Spotlight on Quality: Transitions and Clowns

In between shows, I went backstage to grab some food. One of the volunteers came up to me and said, “Hey, Ken, the lighting director is looking for you.”

I wondered why. Had I screwed up? I was a rookie at operating a spotlight, it’s entirely possible that I didn’t understand something correctly during the first performance, and they wanted me to get it right for the next show. Lighting was an element of the performing arts that I had never given any thought to, until one day earlier. Now I was trying to learn on the fly: what is the meaning of quality in the field of stage lighting?

I went and found the lighting director. Fortunately, I hadn’t screwed up. “We’re adding a new transition in the second show, after the broom act, ” he explained.

* * *

“Transitions are the subtle in-between details that we as human beings actually connect with and the reasons we fall in love with something rather than simply like something.”

Brendan Dawes

Brendan Dawes has an interesting post about transitions in design on his blog. His thought is that the transitions between states of usage is the thing that makes the difference between a product that is functional and a product that is beautiful. A commenter named Robert Turrall added an excellent example of this idea in action:

“I remember having discussions with an industrial designer a few years ago about why interior lights in cars that dim gently after you’ve closed the doors go towards the perception of the car itself. BMWs had them, as did other more expensive cars, and this was one of the features that really made the car “feel” exclusive and expensive. Other cars had lights that just switched off abruptly – and they immediately felt “cheap”, almost on the basis of this alone.”

Robert Turrall

There is likely almost no difference in manufacturing cost between a light that turns off abruptly and a light that turns off slowly. But little details like that can be the difference between cheapness and luxury, between amateur and professional.

* * *

I have operated plenty of car lights in my time, but until a month ago, I had never laid hands on a spotlight. I was called on to operate one of the two spotlights at Circus for Arts in the Schools, an annual fundraising circus show put on by professional circus artists to raise money for arts education.

The show is the brainchild of my friend Jeff Raz, a veteran circus performer who, among other things, played the lead role in Cirque du Soleil’s Corteo, and founded the Clown Conservatory, the only full-time clown training program in the US. Jeff is very well connected in the circus industry, so he manages to get some really amazing acts to come donate their time and skills for this cause.

Jeff recruits the acts and directs the show, while his wife and my wife co-produce it. And I…well, I do whatever I’m asked to do.

* * *

“Being a father, you’re not really the star of the show, the starting pitcher, the cleanup hitter, what have you, but you may be called upon at certain times to step off the bench and into the spotlight. You don’t have the uterus or the boobs or the 500 career home runs or the 300 wins but you still might be called upon to perform a small but necessary duty successfully. You can carry a car seat out to the car. You can change a diaper half-decently. Maybe once in a while you can get the kid to sleep. You are the pinch-hitter.”

Josh Wilker

For this year’s circus, I was asked not to step into the spotlight, but to hold onto it. The lighting director gave me a crash course in how to operate the device. (I learned that in theaters, unlike in cars, turning a spotlight on and off quickly is a signal of high quality, and doing so slowly is considered “cheating”). And then we rehearsed.

In preparations for two 75-minute shows on Sunday, we practiced for five hours on Saturday night, and then another two hours on Sunday morning. Interestingly, we did not rehearse the actual circus acts in the show. Those were simply assumed to be ready to go. For the most part, the only thing we worked on were the transitions between the acts, and between various lighting and sound cues.

* * *

A show with acrobats and clowns consists of, as Jeff Raz says, “the superhuman and the supremely human.” If you had a show with just acrobat after acrobat after acrobat, your mind would quickly become numbed by the superhuman feats of these performers. That’s where you need to bring in the clowns.

Clowns get a bum rap in today’s culture, thanks to some bad horror films and a few other choice clichés. But after being involved with this annual circus for seven years, and having seen some truly top-notch artists at work up close, I’ve really grown to appreciate the art form.

The clown’s role in a circus is not merely to make you laugh. The clown is there to serve as the transition between acts in the show. They bring equipment onto the stage, and they take it off. But perhaps most importantly, they allow your mind to continue to enjoy the superhuman nature of the acrobats by reminding you of what it is like to be a normal human, by acting “supremely human”.

* * *

The new transition was inserted following an act by Matt White, who dances with a broom reminiscent of Fred Astaire’s hat rack. As soon as the broom act was over, I needed to find the clown in the wings. The clown would then turn on a fully functioning vacuum cleaner, and I had to follow him with the spotlight as he tried to dance with the vacuum cleaner across the stage.

It’s probably the oldest clown gag in the book. The clown earnestly tries to succeed like the act before him, but focuses on the wrong element of the act to emulate. It’s not the cleaning tool that is the source of the quality in the performance.

If you or I were thrust out on a stage and told to emulate Fred Astaire, we would probably fail miserably. Not because of one huge mistake like choosing the wrong prop to dance with, but by a thousand little things that we, as amateurs, simply do not understand.

By distilling these thousand little errors into one big error, the clown points out our own human flaws: we recognize quality when we see it, but recognizing is not the same as understanding.

* * *

What a piece of work is a man! how noble in reason!
how infinite in faculty! in form and moving how
express and admirable! in action how like an angel!
in apprehension how like a god! the beauty of the
world!

— Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act II, Scene II

Wanting to succeed is human. Failing to succeed because we don’t understand the elements of quality is supremely human. Persisting through those failures until we do understand — that is what redeems us.

A good circus is not just a series of good acrobats and good clowns. It’s the two working in concert to create something greater than the sum of its parts. It’s an expression of the entire human experience, moving from the innocent curiosity of childhood to the godlike comprehension of adult mastery. The result is an uplifting feeling of possibility — that we humans can get past our lack of understanding to accomplish amazing things — that makes so many people leave the circus show with smiles on their faces.

* * *

Later that night, when we got home, my four-year-old daughter was inspired. “I’m going to put on a show!” she declared. She went into our pantry, and pulled out a mop. “Watch me! Watch me!” Then she and the mop danced in circles all around the living room.

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