Clown Alley may sound like nightmare fuel to some people, but for Cosmo – also known as Melissa Aston – it was just another day at work.
At the time she was the only female clown in the historic Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus, the oldest circus in North America.
Aston and the rest of the colourful troupe travelled throughout the U.S. by train that year, bringing a hearty dose of magic, wonder, delight and mystery wherever they went.
“There’s quite the tradition there in what’s called Clown Alley. A lot of the tradition is finding ways of teasing other people,” says Aston, of the backstage area where circus clowns get into costume and character before entering the spotlight. “It was a bit challenging because I was the only female aboard.”
Aston, who’s now a 20-year clowning veteran, took on that challenge with the requisite poise, humour and extreme adaptability anyone who’s ever donned a big red nose and even bigger shoes would need to have.
As a shy child than eventually became a shy teenager, Aston never envisioned she would have a career that compels her to put herself on display night after night, show after show, laugh after laugh.
But her interest in clowning, vaudeville and all things performing was piqued at an early age – when she taught herself to juggle in high school. Her next foray into circus life started soon after she graduated.
In a scene that seems particularly on brand for Portland, Ore., Aston, who was living in Stumptown while attending college, met a group of like-minded people who had started a community circus. She joined up immediately and not long after Cosmo was born.
“That was my start,” she says. “I pretty much grew up painfully shy. For me, performing and clowning especially was a way to break down those social barriers and say and do what came to me. I could express myself in a creative way.”
Aston eventually moved back to her native Quadra Island where she quickly formed her own performing group that toured Vancouver Island. A few years later, in the early 2000s, she took the plunge and went to clown college in San Francisco, which is exactly what it sounds like, according to Aston.
She lived in a van, performed on the street, and learned the intricacies of clowning around – from contact juggling, balloon making, complex balancing acts and, perhaps most importantly, the tips and tricks when it comes to forming a one-on-one bond with an audience member.
“I studied clowning there for a full year,” she says.
After graduating from clown school, Aston moved to Vancouver where she’s worked as a professional clown and entertainer for the past two decades.
When she’s not part of a travelling circus, you might find her – at least pre-COVID-19 – setting funny bones for sick kids at BC Children’s Hospital as part of the Therapeutic Clown Program.
She’s also swallowed plenty of flaming marshmallows at school performances and juggled machetes through the air for a famous photographer.
It was particularly hard having to cull her interactions with the kids at Children’s Hospital this year, she says.
“During those three months we did do a few virtual visits,” she says. “It was really hard to do that over video. That’s going to be hard for any performer but especially for someone that deals one-on-one like clowning. It’s about your back and forth engagement.”
But she’s also a seasoned performer when it comes to entertaining crowds and kids on the stage as well.
On Sept. 26, for one show only, she’ll be bringing her talents to Presentation House Theatre in North Vancouver where she’ll be performing her one-woman show, Cosmo’s Pop-Up Circus, for kids aged four through eight and their families.
During the 30-minute runtime there’ll be plenty of juggling, a surfing balancing act, and object manipulation that will delight the senses and dazzle the minds of eager youngsters.
“It’s pretty jammed-packed. A lot goes on in those 30 minutes,” says Aston. “My favourite part of the whole clowning thing is when I feel like there’s a real engagement or interaction between me and the audience. It could be just one person or an audience of 500 – it almost feels like a conversation back and forth, with humour and levity.”
Though there’ll be no 500-person audiences at this show, insists Aston, noting that her performance – her first true in-person performance since the pandemic started – will be properly physically distanced in keeping with Presentation House’s new COVID-19-specific health and safety guidelines.
Cosmo’s Pop-Up Circus is showing at Presentation House Theatre on Sept. 26 at 2 p.m. Tickets: $12.50-$18. Visit phtheatre.org for more information.
While the pandemic is forcing performers such as Aston to change up their show in order to meet new requirements, Aston, as Cosmo, is used to working on the fly and is ready for the challenge.
“I’m just excited to being going out in front of people.”