When Kelsey Custard was studying at San Francisco’s Clown Conservatory school a decade ago, she and some of her female colleagues were advised by a guest teacher that they were simply unteachable.
“We were told that women aren’t funny, so he wasn’t really going to teach us because he didn’t think we could make it,” the 35-year-old Sacramento native told 48 Hills. “He just taught the boys how to do hat tricks and cane tricks and things and told us we could learn if we wanted, but we weren’t funny.”
Custard managed to get the last laugh when, within a year of graduating, she was hired by Cirque du Soleil for the Candian-based circus production company’s KA show in Las Vegas.
After six years, she scored a coveted spot — one of six from an audition pool of 80 — in the international touring company of Amaluna, which opens for a two-month engagement under the Big Top at Oracle Park starting Nov. 3. She has since toured with the show internationally and even met the Pope.
What Custard finds so exciting about Cirque du Soleil’s 33rd production, written and directed by Tony Award-winning director Diane Paulus, is that it’s a female-centric show, about a magical island named Amaluna ruled by goddesses and lunar cycles and featuring a cast made up mostly of women.
Drawing from tales from Greek and Norse mythology, Mozart’s The Magic Flute, and Shakespeare’s The Tempest, its story centers on Queen Prospera and her daughter Miranda, whose love for a brave young suitor is repeatedly tested.
I spoke to Kelsey Custard, who plays Miranda’s nanny in the show, about her journey from a Theater Arts major at UC Santa Cruz to one of Cirque du Soleil’s premiere clowns, the difficulties of making it in the male-driven field of clowning, and how Amaluna can inspire the next generation of young women to be their best selves.
48 HILLS How did you go from a Theatre Arts major at UC Santa Cruz to a Clown at Cirque du Soleil?
KELSEY CUSTARD I had always been in theatre for a long time and didn’t know that the circus was actually a job that you could have. But when I went to college for theatre, I took a clowning class with a teacher and former clown named Patty Gallagher who’s been my mentor ever since and felt like I came home.
I had always gotten the funny character, side character, and mother character and never that cute little ingenue like Juliette. Then when I found clowning, I understood that I always got those funny roles and different roles because my talents are a little different than most actors. So because of that clowning class, I decided to pursue that and realized that it could actually be a job and a career.
48 HILLS I read that in your audition pool for Cirque du Soleil, you were the only one of 40 women to win a clown spot.
KELSEY CUSTARD I was the only woman who made it at that audition. There are other female clowns at Cirque, but only a small few.
It’s hard for female clowns in the business, in general. It’s a male-driven business and people think that they want male clowns and often don’t want to hire female clowns.
These are the things we face as women in general in any business. We’re taught that men are stronger and better than us. But we’re fighting and showing that we can do it just as good, if not better.
48 HILLS Some people love clowns and others fear them. What appeals to you about clowns?
KELSEY CUSTARD I love their honesty. Clowning is a vulnerable art. You have to put yourself out there in a way. In theatre, you have to hide who you are and take on a completely different character, but in clowning, it has to come from you, from your own flaws and fears.
I think people are scared of clowns because they feel vulnerable and watching [clowning], they can see themselves within it and people don’t like that. They get very scared when you point out their own flaws.
But for me, I find it hard and incredible and fun to put what I’m scared about myself or what I feel uncomfortable about onstage and make people laugh and have them enjoy it.
48 HILLS I always thought that the fear comes from not being able to fully see what they look like.
KELSEY CUSTARD That is the other side of the fear. There’s the fear of the shapeless costume and the makeup that completely takes over and the noses and the feet that are huge.
What I love about Cirque’s clowns is that we are a little more human. In this show, in particular, you really see how human they are, which helps you see how funny life can be when things go wrong. I don’t think we’re the kind of clowns that people are afraid of, but you never know.
48 HILLS How would you describe your character in Amaluna?
KELSEY CUSTARD I’m kind of Miranda’s nanny caretaker. I probably took care of her when she was really young and kind of help everything run on our island. So I’m kind of a maid, nanny, and butler. I take care of everything on the side for our royal family.
48 HILLS Why is Amaluna’s emphasis on women and telling their stories especially important in 2019?
KELSEY CUSTARD One of the things I think is so important is our effect on young women specifically, girls that are coming of age in this day and age. I think it’s important to come see a show where they can see powerful women on stage, women with muscles, women playing rock guitars, and women being funny and beautiful.
It’s really important for them to see that they can do whatever they want and that we can do whatever we want. It’s been a hard road for women, especially in the US. These days it seems even harder, so we need to band together as women and show young women that they can do whatever they want.
48 HILLS With Amaluna coming to San Francisco for three months starting in November, what’s it like to be performing back in the city that you currently call home?
KELSEY CUSTARD I am so excited to come back to San Francisco. For me, it’s a dream to be able to perform a show like this at home and I consider San Francisco to be my home now, because it’s where I went to clown school. It’s where most of my friends live. For me, it’s going to be such a huge and exciting thing because I get to share it with people that would never get to see it.
When you’re out in the world and having all these amazing experiences — my husband’s not with me, my dog’s not with me, and my family can’t see the show. So to be able to go home and do it and have my family and friends and everyone see it and just be in San Francisco for two-and-a-half months, it’s going to be so magical.
I’m going to eat all the burritos. My favorite burrito in the whole world is El Farolito on Mission and 24th. I dream about it and can’t find a burrito like that anywhere else in the world.
Sun/3 through January 12, 2020
Under the Big Top, Oracle Park, SF.
More info here.