Tom Dougherty never thought he’d end up in clown school.
In fact, the Brooklyn native was pursing a career in political science when a friend who ran a children’s theater company asked him for help in painting sets. When an actor became ill, Dougherty auditioned for a role and was offered an acting contract, which started his theater career. After putting together a presentation on Shakespeare’s clowns, he heard about clown college and figured, why not?
It led to a career as a clown in Ringing Bros. and Barnum & Bailey’s “Over the Top” circus, which comes to the Peoria Civic Center arena this weekend. Ahead of the performance, Dougherty agreed to juggle any questions we wanted to toss his way.
— Danielle Hatch
Your dad was a lawyer, your mom was a school principal. There are no clowns in your family. Was there resistance to your career choice?
No, fortunately my family wasn’t heavy handed like that, they were very much into what makes you happy. Now, my mother was not all that pleased at my choice. I’d been studying theater and even that she was always, ‘Well, what are you going to fall back on?’ When I joined the circus she was really kind of upset (laughs).
You were in politics for a while, right?
My father studied political science and he was a campaign manager for the local Democratic party and he was always dragging my sister and I out to hand out balloons at the subway station (laughs). Being raised in the ’60s, we had a lot of political awareness. I remember marching on Washington and getting teargassed, all that fun stuff.
I studied political science for a short time in college with the intention of — well, I don’t really know what I was intending. I was very idealistic, they were idealistic times. We thought we could change the world.
What was clown school like?
When you went to the school (which closed in 1997) you signed an agreement saying that if they chose you, you would sign a year contract. I was chosen, miraculously.
There were 56 students and only eight got chosen. I really didn’t think I had a chance. I came off of the bus and there were all these guys juggling five clubs and unicycling and all these circus skills that I had none of. But I soon realized that the acting training I had would help a lot in creating characters.
Is there a final exam in clown school?
Oh, yeah — very pressure filled. Clown college was a very intense and very wonderful experience. You worked very hard for about two and a half months, and then you had a big performance, a four-hour clown show.
Everyone wore numbers. They invited guests of the local community, in Venice, Fla. And all the big bosses would come and they’d have your pictures and your number. If they liked what you did, they wrote down your number, and if your number came up enough, you got chosen.
That happened on a Saturday night, and on a Sunday morning they would come around and tell who got in and who didn’t. And Sunday night you went home with a job or you went home with good training. There was a lot of pressure in a sense of everyone wanting to get that contract, it was the carrot that drove you through clown college. So there was a lot of disappointment.
What personality traits does it take to be a clown?
I tell my students, if there’s anything else you can do, go ahead and do it. If you cannot do anything but perform, then you have the first necessary ingredient, which is desire. It takes desire and perseverance and love. And you have to really want to do it. If you want to, there are great rewards.
When I teach in colleges, it was always depressing when the first question would be, how much do you make? And I’d have to remind them that there are other currencies in life that are equally valuable than money.
Does that mean it’s not a very lucrative career?
No, you do not make a lot of money.
What are the riches, besides currency, that the circus gives you?
You get to meet a lot of people, you get to see our world. I’ve traveled extensively, and you find more so than noticing the differences in people — which a lot of people focus on these days — I would notice the similarities because I deal with the universal language, which is laughter. The people in Vietnam laugh at the same things that the people in Columbus or Peoria laugh at. And that’s a very important lesson to learn.
Ringing Bros. and Barnum & Bailey’s “Over the Top” circus comes to the Peoria Civic Center arena for shows at 7 p.m. Friday; 11 a.m., 3 and 7 p.m. Saturday; and 1 and 5 p.m. Sunday. Tickets are $13, $17, $30 and $65 at the Civic Center Box Office or any Ticketmaster outlets. You can also call (800) 745-3000 or visit Ticketmaster.com.