I first met Rob Torres in 1998 in my home in Portland Maine. Avner (the Eccentric) Eisenberg had brought Rob to perform that year at PHYZGIG, an annual festival of physical theater and variety artists. I invited the cast and participants to come to my home to celebrate New Year’s Eve for the post-show cast party. He was already a lovely performer to whom audiences gravitated, and over the years of our professional and personal friendship, I saw him grow into the master clown that he became.
Years later, our paths crossed again at the Edmonton International Street Performers Festival. I was chatting with Rob and, having forgotten about our first meeting, told him I was happy to finally meet him. Rob smiled sheepishly before reminding me that we had indeed met before – in my kitchen! I was suitably embarrassed, and Rob was typically generous with his forgiveness. It was that generosity that made Rob such a great clown. His signature routine was a simple concept where he “collected” the applause of his audience in a tiny box, and without words, got them to applaud on cue whenever he opened that box. It was a clear, engaging idea that empowered the audience and made them all part of his show.
Rob Torres was born in 1973 and grew up just outside of New York City. As a young man, he was known for being compassionate and generous, so much so that at age 17 he was inducted into the National Caring Hall of Fame in Washington, DC. His interest in juggling and magic led him to study at Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey’s Clown College. After graduating he toured for three years with Clyde Beatty-Cole Bros. Circus. Because he never stopped trying to raise his level of artistry, Rob went on to train with the clown and mime Master Sigfrido Aguilar in central Mexico, and with Master Clown Avner “the Eccentric” at Celebration Barn Theater in Maine. Mr. Torres performed at festivals and in circuses around the world, including the International Circus Festival of Monte Carlo, The Big Apple Circus (two tours), Cirque d’Hiver in Paris (twice), Circus Knie, the Holiday show of Circus-Theatre Carré, the Edmonton International Street Performers Festival among many other prestigious events. He was also instrumental in helping Kevin Venardos with the creation and start-up of Circus Venardos.
The clown’s purpose always has been to provide some counterweight to the powerful.
Historically, the clown is an anarchist, although the only bombs they throw are those that blow up in their own faces. They are the one person allowed to comment on the behavior of the king. They are the only member of the nation allowed to mock the shaman. The clown’s purpose always has been to provide some counterweight to the powerful. And, as artists do, they provide a mirror for everyone to see the fools we are. Rob understood and embraced this concept deeply. In his hat juggling act he had audience members try to toss his hat onto his head from increasingly longer distances. When they failed, he tried to help them by making an “X” target with tape, moving the target to help them succeed. When they eventually landed the hat on his head, usually due to a diving effort on Rob’s part, he flipped his own success by doffing his hat along with his wig, revealing his purposefully shaved head.
A CLOWN IN YOUR TOWN is a loving and lovely tribute to Rob Torres. Writing is credited to Jim R. Moore (Vaudevisuals) and friends with assistance from graphic designer Noah Diamond. Indeed, Mr. Moore was the driving source behind publishing the book with the support of those who knew and loved Rob, but Mr. Torres himself was the person most responsible for the existence of such a beautiful tribute. Photos and text can never capture the true artistry of live physical performance, but great photos can capture a moment of artistry, of spirit, and of love. The immediacy of watching humans push past the known or imagined limits of feats of skill needs to be experienced in person for the audience to appreciate the magic of the ritual that is Circus and Variety. And then there are the clowns. The formula is ancient and honest. Give your audience a spectacular moment that makes them gasp and leaves their hearts pounding, and then let them have a moment to catch their breath and come back to earth under the guidance of that most earthy of characters, the clown. Rob had the ability to be vulnerable in front of an audience, which is what makes a great clown. Make no mistake, he was a gifted and highly trained (and practiced!) mime, juggler, actor and comedian. But the clown who allows the audience to “see” their heart and soul has the ability to lead that audience on a journey that is most fulfilling.
Rob lived a life that seemed fully engaged to me. His work as a performer was the center of who he was, and so, he was every bit as engaging and engaged in life as he was in the ring. Jim R. Moore’s book gives us a visually charming and intimate look at this life that was so rich. And the generous number of photos allows readers to gain an appreciation of Rob’s subtle and powerful gestural skills which fueled his ability to communicate with his audiences non-verbally and eloquently, whether they were intimate or enormous. In addition, scattered throughout the book are remembrances of Rob from professionals in the business, including Sigfrido Aguilar and Janet Izzo, Avner (the Eccentric) Eisenberg, Paul Binder (Big Apple Circus), Kevin Venardos (Venardos Circus), circus historian Dominique Jando (Circopedia) and others which gives us an appreciation of just how much love and respect this particular world holds for him.
Each chapter of the book shows us a different view of Mr. Torres as an artist, a professional, a person, a friend and a clown. Mr. Moore’s introduction lays out the idea for a photo book of Rob’s clown in costume and makeup in the various locations he was performing. As a rising star in the circus world, Mr. Torres traveled to New York, Paris, and many cultural centers around the world. The opportunity for a much more extensive survey was cut short by the untimely death of Mr. Torres.
Jim R. Moore has been one of the premier chroniclers of Variety Artists in the world since the early 1970’s. He is best known for his collaboration with Philippe Petit, providing photographs of the top of the World Trade Center in the planning phases prior to M. Petit’s historic act. Mr. Moore had been working closely with the clown Rob Torres on creating a new photo journal of Mr. Torres’ travels while he was performing for some of the oldest and best-known circuses in the world when, tragically, Rob died suddenly while en route to Italy. The project was shelved while the circus community, and the clown world in particular, took time to mourn the loss of one of their own, gone at the peak of his career. Out of that grief, the desire to hold onto and pay tribute to Mr. Torres’ memory coalesced within those extended families. Beginning with his own photos from New York, Paris, and St. Louis, Mr. Moore reached out to friends, artists, collaborators and other photographers who had known and worked with Rob and compiled this tribute to the love that Mr. Torres left in his wake.
Because Rob was always a willing and appealing subject, there are photos from many of the great contemporary photographers who shoot variety and circus performance. Kudos to Mr. Moore for collecting those photos from Maike Schulz, Michelle Bates, John Cornicello, Mark Gardiner, Rob Falk, Penny Mathis, and Wednesday Aja among others.
Fittingly, the book closes with a conversation that Mr. Moore had with Rob. In that short interview we come to appreciate that Mr. Torres saw himself as a clown, and also as an artist whose work lay before him. Or in his words, “I’ll keep traveling, and I’ll keep loving the journey of the clown.”
Photos provided courtesy of Jim R. Moore. Feature photo credit: Jim R. Moore