Steve Kissell doesn’t just like to make people laugh, it’s his life.
“Being a clown, laughter is the biggest reward,” he said. “When you go to a hospital and visit kids or just do a birthday party, the looks on their faces is the big thing.”
Kissell is the director of Circus Magic Arts & Ministry, a convention for clowns and magicians in Hampton Roads. The convention started in Norfolk nearly four decades ago, eventually moving to Virginia Beach and then Williamsburg.
Each year, clowns, magicians and fans from around the country come to Williamsburg to share tricks, tips and just simply connect over their love of the craft.
“You just meet so many wonderful people,” Kissell said. “People meet at this convention, get married and then have little baby clowns.”
But Kissell didn’t always set out to be a clown.
When he was in college and in the Navy, he was stationed in Chicago where he found a magic store that taught him tricks and inspired him to become a children’s entertainer.
Then he became a missionary in Dominica in the West Indies where he participated in a fundraising auction. He was auctioned to a woman during the event for a birthday.
“But the woman said she wanted a clown, not a magician,” he said. “So I went to the thrift store and I made a costume.”
Kissell said he enjoyed the experience so much that when he got home he attended a workshop for professional clowns in Washington, D.C. and decided this was how he would spend his life.
From that time on, he said he wanted to continue connecting with people who shared interests and he found that conventions were a good way to do that as well as learn new aspects of the trade.
“It’s amazing the friendships that you build,” he said. “We go on the road and teach storytelling or restaurant magic.
RELATED STORY: One group has a simple goal: Bring the magic to Williamsburg
One topic of conversation that typically comes up at the convention is how clowns are portrayed in the media.
“Today’s climate is not too good for clowns with all the scary movies,” he said. “I’m not sure a kid is afraid of a clown on their own, I think it’s taught. And that’s pretty sad.”
Kissell said when he goes to an event and is told a child might be afraid of clowns, then he will just go as a magician. That’s why the convention teaches skills not only for professional clowns, but other aspects of children’s entertainment.
There are classes during the convention on general performing art skills that can apply to clowns, magicians, Santa Claus impersonators, and other individuals involved in children’s entertainment. Classes include paper napkin folding, balloon sculptures and puppet workshops.
The convention even has a class on ballroom decor so people can learn to decorate for graduations or weddings.
In addition, the convention caters to Santa impersonators with a “Super Santa Sunday” class that specifically teaches about portraying Santa at different events. There is also a “Little Big Top” one-day workshop for kids to participate in.
The clowning community in Hampton Roads is fairly tight-knit because they have each other’s backs, Kissell said. When one clown can’t attend a scheduled event, they can call on a peer and there’s a whole network of clowns who will pull through for them. And the convention is part of what makes that network possible.
Kissell said he has enjoyed the past four decades of the convention and hopes it will continue for many years. His profession as a clown isn’t one he predicted, but the impact has seeped into various aspects of his life.
“Yours in laughter,” he signs his emails.
This year’s conference will be from Feb. 28 to March 1 at the Ft. Magruder Conference Center in Williamsburg. Visit Circus Magic online to register.