Clowning it up at summer camp

The Baltimore Sun

Twenty-two clowns-in-training line the curb outside the Chesapeake Arts Center to learn the finer points of the pie-in-the-face gag.

Never slam the plate - you'll break a nose. Touch your victim's shoulder so they know it's coming. Give the plate a twist to rub it in. Follow with a big "Hoop-la!"

After the details are ironed out, the kids pair up. Before you know it, shaving cream is melting in hair, eyes, ears and noses.

This is Michael Rosman's Circus Camp, a weeklong program in Brooklyn Park that teaches kids 7 to 17 big-top skills, including tightrope walking, juggling, unicycle riding and, of course, pie throwing.

Rosman's instruction is similar to a performance, with joking and laughs all around. There is only one rule in his classroom:

"There's no 'I can't.' Just 'I can't yet,'" he says.

Rosman has 20 years of circus experience.

He attended the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus Clown College, a grueling immersion into clown life with 14-hour days. He has since performed on the streets of Europe, under the lights of Vegas, on cruise ships and has spent a year touring with the circus.

Rosman is also an annual favorite at the Maryland Renaissance Festival as the Squire of the Wire and has performed for David Letterman and Jay Leno.

He has taught on an informal basis as many years as he has performed, he says. Three years ago, as his children Sophia and Ethan, now 11 and 9, respectively, became more interested in learning the art, Rosman realized how much fun it would be for his children to learn in a large group.

Rosman began his Circus Camp in 2005 at Camp Milldale in Reisterstown. A year later, he added another week at the Roland Park Country School in Baltimore, and this year, Rosman launched the week at the Chesapeake Arts Center. Already the circus camp has become one of the center's most popular activities, and Executive Director Davina Grace Hill hopes to have Rosman back next year.

"He has a strong reputation as a professional and a high-caliber performer," she says. "We are very pleased for our first year out."

Circus performing has seen a recent surge in popularity, with circus camps popping up all over the nation, including New England's Circus Smirkus and California's Camp Winnarainbow.

Celebrities have been getting in on the fun on NBC's summer reality show Celebrity Circus.

Rosman now holds three camp sessions, in addition to his regular performance schedule.

He recently finished the second of his three weekly courses, wrapped up by a performance for campers to showcase their newly learned talents. Children attend classes Monday through Friday, from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m, picking up skills from Rosman and several assistants.

Among those assistants was Drew Richardson, aka Drew the Dramatic Fool, a professional performer from Pittsburgh.

Rosman asked Richardson if he wanted to "come hang out for a week" and help teach the course. Richardson happily came down to, as he says, "create our competition."

Richardson says the students were a quick study, and he was surprised at how much they improved their skills in a week.

He started performing circus feats as a shy 8-year-old and says the performances brought him out of his shell. He says he has seen the same thing happen to his students.

Lisa Lamarra, a mother of five daughters in Rosman's program, says her children learn a lot of skills, but camp is as much about the social interaction for her children, who are home-schooled.

Her family has been involved in Rosman's programs from the beginning and drives from Alexandria, Va., to participate.

She says the weeks always start off quietly, with all the campers sitting by themselves. By the end of the week, everyone has become friends.

Lamarra says the class is also a great learning experience in other ways, too.

"They learn how to present themselves," she says. "When they make a mistake, they get up and smile."

Rosman says this aspect of performing is as important as mastering plate spinning or the "Chinese devil sticks."

No matter how badly you perform, Rosman says, if you sweep your hand and take a deep bow, you'll always get a generous round of applause.

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