Hometown boy makes circus ring
By Molly Flurry
Published in News on February 13, 2011 1:50 AM
News-Argus/MICHAEL K. DAKOTA
Goldsboro native Andrew Hicks, 19, performs as a clown Friday during The Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus at the RBC Center in Raleigh.
"Mom, Dad, I'm joining the circus."
When Andrew Hicks told his parents that, he was not clowning around.
"I've been clowning my whole life, so it wasn't a surprise to my parents that I would want to go further," 19-year-old Goldsboro native said, sitting in a stadium seat behind the curtain after a Friday morning show at the RBC Center in Raleigh, clown shoes turned sideways to fit in the aisle, still wearing his clown nose with his face covered in makeup.
Hearing that their studious, then-18-year-old son wanted to defer a full scholarship to the University of North Carolina to become a clown for a year took a moment for his parents to absorb.
"When they saw how serious I was, they become as supportive as I could have ever hoped," he said. "They wanted it for me as much or even more than I did.".
Show business people say it's harder to become a clown with Ringling Brothers than it is to be drafted into the National Football League.
Hicks' scouting and draft was a four-minute rare individual chance to captivate an audience last winter when Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Baileys was in town. After months of waiting for word from circus planners, Hicks received an e-mail to pack his bags.
Last week, after eight cities and three months on the road, his year-long contract with the circus brought him back to perform close to home, with family and friends in the audience.
"Goldsboro isn't the typical place to grow up as a clown, but I'm not the first Ringling Brothers clown to come out of Goldsboro," Hicks said. He was quick to point out that Mike Weekly of Goldsboro was the first to make audiences' stomachs sore from laughing as a Ringling Bros. clown.
And it was other clowns in the area who partly helped Hicks learn the trade, although many tricks he taught himself.
"There's a small group of clowns in Goldsboro and growing up I knew some of them and they sort of helped me, showed me some of the basics."
By age 12, Hicks had his own juggling, unicycle-riding clown-for-hire business.
Despite growing up clowning, there are still moments when living out his dream seemed surreal and awe-inspiring to Hicks.
"It's such a big venue because you're performing for thousands and thousands of people all at once. I guess it surprises me that good clowns can reach the people in the third balcony just as well as we can reach the people in the third row.
"This is such a great edition of the show, so I'm proud to be a part of this edition -- its one of the biggest productions the show has had in the last 10 years."
Despite the stage lights and fanfare that accompany a circus performance, Hicks is still just Andrew.
He has not become Baffo or Fizbo or some other name, he explained.
"Most of us don't have names here on the road. Clown names -- it's not your identity, it's more of a nickname. I'm Andrew, I'm a professional performer and I'm a clown."
There's not a whole lot of difference between Andrew the person and Andrew the clown, he said.
"The thing about good clowning is that you play yourself. Your clown character is not something that you put on and become. It's something that you bring out."
So who is Andrew Hicks' clown character?
He's smart for a clown, but still quite goofy, he said.
"I naturally trip over my feet so I accentuate that in my clowning. I do what I naturally do. I play myself."
He learned to accentuate his clown personality in an abbreviated clown college experience -- a week-long clown boot camp put on by experts who were a part of Ringling's clown college before it was discontinued.
Part of accentuating his persona was learning to apply makeup with expert precision.
"With clown makeup, there's a lot of technique -- it's not a mask to hide your face, but it is to bring out your facial features," Hicks said.
"I have a lot of movement in my eyebrows," he said, standing up and taking several long clown shoe length strides forward before turning around and wiggling, then furrowing his brow, his eyebrows dancing and animating his face with a cartoonish exaggerated illusion.
"You have to be very aware of what your face is doing. You're trying to portray and evoke an emotion, and we're not always trying to be funny with that emotion."
But it wasn't just learning to look like a Ringling clown that "college" covered for the freshman.
"All of us (clowns) have comedy. We're naturally funny, but we learned how to stylize it and produce it. And we learned slaps and falls. Ringling clowns have a stylized movement, so we learned how to move, too," Hicks said.
And all of this was learned at the same time he was learning routines for the actual show.
Despite the grueling pace, Hicks said the experience was more exhilarating than exasperating because of the support he received from his fellow clowns.
"I came in with all eight clowns from all three units. We all came in as a group and had each other and it was a lot easier for me in that way. I didn't feel like an underdog, and I didn't feel like a star. I felt like I was doing what I needed to do to be the best clown that I can be."
While competition to get the job was stiff -- Hicks was one of eight candidates out of more than 100 who were given the opportunity to audition to make one of the three units of the show -- there's more camaraderie than competition in clown alley.
Clown alley refers to both the physical location where the clowns prepare for the show and to the group as a whole.
"The clown alley is 12 people, and we each think we are the funniest person in the world," Hicks said. "We're constantly playing jokes on each other and we learn each other's sense of humor so that on the floor we can play off each other."
That knowledge of each other's verbal senses of humor can translate well into the often physical humor played out on the floor and some day could come in handy in a clown emergency, Hicks said.
"For clowns during the show, you always have to have an ear open because it really is true, if something goes wrong on the floor, send in the clowns."
Between shows Hicks is enjoying life on the road, living on the mile-long circus train along with 270 performers from 15 different countries.
"I have my own room on the train. Train runs are the best. Your bed rocks a little bit and you just hibernate and recharge," he said.
"Your house stays the same, but you have a different back yard. It changes every day."
As for whether or not the circus life is permanently for him, Hicks says education remains very important.
"I can say I'm absolutely loving the circus, but college is in my future. There's plenty of opportunities with the show after I'm done clowning that would require a college degree so I'm just taking it one show at a time," he said.
As he talks about his life with the circus, his educational interests as a graduate of the North Carolina School of Science and Math and a biology major at the University of North Carolina shine through.
Andrew the individual becomes animated, gesturing with his hands and grinning ear to ear as he talks about the animals and their caretakers who are a part of the show.
Hicks says it's too early to make a decision about school just yet and that for now he's enjoying the experience of living out one of his dreams, show after show.
"This particular circus really is the 'Greatest Show on Earth.' We still have classical (circus) elements in the show, but we deliver them in so many new ways. It's totally a modern show and it's not just your 'And now in ring one ... and now in ring three,' show."