Voki Kalfayan: from the Hudson Valley to international clown

Voike Kalfayan --clowning .jpg

Clowning around.

Voki Kalfayan spent four years in a private school in the Hudson Valley, and two years studying at Vassar, before he discovered his life's ambition during an audition for Ringling Bros. Clown College.

Kalfayan never looked back. He's spent 15 years traveling the world as a clown, actor and humorist, and he'll be back in the Capital Region on Wednesday night in Cirque de Soleil's "Quidam" at the TU Center.

He took a few minutes to talk with AOA last week about the myth of Krusty the Clown, the difference between East and West Coast clowns, and the serious business of being funny.

Voki Kalfayan - no makeup.jpgWhen did you know you wanted to be a clown?

I did a little theater at the end of high school. I just kind of discovered it -- very accidentally. I was a day student at The Millbrook School -- a boarding school -- and you got to stay over for free if you were in theater, and all my friends were there and I didn't like going home. I wanted to be at school more -- which is weird -- so I ended up auditioning, and at the audition I thought, "I want to be an actor."

Then I went to Vassar for a few years, and after two years of that I auditioned for Ringling Bros. Clown College, and again -- kind of at the audition, not even really knowing what it was -- at the audition I realized "Ahh... that's the very specific art for that I want to do."

Umm... what did your parents say?

My dad is a sculptor and my mom is a graphic designer turned yoga teacher, so they were like "Oh, clown. Yeah, that's a good one. Go ahead." They've always been super supportive and the acting came from being around art all the time. For me it was just about what specific art would I follow.

Why? What was so attractive about clowning?

I was always very frustrated as an actor because you needed a director and a writer. I always wanted to try and write my own stuff, but I wasn't a very good writer. I didn't have the discipline to sit down and write. I'm very instinctual and very impulsive as a performer.

So at this audition they said, "We're going to do a scene now. You and you and you are going to do a scene -- go." So instantly I was writing my own material, directing it and starring in it.

And that's kind of what clown is -- you really are everything. You write direct and star in all of your own material. It's like improv comedy but it's less intellectually driven and more -- not to be too cheesy about it -- more from the heart. You develop these characters for years and even though some wear makeup and others don't, they all kind of stem from different aspects of myself. So when I'm improvising it's coming from a very, very deep place. I don't have to think, "What would be funny?" I'm really in the moment, reacting in an honest way as the character I do.

What's different about working as a clown in Ringling Bros. and Cirque du Soleil?

In Ringling Bros. you are trained that there are 10,000 people watching you, so it is much more projecting. The whole American style of makeup comes from that -- the whole grotesque style of makeup, which was influenced by European style, they did do some of that -- but it really is because 10,000 people need to see your face.

Cirque du Soleil is much more intimate. "Quidam" is scripted, but it keeps evolving. It's kind of in between a play and circus. I bring people up on the stage and if someone even coughs in the audience it will change my performance so it's different every night. I react to the audience and I absorb what they are doing so it's different every night.

Voki Kalfayan - Clowning 2.jpg

Are audiences different? Do things go over differently in different places?

We had been in Canada and we came back and the minute we got back to the States I instantly felt this connection with the audience. The level of laughter, the level of enjoyment changed ... they got it. I am so specifically an East Coast American clown.

What does that mean?

My aggressiveness and the way I deal with the audience is very fast, very honest, very aggressive. A West Coast clown is more like a beach clown. You know what I mean? It's like "It's cool." When I walk with my West Coast friends I'm always ten paces ahead of everybody. That's not just New York City, that's the whole East Coast... we get things done. The Midwest clowns I know play on the character of the super-nice but a little bit ignorant person. The East Coast is like "We're it. We're it!"

Does spending so much time with circus people change your idea of what constitutes normal?

Ha! Yeaaahh. I think the word normal changes into something that is not really a word. Because normal is all about judging -- and we all do that -- we judge a lot in everyday life. "What is this person doing, what is that person doing," lifestyles. When you do this, judgement is something you don't do as much after a while. My clown work all comes from that -- a lack of judgment. I think to be a performer in the circus is really to let go of all that.

We have 102 people from 20 countries working on "Quidam" and what's normal in the US is not normal all over the world. There's a great story of one of the acrobats. Her sister came and visited from Russia and after two days she was like "Uh, my face hurts from smiling at everyone all the time. Everyone wants you to smile at them all the time." And you learn that in Russian culture you don't smile every time you see someone -- that is considered a little bit fake. But for us it's, "Hey, hey we're all good, everyone is smiling at each other we're all good" They don't do that in Russia. But they shake hands. Everyone's hands. Traditionally when you get on the bus you shake hands -- every single person's hand.

What misconceptions do people have about clowns that you wish you could dispel?

That we're always funny and exciting all the time, that we're not boring. Maybe I don't want to dispel that. (laughs)

Comedy is professional -- the serious business of being funny. I'm outrageous on stage, and in real life I watch movies and go to bed early.

I was out with a French acrobat friend of mine. After being on a show with me for a month we were out and she was dancing and I was having one drink and she said to me, "In your life, you are kind of boring, huh?" I was like, "Yeah, a little bit."

I'm analyzing it all the time as well. Classic comedians and clowns don't laugh at each other, they go "Hmm, that's funny." It's an acknowledgment of comedy, you know -- so you always have that with other clowns, it's always, "Hmm... that was funny what you just did... yeah."

Also, the image of the scary clown. I think that comes from clowns with a lot of makeup. The scary birthday clown smoking a cigarette. "You know ,I've got this great job where I make balloon animals and I juggle, you know -- I do that -- and then I smoke." (laughs)

That whole Krusty the Clown thing, you know, they're in it to make money, not to entertain. That really has nothing to do with the art form of clown. They're not performers. Putting on clown makeup doesn't suddenly make you a clown.

So, would you recommend this life to someone? The life of a clown?

Yeah. It takes balls -- that's the overall rule. Balls to the wall -- which refers to ball bearings in an airplane, you push the pedal all the way against the ball bearings, to the wall.

The same commitment to going out there with nothing on stage is what it takes, the guts to do it without fearing it -- or fearing it and being OK with the fear. It's the same thing as circus life. Can you live out of a suitcase? Are you OK with that for five years -- to have all of your stuff in a suitcase?

Once you do it you can't go back.

This interview has been condensed.

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