The world was spared another lawyer and got a world-class clown instead when Kenny Raskin’s mother suggested he take an acting course while waiting to go to law school.
Now the only U.S. performer in Cirque du Soleil’s Nouvelle Experience, he’s nightly charming vacationing families, lone-wolf gamblers and the occasional Hollywood superstar who wanders into the Montreal-based company’s distinctive blue-and-gold tent, attached by umbilical passageways to the Mirage Hotel in Las Vegas.
Playing a mute Everyman who stumbles into the pastel world of contortionists, jugglers, trapeze swingers, et al., Raskin calls his part “the throughline of the show.” He’s the guy in the baggy suit who, by show’s end, is absorbed by the troupe and reborn as a youngster. Raskin says, “It’s a very precious theme–the child in all of us.” (For those who feel a retch coming on, be reassured that the Euro-flavored circus handles the potentially cloying subject with remarkable grace.)
Raskin’s caping routine is a recital on musical bells playing them himself first, then recruiting audience members to ring out the tune while he conducts. “I try not to assault them,” the 40-year-old Atlantan says of working with the audience, “but get them to enjoy the process of playing with me.”
I wanted to be noticedOrder now
A Savannah native born–appropriately enough on April 1, he can’t explain where he got his comic savvy. His mother is an antiquarian book dealer and his father is yes a lawyer. “Where did it creep into my genes?” Raskin wonders. “I have no idea.”
One clue might be his height (5’6″): “I was the shortest of all my friends, and I was always trying to keep up,” he says. “I wanted to be noticed, so my humor was ingratiatingly funny.”
Still, performing never entered his mind. After high school, he majored in American studies (which he calls “a nice, generic, pre-law dilettante’s major”) at Brandeis University. Following graduation, he was working in Atlanta as an intern for the Department of Natural Resources when, feeling socially out of touch in his new city, he took his mother’s advice and enrolled in a class at the Academy Theatre.
It was a good fit: “At the Academy there was a real emphasis on transformational, physical, improvisational theatre, where if you didn’t have a prop you created it out of your own body or somebody else’s.”
Like others in the field, he’s had to deal with plenty of misconceptions. “When most people think ‘mime’ they think Marcel Marceau,” he says. “But I’ve gone to mime conferences for the last six years, and almost no mimes perform in white face, and almost no mimes do illusionary mime.
“With clowning it’s the same thing. People think ‘Ringling Bros.’ What they don’t realize is that Lucille Ball was a clown, Jonathan Winters is a clown, Dick Van Dyke is a clown. To this day, every time Dick Van Dyke flips over that divan when he walks into the living room, its still the funniest thing I’ve ever seen.”
Raskin’s own definition of a clown: “Somebody who looks for solutions more through his or her sensations rather than through his or her intellect. I don’t want to talk about the clown as a child because I don’t believe that. A clown has childlike qualities, but mainly a clown is a problem-solver–a pretty lousy problem solver, actually, who goes from A to B but never on a straight line.”
Last fall, Raskin dealt with one of the more poignant problem-solvers in children’s literature, adapting and directing The Little Prince at Theater Emory, the professional theatre of Atlanta’s Emory University. “I tried to stay as faithful to the book as possible,” he says about his production, which featured a mix of professional and student actors with a female student as the Prince. “The hardest thing was keeping the Little Prince honest and direct. You don’t want the audience to go, ‘Oh this kid is too sweet.'”
Atlanta theatregoers know Raskin less as a clown than as an ingratiating comic actor. At Theatrical Outfit he was the romantic pickle-vendor in Crossing Delancey, the loquacious old man of I’m Not Rappaport and a ukulele-strumming, Yiddish-yammering Polonius in Hamlet–The Musical.”
As an administrator, he created two nights of new vaudeville for the Arts Festival of Atlanta, then served for four years as the festival’s associate producing director of performance. It was in that capacity that he made contact with Cirque du Soleil. When the company pegged Atlanta for a visit last December, Raskin offered to help find a location for their tent. “All I was really doing was trying to get a couple of free tickets,” he admits. Instead, he was encouraged to send a tape of his clowning work to the Montreal office. What he assumed was a bit of professional courtesy led him to where he is now: $20 or so in debt to the blackjack tables, performing two 90-minute shows a night, six nights a week.
Too romantic for Las Vegas
The Cirque troupe is mainly French-Canadian (with a smattering of English, Russian and Polish performers), so Raskin spends time pumping up his schoolboy grasp of French. The biggest surprise he’s had so far is “how out of shape I was,” he says. “I didn’t expect it to be so physically demanding. I had to spend three weeks letting my body go through a checklist of pains, but now everything’s fine. We have a masseuse on staff. And I’ve lost about 12 pounds in all the places I needed to lose it.”
In a Las Vegas show already brimming with the fanciful, Raskin’s signature routine, which he’s worked on for 12 years, was deemed “too romantic” by Cirque’s artistic director. In the routine, Raskin plays a down-on-his-luck fellow who sits on a bench, propping his hat and coat on his crutch. When he sticks one arm through a sleeve of the coat looking for matches, this makeshift hat stand becomes a second character, a fantasy friend who slaps the cigarette out of Raskin’s hand, teases him and ultimately gives him the strength to carry on.
The six-minute piece is “a metaphor for my life,” Raskin says. “For me it’s about reconciling the artist with the work–the artist with the more straight side of me. It’s about getting to like all aspects of yourself.”