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Philosopher clown 

"If you haven't heard of me, it may well be because I'm not on the radio," Tift Merritt told a packed audience Monday at an FCC hearing at Duke Law School. Merritt, a local musician whose recent album Bramble Rose received national acclaim, was on a panel discussing media ownership and drew laughter and applause when she confronted local radio owner Don Curtis, a co-panelist, by asking him why her songs are not being played on his station, WQDR.

Alex Maness

"If you haven't heard of me, it may well be because I'm not on the radio," Tift Merritt told a packed audience Monday at an FCC hearing at Duke Law School. Merritt, a local musician whose recent album Bramble Rose received national acclaim, was on a panel discussing media ownership and drew laughter and applause when she confronted local radio owner Don Curtis, a co-panelist, by asking him why her songs are not being played on his station, WQDR.

Imagine being a circus clown. Then imagine having to go on the day after Sept. 11. Now add another tough house to the tour: March 19, the night the U.S. invaded Iraq.

Gonzalo Munoz Ferrer, a Chilean actor who plays Vincenzo, the addled maitre'd in Cirque du Soleil's Dralion, did both. The show went on as usual in Raleigh two weeks ago tonight--which meant Munoz Ferrer was likely the first performer the audience saw upon entering the Grand Chapiteau.

Vincenzo was the opener on Sept. 12, 2001, as well. That night, the show was in Boston.

"How delicate was the audience, how fragile," Munoz Ferrer remembers, his distinctive accent colored by emotion. "We were having to really take care of them--laughing with them, but very softly."

In some ways, the situation paralleled that of March 19. "It was very weird," he recalls, "because we knew that 8 p.m., our curtain time, was also the limit of time that the government was giving Iraq."

"But the clowns, we looked at each other and said, 'Guys, some people are thinking about killing. We're the others. Let's do the counterbalance; let's push it up. Let's celebrate life.' "

"And with that emotion we went on stage," Munoz Ferrer says.

"In the history of war there are many stories about entertainers," he notes. "Stravinsky performed during the war. I trained with circus people in France who did circus during wartime, during the Resistance."

"You are an entertainer," he concludes. "You have a responsibility."

In Dralion, the clowns are clearly apart from the fantasy world of the performance--those graceful, fantastic representations of air, fire, water and earth. By contrast, Munoz Ferrer and associates play working stiffs who are suddenly called on to welcome the audience and start the show. As they do, few things go smoothly.

"Part of the beauty of clowning for me is that you are always working to and after the failure," Munoz Ferrer says. "The failure is the most important thing for a clown."

At times, it seems their subject matter is awkwardness: awkward on-the-job performance, awkward social situations, professional service snafus of nearly every stripe. "People see someone trying to do something, everything goes wrong, and they try to fix it," Munoz Ferrer notes. "Certainly everyone has had this situation."

"But the clowns take on the awkwardness of the audience," he says. "They take on their experiences."

And they make strangely healing comedy out of it.

Munoz Ferrer compares the work he does to filtering toxins out of the audience. "For me it's like eating," he says. "We eat so much news, and though we are not living the situations directly, we are because we turn on the television and get fed with all those situations."

"You have to clean the body of this. We have to clean ourselves," he concludes. "That is what I feel is the job of the entertainer."

Munoz Ferrer and his associates continue to interrupt our regularly scheduled programming with media feed of a different variety, through this Saturday night.

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