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Survival Is His Clowning Glory

PhD clown and professor sees comedy as the key to toppling cultural barriers.


MIDDLETOWN, Conn. — Although Ron Jenkins has a prestigious job at Wesleyan University and a doctorate from Harvard, he's not afraid to act the fool. And that, above all else, may be the key to his success.

"Juggling tennis rackets, riding elephants and having your pants fall down for 10,000 people to laugh at your underwear is a good lesson to learn in life," Jenkins said.

For him, comedy is the secret to survival. "I'm not embarrassed to express my ignorance, or being ridiculous," Jenkins said recently over lunch. "It's a part of my profession."

The professor, you see, is quite the clown. His Harvard doctorate is in clowning--an interdisciplinarian degree encompassing anthropology, theater, media and education. He has a master's in buffoonery from Ringling Brothers Clown College in Florida. Seriously.

Laughter--and taking risks--has unlocked many doors for Jenkins, now chairman and artistic director of Wesleyan's theater department, which he joined in 1999.

Consider Jenkins' story of how, in 1985, he first met the acclaimed Italian comic and dramatist Dario Fo, who would go on to win the Nobel Prize for literature in 1997.

Fo had built a reputation for using the technique of the traveling storyteller to lampoon Italy's social injustices. Jenkins, upon getting his doctorate, was eager to meet Fo. Jenkins wrote to him repeatedly from Harvard, but the playwright didn't respond.

Undeterred, Jenkins hopped a plane to Italy, with limited knowledge of the language and the landscape. On the flight, he befriended a woman whose father was a huge fan of Fo's. She planned to put Jenkins on a train to Turin, where Fo was performing. But when her father heard of Jenkins' quest, he gave his daughter the keys to his car, and she drove him there.

Jenkins finally got an introduction. He discovered his Harvard credentials meant little to Fo. But upon discovering Jenkins was a fellow clown, Fo invited him to travel with his tour for the year.

So began a personal and professional friendship that continues to thrive.

Jenkins learned to speak Italian that first year. "I couldn't speak, but I listened while we would sit together eating and drinking, and my motivation was wanting to understand what they were laughing at," Jenkins said.

Fo has been a huge inspiration to Jenkins, who has written a book on the actor and now translates Fo's works, both in print and on stage. Jenkins was responsible for bringing Fo to America. The political satirist had had trouble getting permission to enter the country because his attacks on Italy's politics got him branded as a subversive.

The idea that the spirit of laughter is the spirit of survival and a language that transcends all barriers is in the great tradition of clowns.

"Clowns are the walking catalogs of human imperfection, and comedy is their struggle to survive," Jenkins said.

Now 49, Jenkins came to clowning only after pursuing a career in medicine. He grew up in a Philadelphia suburb, where, he said, he was "a singularly unfunny and painfully shy child."

His life turned around in the early 1970s. As a premed student at New York University, he worked with schizophrenic and autistic children in the psychiatric ward at Bellevue Hospital. The children received very little human contact, and their treatment consisted primarily of drug therapy.

Jenkins was trying to connect with a despondent child named Eric. He discovered that by playing silly games he got Eric to smile--and to finally say Jenkins' name.

"I won his trust with laughter," Jenkins said. "I feel the only audience I was capable of acting out in front of were the autistic children, the only people who were more shy than myself."

Jenkins, at 20, dropped out of school to pursue the healing and communicative powers of clowning. He received his degree from Ringling Brothers in 1973, then received his undergraduate degree at Haverford College in Massachusetts in 1976, a master's from Harvard in 1979 and a doctorate from Harvard in 1984.

"Finding out about the power of laughter is weaving together the practical and the intellectual. They are inseparable. Together they build an education. They are part of the same thread," Jenkins said.

He said his classroom studies would not have been complete without the support of his extensive field research in Bali, Indonesia; Italy, South Africa and Japan. Jenkins infiltrates different cultures in search of what makes people laugh.

"Ron is accepted into many circles, and he wouldn't be able to achieve this if it wasn't for his personality," said Pamela Tatge, director of Wesleyan's Center of the Arts. Jenkins can speak French, Italian and Indonesian, but he said his secret to acceptance into foreign cultures is his ability to clown.

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