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Barry Lubin: From Grandma To Wing-Man

by Karen Tortora-Lee on September 24, 2011

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Barry Lubin as Grandma

I’ve known Grandma The Clown for as long as I’ve known the Big Apple Circus.  Grandma is as much a part of that circus arena as the sawdust and the trapeze rigging.  But it wasn’t until I saw the PBS documentary CIRCUS that I got to know Barry Lubin – the man underneath the gray wig and pearls.  Meeting Barry Lubin through the six part series was a wonderful way to see exactly how much work goes into making people laugh year after year.  It’s no easy job, and the life of a clown is serious business.

Last week I spoke with Mark Gindick about Wing-Man which opens tonight and plays this weekend as part of The Brick’s Amuse Bouche 2011: A NY Clown Theatre Festival Hors d’Oeuvre.   Today I follow up that interview by speaking with Barry, who directed the show.  I’m thrilled that he was able to share his story with us and give us a glimpse into his world.  Read on to find out what it takes to be Mark’s Wing-Man, how Barry makes a 20,000 person venue feel intimate, and how getting out of his own way is when the magic happens.  

For those who enjoyed the PBS documentary “Circus” – many people were fortunate enough to watch as you and Mark Gindick formed a strong creative team, and worked on new routines together. As one of those people who enjoyed that documentary I’m thrilled to see you come together for “Wing-Man”. Tell me how meeting each other at The Big Apple Circus changed your creative paths.

BL: Actually I met Mark when he attended Clown College where he was a student and I was an instructor. Then we became friends. I saw Mark doing a performance of his show, “How to Be a Man” at SUNY Purchase and I was immediately drawn to this theater piece and in fact asked Mark if I could be a part of it in some way, on the creative end. That began a collaboration which led to the Big Apple Circus offering him the part of Grandma for the 2001/2002 tour. Just to clarify, Grandma is my creation, and since 2001 the Big Apple Circus and I collaborate on a licensing deal in which another performer does the tour once the show closes at Lincoln Center. Mark was the very first licensee and remains to this day the go-to guy to play Grandma. In fact, a few years ago Mark’s mother asked me if I was going to hire Mark again to play Grandma. She said, “He does you better than you.” Once Mark was offered a role in the Big Apple Circus as himself, it was a natural progression, and our great pleasure to work together on various clown pieces in the show which was a part of the PBS Special, and again this past season.


You’ve created an iconic Circus Clown – Grandma. Now you’re directing Mark – someone who you’ve worked closely in the Big Apple Circus. As your creative circle widens do you see yourself mentoring other young and gifted talents? Directing more shows? Moving on to other levels of stagecraft? What excites and delights you about the future?

I am so pleased to have collaborated with Mark on Wing-Man. I would rather call myself a collaborator than director in this production. I believe Mark and I think alike, comedy-wise and that makes it relatively easy to throw ideas back and forth with each other’s routines. I love to work with other clowns, and I do plan to mentor and direct clowning much more once I retire from the Big Apple Circus. I have had the pleasure already of working with some amazing talent, and I certainly hope to continue. It is important, in my thinking, to pass along what I know, and also what I don’t know after all these years in this profession.


There’s got to be a different energy coming from a theatre audience as there is from a circus audience. What are the challenges of putting together a dynamic show in each environment? What works in the big tent that doesn’t work on the smaller stage? Or is it relatively the same?

