Workshops promote clowning around

Veteran of the big top now loves to train others

Many children, at one point, dream of running away with the circus but they usually lose interest by the time they finish elementary school.

Barry Lubin, who was recently inducted into the International Clown Hall of Fame, actually grew up to live the dream, pursuing a career in circus arts, and experiencing a life of travel, excitement and spontaneity. He is better known as the clown named "Grandma," a 25-year veteran of the New York City-based Big Apple Circus.

Lubin said he originally joined the circus to "see the world on someone else's dime." He feels fortunate to have performed as a clown on six different continents, where he has "met some of the most amazing people and has had exposure to, and learned about, many different cultures."

He is scheduled to hold a workshop for children and adults on April 21 at The Trapeze Arts and Circus School in Oakland; and on April 24 he will teach a physical comedy and clowning class at the San Francisco Clown Conservatory, which offers a year-long program in clowning and theatrical arts.

At both workshops, Lubin plans to focus on character work, improvisation, slapstick, writing physical comedy and other aspects of clowning.

Cieara Gragg, an owner of Balloons and Beyond on Main Street in Pleasanton, is planning to go with a few of her employees who perform as clowns at parties using her balloon arrangements.

"I think they will really benefit from learning how Grandma interacts with his audience, and they will take that experience with them when they are assigned to perform as clowns at parties," Gragg said. "Especially children's parties."

Lubin attended Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Clown College in 1974, learning the necessary skills for his apprenticeship with the U.S. Ringling Brothers national tour, in which he performed for five seasons. He learned by trial and error, he recalled, testing out new characters and material, and adding his own improvisation.

"The audience taught me what they liked and what they didn't," he noted.

Grandma is his impersonation of the "little old ladies" he would meet as a child on the Atlantic City boardwalk in New Jersey, where he grew up, although he admits that there is a bit of himself in her as well. To create the slightly disheveled character, Lubin couples the traditional clown costume red nose and all with a matronly bathrobe and a curly gray wig.

He credits her success to audience members who participated in the act. This also personalized the circus experience for them, he pointed out, making the arena seem more intimate than the traditional, three-ring circuses where he originally performed.

"By working close up, I learned an enormous amount and had a great time learning," Lubin recalled.

When he joined the Big Apple Circus, his first performance was in Acapulco, Mexico. Subsequently, Big Apple asked Lubin to become part of its 1982 Cross-Country Summer Tour, and he remained with Big Apple for the next 25 seasons. During his tenure, Lubin served as creative consultant as well as director of clowning.

After a quarter-century, Lubin left the Big Apple Circus in 2012 to experiment with other opportunities in clowning. He also wanted to pursue his interests of teaching, writing, directing and mentoring.

Lubin currently resides in Stockholm with his Swedish girlfriend, Ann. He said he is involved in the clown community there and has met numerous people in the Swedish circus business.

But he is back in the United States for a couple of months, spending a few days with his family in New Jersey, and has also booked circus and theater engagements.

In the Bay Area, Lubin will be working with fellow clowns, Michelle Musser and Nathan Holguin, who are meeting up with him for an intensive week-long collaboration on their latest show. And he will be presenting the two public workshops.

Call Trapeze Arts at (510) 419-0700 for more information about Lubin's April 21 workshop. Call the San Francisco Circus Center at (415) 759-8123 to learn about Lubin's April 24 physical comedy and clowning class or email

Gragg thinks that her Balloons and Beyond employees who perform at parties as Disney princesses, as opposed to clowns, will also benefit from Grandma's workshops.

"They will learn tricks from Grandma about how to engage the audience, keep their interest and elicit their participation," Gragg said.

Her balloon artists are also attending to hone their clowning abilities and learn to stay in character while twisting balloon animals, a talent that will be on display at Pleasanton First Wednesday Street Parties.

Since his debut as a world-class clown, Lubin has appeared multiple times on David Letterman's show and has been featured in movies and shows, including CBS's "Circus of the Stars." Lubin has also directed comedy segments for MTV and served as a creative consultant for the NBC series, "Cheers."

Chasing after a full and interesting life, Lubin has truly "run away with the circus." He has achieved his dream of a life in the circus and now enjoys sharing his passion for the circus arts by teaching his clowning skills to the next generation of performers.

Kate Lyness is the Pleasanton Weekly's youth correspondent. She is a junior at Amador Valley High School.


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