FFF 2017 Day 6–Circus Kid Becomes a Circus Man

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Leorenzo Pisoni AKA the Circus Kid does Q&A with Christopher Ramsey

A long time ago, Mrs. LanceAround and I used to work as psychodramatists in a psychiatric hospital in Roanoke, VA. For those who are unfamiliar with psychodrama, it’s a very powerful method of psychotherapy that helps patients by having them re-enact difficult moments from their past, confront old ghosts that have caused them distress, and from the confrontation, this therapy enables them to grow beyond moments that may be holding them back in their current life.

I mention this, because watching the documentary Circus Kid is like watching a psychodrama. The protagonist has issues revolving around his father and this documentary climaxes in a scene where he finally has the opportunity to confront his father regarding several of the issues he experienced growing up in a very unusual family.

You see, as a kid, Lorenzo Pisoni never had to dream about running away to join the circus–he was born into the revolutionary Pickle Family Circus. From before he can remember, his acrobatic father had him doing clown bits while his mother did the books and was the organizational engine for the circus.

Long before Cirque du Soleil, Lorenzo’s father had reinvented the traditional three ring circus by eliminating the animal acts, reducing the rings down to one, and promoting the clowns from their old place where they simply entertained between set changes into being one of the primary focus of this new circus. The father’s perfectionist drive had him constantly repeating the phrase, “Do it again,” until each act was perfected. As a result, the Pickle Family Circus was not only successful, it produced legendary performers such as Bill Irwin and Geoff Hoyle.

Perhaps the most powerful aspect of this well made documentary are the vast archives of photos and films from the earliest days of the circus through its 20+ year run. Documentarians dream of having such a wealth of material upon which to draw.

Father Emphatically Rehearses Every Scene

In the center of it all is Lorenzo. Put under contract at six years old and homeschooled with books borrowed from a librarian, the circus is all he has ever known. Through this, he became an incredible performer. In addition, he accumulated a lot of emotional baggage–particularly revolving around his relationship with his very demanding father.

As Lorenzo skillfully uncovers his personal history growing up in the circus, we begin to understand some of the psychological forces at work. At the age of eleven, Lorenzo’s father is asked to leave (or chooses to leave depending on whose version you believe) and young Lorenzo is left to help run a circus at an age that is far too young.

As he becomes a man, he puts together a one man autobiographical theatre show and then begins work on this film. A climax is reached as Lorenzo films an interaction with his father where he finally gets a chance, as a man, to confront some of the ghosts of his childhood.

It would have made a really good psychodrama. But, lacking a trained psychodramatist, the confrontation falters when it becomes obvious that Lorenzo, the filmmaker, may not be ready, without facilitation help, to fully express the thoughts and feelings of Lorenzo, the man as he talks with his father about some of the more difficult moments experienced by Lorenzo, the young circus kid.

That said, this movie is well paced, expertly documented and provides a wealth of insight into the world of performance art. Definitely a film worth watching.

Q & A with Lorenzo Pisoni
Q: You’re in rehearsal now, aren’t you?

A: Yes, I’m in rehearsal in New York for a little ditty called, Frozen. That will be on the Broad Way.

Q: Really, really enjoyed it. I’m just curious, how’s your relationship with your mother?

A: Interesting. My mother was the one person who’s really reticent about having this be out in the world. And I thought she came across great. But I did use her often as a punchline, I’m realizing now–but a little late. Honestly, she’s the one that stuck around. So, consequently, I gave her a hard time. But now it’s great, especially because there’s a grandson involved. It’s fabulous. She really doesn’t want much to do with me. But I’m slowly getting used to that.

Q: At the very end, you did not answer the question of your daddy when he asked you about your childhood. Can you tell us that? How was it?

A: Well, it’s complicated. Everyone has their thing that they had in childhood. No child is perfect. I got to go around the world. I got to meet interesting people from all over the world. I got a couple of great party tricks. It was pretty good. Now, having a kid, I really don’t understand some of the choices that my parents made. And, at the same time, I catch myself wanting to make my son perform. So I can see the sirens on the rocks. I understand that draw. Honestly, it’s the childhood I had…

Facilitator: …It made you who you are…

A: Yea, for better, for worse, it made me who I am.  I didn’t want to answer it on camera because I feel like the film answers it.

