Brigit Grant meets Cirque du Soleil’s clown prince David Shiner ..
If you ever want to run away and join the circus, David Shiner could probably help.
As a member of Cirque du Soleil since 1990 and the creator and director of its show Kooza – which is in its last week at the Royal Albert Hall – Shiner is an expert on the circus arts, but he is also America’s most famous clown.
While “clown” written on a CV is likely to arouse a snigger, Shiner is quick to point out that the world’s first major film star, Charlie Chaplin, was a clown.
So for that matter were Sophie Tucker, Fanny Brice and the Marx Brothers, who worked in vaudeville but had roots that stretched to the shtetls of Eastern Europe, where Yiddish-speaking court jesters performed at weddings.
David Shiner’s roots stretch only as far as Boston, Massachusetts, but it was in Boulder, Colorado, that he first saw a clown performing on the streets. “I was immediately intrigued, particularly as his hat was full of money, and I thought ‘I could do that’.”
At the time, Shiner, a trained carpenter, was building houses and enjoying it, but as he had been hankering to perform since the age of 10, when he watched Jerry Lewis in action, so he downed tools and put on the face-paint. “I wasn’t very good at first,” he says sheepishly. “But I got a book and studied the technique of mime and I worked at it. I love to make people laugh but I take the art of clowning seriously. The clown is a character who helps us to keep in touch with the sacred part of ourselves. It’s a difficult part to play.”
Then in 198I Shiner moved to Paris following a tip-off about burgeoning street culture. “In the 80s, street artists were quite a rare thing, but it was happening in France and the Parisians loved it,” he recalls.
“I arrived with two suitcases and very little money but it was a wonderful time for me as I had never experienced such freedom and whenever I needed a bit of money I put on my costumes and went out and performed. I made more money doing that than I ever did as a carpenter.”
In his home outside Munich, where he has lived for 30 years with his wife Micaela (whom he met at the circus, naturally), Shiner has a trunk filled with photos of his days on the street.
For his next project, he is planning to use elements of it in a film he has written that will hopefully start shooting later this year. “It’s about a clown school that is threatened with closure by a bank that the clowns then rob to pay off the debt,” he reveals.
“They owe $250,000, but steal a million by mistake and then try to return the difference. The film’s stars will be the world’s best clowns and they will bring the lost art back to the screens.”
When he joined Cirque in 1990, Shiner had already been a star clown for Circus Roncalli in Germany and Circus Knie in Switzerland, but his stepping through, on and over the audience in the Nouvelle Expérience show he co-created made him a company legend.
The critical acclaim he has received for Kooza confirms that clowns have a place in Cirque du Soleil’s extravaganzas, as the show marks a return to a more traditional concept and has as its theme the clown as a lone outsider trying to find his place in the world. Chaplin naturally springs to mind, only he never performed alongside a double tight-rope act in which four men sword fight with no net or safety ropes.
Nothing can touch Cirque for pure imagination and edge-of-the-seat-entertainment and to be responsible for it all is a big task, but one that Shiner has embraced.
“My experiences on the streets of Paris, in circus and variety theatre are things that all remain close to my heart and the simplicity of watching acrobats and clowns under the big top is what I love,” he says.
“The circus is a place of wonder and I wanted the audience to walk out feeling like kids and full of hope.”
That, plus the fact that you can see a gymnast balancing with one hand, upside down, on top of a column of eight stacked chairs, is plenty good enough a reason to see David Shiner’s Kooza before it leaves town.
• For more details, visit www.cirquedusoleil.com
Kooza runs until 19 February at the Royal Albert Hall