The first of May is just around the corner. So is the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus.
Genevieve Flati has been stuck on the “First of May” all year.
“The first year, you’re called ‘First of May,’ like the month,” said Flati, a rookie clown with the famous traveling show. “In the olden days of the circus, that was the beginning of the circus season and you’d bring in all the new people on the first of May. That’s what you call a newbie, ‘First of May’ or ‘May,’ for short.”
The 21-year-old clown lass is learning her trade quickly. She’ll be part of clown alley when Ringling Bro.’s “Fully Charged” tour plays nine shows Wednesday through next Sunday at the Times Union Center. Also charging up fare the Fernandez Brothers, acrobats who make twists and jumps inside two steel wheels; “Human Fuse” Brian Miser, who will fly through the air on fire; and animal mastermind Tabayara Maluenda, who will meet his 12 Bengal and white tiger associates inside a circus cage.
Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, ‘Fully Charged’
WHERE: Times Union Center, 51 S. Pearl St., Albany
WHEN: 7 p.m. Wednesday; 10:30 a.m. and 7 p.m. Thursday; 7 p.m. Friday; 11 a.m., 3 and 7 p.m. Saturday, May 5; and 1 and 5 p.m. Sunday, May 6
HOW MUCH: $82, $42, $22, $14
MORE INFO: 487-2000, www.timesunioncenter-albany.com
Picked on . . . playfully
Last May, California native Flati was just finishing up a semester’s work in music and theater at Chapman University in Orange, Calif. She was restless, and when she heard about a local audition for Ringling Bros., she threw together a routine and tried her luck. Experience was not a problem — singing and puppetry are part of her show business background; so are stints as an actress at Disneyland.
“What they really liked, I guess, in my audition was my ability to perform and hold an audience,” said Genevieve, who pronounces her name “Jon-vie-ev.” “They kept telling me over and over again that I was a very funny girl. Because I have big brothers and I have a lot of guy friends and I did sports, I can take hits for slapstick comedy.”
That means during clown skits, all the boy clowns pick on poor Gen.
“Not in a bad way, very fun and playful,” she said in a telephone interview from a stop in Dayton, Ohio. “But they love to do the clown tricks and make me fall and do lots of slapping. They’ll pull on my pigtails to make me fall. I’m already kind of a klutz, I fall down enough stairs and they’ll help.”
Flati received training last fall. She’s happy to be part of the 11-clown unit.
“I love to make people laugh every day, it’s so fun,” she said. “I like the fact that I get to play for a living, get to be a child every day and I get to go everywhere. I get to see the entire country, I get to work with people from all over the world.”
Physical work comes with the white facial makeup. The clowns run a ladder gag and falls are common. For Flati, stairs have become a specialty.
“There was one show where I had to run up the arena stairs and on my way down I ‘tripped’ over myself and literally rolled down the entire flight of stairs while the spotlight was on me,” she said.
Flati does have an ally in fellow female clown Kelli Brown. Flati wears the pigtails while Kelli’s gimmick is blue hair. And Gen is in a bigger shoe size.
“I get the big, long clown shoes,” she said. “The other girl clown does not. She has tiny, cute shoes but I get clown shoes because I’m the comedic one.”
The comedic one takes her bag of tricks into the audience.
“I like to play jokes on people,” she said. “I like to look for a seat and end up sitting on people, flirting with boys. I like to take their popcorn — they think they’re just giving me a piece but I take the whole box and run away.”
Most Ringling clowns use their first names, but Flati said she generally answers to “G.” While all the other clowns use their voices during the preshow floor shows — which are open to all one hour before the circus begins — Flati chooses silence.
“The only time I will speak is if I’m approached by a child who’s very afraid,” she said. “Then I will break that rule just to make them more comfortable.”
It may not seem like Flati is comfortable when clowns are in chaos.
“I use my own hair, in high pigtails, and braid ribbons into them,” she said. “I can’t cut my hair very short because I have to use it. And if they’re pulling on my pigtails and I trip and fall because of it, I know that’s funny. I usually get up and laugh, my clown character laughs at everything.”
Children in the audience should not fret that Gen is being mistreated. She said her clown will retaliate, “But it’s usually me that starts it,” she said.
Rookie clowns receive extras — extra work. “We get to put a lot of the props away, we have to unpack everything,” Flati said.
Next season, someone else will be “First of May.” Flati hopes to spend another year in white makeup and garish clothing, then move her singing and acting skills to Broadway. Experience under the big top, she believes, can only help.
“It’s kind of a different edge that most people don’t have,” Flati said.