by Johanna Lynch
SONOMA COUNTY, CA – Clowning goes back a long, long way in human history.
The artform, clowning, has traveled far through time from the mists of pre-Christian England, to the courts of kings and queens, along Marco Polo’s trade routes, in covered wagons across the plains of the new world, and the ancient art of clowning survived it all and is alive and well right here in Sonoma County today.
Court jesters were famous in their time. Taillefer, William the Conqueror’s favorite jester was the first man to be killed at the Battle of Hastings in 1066. He rode his horse alone into battle juggling his sword. Native American tribes all had their clowns. The Plains Indians Heyoka (clown) had four types of clowns based on contraries. They often walked backwards. And the sacred clowns of the Hopi were known to be the “tradition keepers.”
The jesters and clowns over the centuries were never stupid people. They were respected for their wit, wisdom and good counseling. They were often asked to advise the kings and queens including Elizabeth I in Shakespeare’s time.
James Pelican is a professional clown; but not that one with the red nose we all remember from a trip to the circus or to a traveling fair whose rusting, giant ferris wheel grunted and heaved us up to giddy heights, to unimaginable wild worlds of seductive, adventurous circus life. No. James Pelican’s clowning has more to do with court jesters, illusionists, elegant trapeze artists, and mostly performers who worked in vaudeville in America and England.
James Pelican’s clowning work is different from that of the funny man with the red nose at the circus. He attributes vaudeville with starting off the amazing troupes that integrated trapeze work into clever skits, and miming acts. He includes the Pickle Family Circus, Cirque du Soleil, and Shields and Arnaud, the famous San Francisco mimes in this illustrious collection of clown acting. He also admires street theater and describes, “It’s total freedom-out of the box theater.”
On a spring day in April 2009, James Pelican walked down to a hillside theater he planned and constructed on site at the Occidental Arts and Ecology Center (OAEC) in Occidental, California. It’s a small, shaded, wooden theater with seating tiered on the gently sloping hillside. A first look at the beloved little theater and its open stage theatergoers might notice a strong resemblance to a Shakespearian theater in the 16th century in England. Pelican didn’t have much time to talk. He was running to Petaluma to make curtain time for Candide at the Cinnabar Theater.
How did this tall, “Sacramento born and bred” lanky man, choose clowning over more traditional choices like acting or dancing?
Pelican sat and talked about his childhood growing up near University of California at Davis that played a big role in his life choices.
“I knew I wanted to be an actor when I was in Kindergarten”, reflected Pelican.
Growing up in northern California, in 1988 he got to participate in the Whole Earth Festival that started up in 1970 at UC Davis. Pelican was in love with those actors, performers, jugglers, trapeze people, and mimes, many of whom loved pageantry, clowning, and multi-talented programs that echoed vaudeville. Pelican is convinced the magical evolution happened because of what he calls the counter culture, the hippies, artists and musicians, and explains, “They approached theater in an unconventional way.”
He was stagestruck. He says he would have done anything to work in a theater, and he did. He worked on the lights, built sets, worked backstage, whatever needed to be done, just to be near the actors and in their world of theater. From Sacramento, by the time he got into college, where he had performed in many plays and grabbed every chance to perform on stage, he got sidetracked for a while by the sexy sights and sounds of the Grateful Dead and their young nymph-like followers. He was twenty one.
Looking back over the early years Pelican says he was working steadily as a performer the whole time and the wide experiences, and collective wisdom he’s picked up along the way are paying off for him now. At Del Arte located at Blue Lake the young clown learned a lot about the art of clowning.
His annual trips to Ashland to see the Shakespeare plays and “have a wonderful experience” did inspire the theater at OAEC. After working for a contractor and learning other building skills he got the job at OAEC as the Facilities Manager. In 1996 working on a farm in the Central Valley, the woman-owner suggested he take classes in clowning. He signed up for his first clowning course in San Francisco.
Later he took more clowning classes with the clown genius, Moshe Cohen.
“And that’s where I met another student, Lluis Valls”, explains Pelican.
Together James, Lluis and his wife Christine came up with the idea for The Chautauqua Revue. The Chautauqua Series Program at OAEC has roots that go back to the 1880’s. The whole concept is about education and participation. The threesome, one of whom, Christina was a teacher of clowning, put on a show, Clowns on a Stick, and later developed 15 Clown Acts and started the Theatre of Yugen.
James Pelican was loving every minute. “I love the nervous sensation before the curtain goes up.”
Three years ago he did an adaptation of Federico Garcia Lorca’s Don Quitote . Despite still “feeling green” Pelican showed up for the auditions. He took an acting course with Danielle Cain at the 6th Street Playhouse in Santa Rosa and he acted in Lorca’s The Man From La Mancha.
He’s leaving OAEC to move closer to Petaluma to be near the Cinnabar Theater that he loves because, “They do it all. Opera, musicals, comedy, everything.”
James Pelican sums up what exactly he thinks clowning is about: “To me a clown character is not feeling inside or outside. I feel a clown, intrinsically, has no memory; therefore clowns have no fear. We can watch a clown fall down, but we don’t feel pity for them.”
Johanna Lynch, whose mum was in vaudeville, was born in Australia and is the Publisher and Editor of the Russian River Times in northern California.
Additional Real Live Theater Artist Spotlights include:
- Eliot Fintushel: squaring Zen with live theater
- Paul Gilger: bringing light, magic and Showtune to the world
- Tatyana Borisovna: theater as a labor of love for Ukrainians and Russians