Man About Clown 

Larry Pisoni's Many Faces

"I'M 50 YEARS OLD and I don't know how many more years I can pop balloons with my butt," says Larry Pisoni, a.k.a. Lorenzo Pickle, Koshare, Arlecchino, Pulcinella, and other identities he has assumed over the years. Pisoni is a founder of the Pickle Family Circus and the man behind ClownClownClownClownClownClownClown, which he describes as a culmination of his life's work: "What I do is, I'm a circus clown."

Pisoni performs clowns from different cultures, including the folk fool of northern Europe, Koshare of the Hopi people, and, with his circus-raised/New York actor son Lorenzo, characters from Italian commedia dell'arte. He calls the show a "matrix," meaning the scenes don't proceed in a strictly chronological order. In one scene Pisoni performs an homage to a clown not ordinarily associated with belled caps and Bozo noses: Samuel Beckett.

Amy Denio's music "provides atmosphere, pace, and, in a large measure, inspiration," says Pisoni. Denio plays accordion and guitar and sings, with percussionist Bill Moyer doing sound effects and trap set drumming, and Serena Tideman playing cello.

The Pickle Family Circus was famous for its exuberant integration of music, and for being one of the leading shows in the "New Circus Movement." After working for a few years with the San Francisco Mime Troupe, Pisoni and Peggy Snyder (his wife at the time) turned the Pickle Family Jugglers into the Pickle Family Circus. Although the PFC didn't preach any "new circus" agenda, they deliberately avoided some of the traditional circus acts. Rather than featuring wild animals doing silly tricks and aerial flyers risking their lives, they featured juggling, the slack wire, the trampoline, and acrobatics. They played up the celebratory rather than the exotic nature of the circus, Pisoni says. The result was positively subversive. The clowns weren't rumdums deployed by cynical impresarios to bore the audience while the roustabouts changed sets, but characters who created skits based on universal (if unusual) situations. Pisoni's Lorenzo Pickle was the ringmaster, an Italian circus owner.

Pisoni left the PFC in 1986 because, he says, "I went through one of those 30s crises. Like, 'What am I doing?'" By 1990, the PFC was history, although today some of its members operate a circus school in San Francisco that was started in part by Judy Finelli.

It was Finelli and especially her then-husband Hovey Burgess who gave Pisoni his start in the circus, giving him a full introduction to circus arts, steeped in the European tradition. "Hovey believed all circus skills are related to one another," Pisoni says. "So, the better the juggler you are, the more you can understand the timing of the handspring. Or, the better wire walker you are, the better juggler you will be, because you have to be in a state of equilibrium to make accurate throws."

In Europe a clown doesn't start out to be a clown, but comes to clowning after mastering at least one, and often many, related circus skills. Europeans, Pisoni says, are more circus-educated than American audiences. They appreciate, for instance, that it's more difficult to do a forward roll on the wire than a backward roll.

Unlike the seamless, big American circus acts, the European shows dare to fail. These European acts, the ones that, as he says, "let the audience in a little bit," have in them some of the humanizing quality of a good clown act, where you identify with the fool who struggles with, and maybe even triumphs over, conflict.

"There's something to be said for picking yourself up, trying, climbing back up, and trying it again," he says. "Even if you don't make it, the fact is it's not the end of the world. There's so much black and white in our culture, but nothing [in life] is quite like that. There are opportunities to get yourself together again. How many times have you tried to do something enormously difficult? And you go, 'I got it! I got it! I got it! No! I don't have it.' But if you figure it out, and try again, there's a benefit to it. If you don't try again, then you have failed."

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