5 Clown Questions Debunked From a Ringling Bros. Pro

Clown Alley .jpg
Feld Entertainment
Frances Tiffin (far left) with Clown Alley

At least once in our lives, we've all fantasized about staying young forever, rejecting corporate America, and running off to join the circus. Frances Tiffin, 20, did just that. After high school, when most of her acquaintances went to college, Tiffin made her dreams a reality. After attending circus school in Canada at L'École de Cirque de Quebec, she became a professional clown for Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey. For the past ten months, Frances has toured across the country with Ringling Bros. Presents Dragons, and on August 8 she will return to perform in her beloved Bay.

Tiffin is quite the expert on all things clown. With experience at the Kinetic Arts Center, summers spent at Circus Smirkus, training under Jaron Hollander -- a Berkeley-based master of physical theater -- and now touring with Ringling, Tiffin has an extensive clowning repertoire. How many of us can say that with a straight face?

Here at SF Weekly, we've always had a few questions for clowns. We took this as an opportunity to debunk the mystery behind the big red nose.

Is there a clown school class on not being scary?

(Laughs) You know, we're all quick on our feet, so we tend to get used to it. But it never came up as a serious thing to think about. Not in a class, but definitely at work. I mean we talk about it all the time. Maybe clown schools should think about adding one. After all, so many of us do have some form of coulrophobia.

That said, Tiffin noted that as a female clown, she tends to be more approachable, and thus, less scary.

It's nice feeling approachable. I've heard a number of guys say that it's frustrating that kids will shy away from them.

How do you reconcile your desire to provide laughter to kids, while possibly invoking immense terror as a clown?

Honestly, if a kid is scared, most people will tend to just acknowledge the parent and keep on moving. In the setting, it's not necessarily that we're a clown; there's a lot of music, there's a lot going on, a lot of people, maybe the kid is shy anyway, so we tend to just back off. And sure, I'm clowning for the kids, but I'm also just as much clowning for the adults.

John Wayne Gacy is not a real clown. So when people are scared of clowns, they need to do their research. There are people who make their living doing birthday parties, but there's a difference, and it's really frustrating for people like me, who really see this as an art form, for people to be so closed-minded. I'm not sure where the fear comes from. I think it's there from horror stories in movies.

Part of a clown's identity is his or her makeup. How much time does it take to apply and take off yours?

It takes me 20-25 minutes. I can do it in 10 if I'm really rushing.

According to Tiffin, some people can take as little as six minutes and others can take as much as 50 minutes. Tiffin's in "a happy middle."

Got any skin care tips?

I use cold cream [to take off her makeup] and that does the job real quick. I'll put on cold cream and then use baby wipes to get it off. Some people will just use a towel to get off the cold cream, but a lot of people actually use -- fun fact -- baby shampoo. They just lather it up and then scrub, and it comes right off, because it's oily, but it's simpler, and it's not so  destructive.

What about tips for squeezing more people into crowded spaces, a la Muni?

Although she's never personally been involved in the famous clown car stint, Tiffin did have a bit of insight based on what she's heard and seen over the year with Ringling.

There was no inside [of the VW Bug into which 12 clowns squeezed]. I mean, it's not like they were scrambling over seats, you know, they gotta get out. We really fit all 12 of them in there and, usually, with a lot of costumes too. It's pretty impressive, and the trick is just the economy of where they go. There's no special trick. They just squeeze. There's a lot of flatulence for comedy when they're all in there. Like I said, I haven't done it, so I can't understand the full impact of what it's like to have somebody sitting on your face, but I'm sure it wasn't comfortable.

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You can catch Ringling Bros. Presents Dragons in Oakland August 8-12 or in San Jose August 15-19. Admission is $15-$100.

For more events in San Francisco this week and beyond, check out our calendar section. Follow us on Twitter at @ExhibitionistSF and like us on Facebook.
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2 comments
Josh S.
Josh S.

I find it ironic that Ms. Tiffin flippantly tells people to "do their research", when googling "coulrophobia" and spending 10 minutes following some links would teach her plenty. Hint: it has nothing to do with John Wayne Gacy. The fear usually sets in during childhood, but can persist for a lifetime. It stems from the fact that there is a major disconnect between the painted-on face (usually an exaggerated smile of joy) and the clown's actions (usually something aggressive or deceptive, often inflicting comic violence on others). It's a subconscious thing that sufferers of coulrophobia--children and adults alike--can't quite rationalize; they just know they're terrified. Given the number of my friends who are afraid of clowns on some level, I can't believe the biggest circus in the world wouldn't spend a couple hours teaching their staff why some people can't stand them.

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