Mike Perry premieres “Saving Face: Memoir of a Circus Clown”

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GIVE A MAN A MASK, said author Oscar Wilde, and he’ll tell the truth. *

In Saving Face: Memoir of a Circus Clown, storyteller Mike Perry takes off the mask and still reveals plenty of truth.

Along with laughter. Lots and lots of laughter, as befitting a bonafide clown college graduate and former member of the fabled Ringling Brothers Circus.

Prime Stage Theatre presents Perry’s latest stage creation Monday, May 6 from 7:00-8:00 p.m. at New Hazlett Theater, 6 Allegheny Square East, Pittsburgh.

It takes place on the active set of Prime Stage Theatre’s Witness for the Prosecution production, running May 3-12, which is a play deeply involved in hiding and finding truth.

A Forest Hills resident originally hailing from Western New York, Mike Perry is a professional storyteller who emcees and entertains at festivals, schools, theatres and corporate gatherings (plus the occasional Gilbert & Sullivan comic opera) performing mostly original tales he describes as “monologue-conversations”.

He holds a master’s degree in elementary education and has taught storytelling to students at University of Pittsburgh and Carlow University, to teachers at The Allegheny Intermediate Unit and to lifelong learners at Pitt’s OSHER Program.

And he plays the ukulele. Pretty credibly well.

Saving Face: Memoir of a Circus Clown is one of his most personal and profound tales (with a provocative final twist) drawn from a lifetime using clowning to convey important social messages.

Recently, he took time out from rehearsal to talk to LOCALpittsburgh about the show.

LOCALpittsburgh:  What got you interested in the art of clowning?

Mike Perry:  When I was a kid, I rode a unicycle and juggled. It seemed like more fun than than sitting through chemistry class. And so I pursued it. The opportunities fell in my lap.

LOCALpittsburgh:  And you were accepted by the legendary Ringling Brothers Circus at age 19. What did you learn from that?

Mike Perry:  One thing I learned through clowning is the extreme benefit of laughter. When you have an audience laughing, for that moment everyone is united. As long as you’re laughing, you’re thinking about what is funny. That release of tension immediately after is when you make your point, because we’re all in this together.

Once you are given the opportunity to explore clowning and have an audience, and to understand fully what it means personally as an entertainer and the effects it has on people, it’s really hard to walk away from. I suppose any art form is like that.

LOCALpittsburgh:  Then you left the circus, took off the clown mask and delved into the storytelling genre?

Mike Perry:  As a clown, you were telling stories with your body. It was slapstick, and it was comedy, and it was meant to be larger than life. So those same tools give you all the tools you need as far as timing, self-expression, listening to an audience. With storytelling, it’s the same tool in a different format.

I’ve been drawn to storytelling for so many reasons. One one particular reason is that the longer you’ve been on this planet the more opportunity you have to to package your life experience. And having kids, I started being drawn to classic tales in the form of folktales and legends. More recently I’m trying to recollect memories and put them in a form that’s entertaining and believable.

I went from fiction to non-fiction. I used to joke that I started as a cartoon — a clown is a cartoon, right, a living, visual cartoon — and now the storytelling is based on real events and real people.

LOCALpittsburgh:  Storytelling is an ancient art form, very direct and simple. How do you keep it fresh in the wilderness of electronic media we use today?

Mike Perry:  Once upon a time, a child would say I’m afraid, and the adult would say, “It’s okay”’ Today, a child picks up a phone and says I’m afraid, and an algorithm says, “Yes, you are, and here’s why.” In the digital algorithm age people are being told what they like, and curiosity is suffering as a result.

We are the stories we tell ourselves. I like to define storytelling as a conversation with the audience. Even though I’m doing all the talking.

LOCALpittsburgh:  What is the length of Saving Face?

Mike Perry:  I’m going to say 45 minutes, and there are a couple of ins and outs, plus I’ll tie it into the set that’s already onstage.

LOCALpittsburgh:  The Witness for the Prosecution set?

Mike Perry:  Yes. I’m very excited about being on that set where the concepts of prosecution and persecution are being explored. I can relate to the prosecution and persecution. Mystery is just an unanswered question, and it’s always the core element of a good story.

LOCALpittsburgh:  Would you say your circus roots are still strong in your storytelling?

Mike Perry:  I have a small story about that. At the beginning, there’s Emmett Kelly, the tramp clown, the character clown that most people know. But there was a circus clown named Otto Griebling. Kelly was well-known, Otto Griebling was well-loved. Griebling was once asked how long was he with the show.

He was an old man at the time, and he said, “I only left for two years, because I started when I was just a boy. In the circus I worked with an animal trainer. One day in Wisconsin he gave me $5  and told me to go get two quarts of milk and two loaves of bread. And along the way I saw they were hiring at a farm. So I decided that was more important at the time.”

LOCALpittsburgh:  And he never went back to the circus?

Mike Perry:  He worked on the farm. Two years later, the show comes to town and young Griebling had had enough of reality. So he knocks on the trainer’s door, gives him his two quarts of milk and two loaves of bread. The trainer counts his change and says to Griebling, “Thanks. Now get back to work.”

So my point there is that he tried to run in away to the real world. It didn’t take. That’s kind of how I feel like. I keep trying to shake it off, but there’s something inside that says, “This is where you belong.”

LOCALpittsburgh:  What’s the importance of The Clown in today’s popular culture?

Mike Perry:  Clowning is a tool of communication. It’s a wonderful tool to unify people and get a message across. It’s like the court jester, whose purpose was to speak truth to power. Whoo was able to puncture the powers that be.

It’s an interesting time we live in. I think things are shapeshifting. And I don’t know where it’s going, but I think holding up a mirror to where it’s at is interesting. You think you know about clowns, but now you’re going to find out some real insights and how important it is to our culture.

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Prime Stage Theatre presents storyteller Mike Perry performing Saving Face: Memoir of a Circus Clown at New Hazlett Theater, 6 Allegheny Square East, Pittsburgh. Monday, May 6, 2024, 7:00-8:00 p.m. Tickets (adult $27, student $17) are available by calling (412) 320-4610 ext. 10 or reserving online.

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*  “Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth.” — Oscar Wilde in Intentions – “The Critic as Artist with Some Remarks upon the Importance of Discussing Everything” (1891)