Pursuit of Happiness

Cirque jester

It's no joke, making people laugh is hard work says Stefan Haves, comic act designer at Cirque Du Soleil

Soumik Kar

What comes to mind when you hear the word clown? Does your mind conjure up an image of Stephen King’s Pennywise – the ghastly one who preys on children, or is it someone like Charlie Chaplin? If it is the former and the reason behind your coulrophobia, then Cirque du Soleil’s comic act designer, Stefan Haves has a thing or two to teach you about these misunderstood characters. “I work in an area of the performing arts that people hate,” he announces.

Now clowns need not be creepy all the time. All that most of them intend to do is to make you laugh. So, what does it take to make people laugh? Haves informs us that there is no such thing as a perfect clown. The role requires one to indeed be imperfect and that in turn requires the performer to be humble and true to his art form. The only way a character is loved and revered in an act, he adds. And the impressario, who has been with the globally acclaimed circus and entertainment company, spends a lot of his time training aspiring clowns on how to be brilliant. This in addition to directing clown acts for the company's shows and working on his book. Haves admits he rarely has an idle moment, “Creating is the most important thing in life, and I’m one of those lucky people whose work is also about creation. That's why even when I’m not working, I’m still creating something in pursuit of creativity and freedom,” he says.

Haves' foray into theatre and clowning goes way back to his school days. Being a “terrible student”, he found solace in performing on stage and on the basketball court. Excellence in the latter earned him a seat at theatre school and an entry ticket to an elite Master's programme. He gives us a glimpse of his student days as he recites the opening lines of a Shakespeare play, “But soft, what light through yonder window breaks? It is the east, and Juliet is the sun”. But, he soon got bored of all the drama and serious theatre. The desire to learn about the art of clowning made him drop out of school and took him to the streets of Paris. He recalls his time there as a budding entertainer, “Paris informed my whole life. I knew what I wanted do and that city gave me a mission in life. I followed my bliss in that moment." A choice that didn't please the folks at home, but Haves was determined.

Years later, with critically acclaimed shows under his belt such as, Your Town Follies, Cirque-A-Palooza, Call of the Wild and Teatro Zinzanni, Haves has unlocked the secrets to what maketh the "Imperfect but loveable" clown. “Clowning isn’t that much different from acting. The only difference is that you have to deal directly with the audience. You’re no longer a character dealing with just other characters,” he explains. What else makes a great clown? Humility, compassion and empathy, he adds. “The clown may be an idiot, but you will still like him. A buffoon makes you laugh. But a clown makes you happy.”

When he's not fooling around on stage or in a clowning class, Haves has chalked up a pretty neat schedule for his free time. “Earlier, we used to sleep over the weekends because we worked so hard on productions throughout the week. Now-a-days, [working on contract] I don’t realise when the weekend has arrived. But in off-times, I do something physical like hiking, swimming or yoga.” After months of long-running productions, you might certainly spot Haves at Burning Man – an annual gala at the Black Rock Desert in Nevada, US. Or, you may find him travelling with his friends. “I recently bought a big land in north San Francisco with 10 friends. We're going to build something up there soon,” he adds.

Older, wiser and 58 years old now, Haves owes it all to the mistakes he has made so far. Responsible for spotting talent from across the globe, training them and putting up a remarkable show, Haves makes time for some standalone shows on Broadway and elsewhere. So, what all has he learnt during his journey from performer to manager? Haves emphasises the importance of understanding the audience and adjusting accordingly. He elaborates, “Beginners get uncomfortable when the set-up [to a joke] is not funny. But since I’m older, I know that the big payoff waits at the punchline.” Obviously, there will be times when the inevitable happens and the punchline doesn’t work; there is no laugh. But he has some advice for artists to move on from a failed attempt that could very well apply in the world of business, “If it did not work, you have to adjust it and keep making it work. It’s all about keeping perspective."