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Clowning around in Tohoku to help children

American performer Guy Totaro puts his liberal political beliefs into action, setting out to change the world one smile at a time

by Gianni Simone

Special To The Japan Times

The Japanese entertainment world is supposed to be a very hard one to crack for foreigners in these lean years of economic doldrums. Once in a while a few people manage to carve out a niche for themselves through a combination of talent, perseverance and luck.

Gaetano “Guy” Totaro is one such guy who has managed to put his “multi-tarento” to good use as an actor who can perform in all contexts, from street to stage and screen. He may not be famous, but his large figure has become quite recognizable in Japan, especially after appearing in TV commercials as “Mr. CC Lemon” and many other over-the-top gaikokujin characters.

This is all nice, of course, but Totaro insists that his real vocation is what is called social clowning — affecting people’s lives and communities in a positive way through the art of clowning.

“At 13, I was told that I had a good singing voice. That was the very first time I got any positive attention,” says Totaro, “and that encouraged me to continue in my high school choir and in musical theater. It also taught me the power of live performance.

“Later in life I developed a strong interest in politics, and because of my liberal-leaning ideas I ended up in San Francisco and enrolled at S.F. State University, which had a very good theater department.” San Francisco has always attracted outspoken and open-minded types, making it a breeding ground for political and innovative performance groups. The most renowned is the San Francisco Mime Troupe, which has used the Italian Commedia dell’Arte family of archetypical characters and tradition of outdoor public shows since the late 1950s.

“One day I stumbled upon the S.F. Mime Troupe performing for free in the park,” Totaro recalls, “and I realized that I had found a perfect mix of my two passions — comedy-based musical theater and liberal politics. I approached them after the show and offered to volunteer in exchange for training, and that was the beginning of a long apprenticeship.”

When Totaro was in his senior year in university he was cast in a Mime Troupe production that toured most of the United States and started his career in show business. “My father’s family is from Sicily,” says Totaro. “Unfortunately he died when I was 2½, so access to my Italian roots came later in life through my study of Commedia dell’Arte.” The 15th-century style is a forefather of Western physical comedy, including the circus clown as we now know it.

Totaro’s destiny was made clear when he met a clown from the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. “The circus’ training program is known as the ‘Harvard of Comedy.’ It’s very difficult to get into and although it’s fun, the curriculum is intense. I was really lucky to be accepted and it changed my life.”

Totaro graduated from Ringling’s “Clown College” in the class of 1992 and the following year his life took another dramatic turn. Out of the blue, he was contacted by an agent in Japan who was looking to hire Ringling-trained clowns. Less than a month later he was working in Tokyo at Korakuen Amusement Park. “I met my Japanese wife-to-be on the very first day! She was working as a part-time manager for the agency who had hired me and other clowns from the U.S. It was really by chance that we met because she was spending most of her time in Spain, where she was studying flamenco. She had only returned to Tokyo to make some money and visit her family.”

Totaro arrived in Japan at the end of the asset-inflated bubble era, when there was still a lot of cash flowing. “Salaries for foreign performers were quite high, and there was no way I could make the same money as a clown in America. After Korakuen, I landed another job at a circus-themed restaurant in Chiba. I performed three shows a night, six nights a week, for six months — that gave me the chance to figure out the Japanese sense of humor.”

Between gigs Totaro followed his girlfriend to Spain, then she joined him in San Francisco. They eventually got married in Tokyo, where they lived for a few years before settling down in Los Angeles, Totaro’s hometown. There he continued clowning and commercial acting and performed with a Commedia troupe at the newly opened Venetian Hotel in Las Vegas. In 2005 his wife’s mother was diagnosed with cancer so they folded up the circus tent once again and returned to Japan, but times had changed.

The big money wasn’t there anymore, and the former market for foreign entertainment was gone. “Even the top guys who used to earn ¥1 million a month were now busking in the street. To make matters worse, the commercial market had become saturated with amateurs who inadvertently pushed rates and standards down. So I decided to start my own company and focus on the niche market of family entertainment — birthday parties, etc. My company’s name is a pun on my name, Gaetano (pronounced Ga-ii-ta-no), in which the first Chinese character is the “gai” as in gaikokujin (foreigner) and the second is “tano” meaning “tanoshii” (funny).”

Totaro’s early experience in California came in handy after the Great East Japan Earthquake of last year. “My first clown gig was a summer job working for the city of Oakland called Clown Mobile. We toured the rough urban neighborhoods empowering underprivileged and sick kids by teaching them clowning and circus skills. After the March 11 disaster I realized that my experience could be helpful with the healing process that was a much needed part of the relief effort.

“With the help of some personal contacts, I went to Tohoku a month after the disaster and did shows in some of the most heavily damaged areas. The positive impact was immediately clear, but I knew that I needed to do more. I realized that in order to really make a difference I needed full-time sponsorship and logistical support, so I approached some of the charities I have been supporting over the years. One of them was willing to help me and we collaborated on a program that enabled me to take weeklong tours almost every other week.”

In 11 months Totaro visited 85 different places, including day-care centers, kindergartens, elementary schools, shelters and temporary houses, and was able to interact with 8,000 children. Laughter has been proven to be healthy both physically and spiritually and it’s especially beneficial in the posttrauma healing process. “The primary goal of the program is to bring smiles and happiness back to the children who are especially susceptible to posttraumatic stress disorders.”

Totaro’s shows are comprised of juggling, music and magic, all with a comedic approach, always presenting himself not as an amazing guy who can do incredible things but as someone who finds himself in absurd, surreal situations, all the while confounding expectations about how one is supposed to do things, like juggling umbrellas or playing the musical saw — both of which are taken out of a violin case. “My clown character, ironically named Suupaa-Gaijin (Super Gaijin) makes all kinds of silly ‘mistakes’ that the kids realize before I do. This makes them feel smarter and funnier than me — the big adult who is more typically always in control. The shows are followed by circus workshops where I teach the children some of the skills they’ve just seen me do. The philosophy behind this is to show them that they have the power to do anything, especially things they never imagined they could do. The program leaves children’s hearts filled with joy, their imaginations are inspired and they are empowered to deal with their tough circumstances.”

The funding that allowed Totaro to tour across Tohoku came to an end in March, but he has since started the process of creating his own nonprofit organization so he can continue to nurture those seeds and to help them take root, grow strong and blossom.

“I plan to return on one six-day tour per month, to include PTSD relief training for teachers and caregivers and to collaborate with Tokyo-area schools to establish friendship bridges with students in Tohoku. The long-term plan includes outreach to other kids in need at hospitals and orphanages throughout Japan and to be prepared to help in the case of another disaster. I’ve had some grassroots support that will fund a few trips, but I am always looking for more. As my NPO team grows, I’ll launch a crowd-sourcing campaign and more aggressive outreach to corporate sponsors. Any and all help is welcome.

“Clowns often get portrayed as scary or evil,” he says. “Through my experiences in Tohoku, I was reminded of the important and age-old role that clowns play in society. I’m honored to continue that tradition and hope that my efforts play a part in restoring the positive image of the clown.”

Thinking back about his early decision to choose performing over politics, Totaro doesn’t regret his choice. “Clowning is one of the most political activities I could engage in because through it, I have a direct, positive impact on people. When people are truly happy, they feel positive and they are going to treat other people better. So I didn’t really leave the world of politics, I just changed my approach. I’m not trying to make or enforce laws; I’m changing the world one smile at a time.”

For information on Guy Totaro and how you can help his Tohoku relief project, go to www.supagaijin.com.