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Brooklyn artist shines in the Greatest Show on Earth

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he Greatest Show on Earth will debut in New York next month, with a tantalizing dash of Brooklyn attitude. Behind the painted features and the rubber nose, the headlining Clown Eccentric is Brooklynite Tom Dougherty, who began his clowning career at Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus clown school in 1978, and has come full circle – returning to the big top as a star. Sad and funny and snarky at once, Dougherty shares the limelight with Ringmaster Chuck Wagner in a humorous psychological tug of war that supplies this year’s production, Over the Top!, with its dose of yin and yang, an edginess that deftly provides counterpoint to the breathtaking displays on the high wire and trapeze. “Clowns are needed for balance,” Dougherty explained, stressing that their antics relieve the tension evoked by the daredevil acrobats and other performers who literally take their lives in their hands each time the spotlight shines on them “To me,” he added, “the circus is encouraging. To have a trapeze artist stand on a little platform as they announce the triple somersault, to me that represents humankind stretching the known boundaries, taking risks. Therefore, the crowd goes silent. Will he make it? Will he not make it? It’s beautiful.” Clowns, said Dougherty, are the flip side of that scenario, representing the ability of mankind to re-invent itself. “If you fail at something, you have to be able to get up and dust yourself off,” Dougherty emphasized. “Clowns relieve the tension that’s inside. That’s why clowns find a natural home in the circus.” Dougherty describes the character he personifies as Clown Eccentric as a “prankster. I add a bit of sparkle to the day,” he noted. “I poke fun at people and people laugh. Children will smile at me and run up and hug me. They are not hugging Tom Dougherty. They are hugging the clown.” The natural affinity that children feel for clowns is a key to Dougherty’s love of his profession. “As Wordsworth said, ‘The child is father of the man,’” he remarked. “It’s important to reconnect to our childlike qualities, that are involved in innocence, joy unfettered." Not surprisingly, therefore, being a clown is more than a job for Dougherty, it’s a calling. “I follow my heart,” he confided, “and I love what I do. I am spiritually connected to what I do. I look at what I do as working in conspiracy with the audience to create joy. If you can make somebody laugh, you are giving them the greatest gift you can give.” Yet, he found his profession almost by accident. Dougherty recalled that, while he was studying acting at the Neighborhood Playhouse in the 1970s, he was involved with putting together, “a piece on Shakespeare’s clowns.” At the same time, he happened to read an ad for Clown College. “I thought I could get wonderful skills that I could adapt into what I was working on,” Dougherty went on. In fact, he was accepted to the program and subsequently chosen to perform with the circus. “I never expected to excel, but the school was fabulous and I discovered a beautiful and oft misunderstood art form,” he noted. After his stint with Ringling Brothers, Dougherty said, he started “doing clown theater,” an effort that expanded into experimental and children’s theater in Maryland, where the company he founded, Theatricks, is still active. He also engaged in a variety of other endeavors, including directing his own clowning school and appearing with both the Big Apple Circus and Cirque de Soleil before returning to Ringling Brothers in 2005. “Art gives us a chance to connect to the spirit,” noted Dougherty. “Unfortunat­ely, in this world, we don’t do it enough.” Being a performer with Ringling Brothers, he added, provides another important connection – to history. The circus, Dougherty said, is, “A living national treasure. To be part of something that is part of the fabric of American life is an honor. You feel that you are part of something larger than yourself. That’s a good thing. It makes you humble.” Dougherty has deep Brooklyn roots. His great-grandfather, he said, had settled the family in Park Slope, on First Street off Seventh Avenue, and his parents lived first in that home before buying their own, on Montgomery Place. He himself attended school in several of the borough’s institutions of learning: Packer Collegiate Institute, Poly Prep Country Day School and (after a stint in boarding school) the Brooklyn Friends School. His family, said Dougherty, had left their mark on the borough. Indeed, he recalled, his grandfather, Adolph Muller, was the designer of the borough’s tallest structure, the Williamsburg Savings Bank building, where his sense of whimsy, as well as his design sense, was displayed. “If you look up on the side, about 20 feet up, he had engraved a little cartoon of bank robbers,” Dougherty confided. “If you turn the corner, the police are grabbing them.” The circus will run, with morning, afternoon and evening performances, from March 5th through March 9th, and again from April 9th through April 13th, at the IZOD Center in East Rutherford, New Jersey. It will be at Nassau Coliseum in Uniondale, New York, from March 12th through March 16th. It will be at Madison Square Garden, in Manhattan, from March 20th through April 5th. Tickets cost from $15 up, and are available at www. ticketmaster.com, www. ringling.com or by calling Ticketmaster at 212-307-7171

Updated 6:57 pm, October 10, 2011
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