“You have a sense of humor, you know what’s funny, but what’s your sense of humor?” is how Joel Jeske explains the challenge that was set before him recently by his colleagues. For close to three decades Jeske has partnered with and supported other artists and institutions.
The respected showbiz veteran has established himself as a director, writer, actor, consultant, teacher, theater founder, and clown. He is noted for his work with entities such as Cirque Du Soleil, Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey, most famously, Big Apple Circus and most recently, the Broadway musical, Sponge Bob Square Pants. If you’re lucky, during the Christmas holiday in New York City you might enjoy him as the legendary, Jack Frost.
However, as of late, Joel Jeske finds himself rather restless and contemplative. “I’ve developed acts for others – acts I’ve been in, as well as, various shows, but what do I do for me now?” he ponders. Mind you, this is not a self indulgent musing. Jeske literally finds himself in the throes of reinvention. “Everybody who knows me has an impersonation of me. In that way, I can celebrate the fact that I am a distinct type,” he says. “In the annals of clowndum under irritated/white faces my name will appear and I will accept that mantel gratefully,” he laughs. “But, at the same time it’s like, is that it? What else is there? Is there another aspect of that I’ve yet to explore?”
Jeske believes clowning in today’s circus has taken on a broader scope. Once upon a time, a clown might be able to figuratively put their clown shoes up and enjoy a substantial and long career on any number of shows. “There may be shows around the world where, like Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey, one can enjoy being a clown for many years,” he says. “However, those positions are few and far between now; and suddenly, you’re jumping from show to show; you’re taking your act and putting it in variety; maybe, you’re out doing gigs, consulting, directing, etc. You’re getting creative with the skills you’ve acquired,” he says.
Few can deny that there has been a remarkable shift in the circus industry, which has caused, not only clowns, but, circus artists of every stripe to seek out diverse means of presenting their respective acts. Therefore, the art of reinvention is, in fact, an act of survival for the artist who wishes to continue making a living in the vocation they our most passionate about. Certainly, the circus artist, particularly clowns have proven to be most adept at doing just that. Mary Reichel, a clown veteran of such shows as Jordan World Circus, The Garden Bros., and Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey is a mainstay on the corporate and private event circuit, as well as, theme parks the likes of SeaWorld and Disney World, having created LTD, belly and fire dancing routines.
Todd Zimmerman, a veteran clown formerly of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey, along with his wife, Timea (also a Ringling Bros. alumn) parlayed their talents and years in show business in to entrepreneurship, having established Odd O T’s Entertainment and Fight Or Flight Productions. Joyce Lemos began her career as a dancer on Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey, but, by the time of her departure she was expertly trained as an aerialist and equestrian. She is now the owner and master instructor at Joyce Lemos Productions.
One of the beliefs in the circus is that you’re truly not a clown until you hit 50.
As the last ringmaster of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey, I’ve been rather fortunate, much like my predecessor, Eric Michael Gillett, to find new life on the theatrical stage. I’ve also put my many years of emceeing The Greatest Show On Earth to use as master of ceremonies for numerous corporate and private events.
Change is the only constant goes the adage. Evolution is a very peculiar thing, be it gradual or sudden, it is inevitable. Some of us resist change, futilely, while others welcome it, enthusiastically even. Jeske is among the latter and zealously so. “It’s really exciting. It’s like going back to the beginning. Let’s return to some basic fundamentals and broaden my range to see what other things my clown skills can apply to,” he says.
At 50 years old, Jeske finds himself unabashedly seeking new horizons. A sense of bold and ecstatic desperation reverberates as he explains his present state of reinvention and the candid introspection, which accompanies such a process now that he’s reached what he considers a milestone — a working clown at 50 years old. “One of the beliefs in the circus is that you’re truly not a clown until you hit 50,” he says. “All that accumulated life experience, you can say without a doubt, that you are a clown! Rather than sit back and coast, it is a major opportunity to reevaluate,” he says. And reevaluate he has, as the doubts and hopes stream from his consciousness. “Have I gotten too old? I don’t feel like I’m done…maybe I missed out…I feel like I can start a brand new tomorrow and feel just as excited as the first day of clown-college…”
This is the process. These are among the proverbial birth pains that come with reinvention. Grappling with doubt while grasping to the hope of ones possibilities, even combing the lessons of regret. “There were times in my career where my impatience definitely got the best of me and I didn’t enjoy the moment and the fact that, like in the case of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey, I was in a rare, unique, and privileged place in show business,” he says. “It’s the curse of looking for the next thing, you don’t appreciate where you are or even who you’re with.”
Such is life. Jeske has no intention of disengaging his doubts, as he is girded in the confident hope of his pursuits, nor is he stifled by regret, rather he is forging ahead, as he is now a seasoned and mature clown; and although that is somewhat of an oxymoron it is clear that Jeske is fully abandoning himself to the various demands of his artistry. “I’m really going to enjoy failing,” he quips. “I’m going to be trying something, knowing I’m not good at it, yet learning something – creating something new,” he says. “It’s not time to slow down, but speed up with a greater sense of purpose. To make bigger, more important mistakes that will lead to bigger lessons that will lead to bigger results.”
According to Jeske, he is actively pursuing new mediums to experiment with that will possibly broaden his work — from video, new concept lighting, innovative photography, to comedy sculpture. “The concept behind each sculpture will be a funny idea and gaging the audience or viewers reaction to it,” he says. “It’s similar to what I’ve always done with my theater company, Parallel Exit, where we have the privilege of nurturing ideas to fruition,” he recalls.
His is a patient endeavor and by Joel Jeske’s own admission, he is not a patient man. Yet, even in this he is willing to evolve with the knowledge that what he endeavors to do is worthy of the process. “The real focus here is growth,” he says. “I’ve decided whatever it is, it’s going to be big. I’m shooting for the moon. Go big or go home! I’m not inclined to limit myself,” he says. “I’m aiming to give audiences the most Joel Jeske they can stomach in a single setting,” he exclaims with laughter.
Feature photo courtesy of Joel Jeske. Photo credit: Make Schulz.