In our recent contest we were looking for amazing clown stories that warrant the grand prize. There were many amazing stories, and one winner was chosen. Congrats to Matthew "Phineas" Lish for winning the contest!
As many who have followed my blogs know, I absolutely love being able to speak to fellow clowns about various topics and issues to get their perspective on things. This is totally that kind of blog post! Without further ado, here's the aftermath of an amazing interview I had with Matthew:
Question 1: Could you give us a summary of how you came about to be a clown? Did you always know you were going to be a clown?
ML: "I'm a second generation clown (my dad started clowning when he was in undergrad), and started to perform with my dad when I was three, as I explain in my story. I initially started out with an interest in magic, and performed small tricks for show and tell in preschool. When I was three, my parents took me to see the 131st edition of RBBB at MSG and I loved every second of it, especially the clowns. That same year, as I explain in the story, I saw a juggling show at the county fair and instantly wanted to learn how to juggle.
From there, my dad and I started to work and perform together more and more. We would make rounds in the pediatric wards of inner city hospitals, and started writing short, simple gags for us to do together. When she was about five (and I was nine), my sister also started performing with us and we established Circus Bicuspid, our performance troupe. All three of us began to work as a unit with organizations including the Ronald McDonald House, the Diabetes Research Institute, Autism Speaks, and the Xeroderma Pigmentosum Society. We even went on to perform three original off-Broadway shows entitled Circus Bicuspid: Almost on Broadway (2011), Circus Bicuspid: Back for Seconds (2012), and Circus Bicuspid presents Sunday in the Park with Clowns (2015). And yes, I did learn to juggle just like I wanted to when I was little, and I now hold the world record for juggling clubs while bouncing on a pogo.
Ringling came about the summer after I graduated from high school in 2015. I attended the first Worldwide Circus Summit up in Springfield, Massachusetts, where I was doing work for the American Youth Circus Organization. There were Clown College auditions, and I figured I'd give it a shot to just get my foot in the door for the future. You can only imagine how surprised I was to have my number called first at the end of the audition. They asked me what my plans were for the fall, and I told him that I would be attending Hofstra University Honors College on a merit scholarship for engineering. Sadly, I wasn't able to accept the position at the time or else I would lose my scholarship, but we would stay in touch for the future. I successfully completed my freshman year of college, even making the dean's list, but I was miserable. I couldn't help but imagine what life would have been like if I had said yes that day. Even with continuous performing on evenings and weekends at various spots around NYC and Hofstra producing my own one-man show, I Think, Therefore I Clown, I still couldn't stop thinking about Ringling. I contacted the deans of the university and asked for a few semesters off, to which they quickly responded yes based on my excellent academic standing. I then emailed pretty much everyone I knew at RBBB, and within three weeks I signed my clown contract. I completed the fall semester in 2016, and then flew down to join the show in Orlando on January 10, 2017.
I was three when I decided I want to be a clown, so I'm not sure if I "always" knew I'd be a clown considering my already early exposure. Now, the more recent distinction is when I decided I always wanted to be involved in the entertainment industry at age fifteen, and do other types of performances besides clowning."
Question 2: With every clown, our makeup isn't a mask we hide behind but rather it's an exaggerated version of who we are on the inside. So, with that in mind, can you tell us who you are as a clown? Status, special skills, maybe even a summary of how you evolved your clown "look"...etc.
ML: "With that in mind, I'll tell you the following: I read theoretical particle physics for fun, can know Mel Brooks and Marx Brothers movies by heart, and I have a love-hate relationship with magic.
The Phineas look has had green glasses for as long as I can remember, and no, prescription has not changed. I like wearing bow ties, vests, and three piece suits in my normal life, so in keeping with the idea that clown character is just an exaggerated version of who you are, it would only be natural that my agent suit would be of a similar style."
Question 3: I know you were on Ringling Bros Circus, I loved watching you perform in Circus Xtreme when it was slowly (sadly) closing down. As a former clown of Ringling, we know that the circus is strong and will never truly go away, but rather evolve with the times...where do you think the circus is heading in today's society and into the future? Where do you think clowns will fit into that vision?