Q: You do the things you were asked to do because you belong to the family, would you like for your son to go through the same type of life?

A: You know, my sister has her own circus and I may send him off to her circus. Just go away for a little while so he and I can have a conversation about it.

Q: Loved it. Beautiful. I understand your answers in regards to how you did not feel it would reflect well for you to answer the question and I agree. What was your favorite trick?

A: I was an aerial acrobat so I did a lot of teeterboard which is like a seesaw. Anything on the teeterboard was my favorite thing. I think I only show one thing in here. Because it’s weird when you’re making a movie about yourself–that’s a very odd position to be in. But that was my very favorite stuff to do. My clowning really came…I started to enjoy clowning…came long after my father had left. I guess I was 19 when I was like, oh, you know, this clowning stuff is really great.  And it’s easier on my body. I’m going to do that.

Q (From LanceAround): You decide you’re going to interview your father…and you obviously have a lot of emotion about that. Prior to interviewing him, you had to have in your mind some sort of fantasy of what you wanted to have happened and what was going to happen. And then you did the interview. How did the interview live up to the expectation? Did it get you to where you wanted to be? If not, where do you still need to go?

A: That’s a good question. So I interviewed my dad for six straight days. And I didn’t sleep. I was a mess. Then we get to the editing room and all of my producers are like, “You didn’t get any of the juice. What happened?” I was like, “Well, I was sitting with my dad. It’s scary, you know.” To try to answer you question…I had hoped that the interview…he and I would stop performing. Stop. And be real with one another. Then I could get to a place where I could generally ask him anything I wanted. And I never got there, I don’t think.

Q (From LanceAround): Because he wouldn’t let you there?

A: No. He was, like, ready to go. The last day he said to me, finally, “What do you need to ask me? Anything you want.” And all I could muster up was really that last scene that we have together. Which is kind of pathetic on my part. If I’m going to be totally bald and honest about it. But I couldn’t even get to the place of, “What is wrong with you that you would leave? How do you think that that would affect your children? No, you just don’t do that. I don’t care if you’re depressed, go ask for help.” But there’s so much new information that I was getting. I didn’t know that his father had disappeared. I always thought that my father’s the one that ran away. So I was trying to process that. This all happened on the last day. I didn’t know that he had been actually drinking when we were performing on stage together. I didn’t know that he didn’t remember the fact that he was asked to leave. Because the difference between him being asked to leave and him deciding to leave means a lot to me. Because if he decides to leave, then he’s rejecting me, as opposed to the circus saying, “Your time is up.” I was just not prepared..and, obviously, we don’t…or we didn’t, we do now…we didn’t talk about our feelings. We didn’t have an emotional connection. We just talked about how to make things funny. That was our whole world. I just don’t think that I lived up to my responsibility as a filmmaker. Out of just fear. Out of total fear. But he’s been incredibly generous through this whole process. When he saw the film, when I finally screened it for him before I showed it to anyone else, he said, “Why weren’t you more harsh with me? You should have been. There were things there. I’m a complicated person.” And he’s right. Does that answer your question? That was a long winded answer.

Q: Do you think his father showing up and then disappearing just derailed him?

A: Totally, totally. Oh, yea. One thing I don’t really get into it was so hard to figure out how to deal with the timeline in the film. His descent into total breakdown was long. It was very gradual. It’s 1978 until 1985…86 and just goes…goes…goes…and goes. And that’s a very hard thing to figure out. He didn’t drink before his father passed away. He didn’t smoke.

Q: It seems like he wanted that relationship and it was ripped away from him.

A: Oh, he wanted…he was desperate for it. He was absolutely desperate for that. It’s so classic.

Q: Thank you so much for being here. You were obviously the only person who could have made this film being about the relationship with you and your father. But also because of all the archived footage. Did your mother have shoe boxes of photos?

