For most people, getting called a clown is meant as a joke or insult. But for Cirque du Soleil veteran Gordon White, it’s a full-time job. As part of Cirque’s travelling show Varekai, White has clowned all around the world and will be bringing his talents to Hamilton next week.
True to Cirque’s characteristic storytelling aspect to their circus shows, White’s character The Skywatcher is described as a mad scientist and collector of the world’s memories. This central character acts as an enchanted ringleader, guiding the audience through the magical forest-themed show.
“In this little society in the forest, there’s a nymph character [called] The Promise. The Skywatcher, he’s always trying to make the world better. So, he’s always building these gizmos to attract a higher entity, which in this case, is the Icarus character,” White explained.
Icarus “crashes at the beginning of the show into the forest, and The Skywatcher gets to spend the show trying to match these two together. Once they’re married and together, everything will be just fine.”
Interspersed within that story arch are the acrobatics Cirque is known for. Aerial hoops and straps suspended above the stage, “Russian” moving swings acrobatics, and traditional juggling are all acts in the show.
White is in charge of providing the comic relief from such intense physical performances, a responsibility he enjoys. The ability to play to the audience in the midst of a tightly scripted show adds variety to White’s performance. “There are moments where you could take advantage of audience reactions or something that happens on stage. It’s very, very rigidly structured, but there is room for some improve,” he said.
Cirque du Soleil scouted White in the early 2000s. At the time, he was in his home-town of Vancouver putting on one-man shows at corporate events and festivals. “They heard about me through some other clown friends that I had and they were casting a clown for Saltimbanco,” he explained. “They wanted a replacement for a clown that was leaving.”
White has since spent nearly a decade as a clown with Cirque and has performed in Saltimbanco, Banana Shpeel and Kooza as well as reprising his role in Varekai for this tour. He’s well accustomed to the rigorous touring schedule and has developed a routine while on the road.
Every day begins with a late start. “We get up late to mid-morning because after doing a late-night show… it takes two or three hours to wind down enough to go to sleep,” White said. Then, he checks up on his emails and stays in touch with people and business he has back home before heading to the site of the next show. “The acrobats, they train every day but the clowns – we pretty much just show up with enough time to do our makeup and do a physical warm-up,” White said. The makeup application process, however, should not be underestimated.
“Everybody does their own makeup. Mine takes almost two hours to do,” he said. “It’s just quite detailed and there’s many layers, too. There’s a grease base and then you need to powder everything and then you go over all the same stuff with other powders,” he continued. “Some are wet and you need to powder on the wet and blend it before it dries… It takes almost two hours to put and takes only two minutes to take off.”
There are other difficulties with being on tour. “The most challenging part is just being ‘on’ when you need to be, whether you’re sick or injured or just don’t feel like doing it,” White said. “But as soon as you step on stage you need to ‘be’ there. And as clowns we depend on the audience’s response.”
White has found that different countries have different senses of humour. “Every country has a different response,” he said. “In Asia, they’re really into the broad slapstick stuff. When we got to Brazil, they wanted more sophisticated [humour],” he added.
But in the heat of the performance, White enjoys letting it all go. “I just be in the moment. I mean, it’s a clown thing… It just happens.”
Catch Gordon White onstage in Varekai at Copps Coliseum from Wednesday, Jan. 29 through to Sunday, Feb. 2. Tickets are available at the Copps Coliseum box office or through Ticketmaster.