Jack Weinstock can be seen in Circus Bella's new show, "Flip * Flop * Fly." (Photo/Courtesy Weinstock)
Jack Weinstock can be seen in Circus Bella's new show, "Flip * Flop * Fly." (Photo/Courtesy Weinstock)

Q&A: A ‘little baby clown’ who loves to spread joy around the Bay

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Jack Weinstock prefers being behind the scenes. After getting interested in technical theater in high school, they majored in drama, with an emphasis in technical theater and design, at San Francisco State University. Yet since childhood, they have felt drawn to the physical comedy of performers such as Charlie Chaplin, and in 2020 they graduated from Circus Center’s Clown Conservatory.

This month and next, Weinstock, 23, can be seen in Circus Bella’s “Flip * Flop * Fly,” a free, one-ring, European-style outdoor circus — complete with acrobats, aerialists, clowns and a live band — that will stop at parks around the Bay Area. The Novato resident’s main role is as a company “artisan” who creates the sets and props, but they also perform with the ensemble. “It’s just a lovely, little happy circus that spreads joy into the world,” they said.

J.: When did you first become aware of clowns?

Jack Weinstock: Ever since I was young, I was kind of surrounded by clowning, watching Dick Van Dyke and Lucille Ball and even Looney Tunes. And then at 16, I discovered [Charlie] Chaplin and I went, “Cool!” The first movie I saw was “The Kid,” and that still is my favorite. I just kind of dove into that world of Chaplin and [Buster] Keaton, and for a brief time became a Chaplin impersonator, getting hired for parades.

What do you like about clowning as an art form?

There’s a certain amount of freedom that you get when you’re clowning because people expect you to be stupid and awkward. It gives you permission to be weird. It’s a very healing and kind of universally understood medium; Chaplin was popular in Japan. When I’m clowning, I feel that I’m doing good and putting good into the world — you know, a tikkun olam kind of thing.

Also, I don’t like talking, generally, and it’s this whole medium where you don’t have to talk. Chaplin was communicating emotions without giving a long speech. He was just giving permission to feel things.

Do you know any other Jewish clowns?

Moshe Cohen is a delightful, odd human being who is the founder of the U.S. branch of Clowns Without Borders, a wonderful organization. One of the first classes I took was at Camp Winnarainbow [a circus and performing arts camp in Berkeley], and he was one of the people teaching clowning. And I went to clown school with a couple people who are Jewish as well. We’re everywhere!

What was a typical day at clown school like?

We had mime classes, we had movement classes, some mask and [commedia] dell’arte-style classes. We had one class where we were learning circus skills — juggling, rola bola [balance board], tight wire — which was one of my favorite classes. I’m terrible at everything. I’m coordinated enough for me to know better.

Do you think clowns get a bad rap? I mean, some people are terrified of them.

I think it’s a misunderstanding as to what clowning is. The image people have in their minds is of Ringling [Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus] clowns that needed their makeup to be loud so that each person in a 10,000-seat arena, even in the nosebleeds, could see their face. When you take that clown makeup that is frightening up close and wear it at children’s parties, it’s just not understanding how and when you use that kind of makeup. Medical clowns barely wear anything. They’ll just have a little bit of red on their cheeks.

What’s the secret to being an effective clown?

I’m constantly learning because I’m just like a little baby clown. Body language and facial expressions are important tools for a clown, but when it comes down to it, clowning is just about expressing yourself, as yourself, in your most amplified form. And the ability to be OK with being a complete idiot in front of a lot of people is important, too.

“Flip * Flop * Fly”

June 16-July 23, 2022 at various Bay Area parks. Free.

Andrew Esensten
Andrew Esensten

Andrew Esensten is the culture editor of J. Previously, he was a staff writer for the English-language edition of Haaretz based in Tel Aviv. Follow him on Twitter @esensten.