Whether they’re taking a pie in the face or tumbling out of an overstuffed car, clowns don’t often earn much respect from the world at large. Jeff Raz is on a mission to show that there’s much more to the art form than meets the eye, sharing his adventures in such far-flung outposts as Alaska and Nebraska in his new book “The Snow Clown: Cartwheels on Borders from Alaska to Nebraska.”
Raz will be discussing and reading from the tome Saturday at Vroman’s Bookstore in Pasadena, recalling his 10 years spent flying tiny planes out to Eskimo villages in the dead of winter to create shows with kids who have never seen a circus. As a prolific playwright in addition to his clown career, he flips the script to recount his stint as an artist-in-residence at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, performing a solo comedy act about the Holocaust and his father’s suicide.
“It’s definitely an adventure story, and in this case the adventurer is an artist,” says the 61-year-old Raz. “Alaska sounds more exotic, but for a kid from Berkeley, Nebraska is pretty exotic too. Circus skills come very easily for Eskimo kids, and they had a lot of joy realizing they could do this exotic thing of juggling,” he adds. “In Nebraska, talking about tough subjects in a theatrical context is easier than a confrontational setting. There’s a theme about how American artists can approach other cultures with humility. We don’t always do it, but it’s always crucial.”
As the epitome of a “stranger in a strange land,” Raz reveals how art can connect people across cultural boundaries and finds love, torn ligaments, circus prodigies, hellish saunas and rancid seal oil. “The Snow Clown” also uses monologues from Raz’s critically acclaimed play, “Fatherland” (written with Jael Weisman), as well as sections based on scripts that he wrote with University of Nebraska-Lincoln students.
The experience in Lincoln does not go well, as he writes controversial plays with his students that blow the lid off of the Midwestern state’s “Nebraska Nice” and eventually get him run out of town. But he was prepared for that culture clash by helping the traditional Yup’ik culture fight off American TV culture and missionary teachers, and by the fact that while growing up in1960s Berkeley he was trained to think of clowning as a way to make a political point.
“I grew up in Berkeley, and learned to juggle at the Northern Renaissance Fair,” recalls Raz, who wrote a prior book about his decade of experiences with Cirque du Soleil. “I fell in love with it, and it was pretty easy to start street performing in those days, in the early ’70s. It was a rich scene with lots of workshops going on, and there was a community to jump into in those days, where I was invited because of juggling.
“Clowning wasn’t that natural for me, because as a teenager I didn’t find clowning that cool,” Raz continues. “I was around really brilliant performers as I came up through juggling and acrobatics, and got a job with a small circus. Over the years, I worked in what was then called New Vaudevillle, which was hot from the ’70s to the early ’90s. Putting it all together, it’s been a lot of fun and I hope it never stops.”
Jeff Raz will discuss and sign “The Snow Clown: Cartwheels on Borders from Alaska to Nebraska” at 11:30 a.m. Saturday at Vroman’s Bookstore, 695 E. Colorado Blvd., Pasadena. Call (626) 449-5320.