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Learning the art of clowning around

Do you remember the last time you were at the circus? Do you remember the large, billowing tent done up in lights, with the distant bustle of a promising show rustling around behind the curtains? Or maybe you remember the flying trapeze artists or the lion tamers, or even the massive elephants. For many, the ringmaster in his dazzling sequins with an impressive control of the room around him steals the show.

But then, smiles are wide and laughter is rich when the small, almost awkward looking car comes out. The doors pop open, and out come the men and women in the patchwork clothing of every color with every kind of design you could imagine, one after another, until you begin to think it's all a dream. And finally, when the car is totally empty, the fun begins.

These are the clowns. It truly wouldn't be a circus without them, would it?


Miss Moose

It was "many years ago" that Tricia Manuel remembers the first time she put on her clown makeup – whiteface, big lips, bright expression and all. She was 18 years old when she had her first experience with clowning, and she said it would, from that moment on, change her life.

"I put my clown makeup on, and I knew I was going to be a clown for the rest of my life," Tricia shared, sitting in her office, which is filled with a myriad of clown paraphernalia, photographs, and is in a shade of yellow as bright as the chicken-shaped ukulele sitting in the corner. 

Above her on the wall is an extraordinary painting of a clown, from the chest up, posed delicately. Her face is a pure and wholesome white, with fiery red hair, and an elaborate-collared shirt with full sleeves of bright colors. Her head is slightly titled to the side, and she's looking pleasantly ahead, a soft smile on her face. Tricia comments that the picture is of her, as her clown character, when she worked for the Ringling Bros.

"I was in clown school for a little while and the circus offered me a contract," Tricia explained. She would be with the show for three years, performing with around twenty other clowns.

The circus wasn't Tricia's first run as a clown, however. She remembers, around 1980, that she was at the Annandale Fourth of July parade, and she decided immediately that being a clown was what she wanted to do. Then, in 1982, she was offered a contract with the circus, and so began her three-year stint with the Ringling Bros.

"It was the whole nine yards," Tricia shared with a laugh. "We traveled the country, and I lived on the train, the whole gambit like they show in movies. It was great, and also a lot of work, but the experience…the experience made me who I am."

While in the circus, Tricia did everything for her clown character on her own. She was responsible for her makeup, props, and costume. She commented that this character's identity was very elaborate, and that when she had conceived her at 18 years old, she had decided that she wanted the character to be a beautiful clown.

"I got it in my mind that she needed to be pretty," Tricia said. "I was a victim of bullying as a kid, and I never felt beautiful, so I wanted my clown-self to be that expression of me. It was really important to me then. You see, your clown-identiy is really supposed to be a true extension of yourself – your true self and who you are when the baggage of life is gone and who you are when you're happiest. For me then, it was my expression of beauty and made me feel pretty, and everyone told me that I was a beautiful clown."

After a good run with the circus, Tricia decided then that she wanted to help other clowns, and really reach the clowning community by providing costume help, makeup, and designs – as well as the opportunity to learn from a professional. She said that after "bouncing around" for a bit, she opened "Pricilla Mooseburger Originals" and "The Costume Shoppe" in Maple Lake, where it really all began for her.

"I have the opportunity to talk to clowns every day." Tricia commented. "I get to help them with their problems, people from all over the world – people come in here, and I just sit them down and really sometimes just show them what they need help with. That's what I'm passionate about, seeing that 'Aha!' moment for other clowns when they finally get it, and when they discover that, they realize that they'll do this for the rest of their lives."


Clown Camp

All this boils down to the opportunity Tricia had to open her own "clown school," which is known to the area as MooseCamp. After spending some time  teaching other clowns and working to problem-solve with her fellowmen, Tricia had decided that she wanted to teach the art of clowning to others in a way that would prepare them for their career, a way that she felt confident doing so.

"It's really a process. There's a lot to talk about and a lot to communicate about this business," Tricia started. "The camp goes from Tuesday to Sunday, and we set up courses to really tackle the career of clowning. People decide what avenue they want to go down, and we sort of break into small grounds and work at it. The newer clowns we'll teach makeup, how to design a character, how to develop it, and putting together a costume. Those who come that may struggle, we work on technique, opportunities, and skillsets. It's the greatest thing in the world, to see clowns come together in mutual love of a career."

The camp, according to Tricia, is designed for beginners, intermediate, and veteran clowns. It provides an opportunity for like-minded individuals to discuss the art of clowning, as well as opportunities to expand their communities, serve, or even make a living. Though, Tricia shared that a large majority of "her clown" graduates are volunteers, and do book reads, nursing home and hospital visits, or parades.

This is due to the fact that entertainment has changed, Tricia hinted. Parents don't take their children to the circus much anymore, and entertainment is very television, phone, and computer -based in the modern world, and also that clowns have been very stigmatized to be scary. That grieves Tricia the most.

"The actions of one franchise set the bar for the entire art," she commented. "After the one movie came out with a scary clown, that was it – the industry changed for us, and now we fight an uphill battle. People are very wrongly afraid of clowns, and that's something we've had to deal with and pull through, which we've been doing."

This concern for the industry has prompted Tricia to plan a new course for camp, which will be called the Clown Summit, where she hopes that leaders of clown organizations would come together to be able to discuss leadership in the industry, how to preserve the art of clowning, and how to prepare the next generations. This won't be implemented until 2019, as right now Tricia is in just the beginning-survey stages of "testing the waters" for the interest of the Summit.

"The Camp is about communicating the art of clowning in a positive way to people, and giving those who want to do this the platform, skills, and environment to do so. It is such a great time for not only the students, but also us instructors – we get to go through all those fun moments that we first discovered all over again, every time. With the right information, people can be amazing in this field of art, and I want to be able to provide the information to those questions struggling men and women clowns might have."

Tricia stated that men and women from across the nation – and even internationally – have come to MooseCamp for her class. At the end of it all, clowns specializing in volunteer work go to Park View Care Center and put on a show and practice room-to-room visits, and everyone performs at the Buffalo Civic Center for a show that Tricia adheres to the likes of the circus.

"It's the whole nine yards," she said with a smile. "Lights, sounds effects, music, props – we don't skimp. It's free and a good time for families. We decided right out of the gate that the show had to be free, because this is about serving people, and putting a positive image out there for the public."

What's more, Tricia is planning a performance for the community at the Wright County Fair on Saturday, July 28, at 1 p.m.

"Clowns have never had to work harder in this business than we do now," Tricia explained. "But, that's ok – when you find people who are dedicated to this art, and who's hearts are invested, it is a beautiful thing, and totally worth all the work and expensive. This is about promoting a positive image."

The mission's statement of Tricia's upcoming Clown Summit is simple: "Real clowns: are friendly people in make-up and costume, donate time and resources to charity events, visit nursing homes and hospitals, make people smile and laugh, brightening a weary world, and are your friends and family." The same statement states what clowns are not: someone in scary masks or make-up, someone who wants to frighten or harm you, and someone who disrespects your boundaries. And the bottom of her statement, added in italics is, "…those people are misguided creeps. They scare us, too!"

For more information, you can go online and check out Tricia's website:


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