiences to The Flying Karamozov Brothers a jolt of delight; the mind-blowing synchronization of various and sundry objects passed between the “brothers” hits on something way deeper. The force of Zaloom’s stage presence, his lateral-thinking satirical observation is more resonant than the party affiliation of whoever is in the White House at the moment.

The lesson I take from Acrobats of the Soul defies the political patina Jenkins washes over everything. Rather, it’s the dialectic between Jenkins’ approach, and the longevity of the performers he profiled that reaches the slightly less wide-eyed adult who read the book most recently. Focus on your act and focus on your audience with fierce dedication.