Jack Golden is not your typical clown

  •  Jack Golden Sloan Tomlinson

  • Jack Golden Sloan Tomlinson

  • Jack Golden Sloan Tomlinson

  • Jack Golden in his Greenfield studio. May 22, 2017 Recorder Staff/Paul Franz

  • Jack Golden in his Greenfield studio. May 22, 2017 Recorder Staff/Paul Franz

  • Jack Golden in his Greenfield studio. May 22, 2017 Recorder Staff/Paul Franz

  • Jack Golden in his Greenfield studio. May 22, 2017 Recorder Staff/Paul Franz

  • Jack Golden in his Greenfield studio. May 22, 2017 Recorder Staff/Paul Franz

Recorder Staff
Published: 5/26/2017 1:58:28 PM

Jack Golden has been juggling a host of talents for decades: clowning, mime, movement, improvisational comedy and, of course, juggling.

For the past 25 years, most of it has been pure trash – in the persona of “Dr. T. Garbologist.” And it has been aimed at kids, in schools around the country.

It’s no surprise, then, that Golden has been thinking seriously about putting together a show that’s more geared to adult audiences, and his presentation with Eggtooth Productions of a one-man show, “You Don’t Know Jack,” at the Shea Theater on June 2 and 3 at 7:30 p.m. is just that. The show, to benefit Franklin County Community Meals, embraces pain and loss, Golden says.

But through it, adds Eggtooth Artistic Director Linda McInerney, “You’ll find yourself in the company of a guide who has it all: a red nose, an open heart, and a finely tuned compass for comedy.”

“Over the last few years, I’ve been drawn to material that still has comedy to it, but is more serious and more autobiographical — pieces that really spoke to me,” said 64-year-old Golden in a recent interview in his Mill Street studio in Greenfield. “I didn’t really have a venue to perform any of that material, because predominantly I work in schools — I do family shows and festivals. That material really wouldn’t fly there.”

Golden, who describes himself as “a clown, mime and comic,” may be best remembered as a member of the comedic juggling act, the Wright Brothers.

Many of the myriad pieces of his inner life fall into place in this one-man show, which will be followed on June 4 at the Shea with a 2 p.m. “Garbage is My Bag” children’s show, with free admission for children accompanied by a adult.

In his early-to-mid 50s, he began reflecting on his life, after suffering the deaths of his eldest brother, his sister, his mother, his favorite dog and some friends, and when he was diagnosed with cancer.

“I’m the kind of guy who sees the glass as three-quarters full, but I was also getting filled up with meatier, or deeper, material as well, that was influencing my repertoire,” recalls Golden, who also was mourning the loss of his close friend, Matthew Leighton, who he’d met soon after arriving in Franklin County to work on a tobacco farm in 1975 — when Leighton was teaching at a Quaker-run alternative school at Woolman Hill.

The British-born Leighton, who had emigrated to this country in 1968 after teaching college, had settled in Greenfield four years later and also worked at Turners Falls High School.

Leighton, who died in November 2006 of gliobastoma, a rare brain cancer, had been a housemate of Golden’s on Osgood Street, after trading his career teaching and working for Traprock Peace Center for making assemblages out of found trash in the same Mill Street Studio, which is now adorned with a few of Leighton’s works.

“Then I started to do shows about garbage, and he started to do assemblages from garbage. We’d fight over some of the same pieces of trash,” says Golden with a laugh. “The garbage wars!”

The theater piece that Golden wrote about his late friend was basically a monologue, and when he showed it to McInerney, she reacted, “There’s a lot of good material here, but you’re telling us everything, you’re not showing us anything.”

Her suggestion, “Why don’t you  pull out some things that remind you of Matt? See what happens,” was decisive. For six months, Golden’s floor was littered with memorabilia, “but I couldn’t make heads or tails of it.”

His epiphany came when his iPod, set on “random,” turned up with Lyle Lovett’s “Old Friend,” while he was in the studio.  

“Now that I had the music playing, I didn’t have to talk about him,” he says. “I could just feel it. That really resonated with me.”

And yet, it still felt like a work in flux, alternating from what seemed like the best thing he’d ever write one day to a piece of junk the next.

“What would Matt do with all this?” he asked himself one day, in much the way Leighton used to puzzle over how to assemble the thousands of odd pieces he’d collected. “Oh, he’d build something!”

Going through a drawer marked “noses,” Golden grabbed a red clown nose he hadn’t worn in 30 years, and set to apply some clown logic.

