Many of those who attended the recent Homecoming event at the University of North Florida were treated to rides and food trucks as the stars of the night- but others found a rather unusual activity to be the most interesting. I, as well as many other students, found myself entranced by the workings of the on-site balloon artist. Where most balloon sculptors we saw at parties and family events tend to fall into the same animals over and over (dog, snake, etc.), those in line were treated to penguins, aliens with light-up planets and helmets, cockatoos on their perches, and octopi- hardly the norm that we would come to expect. So naturally, impressed by the craft, I decided to grab a business card for our balloon buddy and see if I could schedule an interview. But what might please my fellow students to find out that the man was gifted in so many other things than just what we saw at Homecoming.
As it turns out, Lester Mcneely isn’t just a great balloon artist- rather, that’s just one of his many talents. In addition to the balloon work he did when we first met at the University of North Florida, he’s also well-versed in the art of European-style clowning- having experience in gymnastics, juggling, and comedy among other things. In his travels, he’s performed on a Navy Tour as well as Disney World, and won several best performer awards at APCA events (Association for the Promotion of Campus Activities).I spoke with Lester about his experiences in the world of performance and discovered that there’s far more than meets the makeup to the art of clowning.
The journey of life is funny in that in the pursuit of one activity, you often find something entirely different. In Lester’s case, he was originally planning on being a history teacher after graduating from Triton College in Illinois- that is, before his gymnastic coach requested he complete a stint in the college’s circus (which exists to this day). Since then, Lester’s life has been devoted to the art of performance. Since those days, he has used his talents at conventions, events, school shows, comedy clubs, and even had some experience working as the Hamburger for the nearby McDonalds network. But what goes on in the mind of a performer while they’re clowning around, and how does one get involved with an entertainment company in the first place?
While many people have the idea of a clown rooted in the somewhat terrifying white-faced, red-nosed and giant-haired image that characters such as Bozo and Pennywise have put forward, the truth is there’s quite a few types of clown: the kind we find terrifying close-up is the American style, which has a big focus on makeup and the overly colorful outfits we all know. Even Lester himself agrees that American-style clowning isn’t exactly viewed in the best light, claiming that “I never cared much for the American idea of clowning. It’s kind of weird and difficult to perceive, but there are big differences between American style and European style (which focuses more on the up-close performance than the appearance). I used to work on a TV show in Toronto called ‘Circus’, and while i was on there I saw just how effective a clown could be without relying on the American style. “.
With any performance art, there’s a strong debate over wether it’s the performance or the innate talent for an art that makes someone skilled at it. Surprisingly, talent alone, according to Lester, doesn’t make the clown. Instead, it’s mostly the razzle-dazzle and the power of the character: “it was all about getting into a character- the clown was never me. If I could let the clown take over, he was very powerful. The clown wasn’t nervous, it was me who was nervous. “. Speaking from experience about getting lost in a character, there’s definitely something to be said for this way of thinking. “With a good character,” Lester continued, “even mistakes can be seen as intentional and funny. “ To him, it’s less of being able to pull everything off perfectly as much as it is being able to perform the character in such a way that even the eventual slip-ups are written off as part of the act. The illusion of intentional mishaps is one that is powerful in creating a character, and can propel a simple error into all part of the plan.
While the secret to a good performance is a 70-30 mix showmanship and talent, landing a professional career in the field of clowning, as Lester informed me, is all about being in the right place, at the right time, with the right people. In his case, Lester’s career as a professional began when he was scouted at a children’s show by comedian Emo Phillips, and asked to perform for adults at Emo’s comedy club. Surprisingly, no changes had to be made to his act: what worked with the children worked on adults as well. To Lester, it’s all about taking what you can get to begin with. “It never would have happened if somebody didn’t approach me- I did a lot of charity work before i got noticed.”.
What started as a slight interest quickly became a full-time job that Lester was happy to have. He met his wife (who now joins him at events) while working at a restaurant, and currently has a long-standing history of performing on college campuses. He’s a big hit, too: “Even now,” he says, “I still find myself mobbed by college students due to the balloons.”
There’s a few things that performers can learn from the art of clowning and how Lester views it: while it’s always good to have talent for a career, performance is perhaps a more important aspect, and getting into character can be extremely valuable- if not for more emotion in your performance then to alleviate some of your own fears of performing. It’s also important to not be picky- take what offers you can get. Even if it’s not the best thing right now, the little entries in your portfolio add up- and who knows, that person you’ve been looking for may just be there.
One final note: I was curious as to why the name of his company was ‘Everything But The Mime’. It turns out that the man who started the company wasn’t a big fan of them. We’ve got lots of jugglers, magicians, hypnotists, and clowns, but no mimes. We would have a mime, but they won’t talk to us.”