Pam Ramirez is a 50-year-old independent theater director and professional clown. She traveled intermittently with circuses for four years before settling in San Antonio to raise her family with her husband, Alberto, an artist and clown who also toured with the circus. Together they operate Arriba Arte Studios, a family-owned art studio and gallery. This summer they will lead a circus camp for kids at San Antonio’s Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center.
“It started at an actors’ camp, a theater camp. I was eight years old. My mom worked as a cop at a juvenile hall during the night, so I think she took my sister and me there during the day so she could get a good eight hours of sleep. But she also had done theater as a hobby. Community theater. She was in You Can’t Take It With You and she used to take us to The Nutcracker every year. We used to have a cellist or a violinist stay with us who was with the symphony. They were always looking for housing, so we’d put up a musician every year. We were just heavily influenced by the arts.
“I never thought about being a clown, had never been to a circus. I was working in theater and read about clown college in the paper. I thought, ‘If I don’t get a good audition, I’ll just leave everything. I’ll head to L.A. or New York. That’s it.’ But then I made clown college and it totally changed my life. I was 26. The Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Clown College. It was magical.
“Clown college was a 10-week course. We worked 12 hours a day, sometimes 17. It’s like boot camp for clowns, you just get no rest. You do big productions and you actually do a gag show every week. It’s the crème de la crème of learning mime, character analysis, gag development, pratfalls, prop building, back falls, water spitting—which I had a really hard time with, because, you know, you’re taught to not spit water on people.
See Pam Ramirez get into character.
“This camp we’ll be teaching is focused on the circus. We’re really fascinated by the carpas, which were the old-time circuses. The whole families were involved with the circus, with the carpa, and it’s almost vaudeville in style. We’ll put on a really good show afterwards and the kids will have enough time to really learn something. In two months they’ll be juggling. It’s very easy to bring out the inner clown of a child. In life we teach them to be polite and not fidget or be funny, but as soon as they get here I say, ‘It’s okay, let’s break the rules.’
“During some classes a while back we taught these girls how to do a back roll while spinning plates, and they couldn’t get it, couldn’t get it, but during the show they got it. You have to try, you have to push yourself, and if you can’t get it that’s fine. But when it came down to it they got it and the crowd went nuts, because doing a back somersault while spinning plates is not easy for a 10-year-old. I went nuts, too. I couldn’t believe it. Those kids were great, and I just love to see their faces when they’re learning something new and they’re pushed and they’ve accomplished something. I love that feeling.
“Clowns help distract. That’s what we do. We make light of a situation. We’re basically fools, but we make fun of things that people can’t make fun of, or if they’re just so engulfed in their own tragedy, their sadness. If somebody can come along and make fun of it, then they can laugh about it and make it lighter and not so dramatic. Life is so dramatic.”
Interview has been edited and condensed.