Padded with a soft, rounded gut, a bouncy bottom and two curly wigs, the world’s only half-masked circus clowns transform their athletic figures each night for the sake of comedy.
“The contortionists, right at the opening of the circus said, ‘You guys look like the dancers. Where are the clowns?’” Seth Bloom recalls.
He and his wife, Christina Gelsone, are the clowning-duo known as the Acrobuffos. They are currently performing their act “Madame and Monsieur” for Big Apple Circus (coming to Verizon Wireless Amphitheatre Feb. 1 through 18).
The name is an amalgamation of the two words “acrobats” and “buffoons” – the two spirits behind the Acrobuffos’ slapstick performances. These aren’t your hired birthday clowns wedged between gift wrap clean up and ice cream. What we as view as light-hearted comedy (at best) or an antiquated horror show (at worst), Gelsone and Bloom treat as an art form.
Their current performance piece took roughly five years to develop. Not only did Bloom and Gelsone personally construct their “Madame” and “Monsieur” characters and costumes, but Bloom created each mask by hand.
And yet, despite all of the serious training and skill behind each act, the end goal is still to get people laughing.
Bloom’s love of entertaining began in high school, when he started juggling and inching onto the stage. Realizing he could either continue in the world of academics or pursue clowning in earnest, Bloom applied and was accepted to Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Clown College. He went on to study at Dell’Arte International in California before earning his master’s in theater in London.
“The joke between Christina and I is that I went to three clown colleges, and she went to Princeton University,” said Bloom.
Befitting of their unconventional lifestyle, the couple met in Afghanistan in 2003 while teaching circus skills to children. The pair continues to be involved in volunteer efforts in post-conflict zones as a part of the “Social Circus” movement. Related projects include Mobile Mini Circus for Children in Afghanistan and a program in Egypt with Plan International and Children’s Cooperative.
Gelsone and Bloom continued to work together professionally for years before taking the plunge into a romantic partnership; it wasn’t until 2007 that Gelsone and Bloom married while traveling in China. Bloom cites their “common language” as what brought them together.
And it’s the language of comedy that the two use to communicate in the “Madame and Monsieur” skits of Big Apple’s “Legendarium.” The show invokes the “legend of the circus,” or a circus from the past. Bloom specifically cites productions of the 18th and 19th century; audience members are seated an intimate 50 feet away from the acts who perform inside a sawdust packed ring.
“Legendarium” features artists from all over the world; in fact, Bloom and Gelsone are the only two American actors in the cast. Big Apple searched the globe and only the top-tier performers were ultimately selected.
“The Oscar award-winners of the circus come to perform here. A lot of people don’t know that,” says Bloom. “The slack-wire hand bouncing performance – he’s the only guy in the world who can do all those tricks.”
The Acrobuffos’ unique half-masked approach hearkens back to the Italian tradition known as commedia dell’arte. Deemed one of the first professional forms of theater, masked actors would perform outdoors on temporary stages. Gelsone and Bloom use the masks to further distance their act from reality. They do not speak, using only nonsense noises and movement to communicate.
“We’ve been able to get away with outrageous comedy…things we might not normally be able to get away with in clown makeup. People see us as cartoons, they don’t see us as human,” says Bloom.
He describes performing as “Monsieur” as something akin to slipping on a second skin. The process is familiar to him, as the Acrobuffos have spent years inhabiting different characters’ body language and traveling the world. They have performed “Madame and Monsieur” in no less than 15 different countries. From the streets of Edinburgh, Scotland to Belgium and the Netherlands, Bloom has observed that no two audiences are alike. Such a variety of experience has proved to be invaluable.
“We’ve learned what’s funny across the board,” says Bloom. “We’re adding little jokes throughout the show that we didn’t have when we first started, so we’re getting funnier every day.”
Gelsone and Bloom spend most of their time overseas, making only infrequent trips to the U.S. Over time, Bloom has come to appreciate the different attitudes towards circus in countries besides his own – Europe stands out in particular.
“You go on dates to the circus [in Europe]. It’s kind of a high art form there. Then you come to America, and the circus is kind of for the kids,” says Bloom.
One of the Acrobuffos’ most memorable performances took place across the globe. “Madame and Monsieur” was part of a circus competition in the center of China where, for 10 nights, they performed to a ring of 3,000 people – many of whom had little experience with clowns.
“Every time we went onstage, the laughter in there was pummeling us from all sides,” says Bloom. “That is a rare thing to have happen, to have a stadium full, laughing every night. It was amazing.”
One night during the competition, Bloom pulled a young boy onstage, as is their tradition with audience members. The conditions were hot as the boy mimicked Bloom by spraying water from between his teeth. All of a sudden, Bloom dumped the entire bottle over the boy’s head.
“He had such a good time. He started jumping up and down. The audience was cracking up, because it wasn’t planned.”
As silent performers, there is no such thing as a language barrier. Bloom agrees some things are universal – fun with water, Monsieur getting knocked down and Madame bouncing on her bottom. No matter your politics, upbringing, age or gender – it seems there are certain things we can all agree on.
These are the moments that drive the Acrobuffos to continue clowning, all these years later.