SMU Grad Truett Adams Shares What It's Like to Be a Ringling Bros. Clown

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In one of the bar rooms at American Airlines Center, a pack of painted characters welcomes visitors to clown alley, where a red carpet leads to a couple of trunks topped with circus gear; there are wigs, shoes and one of those horned Viking helmets.

The jumpy gang of living, breathing cartoons couldn't be happier. The multicolored troupe is part of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey’s latest show, Circus Xtreme. Each clown wears bright overall costumes and special makeup that exaggerates their features.

Among them is SMU grad Truett Adams, who sports bright blue overalls with matching shoes and hair. “With clowning, I make my own story,” she says of what led to her decision to take up the funny gig. “I play in my own universe.”

Adams is a full-time clown, but not the stereotypical kind you’d see at a birthday party or in a bad horror movie. There’s a real art to her craft. In comedy, the clown or “the fool” is an age-old profession and people have been enthralled by these characters for centuries. Even Shakespeare used clown-like characters in his plays. Queen Elizabeth always needed a good laugh.

“The reason kings and queens had jesters in court was to have humor within their lives,” she says. And whether or not you’re a fan, being a circus performer is a job that requires talent and grace, especially if you’re going to be part of the "greatest show on earth."

“The circus is freedom,” she says. “In the olden days it was a way to escape, sometimes physical harm. It was a way for families to escape and still make money but stay together.”

It took several years for Adams to make the jump to become a clown. While she was getting her BFA in theater studies from SMU, one of her professors noticed her ability as a movement-artist. He looked at her straight in the eye and told her she should run away and join the circus. At the time she took it as a compliment but didn’t think much of it; she’d always wanted to be an actress. 

But she ultimately found acting restrictive. "I had trouble speaking my lines and working with a script," she says. "As far as interacting with somebody in a silent setting, it just came very naturally. I realized that I got way too into my head.”

Adams began considering her professor's advice, and after graduation in 2012 he introduced her to Fanny Kerwich at Lone Star Circus School based in Addison. There, she started her career in the circus as an aerialist. For three years, she traveled the country meeting folks in the tight-knit circus community who encouraged her to be more than a movement-oriented performer.

“I was really good at the walking but not really good at the talking,” she says. “So I was able to play and move and I don’t have to talk, which is comforting.”

While at Lone Star, she met Dick Monday and Tiffany Riley, two Dallas-based circus vets whose family-friendly comedy influenced her own work. Adams says Lucille Ball is another of her major artistic influences.

“Clowning is a large, very broad spectrum. You can be anyone from Bozo the Clown to Lucille Ball,” she says. “It’s far and wide and to be able to play in all those characters and realms and styles is something I was very interested in."

When she finally settled on her decision to go full clown, Adams signed up for Ringling’s crash course in circus. The short-term class is an intensive two days of learning skills such as makeup and physical comedy, which are required to be a good improv artist. Adams calls it a “wham-bam” version of clown college apart from the traditional six-month course. “It was wonderful to be an adult and being told to go play games,” she says.

Statistically, applicants are less likely to get into clown school than Harvard Law. After making the cut, Adams signed a contract to hone her skills on the railroad tracks (the circus still travels on old school train cars) for six months. She’s still what is called a May, which is a circus industry term for newbie because in the old days, the circus started in the month of May.

Earlier this month, Adams debuted with Xtreme which will continue to travel until mid-December. While on the mile-long train, Adams will get a taste of the world, sharing a car with several other clowns and dancers from three different countries. The circus comprises acrobats, techs, roustabouts and animal trainers of every kind and culture.

Adams hopes to continue to work with Ringling in the future, but she has other dreams too. She wants to perform for Big Apple Circus in New York, at the European Circus Festival or maybe even Cirque d'Hiver in Paris. With this circus gig under her belt, Adams knows she can find good work wherever she goes.

See Circus Xtreme at American Airlines Center, 2500 Victory Ave., through Sunday, August 14. Tickets are $15 to $99 at ticketmaster.com.

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