ML: "I do a lot of work with The American Youth Circus Organization, and we are seeing a new social circus movement, using circus skills as a way to address social justice through the form of outreach programs for at risk youth, engaging opposing communities in a unifying activity, and other similar initiatives. Although I don't completely agree with the terminology of referring to the philosophies as "circus," it is a rapidly growing movement. From my observations, I don't think clowns are going to be playing a big part in this movement. This movement utilizes the more tangible circus skills such as juggling, unicycling, and silks. Circus arts will become more mainstream and accessible to the masses, becoming more like little league or gymnastics.
In terms of the traditional definition of circus, I believe we're going to see more and more circus style variety shows, but a lack of labeling them as circus. More aerial acts, less animal acts, and more stage style shows as opposed to tent shows. Less traditional circus clowns, and more comedic characters. I predict there will be a shift to make things more Cirque, and less Ringling."
Question 4: Do you have a favorite story from being on the road with Ringling that you'd like to share?
Oh my goodness, there are just so many to choose from (not all of which are family friendly). Perhaps my most touching was during a Saturday night preshow in Cincinnati. I was up on the concourse bouncing on my pogo stick during the first rotation, interacting with the crowd as they made their way through security and headed down to the arena floor, when a small family came up to me. They had a daughter who was about seven years old, and wanted to say hello and get their programs signed. The daughter was blind, and was holding onto her mother with one hand and her walking guide with the other. The mother got down next to the girl's ear and said, "Sweetie, he's jumping up and down on a pogo stick," and then turned to me and asked if her daughter could feel my pogo stick. I quickly responded yes, and helped guide the girl's hand along the handlebars, spring, and foot pieces. I then asked if she would like to feel my shoes and the mother's face lit up with delight. I got down on one knee, and began to guide the little girl's hand over the bulb of my shoe. She started to smile and giggle as we made jokes about how big they were compared to the ones that she was wearing. The rest of the family had begun taking pictures at this point. I then asked her if she would like to feel my nose, which got an enthusiastic YES! I took her hand once more, and guided one finger around the ball of my clown nose, which was met with a huge grin. The family thanked me profusely, and headed on down to the arena floor as I struggled not to get emotional..."
Question 5: Are you looking forward to any clown projects or gigs right now or in the near future?
ML: "I recently worked on a very exciting big project incorporating my two favorite things, circus and science, but unfortunately I am not allowed to disclose the details right now. I also have a new one-man show in the works set to debut this fall in Long Island, New York, and will be headlining the Northeast Clown Institute convention this winter. To stay up to date with where I will be performing, you can follow me on Instagram and Twitter at @PhineasJuggler, or on the web at www.phineasjuggler.wix.com/matthewlish
P.S. There's gonna be a book, eventually, about youth involvement in circus, sometime in the future. Stay tuned!"
Question 6: To all of the people, reading this blog, who are feeling that feeling you and I, and so many other clowns have felt when we knew we were destined to be clowns, do you have any words of encouragement, advice and anything nice to share with them?
ML: "All too often I hear people talk about parts of their material that they don't find entertaining. To clarify, I'm not talking about when someone performs material that was written for them, I'm talking about material that the performer has created. My biggest piece of advice is never do anything that you wouldn't want to watch onstage yourself. No matter how good of a performer you are, there is a degree of authenticity that is missing if you yourself do not believe in what you are doing. If you don't find something funny, no one will. Think about your delivery of your favorite joke versus your delivery of a random joke an acquaintance relayed to you. The favorite joke is pretty much guaranteed to have a better delivery and get a bigger reaction. Audiences are smarter than you think, and deserve more credit than they are often given. They are able to distinguish between a performer that is just reciting a script and following blocking, versus a performer that stands behind their actions. Mel Brooks once said that he does what he wants, and hopes the audience comes along with him. That's the kind of attitude necessary to succeed (and enjoy what you do at the same time). Also, never perform right after drinking several liters of soda and not eating anything, but that's a story for another day."
Thank you again to Matthew "Phineas" Lish for giving time to do this interview and giving us an awesome inside look to his perspective on certain things and telling us about some upcoming clown awesomeness! If you'd like to keep in touch with Matthew, he mentioned his social media handles in the interview. I will also mention them here: