For Christina Gelsone ’96’s most recent assignment in Hangzhou, China, she wore padded pants and a mask with a yellow face and frizzy white hair. She doesn’t speak Chinese, but that didn’t matter. Her goal was to make the locals laugh; words weren’t necessary.
She and her husband, Seth Bloom, are professional clowns known as the Acrobuffos. In China they played Moulin Rouge characters, with Gelsone bouncing on a “fantastically large butt.” Then they put on a “gladiator” bout, in which two audience members donned shields, helmets, and garbage bags and hurled water balloons at each other and at the performers.
That’s just one gig that Gelsone has played in a world-ranging career as a clown and street performer adept at juggling, acrobatics, mime, pratfalls, and water-spitting (but no fire-eating — it’s bad for the teeth, she says). Gelsone has performed in cities in Europe and Canada, as well as trouble spots including Afghanistan, Kosovo, and the Balkans, where Acrobuffos’ antics offer people a chance to release their emotions, she says.
A ballet dancer in her youth, Gelsone gravitated to courses in Shakespeare, theater, and film history at Princeton, sparking her interest in the European tradition of commedia dell’arte and the physical, slapstick comedy of Charlie Chaplin and Laurel and Hardy. She found her calling.
After graduation, Gelsone alternated between clown schools and construction jobs in Texas to pay the bills, then wound up in New York at the Bond Street Theater, a group that performs in war-torn areas and refugee camps. In the Balkans several years ago, she did a wordless “Romeo and Juliet” with a Bulgarian puppet troupe. In Afghanistan, which she has visited annually for the past four years, Gelsone teaches gymnastics to girls 6 to 14 years old in Kabul.
Gelsone pulls audience members into the fun, making sure never to make them the butt of the jokes. “We want them to feel like heroes at the end of participating,” she says.
When not traveling abroad, Gelsone and her husband perform at corporate events and parades in the United States. Later this month, she will walk down Central Park West and Broadway on stilts dressed as a toy soldier, high-kicking and interacting with viewers at the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade. “That’s my job: I make people laugh,” she says.