Jamie Adkins is a clown. Not the white-faced big-shoed kind that makes children cry, but just an “ordinary man”. His show, Circus Incognitus, playing Edinburgh this month, is so called because “I understand no-one knows who I am and I don’t take it for granted that people have taken time out of the day to come and see this show”. He promises to “deliver their [the audience’s] money’s worth” and explains how his show differs from the rest of the comedy in Edinburgh this month: “Firstly I’m not talking, I’m completely unknown and not trying to be famous, I’m just trying to entertain who’s there” he pauses then adds, almost as an afterthought, “and I’m walking on a rope at one point, most stand up comics don’t do that”.
Adkins is, by turn, both humble and the classic showman. Like all those who learn their art on the street, he has become versed in selling his wares and is well aware he has something attractive to offer. Aged 13 he saw his first live performance on the streets in San Diego, “it was a comedy juggler and I fell in love with the comedy side of it”. At 16 he was back on the street himself, “getting into show business”, and has been performing circus ever since. “I only began on the street, I don’t plan on ending up in the street,” Adkins says with humour and conviction, and with the audience praise he receives he surely won’t. Adkins does, however, admit that elements of his original street character remain with him – “I’m still completely naïve about the world, in life and on stage”.
He also enthusiastically explains the great skill the street taught him : “The biggest skill I got from working on the street those first few years was listening to the audience. On the street when you lose the audience they leave right away, you don’t get a second chance.” Adkins is the pathetic clown and circus ringleader merged into one, both completely understanding how to work the crowd and totally at a loss for what to say to them at the same time. Circus Incognitus is comedy born of desperation; “I start the show, I’m trying to speak to the audience and I don’t know what to say, and you could probably say that about me as an artist too”. In true showman style, however, he claims “I promise I will do everything I can to make the audience say ‘that was well worth it’”, but what can this self-proclaimed ordinary man do on a stage that is practically bare?
As Adkins states “it’s hard to describe a physical theatre show in words, but what I do is circus with everyday objects”. When working on a show he will improvise around a few basic things, he might know what trick he wants to end up with and what props he wants to use. These will usually be “props that you don’t see in circus”, so in Circus Incognitus “a grape and a fork become a circus routine… and it ends up with the audience throwing oranges at me and I catch the oranges in my mouth”. Adkins is “not the strongest or most flexible performer you’ve ever seen…I’m not up there saying ‘I’m a superstar watch what I’m doing’, I’m up there saying ‘I’m just like you but I’m going to try to do this’.”
It’s clear Adkins is deconstructing the flashy, spectacular image we have of circus and yet he admits he likes “a traditional circus audience, which is all ages”. He explains how “there’s something classic about the show but it’s very modern at the same time, it’s got one foot in each world”. Nothing explains this better than his statement that he has been “influenced by Charlie Chaplin through Buggs Bunny”. His is traditional circus stripped back to a clown, a stage and an audience.
Adkins uses his skills “to illicit laughter more than applause” and the relationship with his audience, developed all those years ago on the street, is still of prime importance to him. “I’m alone on stage but I have a partner, and that partner is the audience” explains Adkins, who has worked Circus Incognitus up to its current state by performing in 22 different countries, always developing the work. He admits, “I don’t get nervous usually except for the first show in a new country. Because comedy’s very cultural, you don’t know how they’re going to react.” As the audience react so this clown reacts back, and he finds pleasure in “finding who these people are”.
Circus Incognitus is “about a clown coming out and discovering the audience” and, Adkins explains, “with the audience the clown discovers the show”. Although, he hastens to add, “no-one comes on stage”. Circus Incognitus has already been performed a few times in Edinburgh and Adkins has been finding out who the Scottish audience is “and they’re having a great time”. The show, he thinks, is most of all surprising “that’s the comment I get the most… and mostly laughter”. As skilled a circus performer as Adkins is, however, I get the sense that his greatest skill is his ability to work with the audience, to create a performance that’s as much theirs as his. This is perfectly summed up in his closing words to me: “The comments I get a lot are ‘very funny’ and thanking me for coming, and of course I thank them right back. Even people who don’t like the show can throw an orange at me, so that’s not so bad either.”
Circus Incognitus is at the New Town Theatre in Edinburgh until 24 August. For more information and tickets visit the EdFringe website.