For years Bob Berky was the creative force behind Off Square Theater Company. More recently you may have seen his quirky signature on Dancers’ Workshop productions. But for decades before arriving in Jackson Hole he toured many of the greatest venues and festivals in the world — from London and Paris to Buenos Aires and Hong Kong — as a renowned theatrical clown.
We’re not talking about the circus-variety clown. Berky wears no makeup, blows up no balloon animals. He performs not at children’s birthday parties but in prominent theaters for adults. His work is closer to the style of Charlie Chaplin, Harold Lloyd and Buster Keaton, the great comedic artists of the silent-film era. With only a duck call, a small suitcase of props and his own movements, he conjures brilliant characters and scenes that thrill audiences the world over.
In the mid-1980s a New York Times critic dubbed him and his contemporaries the “New Vaudevillians.” The Washington Post called him “a leader in American mime.” In 1983 he received an Obie award, the off-Broadway equivalent of a Tony.
But he’s well aware that the tradition he embodies far predates these modern labels and accolades. People like Berky have always exposed the fool — and the wisdom — in us all, revealed the truth in the absurd and reveled in the pure, unbridled joy of authentic, eccentric life. In fact, for him there’s no real line between clowning and life.
“Clowning,” he said, “as an anthropological phenomenon, goes back to the dawn of time.”
Berky himself goes back to 1948. He’s from “nowhere in particular.” (He was born in Richmond, Virginia, but the hospital burned down shortly after, and he took that as a sign that he wasn’t welcome back.) The son of an Air Force band conductor, he bounced around the U.S. throughout his childhood, from Michigan to New York to Hawaii to Colorado and beyond.
It’s a weak position to be the perennial new kid. As a young boy in Dighton, Kansas, Berky mostly lay low. He didn’t often go into town. But one day he went swimming at the municipal pool, and afterward a gang of boys ambushed him. Hoping to avoid future beatings, he turned to gags as a defense mechanism.
“I experienced alienation often,” he said. “Clowning was a way to deflect that. I found that if you made a bully laugh, he couldn’t punch.”
Comedy saved his skin more than once, but it wasn’t yet a calling. Berky had not only a conductor and trumpet player for a father, but also a pianist for a mother and four musical brothers and sisters. The question wasn’t whether he would study music, but in what form. He chose French horn.
He enrolled at the University of Rochester, in the Eastman School of Music. He also enlisted in the Navy and spent the summer after his freshman year aboard a destroyer on the Pacific Ocean. After his sophomore year, he was asked to perform at a university in Toronto. He found the orchestra uninspiring. All he saw were unhappy people, and after the show he returned to his hotel, unhappy himself.
In a restaurant downstairs he bought a chocolate eclair but waited to eat it until he got to his room, some dozen stories up. He never did eat it. Instead he walked to the window, which overlooked the parking lot below, and a question struck him: What sound would this cream-filled pastry make if he dropped it?
He opened the window to find out. As it turns out, when an eclair falls 100 feet to a paved surface, it makes “a wonderful little glop.” In this, of all moments, Berky saw the glimmer of a new way of life.
“I didn’t want to throw eclairs out of hotel windows forever,” he said, “but I wanted to explore those questions.”
Goodbye, French horn
Back in Rochester, Berky put his French horn in its case and never took it out again. He doesn’t even know what happened to it. He resigned his Navy commission, shifted his studies from music to English literature and began to dabble in theater.
It wasn’t until after graduation, however, that he met the man who would induct him into the world of clowning: Tony Montanaro, a virtuosic Italian-American mime. Berky spent two years in his theater company, learning the basics and “trying to surprise him like he surprised me.” Once, when Berky went to throw away a newspaper, he plunged unexpectedly into the trash can and floundered around, much to his mentor’s delight.
As his reputation grew and he began to tour on his own, Berky honed his standard comedic techniques. Perhaps most important is that he doesn’t talk onstage: Aside from his facial expressions and physicality, he communicates solely with the duck call. That, he said, was “my ticket all over the world.”
That prelingual trick slays audiences on every continent, especially when he uses it to mimic the rhythms of common sayings in the local language. If an Estonian or Nepali audience member joins him onstage he might hum their equivalent of “How are you doing?” (or a less newspaper-appropriate phrase, as the moment demands).
Berky’s connection to the audience is paramount, and there is no fourth wall between them. When he brings people onstage and asks them to do something — prance around in a tutu, ride an imaginary motorcycle or real unicycle — he always does it first. He might playfully correct their poor execution, but his aim is never to embarrass.
“I didn’t make fun of them, I made fun with them,” he said, “so at the end of the act they were successful.”
The final element in Berky’s “universal language” is movement: Every step, gesture and glance is deeply nuanced, precisely conveying his emotion and meaning. One of the most masterful examples comes from a skit in which he plays a bird-watcher, his hands playing the birds assaulting him. The wordless, physical tomfoolery resonates everywhere because, as Berky put it, “they trip on [ancient Rome’s] Appian Way just like they trip on the streets of Jackson Hole.”
He found his way to these streets in the late 1990s (by that time he had a son, Axel Berky, who is now a doctoral student studying water toxicology at Duke University). He had recently met Babs Case, who was then running a theater in Florida. The two fell in love, married and moved to Jackson, where Case remains the creative director at Dancers’ Workshop. They’ve since divorced, but they’re still good friends and frequent collaborators. In fact, many of DW’s wackiest moments originated with Berky.
One year the studio performed the original “Pinocchio” — not the Walt Disney version, which meant no Jiminy Cricket. Before the show Berky sent a few children to protest outside the theater with picket signs: “No crickets, no tickets.” The following year saw a production of “Annie,” the cast of which cast also includes no crickets. The picketers returned.
Berky doesn’t perform much anymore, partly because, he said half-jokingly, “I’ve outlived all my agents.” He has transitioned more to playwriting and directing, and he has won awards for several of his plays, including “Cooking the World,” “The Dictator’s Nose” and “The Redness of the Woodpecker.” One of his favorite projects in recent years has been with the Global Arts Corps, directing theater in conflict zones like Cambodia and Rwanda.
But even in this post-performance stage of his life, Berky carries his inner clown with him always and sees traces of “clown” wherever he looks — in the idiosyncrasy of each person’s gait, in the absurdity of braking for a stop sign at 3 in the morning, in the moment after someone stumbles, when they glance around to check if anyone saw.
“All of that is clowning,” he said. “Clown is not a theatrical character. Clown is an element of human existence.”