When I was a callow youth, I thought that going to “Clown College” would be great. Ringling Brothers ran one in Florida. I also had always wanted to juggle. I still thought that being able to juggle would be great long after I’d made the delicate wire walk, skipping clown college to go instead to a liberal arts college. I had decided not to join that particular circus.

One day plus several years later, I found myself sitting in on a class at NYU’s graduate theater school with a master teacher-clown named Hovey Burgess. It was circus class (a requirement for acting students there), and he began by stating that in five minutes we would all learn how to juggle. Here was my chance!

Burgess did it in simple steps. Right hand, left hand, circle toss from outside to inside each hand, then exchange. In five minutes, we learned the formula, and from there all it took was practice. You can’t learn to juggle by mail, although you do have to learn it with both hands. I remember that lesson, and I remember the man. (Part of the lesson as it developed was that we had to juggle bare-footed, so if we dropped a bowling pin, it would fall on one or both of our feet.)

A clown is taught that when he or she has learned one thing, go on to the next, more difficult stunt. Balance a pool cue on your hand. OK, now balance it on your nose. Now your forehead. Keep learning. Keep challenging yourself to learn the next thing. Get it? (The man holding the clown who is juggling on his shoulders is called the “understander.”)

It is an art form built with humor, legend and craft, but the thing learned often starts out being quite simple. I had always wanted to juggle; when I had accomplished that, I had no desire to learn more juggling. I guess I was not destined to be a clown.

Balance, toss, strength, footwork, tumbling, illusion – all happen hand in hand with quite detailed techniques. Each of them requires concentration, focus and practice, and sometime come with a few shared secrets.

Most of them are learned as lessons from a teacher. Learning directly from a teacher in person. Like many art forms, one way of learning is going to where that art is practiced, and then staying the course by living it. The lesson of being a mime or a juggler isn’t learned only by visiting Paris or Florida, but by studying the techniques and concentration they each require.

I understand there are great mime teachers who live in Maine. (Maybe only in summers?) These lessons do require discipline and practice. The best lesson of all is to keep learning and to include concentration, focus, practice and the sharing of secrets.

I’ll sign off now, I need to go buy a harmonica. Anybody know a teacher in Portland?

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