"It's the first thing I could actually do," he says. "The first thing I really had a flair for." And, too, it didn't hurt that girls thought juggling was cool: "Truth is, I was a teenager and the girls would watch when I was juggling."
His natural kinetic ability, says Raz, whose parents both had Ph.D.'s, was out of sync with the academic focus of his family: "I'm the first person in three generations without a terminal degree," says Raz.
But he got started juggling on the streets of Berkeley, and soon hooked into the arts world across the Bay.
"I gravitated toward the circus scene in the early '70s that was just starting to explode in San Francisco," says Raz. The Bay Area was bustling then with performance and circus-innovation, and Raz went on to make a life in the arts.
Now 50, he has decades of clowning, acting, writing and directing behind him. He's written 10 plays and directed more. He's toured the country and the world with many different shows, including the New Pickle Circus, which he formed in 1991. And he's performed all over the Bay Area, including with the Marin and San Francisco Shakespeare festivals, the Berkeley Repertory Theatre and the South Bay's Theatreworks.
"I've been to Alaska 10 times, and played in Japan and been to Europe a lot," says Raz. Nowadays, he also runs the Clown Conservatory, a clown training school affiliated with San Francisco's Circus Center.
Sweet Home Alameda
In January, Raz returned to his Island home after a year touring with the Cirque du Soleil show, "Corteo." In "Corteo," he plays the central character, a clown whose funeral the show portrays. Over the year with Cirque du Soleil, Raz performed his lead role 385 times.
"I've been in the business since I was 15, and that's the most shows I've done in a year," says Raz. He'd spend three weeks on the road, performing between six and 10 times each week, and then, every fourth week, he'd come home and spend time with his family and catch up on everything else in his life, including the running of the Clown Conservatory.
Despite the challenges of being on the road, being at home, with all the demands and complexity of family, life is harder, Raz says.
"The big difference in terms of energy throughout the day is transitions. When I was on the road, I had two big jobs: I had to run my school, which took about 20 hours a week on the computer and phone, and do about nine shows a week."
At home, says Raz, he has lots of little transitions, and the split focus that family life demands is a little harder.
Raz and wife Sherry Sherman, a psychologist, lived in San Francisco until just after the birth of their first son, Micah, now in fifth grade at Paden (their second child, Joshua, is in kindergarten). And then, like many families looking for a good place to raise a family, they moved to Alameda.
"We found that this was a pretty hospitable place to raise kids and be a professional artist," says Raz. "I love San Francisco, and I loved being in the Mission District, but I'm happy not to be raising my kids there -- there's a level of ease of life here."
Circus for the Arts in the Schools
Raz sees traditional clown props -- big nose, big shoes, exaggerated makeup, big falls -- as strategies to create human connection.
"They're tools of amplification," says Raz. "We're playing with the stuff that makes us human, our foibles, our weaknesses -- and also our ability to do things that are extraordinary. Clowning is about creating relationships with an audience."
All of Alameda will have a chance to see Raz as the ringmaster in the upcoming Circus for Arts in the Schools show at Kofman on April 27. Taking part in the community event is a role Raz relishes: "So often in this country arts are looked at as that thing over there that we have to dress up for, rather than something that helps create a vital community."
The April show, put together by a group of parent volunteers, including Sherman and Paden parent Pam Arneson, will benefit arts education in the schools. The first Circus for the Arts was held in 2004.
"Even in the few years we've done it," says Raz, "we've managed to bring a world-class circus right here to Alameda."
Being proactive is important to Raz: "You can plead and complain and say there's no money for the arts, and then you can go and do something about it."
What he enjoys most about the Circus for the Arts production, says Raz, is how many people it involves in different ways. Performers who sometimes lack a connection to community because they are on the road so much, says Raz, have been eager to lend their talents to Alameda's community show.
"I remind them that I'm not writing them a check and they're like, 'Who cares because we're in a room with 1,000 people who are loving it?' It's a gift to a professional artist, especially a touring artist, to be part of a community."
While the professional artists volunteer their time, student groups such as Prescott Clowns, an after-school arts program based in Oakland, get paid, which feeds money directly into school art programs. "We even paid the juggling program over at Lincoln to come perform," says Raz.
"There is this theory about social change," says Raz. "There are a lot of people who are interested but who don't participate because no one invites them to the party."
With the circus, says Raz, the idea is to include everyone, bringing arts both to the community and to the schools.
This is one in a series of articles about the people who live in Alameda. If you know of someone who would be an interesting story, please e-mail Eve Pearlman at email@example.com
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For more about Jeff Raz
For more about the Clown Conservatory