Big Heart, Open Mind

One Patel Conservatory theater instructor’s journey to the big time in the big top and how realizing his dream helps students reach theirs.

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Patel Conservatory theater instructor Matthew Belopavlovich performing as a clown.

Just a few years back, Patel Conservatory theater faculty member Matthew Belopavlovich stood stranded atop a 25-foot tower while a handful of clowns, dressed as knights, circled beneath, trying to figure out how to save him. They couldn’t. Then, a very small man arrived, shimmied up Matthew’s hair and carried him to safety.

Welcome to Ringling Bros. & Barnum and Bailey Circus. Matthew Belopavlovich was living the dream, his dream: life as clown with the greatest show on earth.

In this skit, “the Rapunzel gag,” Matthew starred as the long-locked lass with about 30 feet of fabric “hair,” one of 12 clowns in the 150+ person cast. In this world of makeup, costumes, high-stakes improv, unpredictable audience interaction and adrenaline-by-way-of-comedy, Matthew shined, found his niche and finally discovered what lies at the end of the road of one’s heart’s desire—happiness, gratitude and a real message of hope for any person with a dream to perform.

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“I lived on a train, a real circus train!”

Matthew grew up in Wisconsin, eventually earning his bachelor of fine arts in acting degree at University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

“I had a dream to be a clown since second grade. My parents took me everywhere there was a show. I saw every circus and rinky-dink magic show that came through Madison,” says Matthew. “Looking back, there was something about the vulnerability of being a clown that attracted me. I identified with the idea of clowning, taking a situation and making light of it. I had one acting professor who spent a semester on clown, and that was enough for me to start.” After graduating, Matthew auditioned twice for Ringling, didn’t get the job either time, but, instead of giving up, he took a piece of advice handed to him from a theater professor at UW-Milwaukee: create your own work if there’s no work for you.

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Matthew posing with his certificate at his Ringling Clown College graduation ceremony.

So, Matthew staged two of his own clown creations, By the Time You Read This and LAUFFITI, the latter shown at Silver Meteor Gallery in Ybor City before going to New York City. In 2010, he worked as an adjunct instructor for Patel Conservatory and became full time in 2011. He auditioned again for Ringling, who had set up an impromptu ring in Grand Central Station during the middle of the day and asked the clowns to achieve a rather nail-biting goal: “they said, ‘you should be able to captivate us, but can you capture the people in their day-to-day routine and bring them to the ring?’ It was nerve-wracking. And awesome,” says Matthew. The intensity of the audition spurred Matthew to step up his game, and that audition landed him a contract to travel with the circus starting in 2012. He was off to clown college, then into the show.

“I loved teaching at the Patel, but knew I had to follow my dream. I knew I wanted to come back after the tour and continue teaching. To work with Ringling and the people on their clowning staff was heaven. I got to be in a clown costume and design my own makeup and be on the floor during clown college—that alone was a dream come true. I lived on a train, a real circus train! I went to almost every state, we did outreach in hospitals, with the Sunshine Kids organization and Boys & Girls Club. It was mind-blowing. It was everything.”

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‘Mr. Matt’ teaching with the Patel Conservatory.

Matthew, as promised, returned to the Patel Conservatory theater department in 2014 after his two years with the circus. “It was a whirlwind of experiences—so much more than clowning. I learned a lot about the circus, and I learned a lot about myself,” he says. “The Patel mission, to dream, reach, discover, create … I can speak to this mission because I did it. Nothing was handed to me although I had a lot of love and support, but I made it happen. I applied myself to my career. For the students, I can say to them: ‘I did it, and you can do it, too.’”

“To be a clown, you need a big heart. You need an open mind,” says Matthew, who teaches a variety of classes at the Patel Conservatory. “What excites me now is that I have new inspiration in my life and new experiences to give to the kids. I completed this life goal, so I can bring that to the students I teach. I can truly teach ‘dream, reach, discover, create,’ and I find that incredible.”

Check out Matthew as he demonstrates some great techniques in clown make-up application!

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