Fresh Meadows native Matthew Lish has done just that.
For the last three weeks, the 19 year old has worked as a clown on Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus XTREME, a traveling tour that’s part of the “Greatest Show on Earth.” It’s something he’s dreamed of since he was a child.
“I’m a second-generation clown,” Lish said. “My father started me off performing when I was three years old, and started teaching me basic magic tricks, how to juggle, stuff like that.”
Lish’s father would take him and his sister to pediatric wards to perform bedside for children and their families.
As he grew older, Lish began taking more classes and even wrote some of his own material. His family established its own show and put on three original off-Broadway productions.
In the summer of 2015, Lish was working at a circus festival in Springfield, Massachusetts. Ringling Bros. was holding auditions in a nearby town, and Lish decided to give it a try.
“It’s always been a dream of mine to be a clown with the Greatest Show on Earth,” he said. “So I said, ‘let me take this opportunity to audition.’”
During the tryout, Lish participated in a series of improvisation games that test how quick you think on your feet and how well you work with others. That was followed by a five-minute individual component.
After the auditions, Lish said Ringling Bros. offered him a contract, but he couldn’t accept. He was about to start school at Hofstra University.
The Queens native said he was “a little upset” he couldn’t join the circus just yet, but he felt excited that he was offered the position in the first place.
“You know when you have something so incredible happen, you almost don’t believe it for a second? It was one of those feelings,” he said. “I couldn’t believe the words that were being said to me.”
Lish didn’t give up on his dream. The following summer, he tried out again, and this time he accepted. He spoke to officials at Hofstra, who allowed him to take time off.
“They said, ‘we know this is super important to you and we know this is your dream. Take as much time off as you need and go live out this dream,’” he said.
His family was ecstatic. Lish said just about everybody knew what this new role meant to him.
“A lot of people have sports or music or stuff like that. For me, it’s the circus,” Lish said. “They knew just how much I wanted this and how hard I worked for this my entire life. They were very happy that I got the opportunity to go live out this dream.”
Lish started out his journey as a clown for Ringling Bros. on January 10. So far, he has performed in nine shows in Orlando. His tour later takes him to Jacksonville, Tampa, Georgia, the Carolinas and further up the east coast.
“I’ve just been having the time of my life,” Lish said.
Lish also admitted that it has been exhausting, but “the good type.” His daily routine starts with a 7:30 a.m. wakeup call. He showers, gets dressed, and eats breakfast.
Then he boards a bus to take him to the arena, where he stretches and warms up. Then Lish said he puts on his makeup, which takes about 30 minutes.
“You want to get all those lines nice and neat,” he said. “You want it to be crisp and smooth.”
After putting on his costume, the circus hosts an “all-access pre-show,” which takes place an hour before the show starts. Fans come down to the arena floor, where they can meet the clowns, take photos, sign autographs and even try on the costumes.
Lish said that’s one of his favorite parts of the gig.
“That really is, for me, one of the rewarding parts of the show because I get to be face-to-face with people and talk to them and make those individual connections,” he said. “I get to see the direct payoff of all the work we’re doing. I get to see people who are glad we’re there doing the show.”
After the pre-show, the clowns will go backstage and get ready for the opening. When the band starts playing, the show begins.
“A solid two hours of running around and making people laugh and smile,” he said.
The show sometimes puts on two or even three performances a day. It can be a tiring schedule, but Lish said no one minds the physical components or the hours.
“You don’t do this unless you really love it,” he said. “Everyone here loves this and wants to make people smile and have a good time.”
Two weeks ago, Ringling Bros. announced that it was closing “The Greatest Show on Earth” after 146 years. Lish’s tour with Circus XTREME will conclude on May 7 in Rhode Island.
Their other tour, Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey presents Out of This World, ends on May 21 at Nassau Coliseum.
Lish said they were all surprised that Ringling Bros., which he called an “American tradition,” was closing its doors.
“We’re older than baseball and Coca-Cola, so we were all a little shocked and kind of upset this was happening,” he said. “But we’re trying to make the most out of these last few months.
We’re going to continue delivering the Greatest Show on Earth to as many people as we possibly can and still uphold the high level of entertainment Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey Circus has been known for so many years,” he added.
Although he just began to live out his dream as a clown, Lish is viewing the news with a positive outlook. After overcoming the “initial emotional hurdle,” he began to feel fortunate that he was able to participate.
“I will be in an historic show because when our last curtain falls on May 7, when Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey presents Circus XTREME closes in Providence, I’ll be there for that last show,” he said. “That’s something really special, that I’m able to live out my dream.”
Lish plans to go back to Hofstra after his tour is done. In college, he’s an honors student studying mechanical engineering.
“At the same time, I will continue to perform with my family. I will continue to write new material for myself. Just because Ringling Bros. is closing, doesn’t mean that clowning and this portion of the variety arts is ending as a whole,” he said. “There still are other outlets to perform. I am from New York City, so there’s always a spot where you can go do a show or something of that nature.”
He’s not sure what the future holds, whether he will continue as a mechanical engineer or continue performing as a clown professionally. His philosophy is to just take it one day at a time.
“At the moment I’m just trying to take in everything that happens right now and savor every second I have here with Ringling Bros.,” he said. “It really is everything and more that I hoped it would be.”