Clowning is a passion for me, says Claudio Ceccarelli. During a show, I get an adrenalin rush I cant explain. It doesnt matter how anxious and shy you feel beforehand, as soon as you put on your outfit you become your alter ego, confident and bold. You always strive to do the best you can. A clown never stops learning.

Little does the general public know that people have to study hard to become a clown; it is not just a hobby. Clowns will probably have been to at least one specialised school in their career and have a specific skill. The history of these entertainers stretches back to court jesters and street performers hundreds of years ago. But what image does the word clown conjure up in 2005? Maybe a white face with a painted red mouth and a colourful wig? What drives people to become one in the first place? Is there ever much thought given to the person behind the mask?

Ceccarelli, 28, is an experienced Roman performer who has studied in Madrid, Ibiza and Rome. He began his career after being fascinated by a circus troupe he saw several years back. The reasons people become clowns are very subjective. For me it began with an instinctive fascination and admiration. Its as if something clicks inside and you have to know more.

The word clown can be used for many different types of performer. The spectrum stretches from the typical circus buffoon to street performers. They are skilled entertainers who thrive on crowd contact, smiles and laughter. They entertain in different ways but typically perform with acrobatics, poetry, music, jokes, juggling, magic and mime.

Many of them make a living on the streets and, despite the lack of money, they tend not to take other jobs to support themselves clowning is their lifes work. When the seasonal engagements dry up, many perform in theatres, in hospitals to entertain patients and some at childrens parties. Others teach in clown schools, continuing their own studies at the same time.

Ceccarellis mentor and friend is Maurizio Fabbri, who runs an innovative clown school in Rome. Fabbri, who has been in the business for 25 years, is one of the most experienced performers in Italy. His courses are not only for clowns who wish to hone a particular skill, but also for complete beginners. Students can choose their entry level and do a course for a weekend or a week. Each one is complete in the sense that the major skills are introduced mime, performance skills, commedia dellarte, theatre and buffone (the naughty dimension), to mention a few. The price depends on the type of course, but the average is around e120 for three days.

In 1999, Ceccarelli studied for two months in Ibiza with Bonds International Clown School, which specialises in getting students to lose their inhibitions and find the heart and core of the comic inside themselves. Although it may be possible to have a learn-on-the-job approach, Ceccarelli says that by simply imitating others, the result doesnt come from the heart but from someone elses. When asked about the differences of performing in other countries, he said: In my experience, humour translates from place to place. As long as the manners and basic way of life are roughly the same, you never really have to alter a show that much. But Ive never worked outside Europe so I cant speak for that.

After this intensive learning period, Ceccarelli stayed on to work the streets and hotels of Ibiza. I fell in love with a ballerina and so probably stayed there longer than I should have, he laughs. Unlike Rome, where there are many festivals and plenty of street work, in Ibiza the work is mainly in hotels and depends on the tourist season. So in 2000 Ceccarelli returned to Rome and joined a troupe of travelling street artists called the Carovana del Circo Immaginario and toured the south of Italy. Circus troupes have to travel light, he explained. You live out of your suitcase. It was fantastic, we never stayed in one place for long. We did the show and then moved on. It was like a big family. After being with the group for some months, Ceccarelli decided to begin working alone at festivals around Italy.

At a summer festival in the small village of Concordia sulla Secchia, north of Florence where there were troupes performing theatre pieces, juggling and dancing a crowd gathered around Ceccarellis show. His costume stood out and his exceptionally tall body towered over a man lying on the ground. Ceccarelli proceeded to juggle three large knives over the mans body, dropping them once or twice on purpose. The spectators laughed and held their hands to their mouths, and the children yelped in delight as the volunteer on the ground looked increasingly concerned. While quipping with the crowd, Ceccarelli juggled the knives professionally over the man (who now had his eyes tightly shut). Act over, everyone clapped, charmed by the clown, and the man jumped up, laughing out loud. And this was just one slice of the show.

Walking from act to act, eating candy floss and watching laughing children and adults in the audience, it became apparent that these clowns, who contribute so much, are skilled artists and masters in their field.

Clowning courses in Rome, www.mauriziofabbri.it,

www.circostanzaperta.it.

The National Federation of Street Artists, www.fnas.org.