FOR THE PAST 17 months, Ron Campbell’s life has been a circus.
Except for travel breaks, he has performed nine shows a week in a soaring, two-masted tent to an audience of 2,500 people.
For each show, he plays dual roles, wearing makeup that takes more than an hour to apply, plus a wig that looks like two hummingbirds have been fighting in it for nesting rights.
And as the last performance at each stop draws to a close, the walls start to disappear.
“When we finish in a city, we break down the tents,” he said. “It reminds you of the real circus tradition.”
Campbell is King of the Clowns in “Kooza,” the Cirque de Soleil production that finished its six-week run at Marymoor Park near Seattle Sunday.
Now on break until the show opens next week in Vancouver, British Columbia, Campbell was visiting his father, Bob Rosen, who is manager of the Quilcene Community Center, and Bob’s spouse, Pen Rosen, at their home on Lake Leland, where he talked about the role of being a clown.
“Clowning is about dealing with obstacles,” he said. “It’s about what happens in between (the desire and the goal).
“The comedy comes when people see the clown and the goal, which gets farther and farther away.”
Campbell, who grew up in Santa Monica, Calif., originally wanted to be a stuntman, noting that he spent a lot of years standing on the diving board in the backyard pool, saying “Shoot me” and falling into the water.
He switched to acting after seeing a production of “The Man of La Mancha” and became intrigued with the idea of transformation.
He also has a penchant for comedy and nonverbal communication, although as King of the Clowns, he carries a lot of the speaking duties.
Campbell also lords over the audience as an officious house manager, the spotlight on him as he helps people to their seats while trying to control other characters, including a balloon seller who is picking pockets.
“We are the antic spirit of the house,” he said.
Latecomers are especially hassled, he said, including one stumbling older person who turned out to be Harrison Ford.
When Kooza played at the pier in Santa Monica, it drew a celebrity audience — Pierce Brosnan, Cher, Jon Bon Jovi — with everyone coming backstage, i.e. the artist’s tent, afterward.
But Campbell isn’t star struck.
In addition to having an A-list director as a father, he attended Santa Monica High School, which had more celebrity connections than Hollywood High, and hung out with a number of now-famous film and television actors in his graduating class.
A professional performer for 39 years, Campbell has been continually employed in the theater, successfully keeping the dreaded waiter job from his door.
He cut his teeth in “victim work” — using audience members as dupes — doing street performances in Europe, and when he returned, started his own company, The Actor’s Gang.
On stage, he’s done everything from Shakespeare to comedy acts — he played the chef, “Cecil B. De Grill,” in two Teatro ZinZanni productions.
Theater fans may have caught his performance as Buckminster Fuller in his one-man show when it played Seattle.
One man, 38 roles
In another one-man show, he played 38 roles — which, with street performing, prepared him for auditioning for Cirque de Soleil.
“It gave me the self-reliance,” he said. “It’s one of those roles of a lifetime.”
At the same time Campbell is performing as the house manager, he is checking out the crowd, looking for “victims,” or “in-volunteers,” as the clowns call them. These are people in the audience who have the right combination of reticence and chutzpah to use as dupes in later interactions with the clowns.
“I’m casting about at 100 miles an hour,” he said.
“You start to know what to expect from a certain type of person by what they are wearing or how they react when I put my hand on their shoulder.”
But with exception of remarking on one man’s suede jacket, Campbell didn’t pick on any of the 29 members of the East Jefferson Rotary Club that Rosen to took to a show at Marymoor Park.
They also got a backstage tour through the tunnel that connects the big top to the artists’ tent.
Visitors find the juxtaposition of the giant scythes wielded by the cast during the skeleton dance and the sleds — medical gurneys at hand in case of accident — a bit eerie, Campbell said.
“Some of the acts are truly death-defying,” Campbell said of the show, which features aerialists and stunt cyclists who perform tricks on wires suspended in a giant cage.
“I think that is why the clowns work so well in the show. It has those two extremes — it has a balance and flow, from dangerous to ridiculous.”
Intrigued by masks
Campbell also is intrigued with the use of masks in world cultures, and he received a grant to go around the world studying mask making and performance traditions.
He started a blog, http://roncampbelltempest.blogspot.com, after performing in a production of Oedipus Rex in an amphitheater on the island of Hydra in Greece.
He is particularly intrigued by the neutral mask, which has no expression, requiring the actor to use only body movements — no facial expression, no gender, no nationality.
While in Seattle, Campbell attended an actor’s workshop in which participants act out a series of movements: saying goodbye to a friend; seeing a rock, picking it up and throwing it.
If the actor tries to be clever and adds superfluous movement, it is immediately apparent, he said.
“The mask is like a truth serum,” he said. “If everything you do is genuine and honest, the mask comes alive. Otherwise it’s just a piece of leather on your face.”
As well as entertaining the audience between acts, the clowns in Cirque de Soleil also are charged with infusing mirth among the troupe of 53 artists and an equal number of technical crew.
One circus tradition they recently carried out: a pie in the face to a crew member, a dresser, on her birthday.
“You get a pie in the face if they like you or don’t like you,” Campbell explained.
“If you are in between, you don’t get a pie. That’s a Ringling Brothers tradition.”
Wearing a mask, whether leather or cosmetic, also prevents the performer from reflecting the expression of the audience, allowing the performer to truly and honestly look at the person he is talking to.
To that end, Campbell tries to respond to what is going on around him at all times.
The ultimate goal of the clown, Campbell said, is to make the fourth wall disappear, bridge the gap between the audience and the performers and get the audience to identify with the clowns, who through their actions are asking, “Has this ever happened to you?”
“We fumble our way into victory,” he said. “People see that and realize we couldn’t do it the normal way.”
Campbell is nearing his 600th performance in “Kooza,” which will play in Vancouver, Calgary and Miami, then goes to Japan at the beginning of the year.
Campbell said he and the clowns have been working on using more gestures and fewer words, with the goal of making the humor universal.
“In every show there are those magical moments when everyone gets it, no matter your age, your nationality, or if even if you don’t speak English,” he said.
Campbell, who lives in San Francisco when not on tour, also is a writer, an associate artist with the California Shakespeare Theater and a teacher at the Berkeley Repertory School.
For more information, go to www.soarfeat.org or his blog.
For more about “Kooza,” go to www.cirquedusoleil.com/kooza.
Jennifer Jackson writes about Port Townsend and Jefferson County every Wednesday. To contact her with items for this column, phone 360-379-5688 or e-mail jjackson@olypen.