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Rob Torres Makes Mirth Seem Easy

Rob Torres Makes Mirth Seem Easy
Photo Source: Michael Cairns
Big Apple Circus clown Rob Torres knows the value of simple play. 

Wearing an ill-fitting powder-blue suit, shocking red tie and white buck shoes, Torres walks alone to the center ring. The audience applauds.  He cracks open a small wooden box he holds in his hands, gesturing that their applause is being collected inside. The audience grasps immediately. He opens the box a little, they applaud. He closes it, they stop. 

The game goes back and forth. It is simple, but it works for all ages.

The bit is part of an approach that Torres describes on his website as "finding the absurdity in everyday tasks."  But as every performer knows, developing a unique yet simple action that engages an audience isn't easy.

Torres believes that performing works best when the artist is "working with an audience as opposed to doing something for them."  He learned that from singer Livingston Taylor, who believes that "any live performance between artist and audience is a conversation."

The New York native has been having such conversations since 1991. He's performed in 44 countries—"I'm pretty much a gypsy," he says—everything from busking in New York to circus festivals in Russia, Switzerland, Hungary, and Canada, including tours of his one-man show "Room to Play" and even corporate work for clients like AT&T, DuPont, NASCAR, Volkswagen, and Bristol Meyers Squibb. 

Now, the self-described "International Man of Mirth" is part of the Big Apple Circus in "Dance On!", the new show performing at Damrosch Park in New York City's Lincoln Center through January 9, 2011.

Back Stage recently spoke with the multi-talented performer about street performance, picking volunteers from an audience, and the value in not talking.  Here are portions of that conversation. 

How did you first get involved with the circus?

I grew up studying and doing theatre and arts programs, then headed off to the circus. I went to the Ringling Brothers' Clown College when I was 18. It was like boot camp for circus. I got a chance to learn the basics of all different kinds of circus skills: trapeze, acrobatics, and wire walking, stilt walking—things like that.

In the early 1990s I headed out on the road with a tent show called Clyde Beatty-Cole Brothers' Circus for three years... Actually touring with the show and getting a chance to create material—that's where I started to learn a little bit more on the basis of character and clown work.

I came back to New York, and taught circus arts in schools with a program called the National Circus Project. In the late 1990s I studied with Avner Eisenberg, who had done a clown show on Broadway in the 1980s called "Avner The Eccentric."  That gave me some training in the basis of what theater work for clowns was like as opposed to circus work. It's very different—the tempo, the timing, the types of routines—and just the theory is different.

How much of your experience was street performing?

When I came back to New York, [street performing] was a chance to go out and try something different and learn how street performing works. In 2001 and 2002, I toured around doing a basic sketch of what I imagined the theater show to be, and tried out certain acts and transitions on the street, because it was the easiest place to have an audience and workshop a show at the same time. 

What did you learn from that experience?

Just the little nuances. For instance, a show isn't just "laugh laugh laugh" the whole time because people can't sustain that type of energy. But in between that the material, if it is really interesting, captivates the crowd, and if it is really dull, it flattens out a show.

On the street is the easiest place to see where the flat spots are because people leave. If they're not entertained, they can leave. In the theater, people will be respectful and quiet and watch and pay attention, but it is not necessarily full of something. That's part of the clown world that I'm trying to create. That's where I learned, "Ok, this part isn't captivating people."

How were you able to apply what you learned?

I would change the act the very next show. That was the great lesson for me that the street served: I was self-directing the show, so I'd take notes and go back and try other things and change it; I got a chance to work out as much as I wanted to since the street's always there.

How would you describe your clown in "Dance On!"?

He's an everyday kind of person. A business genius. Useful and playful, and adolescent at times.

You don't do much formal speaking. Was that a choice on your part?

That was a choice for traveling. I wanted to build a show that was as timeless as possible and as international as possible.

If you spoke, do you think it would change the tone of your performance?

Not really that much. I can use simple English text just a few key words and then do that in Spanish and Italian and French as I need. But what it does in a place like New York—where who knows who is in the audience—is alienate certain groups that don't understand. And I like that everyone can understand; they don't have to think about what's being said so much.

Your clown character seems a bit more European than American in style.

It's a culmination...  There's a more organic feeling to the work that European clowns do. American clowns tend to be more cartoony and really over-the-top and slapstick; European clowns tend to be more real, and I think the comedy tends to be more richer because of it.

That natural feeling is the biggest thing I've tried to get into my work. It's something that's not too over-the-top, slipping and falling and tripping and getting hit with pies in the face. I've taken off the make-up and brought it to kind of an everyday character.

How do you pick someone out of an audience to interact with?

It's based on the connections we make during the performance. I look for somebody who is slightly timid but willing to play. They are perfect because we can start with a slow rhythm together and escalate the amount of play we do together. If somebody is a very over-the-top, silly person, I let them go their own way. When people generally try to be funny they tend not to be. 

The one thing that I really like when I work with people is they honestly can say 'yes' or 'no' to things. Anything can happen, and I've written routines that go in both directions. But if I pick somebody who is not even paying attention and off on their own agenda, it becomes their show. So I have to just sit back and see what happens. See if I can find something in there to bring it all together.

Is being open very important?

I think so. If I stay on my own agenda and I'm just pushing forward to get there, it's not right for every situation. Being open to adapt and change allows a genuinely fun show, and a really nice time between performer and audience, and it's something that will never happen exactly that way again.

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