On warm, sunny days Frank Sjodin, aka Gilbert The Clown, performs on the streets of Chicago. Here, he discusses what it's like to be a street performer:
As a clown, I introduce myself by saying: “My name is Frank but you can call me Gilbert.” I wanted an old-fashionedy name. Something that sounded a bit goofy. I might have been inspired, subconsciously, by the fact that the realty company I sent my rent checks to was “Gilbert Realty.”
Depending on the day, I’ll average somewhere between $14 and $16 an hour. That doesn’t mean I make that much every day. There’re days when I’ll go out and make 10 bucks and there are days when I’ll go out and make close to $200.
And I do a lot of other stuff too. I do a lot of block parties. I do birthday parties.
I used to have handmade business cards that were made out of toilet paper rolls. Kids liked those a lot more than parents. There were a couple parents who looked at me like I was nuts when I handed them a toilet paper roll with my contact info on it. I also got a lot of jokes: “Oh, what do you do when you run out of business cards? Do ya eat a lot of fiber?”
Right now the clowning is my most stable endeavor. It can be stressful. But, worst case scenario, I gotta borrow a couple hundred bucks from my wife.
The main thing I’ve learned about clowning is that people like to see the clown fail at whatever he’s doing. So I allow myself to make mistakes.
If my nose falls off, I always pick it up real quick and look embarrassed and say “Oh, you didn’t see that. That didn’t happen.” You know, I don’t really get upset, but I act upset if I drop a ball juggling or whatever.
It took me a couple years to learn how to juggle four. But, that’s when I realized kids don’t care how many you can juggle. If you could juggle fifty, the kid would say “Okay, do fifty one.” And so on and so on. They want to see you drop things and have a good time. They’re not impressed like an adult is by the physical skill of something.
I think they like the idea that here’s someone who is failing to do something, and it’s okay. It’s silly but not received negatively.
You’re a kid and you’re trying to be an adult. You’re trying to do things. You see all these things that you can’t do. You can’t drive. You can’t leave the house by yourself. At certain point in life, you can’t even go to the bathroom by yourself.
It’s the idea that it’s okay not to always be perfect at things that resonates with kids.
I remember one time there was some crabby drunk old guy who was making a bunch of jokes about clowns and pedophiles. I was politely moving away from him. I wanted to go over there and sock him, but that doesn’t bode well for a clown to go punch a drunk old man.
Somebody’s mom went over and gave him an earful. She was yelling at him and saying “if you’re saying and thinking stuff like that, that’s on you. That’s not on other people. And he’s here all the time and the kids like him and we trust him and you’re just making a mess.” Then he shut up. That felt pretty good.
With performing on the street, I feel a lot of direct appreciation from my audience. Regardless of what your work is, you want to feel like it somehow does something positive other than just paying your rent.
Gilbert can be reached at Play Mechanics.