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Issue 15: How Far is Down? / Tears of a Clown

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Welcome to FLYP, a new online magazine that looks at the people and issues shaping America. Flip through this article for a truly interactive experience.

Tears of a Clown

By finding humor in a life full of tragedy, John Leo discovered laughter really is the best medicine.

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Laughs aren’t guaranteed at John Leo’s show. In fact, the audience may spend part of the time scratching their heads.
But when Leo and his audience do connect, the bond tends to run deep, with audience members recognizing something of themselves in the antics of the clown.
For Leo, this interaction is a crucial part of his act. At one point in his performance, his stage persona—a lonely character known as Side Kick—grows increasingly embarrassed by the audience’s attention. As his efforts to hide behind a transparent umbrella grow more desperate, his awkwardness becomes increasingly uncomfortable.
This is when Leo turns the tables. By throwing his umbrella into the audience and having it passed through the crowd, Leo confronts them with their own discomfort.
It’s an unorthodox approach, and definitely not what you expect from a clown act. Then again, John Leo isn’t someone you’d expect to don white makeup and a red rubber nose.

Dealing with Loss
By the time he reached his teens, Leo had lost three of the most important people in his life. His mother died of cancer when he was 7, his brother committed suicide when he was 10, and his father died from AIDS when he was 13.
In the years that followed, Leo poured himself into his dancing, earning a bachelor’s degree in drama and dance from Bard College in 1997.
When he finally got on stage, his life took an unexpected turn.
“At my very first performance, I decided to put stilts on,” says Leo. “It was supposed to be a dance, but it really was clown.” The performance peaked when Leo dragged himself up by a rope and then suddenly let go of it.
“The audience gasps,” recalls Leo. “I always love that moment, you know: ‘Oh, he can! Can he?’”
That was when he knew he had found his calling.
Leo clowned his way through the Dell’Arte School of Physical Theater, graduating in 1999. From 2001 to 2007, he lived in Juneau, Alaska, performed with Perseverance Theatre, practiced physical theater with Kitschy Yum-Yum Burlesque and co-founded Wild Rumpus Clown Theatre, which won the “Best of the Fringe” award at the 2003 San Francisco Fringe Festival.
In 2007, Leo received a gold medal in the NYC Clown Olympics for Eccentric Dance with his solo show Number’s Up, which he had honed through extensive touring in the U.S. and Canada.
Along with several other awards, Leo also received various grants that, when added to his earnings from babysitting and packaging organic vegetables, sustained his life as a performer.

John Leo talks about bringing his life’s tragedy on stage in our video interview.

Life’s Work
Leo left Alaska and headed to New York last year. The move coincided with a change in his approach to clowning.
To pay the bills, he found an after-school position in Brownsville, a tough neighborhood in Brooklyn, teaching acting to third graders. At first, Leo had a hard time establishing his authority in the classroom, and at one point even handed in his resignation.
The children eventually came around to his clowning, and he soon had them working with scripts and learning lines. 
After a grueling application processes, Leo also became a member of Big Apple Circus Clown Care, a community outreach program that sends clowns to entertain hospitalized children.
Not all performers are cut out to entertain sick and dying kids, but Leo seems to be in his element. He drinks apple juice out of urinals, gives the kid a remote control that “powers” his body language and jokes around with the families.
“I just felt so lucky, tremendously lucky, to have fallen into this,” says Leo. “It is the job of a lifetime.”
According to Leo, he never identifies with the kids during his work; it isn’t until he takes off the nose and the white face paint that he remembers all the years he spent in hospitals during his childhood.
Though working with children is undeniably rewarding, Leo sees his future in performing for adults. Recently, he started teaching clowning to adults at New York Circus Arts Academy, and it is here that he may have found exactly what he’s been looking for.
“I love helping people through the process of shedding the layers of years of hiding to reveal this wonderful, awkward, quirky clown persona,” he says. “It’s such a thrill to see someone on stage just all of a sudden be themselves…that’s so sad and wonderful at the same time. And I don’t know whether to cry or laugh.”

In our interactive feature, watch footage from several of Leo’s performance pieces, and listen to him describe each act.