A: So Terry Lorant, she’s interviewed in the film, and she was in the circus kind of from the second year until the demise. She was teaching herself how to be a photographer. She’s now is a very well known photographer in California. But she would come off stage, grab her camera and shoot and then find a darkroom in whatever town we were in and see what she got. She just gave me 10 file boxes full of contact sheets. She said, “Whatever you want. You can have whatever you want.” That’s just the photographs. So I was doing that [theatre] show for four years–started in New York, went to Philadelphia, then Seattle and San Francisco, Los Angeles. And every town that I was in, an envelope or package would show up at the stage door. It was something along the lines of, “I found this footage years ago, I didn’t know what to do with it, I haven’t thrown it away, here you go.” I couldn’t watch it because it’s all on formats I don’t have anymore. I had to find a super-8 projector and I had to buy a VHS player and then find the cables to make it connect to whatever TV I have now–which is more difficult than it sounds. I realized that I have all this stuff. Of course I didn’t look at it until we decided to do this movie.

Q: Thank you so much for being here, I really enjoyed the film. Is there a particular mistake that you fear in the future that you learned from and you try to avoid.

A: I think it’s what I allude to before in terms of making some kind of personal connection with my child outside of any professional space. And I think I’m pretty good with that. I don’t think he’s going to become a performer. I’m going to try to not tip the scales in that direction. Just to be a really honest person with him; to say, “This is what I’m going through–This is really hard–This is really great–whichever it is.” I’ll try to do that. We’ll see how that goes.

Q: How do you feel about the homeschooling?

A: I think the way that I experienced homeschooling was not the best. I know that there are programs now where homeschooling is a misnomer. It’s like a university. You’re with a group of kids. And you get to learn from people in the fields where you go study. That sounds a bit more rigorous and interesting to me. My experience with it really drove me to more traditional schools. I did go to high school. I was working every vacation and every weekend, but I went to that school. I went to college back east with ivy on the brick walls and everything because that’s what I wanted. My experience was not good. But I know kids that were also homeschooled and it was great.

Q: You have some heavy hitters on producers. You have Jon Hamm and Daniel Radcliffe. How’d that come about.

A: Dan Radcliffe, he and I did a play together in New York a few years back and we got to be very close, Equus. I carried Dan around for eight months while Warner Brothers told me I couldn’t drop him because he still had two more movies to make. He and I became very close I think partly because of the whole child performer thing. He became like my little brother. When I started out doing this I said, “I’m doing this crazy thing. I don’t know if I should do it. I don’t know if anybody will ever see it. What am I doing?” “If I can help, let me know.” So I got to a point and I needed some help and I said, “Hey, do you want to help?” And then Jon and Jennifer Westfeldt, I was doing another play with Jennifer Westfeldt, they were an item at the time. This is all her fault. I didn’t want to do this at all. She said it should be a documentary. She said we should do it. She took me out to dinner with Jon and said, “Hey, let’s make this into a thing.” And I said, “That sounds like a terrible idea.” And that’s how that worked. It was through Jen and Jon that the DP, William Rexer, became the DP and he’s done all sorts of crazy things. I was the least experienced and the person who should not be directing–except that it was my story.  It was an amazing experience.

Q: Did the theatre show help you structure the documentary?

A: It’s almost like the documentary is the answer to the show. There are certain keystone pillars in the show that I kind of use in the film. I knew that it was going to basically start with him as a young man and end with him breaking his back and that sort of thing. But we tried to stay away from the play as much as we could. Mostly for my sanity, because I was over it.

Q: Do you have any perspective on clowning and comedy today having grown up with it and then seeing Cirque du soleil; a perspective and an opinion? Where do you see a place for it today?

A: Clowns we’ve had, jesters, medicine men, forever and a day. We’ve always had it. I think there’s a true power in that figure in our society. There’s late night shows: Stephen Colbert, John Oliver, Sacha Baron Cohen is great and all that stuff is amazing that he got away with before people figured it out. So every time I see someone doing that stuff…here’s the problem…for me…When I see these guys, and gals, Samantha Bee and whoever, doing their stuff, I don’t just sit back and watch it. I sit there and I say, “Okay, here’s the setup. Here’s a bridge line. I’m going to get the punchline in a second…And there it is!” For me, personally, it’s a slightly bizarre experience. I feel like there’s a need we all have that clowns provide. They provide this outlet. Thanks to my father I have had exposure to a lot of these people. The first films I ever saw were Keaton films. Because my father didn’t have a babysitter and didn’t have VHS he would just take us to a movie theatre. I feel like there’s this incredible place for clowns and comedy. Especially in a very divided country that we live in at the moment. Where we need these people to make ourselves laugh at ourselves.  Just to like, hey, we’re all human, just a reminder. It’s really important.

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