A clown, like any other performer, must adapt to the venue, the environment, the gig. It is what makes live entertainment for clowns so exciting, and also at times, so difficult. I just did a theatrical circus in a beautiful opera house, which holds 250 people for Circus Sarasota. It was such a pleasure to appear in that intimate a setting, and to work in a very different way than the theater in the round style of Big Apple Circus. It can be daunting to have people so close, but after figuring it out, it became a daily pleasure to work this way. It was a simple concept show, with four very talented acts on a relatively small stage, and one transvestite clown, and a host. I turned the opera house into my very own playground. Right now I am in rehearsals for the Big Apple Circus, and it is time to turn that into my very own playground. It is harder to play in the round, and it is very different to play further away from the audience. Just like I did when I was on Ringling, I cut down that distance whenever possible by working in the audience. It is amazing, but I have found it to be true, that you can effectively communicate with everyone in a 20,000-seat arena. I learned that I could do that while watching David Larible when he was performing with Ringling, and I knew I had to try it solo after having done it when I started my career as part of “clown alley” on Ringling. Clowning requires adapting to each environment. The bottom line is, this little opera house in Florida, the Big Apple Circus, and Madison Square Garden can all qualify as my own personal playground. Not all material works the same in each of those venues, but my character must resonate with the audience or it won’t work in any of those places.


Bad acting is painful to sit through, but bad clowning is positively mortifying for an audience. There is a fine line between brilliant clowning and someone just making a fool out of themselves – and some performers unfortunately never catch on. You and Mark are very successful at not only putting a crowd at ease but winning them over. Tell me how you know when you’ve found that “sweet spot” in a routine – when you know you’ve hit on something that will bring the crowd to its feet.

Thank you for the very kind words and the kudos. Mark and I are successful at winning over audiences because we’ve spent a certain amount of time not knowing how, but wanting to accomplish this very badly. Failure is the best teacher, and desire and ambition and love gets you past the pain that comes with failure. I can tell you what I know about Mark, because it is far easier than analyzing what makes me successful. Mark is a sweet, wonderful, naturally funny, naturally loving and lovely guy. He makes himself vulnerable each time he is in front of an audience not because he manufactures that vulnerability, but because it is real. Mark wants our love and we love him for that. What I have learned through experience, and I am still in the process of learning, is that if I bring a sense of fun, a true love of the audience, and a lot of desire to make them laugh, I will eventually find my way to that end. If I am present, make real contact, and perform in what I call a relaxed state of concentration, wonderful things have the possibility of happening. Sometimes, the biggest key is staying out of my own way in order to create moments to which the audience responds most effectively. If I pay attention to the audience, I will know if they are responding well, and I will be equally aware of the times they are not responding well. But those especially magical moments, and they can be elusive, the ones where the audience is laughing like crazy, those are the moments I live for. It takes a combination of trial and error, of lots of experience, of being truly present, of making real contact, luck, and getting out of my own way to allow the magic to happen. And love.


Finally, what do you look forward to most about being part of “Amuse Bouche”?

I am honored to be a tiny part of the Festival, and I can’t wait to hear how the audience receives Wing-Man. Unfortunately, or rather fortunately, I have a gig which prevents me from seeing Mark perform in September. It is the Big Apple Circus, my home for 25 seasons, and this will be my final season.


Barry, thank you for giving so much of yourself these past 25 seasons; you are truly one of the best in the business and New York has been lucky to have you as part of the Big Apple Circus!  I can’t wait to see Wing-Man tonight, not only to see Mark perform but to see your touches behind the piece.  I am truly honored that you gave us this interview and I hope that as your career takes you on new paths you check in with us again so that we can follow up with you!

For the rest of you, if you’d like to catch Wing-Man come out to:


Created and performed by Mark Gindick
Direction by David Shiner and Barry Lubin
Sat 9/24 @ 10pm & Sun 9/25 @ 5pm
Without a single live spoken word, Mark Gindick flies in the tradition of silent comedians and clowns, bringing his audience as his date, showing and never telling us to say less and lust more. Wing-Man has direction from Broadway’s Fool Moon/Cirque du Soleil director David Shiner and Big Apple Circus’ Grandma aka Barry Lubin, with Michael Bongar producing.
Playing as part of
Amuse Bouche 2011: A NY Clown Theatre Festival Hors d’Oeuvre
The Brick | 575 Metropolitan Ave | Brooklyn NY


Click Here for more information



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