O’Ryan Arrowroot makes a living as a clown. He talks with The Northside Chronicle about clowning as an ancient theater art, the parallels between “punk” living and character work, and the importance of being weird.
By Ashlee Green
Photos by Ashlee Green and Clifton Loosier
O’Ryan Arrowroot, known professionally as “O’Ryan the O’Mazing,” is a living testament to the benefits of being weird in public. He’s been a clown and circus performer for over a decade, but his career picked up earlier this year when he met Jennifer George, the granddaughter of Rube Goldberg, at the opening for the well-known cartoonist and inventor’s exhibit. It’s showcased at the Children’s Museum through May 5.
Arrowroot had already been hired to do a number of events for the exhibit, including hat making workshops, but was uneasy about attending the opening soiree, so he showed up to the event at the museum dressed like a tree.
“I’m really bad in groups of people,” Arrowroot says. “I get social anxiety.” Deciding to go in character, he says, is what made him stand out to George, who immediately introduced herself. She took Arrowroot into a room in the museum and showed him her grandfather’s hat drawings, which led to a long conversation about peculiar hats, and how she and he could further work together.
“I was just like, ‘Man, thank god I wore this tree suit or this would’ve just been awkward,” Arrowroot says with a laugh.
Arrowroot is the Fresh Innovative Nonstop Expression (F.I.N.E.) Artist at the Children’s Museum from February to May 2019. At the beginning of his residency, he worked with the Children’s Museum’s research and development team to create a questionnaire about clowns and identity. He did pop-up events at the museum, handing out red noses to children and asking them: “How old are you? What’s your favorite game? Name a time that someone laughed at you and it felt good. Name a time someone laughed at you and it felt bad. What do clowns do? Can you name three clowns?” He developed a curriculum around what he learned. He found out that today’s children have a limited idea of what a clown is—and mostly, it’s scary.
“Most kids today barely recognize Ronald McDonald,” says Arrowroot. “Bozo? Not popular.” Through the F.I.N.E. art residency, he was able to get in touch with children, what their problems are and what they think is funny, as well as working to take away the “scary clown” stigma.
Clowning, he explains, is an ancient theater art, complete with a variety of types of clowns. There is the clown blanc, or white clown, who is sophisticated and serious, and the red, or Auguste clown, who is the opposite: naive and clumsy. Arrowroot’s favorite clown to talk about with children, though, is the hobo clown, a take on the Auguste clown.
“The hobo clown does what clowns are supposed to do: Clowns find problems and they struggle with problems. [They] reflect our problems back to us and help us laugh at them,” says Arrowroot. “A clown is trying to show the audience what they feel without any words, without any context. [A clown has] to make them believe.” He cites Emmett Kelly’s “Weary Willie” character as one of the most memorable hobo clowns in American history.
Popular during the Great Depression, when everyone was “displaced” and “hard up,” Arrowroot says, Willie was “always down on his luck, always breaking his back digging a hole, carrying a bindle stick, asking for change.” He wasn’t a “flamboyant” clown, he was just great at reflecting people’s problems—from the deep, systemic ones, to the simple ones, like putting your arm through the wrong hole in your sweater—something children often relate to. A big goal for Arrowroot’s workshops at the Children’s Museum was talking to kids about their identities. Race, class and gender don’t get touched on enough, he says, and often get glossed over altogether.
“That’s a big lesson that I want to pass on to kids… You are you. We have these ideas of who we are, but we can be different characters too. The character that [you] play, if you can really make [them] believable, you can be that person…,” Arrowroot says. “That idea of if you smile enough, you’ll be happy. I always wince a little bit at it, but it’s so true,” he says with a laugh. “If you’re going into a situation that you’re scared of, you can change your character, change your body, and own it for that moment.”
Arrowroot has loved to play with identities since his teenage years, when he subscribed to a “punk” lifestyle and often traveled by riding Greyhound buses, hitchhiking and train hopping, teaching himself how to juggle along the way. He grew up in rural West Virginia, where he remembers catching rides on coal trains, which ran by a “swimming hole” near a coal mine by his house. The trains didn’t slow down very much, he says, so when he and his friends jumped off, they aimed for a sawdust patch by a lumber yard, which made for a soft landing. He remembers getting on Greyhound buses and making up stories about his name to the other passengers.
“I’d be like, ‘My name’s Allen King, but my real name’s Stephen. I don’t go by that because Stephen King’s a famous author,’” he says. “There was no reason for me to lie, but it was fun to be somebody different.”
In his early 20s, Arrowroot flew to Thailand, joined a small circus troupe, and began performing for refugee camps on the Myanmar border.
“That was my first real taste of what people think of when they think of circus now: character development, combining skills and characters into an act, and performing it for people…” He said it was life changing, and at that moment, he knew he was going to pursue circus arts.
But the lifestyle he led wasn’t just free and fun. There were toxic elements to it too. While many people ride freight trains to find community and get around, Arrowroot says, others do it because they’ve been “ostracized” and “kicked out of other realms of society.” He chose to spend many years living without a calendar, not knowing which month it was. At one point, he says, he didn’t have an ID for so long that he couldn’t remember his exact birthdate.
He came to Pittsburgh for the G20 in 2009, and volunteered to make banners and signage for the medic stations that were set up for protesters. He made a lot of friends, met a partner, and in 2012, his son was born. Arrowroot says he tried to hold on to his old lifestyle, but his life had undoubtedly changed.
“I do have to pay attention to what day it is. I have a kid I have to take to school, I have gigs I have to keep track of,” he says. “To do that is a little bit of a fantasy.” Arrowroot says his son is his rock and his motivator, and he often practices juggling on his son’s school playground, where the other children are eager to give him feedback.
“They’re like, ‘Do that thing where you pretend to talk into the juggling club like a telephone,’ and I’m like, ‘That’s funny?’ and they’re like, ‘It’s hilarious.’ I’m like, ‘OK, I’m writing that in my act. Great.’ They know what they like and they’ll tell me. They’re really honest.” Arrowroot says he’s always asking children what they think is cool and funny, because “if you’re not relevant to them, you’re nothing.”
Though he originally wanted to be an animator, and struggled for many years trying to be a visual artist, Arrowroot eventually realized he had a clown in him the whole time.
“Just be your weird self and it’s going to pay off,” says Arrowroot. “If you put on those bright red pants in the morning and you’re like, ‘This is too much,’ do it anyway and everyone’s going to compliment the red pants, right? Everyone’s going to be like, ‘Nice pants,’ especially if you feel out of place in them. It’s just going to happen.”