Clowning around in The Big Apple Circus

 Spring is in the air and that means The Big Apple Circus is coming back to Boston.  After a brief hiatus last season, the world renowned, one-ring wonder returns for its 40th Anniversary Tour, playing under the Big Top at Assembly Row in Somerville.  Performances run from April to May 6.

The line-up of international, award-winning artists includes high wire legend Nik Wallenda and his family, trapeze artists The Flying Tunizianis, master juggler Gamal Garcia, acclaimed acrobats The Anastasia Brothers, contortionist Elayne Kramer, equestrian trainer Jenny Vidbel, and more.

Supplying the comedy is the clown duo Brent McBeth and Joel Jeske. McBeth is an accomplished musical theater performer, dance teacher, and choreographer who met Jeske in 2006 at the Parallel Exit physical theatre company in New York.  He has also appeared in “No, No Nanette” and “Face The Music” at New York’s City Center, as well as on tour and regionally in “Fosse,” “Cabaret,” “Irving Berlin’s White Christmas” and “Thoroughly Modern Millie.” 

McBeth is also well aware of his roots, thanks to his Mom, who’s a retired librarian.  Using her expert research skills, she has compiled an extensive family history tracing their Northern Ireland ancestors back to a 1733 arrival in America.  Many of McBeth’s folks landed in the Virginia, Kentucky and Tennessee areas, with most eventually ending up as Texas ranchers and farmers.
Following a childhood of gymnastics, singing and tap dancing in Texas, he earned his Musical Theatre degree at Sam Houston State University.

Brent performed with the Big Apple in Boston two years ago and says he loves the city’s energy. He’s particularly looking forward to roaming the nooks and crannies of the North End to seek out its culinary treats.

We spoke by phone when The Big Apple was playing in Washington, D.C.  Here’s an edited look at our conversation:

Q. So many kids dream of running away and joining the circus.  You’re living that dream.
A. Yeah . . . Before the show starts, I go out into the audience and we meet and greet and talk and kind of warm up the crowd. I’ll run into kids all the time (who) say, “I’m gonna go with the circus, I’m gonna go with the circus.”  And I say,  “Well, what can you do?”  They say, “I can do a cartwheel!”  “All right, keep working on that cartwheel. Make that cartwheel into two. Learn to do a back flip out of that cartwheel and you’ve got yourself an act.”

Q. Who were your favorite performers when you were growing up?
A. I was inspired by the MGM dancer-comedians Ray Bolger and Donald O’Connor.  Also Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin.  My training was pretty much in musical theater comedy.  I moved to New York shortly after college and I came across Joel Jeske, the other clown in Big Apple Circus . . . Through Parallel Exit, he and I and a group of other performers have traveled the world doing non-verbal, physical comedy theater, which is kind of an odd thing to describe. It’s basically clowning, but more on the vaudevillian story-telling side.

Q. How did you come to join The Big Apple?
A. Two years ago, when Joel wrote “The Grand Tour” for Big Apple Circus, he invited me to be a part of that. That was the first time I had ever officially done a circus. I had been in circus atmospheres, dinner theaters, variety art shows, but never under a tent, sawdust ring, live animals. So I absolutely loved it and I’m thrilled to be back this year. 

Q. In a lot of your other physical comedy work, you and Joel play opposites. He’s the boss and you’re the one who messes things up.
A. That’s usually been our dynamic.  I’m the bouncy, springy, playful character.  He’s usually the frustrated, flustered taskmaster.  The 40th anniversary tour is very different for the both of us.  Our characters are not really in a battle for superiority . . . We’re both just kind of there to make merry and have fun.

Q. Tell me about creating a clown character.
A. With any clown character, I think 90 per cent of it of it comes from your own personality, your own energy. In theater, when you’re playing a character, you’re really stuck to what the playwright has written.  Obviously a little bit of you comes out in that character, but you’re really trying to honor the playwright’s version of the character . . . But in clowning, you’re trying to give the audience an endearing and heartwarming character they can identify with . . . taking your personal attributes and quirks and just amplifying everything . . . There are certain things I would never do in public as a human being, but as a clown, you have free rein to do it. That’s the fun part of it.

Q. You and your Mom visited Ireland. What are your memories?
A. One of the first things that stood out for me was the personality of the Irish culture.  Witty, humor-filled, joyous, musical . . . The use of English language was so sophisticated.  Not sophisticated in an Edinburgh-educated way, but sophisticated in choosing the right word to make the sentence witty. To make it a little sharper . . . It was the people, I think, that I enjoyed the most . . . We rented a car, so we were able to really enjoy the lifestyle there.  And living in bed and breakfasts as opposed to hotels, you’re actually living with people . . . When I told my Mom I was doing this interview today, she said, “Oh, it makes me want to go back to Ireland!” (I said) “Don’t worry, we’ll go.”

R. J. Donovan is editor and publisher of
Big Apple Circus, April 7 – May 6, at Assembly Row, Somerville. Info: 800-745-3000 or