“I had no intention of it being a red-nosed clown routine, but it turned into a red-nosed clown routine — with music,” he said.

Like magic, “I got in touch with a whole other layer — and I realized, ‘This isn’t just a piece about Matt, or honoring my friendship with him. It was also a retrospective piece on myself and where I’d come from as performer. I’m stepping back 30 years!’ It’s the same clown, but it’s a totally different clown, that’s been affected by all the things that have happened.”

Still feeling insecure about a piece so close to his inner life, Golden sought out a director who he said “really understands where my work was coming from. He drove up to Maine and performed his seven-minute work, “Mr. Leighton.” With the encouragement of his mentor, Golden was “all of a sudden supercharged.”

But, it wasn’t until his performance in John Bechtold’s “A Winter’s Tale” in Greenfield last fall — another Eggtooth production  — that Golden hit gold, after taking Bechtold’s advice to heart: “Always go deeper into your material, and then deeper, and deeper, and deeper. And once you’ve hit the bottom, that’s where the gold is.”

Golden thought his five-minute role as someone lost on the four-story stairway of the Arts Block was “a  throwaway,” but decided in the moment to get as frantically lost as possible.

“I bought into it, and I really felt totally lost,” he remembers. “Then I looked up at four stories of stairs, lined with 40 people totally riveted on the guy lost at the bottom. It had impact on everybody. I wanted to apply that to all of my material.”

“With ‘Mister Leighton,’ I found it didn’t so much change exactly what I was doing with these props, but each one took on a life of its own and in reflection with my relationship, and it was tangible,” he says.

After Golden performed the standalone “Mister Leighton” as part of Eggtooth’s “New Vaudeville Holiday Spectacular” last December, the poignant remembrance of his “Old Friend,” as the accompanying song says, “was a tremendous hit,” he says, judging from the reactions he received.

“I was hearing from people who had no idea of any of this,” he recalls of the six-minute work that had taken him 3 1/2 years to create. One woman said, “Thank you, it was so beautiful. I just cleaned up my husband’s stuff from two years ago, and this was amazing.”

Golden’s journey in going ever-deeper in an exploration of himself has taught him how much of a father figure as Well as a friend Leighton — 14 years older than himself — had been for the youngest of four growing up with a father who was “a non-presence in my life.”

Leighton, whom he found “not just smart, but wise and accessible … taught me a lot during our time as friends, but more than anything, he showed me a way of being in the world that was the way I wanted to be. Matt had the ability to have a lot of fun but could bring a great gravitas at any moment. He was incredibly fair, with a strong sense of right and wrong.  As much as I admired and modeled him, I think he admired me, so it was very mutual.”

Defying the stereotype

For as much as he looks forward to doing a performance in his home community again, and revealing a more intimate side of himself, Golden admits, the idea of doing so is “a little bit terrifying. … I feel I’ve been performing for years but I’m not really known by my community that well. They know me as a performer, but they’ve never seen me. And this is going to be a very different light they see me in.”

That said, Golden’s combines his many talents in a way that defies stereotypes many people have of clowning, miming or comic performance.

“When you say ‘clown’ to someone, the first thing that’s in their mind is the last thing that I’m doing,” he says. “I’m not the Ringling Brothers clown, I’m not Bozo the Clown. When you say ‘mime’ … I’m not a white-face pantomime artist in leotards and a striped shirt; I’m just using my body expressively. My improvisation is a very different animal altogether: it’s much more based on exploration, on being present in the moment and finding stuff that surprises yourself, as opposed to … ‘OK,  you’re in a bar, and it’s Wednesday, and there’s an elephant sitting next to you.’ ”

In a way that’s more like letting his inner child go run off and play without a lot of rules. Golden allows himself to be creative and absurd rather than clever. “I want to be exposed to the whole ball of wax,” he says.

Learning to juggle

A latecomer to theater, Golden had grown up in a dysfunctional family in affluent Westport, Conn., where his father had left the scene early in life, and his mother had to struggle to raise four children. Golden enjoyed nature and sports rather than clowning.

It was instead “Clown Mountain” — the innovative theater that was being done near Greenfield in the mid-70s — that drew Golden in, leading him to his first acting, to take classes in mime from Tony Scalise and to start hanging out with “some new vaudeville types.”

The hand-eye-ball coordination he’d developed from baseball and basketball helped when someone offered at a party to teach him to juggle.

