The college audition in Studio A of the Joffrey Ballet building in Chicago has barely begun when Wheeling's Alex Suha makes himself known to the panel of judges. Chest out, chin held high, a smug look of satisfaction on his face, the 28-yearold Suha struts across the floor with the two dozen other candidates from across the nation as if he can't envision any possible way he won't be accepted into this prestigious program.
"Good," gushes Karen Hoyer, coordinator and trainer for the special Wednesday afternoon audition, as she puts an end to the strutting exercise. "Now sneak."
Suddenly timid, Suha shrinks into a nervous, trembling ball, tiptoeing across the floor in his bare feet, sneaking glances in every direction.
Two hours later, the judges, including a couple of veterans with big red noses and floppy shoes, determine Suha has what it takes to move a step closer to acceptance into Clown College, the training ground for all clowns with the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus. The 28-year-old Suha, a theater major and professional actor who studied at prestigious programs abroad on the way to his master of fine arts degree, is one of eight potential clowns who wins a personal interview with David Kiser, vice president of talent and production for Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey. So does 29-year-old Will Austin of Wheaton, a chef at the DuPage County Judicial Building, who only recently discovered his knack for acting and clowning.
"Chicago traditionally has been a very good spot to find clowns. You can make what you will of that," Kiser says during the first area audition since 2008. "A clown is not an actor portraying a clown. A clown is a clown."
Baggy pants, big shoes, goofy wigs and even juggling pins, unicycles and cream pies don't matter to Kiser.
"Those are tools a clown uses, but that doesn't make a clown," says Kiser, a 1982 graduate of Clown College who performed for 14 years before becoming an administrator. "I'm not interested in their alter ego. I'm interested in them: heart, desire, energy and that inner child who is screaming to get out."
With his receding hairline, puppy-dog eyes and wiry hair, Suha says he's always gravitated to the eccentric theater roles, from playing a jester as a teen at Wheeling High School to his recent role as Doofus during a performance with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra at Ravinia.
"Look at me. I'm not going to get the girl," says Suha, whose work in mime, puppetry and more theatrical arts still affords him a kinship with the more traditional circus clown. "There's an odd territory where the work of a theater artist and the work of a circus artist are shared."
The son of a father from Istanbul and a mother from Highland Park, Suha studied the acting methods of Jacques Lecoq, who founded the L'Ecoloe Internationale de Theatre Jacques Lecoq in Paris, and at the Lindon International School of Performing Arts. While living in London, Suha donned a white face and red nose, stood on a stool and became a street performer.
"I'd imitate what I saw, and in return people would give me a pound," Suha says.
Before grad school, Suha spent a year with a traveling circus, performing in towns across Iowa. He's currently acting in "10 Ways to Kill Your Husband" at the Metropolis Performing Arts Centre in Arlington Heights and has plans for his one-man show, "Do Not Push," which involves a clownish character and the urge to push a big red button. While he's talking with friends about possibly teaching at the Clown Conservatory at the Circus Center in San Francisco, and says he'd love to start his own traveling tent show called "Yancee Cooper's Transcontinental Medicine Show and Laughter Revival," Suha says he might put everything on hold if he were offered a one-year contract with Ringling Bros.
If offered a contract, Austin wouldn't hesitate.
"Oh yeah. I'd love it," he says.
Austin, who plays a part in the Wheaton Drama production of "The Heiress," opening Sept. 7 in Wheaton, came to clowning through a much different route. He didn't even try out for plays at Wheaton Warrenville South, where he graduated in 2002.
"I was a skateboarder and was in garage bands," says Austin, who used a short musical comedy number during his Clown College audition. "I know we all have a clown in us. I love making my mom laugh, so that's something."
The next couple of weeks will determine if Austin and Suha run off to join the circus. Other finalists include Margaret Lute, 25, of Akron, Ohio; Brendan Tetrault, 25, of Orlando, Fla.; Scarlet Sullivan, 23, and Frank Sjodin, 27, of Chicago; Steven Crampton, 26, of Bingington, N.Y.; and Andrea Snodgrass, 25, of Toledo, Ohio. The oldest Clown College hopeful was 61.
While "sad clown" can be a thing, almost all of the clowns turned away at the auditions said they were happy and thankful to get some training, share a moment with fellow clowns and perform before members of "The Greatest Show on Earth."
But Suha and Austin understand the disappointment of rejection. They both auditioned for The Blue Man Group, and didn't land parts. It's a trying business. Accepting failure isn't just a skill actors get to know, it can be more than that.
"We are trained to accept failure," Austin says, "because failure is funny."