Suddenly, I became obsessed with juggling. That was all I wanted to do,” even while cradling the phone to his ear while working in a Conway office job. And so, “When I was 28, I was in my apartment and looked at myself in the mirror and had one of those magical moments where I said, “I could be a salesman for the rest of my life, or I could be something different. I decided I’d try to put together a little clown act and see what happens.”

A friend suggested that if he were serious about clowning, he should travel to Maine and take a three-month course with mime Tony Montanaro.

“That just really changed my life. Tony made me look at the work in a much more serious light … Not just putting a performance together. It was really a philosophy for looking at life that really worked for me, saying, ‘No, you’ve got to put your heart into this work. If you don’t really care about what you’re doing, why would anybody else care? Draw on what’s around you and bring that into what you’re doing.’  … I started to view performing much more seriously. I really loved it. Give me more of this!”

As an exercise, Montanaro had assigned groups of his students to develop a mime around the notion of time. Golden and two partners came up with a slow-motion race around the “Chariots of Fire” theme that was popular in the early 1980s. That became a favorite routine of the Wright Brothers, the performance trio he and Scalise later formed with Sam Kilbourn.

After a year of their clown-mime-juggling work – which had grown out of a troupe called the New Vaudeville Theater –  Golden went off to San Francisco to work with the Pickle Family Circus, where “I really learned about what it was to be a performer, to go out, day after day, no matter what your body felt like, no matter what the weather was doing and just grind it out. It was a fabulous experience.”

After a year, Golden returned in 1986 to the Wright Brothers, which had become a five-member troupe, and went on to appear at New York’s Lincoln Center and to win the “Best of Festival” award at the International Mime and Clown Festival at Philadelphia’s  Annenberg Center.

In 1989 he wrote his first recycling show, “Garbage is My Bag” the first of several “entertainment with a purpose” programs.

“Recycling has really changed over the years, and I’ve had to keep it current,” says Golden, who gets hired in states where environmental education is taken seriously by county agencies that want to make sure the information is pertinent. “When I first started doing recycling shows, people were just learning, and you couldn’t recycle plastic. Now we’re talking about different plastics, about organic waste and composting, about closing the loop…”

Entertaining young audiences as he teaches them about solid waste, about the effects of littering, about water conservation, he says, “They’re comedies, with some mime, juggling, and some clown stuff. They’ve got rap songs, and they’re very verbal.”

He reflects, “I can do my kids’ show, and I have a blast. It’s easy, it’s fun. I’ve done it thousands and thousands of times, and I love doing it. In many ways, my school shows have made it possible for me to work in my art form, and I’m using performing to making a living that’s allowed me to keep working on other aspects of performing.

And yet, when he was diagnosed with bladder cancer in his mid-50s, and he found himself surrounded by other deaths, it led to some self-reflection.

“I’m a lucky guy. For my brother, his cancer was a death sentence. My sister got lung cancer, and that was a death sentence. I got cancer, and I got on it right away. I had to do some stuff but I was fine.

“Overall, I’m a pretty self-aware kind of guy, but in last 15 years, I feel that’s grown even more. And putting this show together has given me a lot more insight about who I am, and what’s important to me. It’s been a tremendous lens to look at myself through.”

While running on the treadmill one day, as a song about a brother came on, Golden began thinking about his brother’s death.

“I’d thought about it over the years since he died, but I hadn’t done anything with it. I had just given myself a showcase to put this in, so I decided to create something new.”

The more Golden wrote, though, the more it dawned on him: “This piece is about my brother, but its also about me growing up in that household. It’s about me, it’s about my brother, it’s about my father. The three pivotal pieces in my puzzle.”

Working on that piece, in particular, “really showed me a lot where I was coming from,” and how much, until then, he really didn’t “know Jack.”

Larry, as the oldest child, had won all of their dentist father’s attention and praise, for his athletic skill. Next oldest was a sister, “and my father had no use for women. By the time a second brother came along, their father didn’t care about the kids, Golden explains. 

“He hated his marriage. He was out. Then I was like the baby, I was my mother’s, so my father had no use for me, or for any of the other kids. At a very early age, I kind of looked on my brother as the only one in the family my father liked. I remember thinking, ‘Wow, if I could be more like him, could I get our father to like me? I developed that relationship with my brother early on.”

It was a relationship in which, he remembers, “There would be some ugly scene that would happen at the dinner table, and invariably, I’d be kicked out and sent to my room. My brother would come to the room and do funny stuff to lighten the load. Now I realize, ‘Wow. He was first the clown I’d ever met!’”

www.garbageismybag.com. or: www.eggtooth.org.

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