Laughter can come from the most unlikely of places. Clowns Seth Bloom and Christina Gelsone began making laughs together in Afghanistan, during the violent beginning of America’s war on terror.
Bloom and Gelsone, who bring their show “Air Play” to the Clay Center Saturday, met in Afghanistan in 2003. They came to the country separately and were working with two different companies but had similar experiences.
“When we first got there, the country had just been through 25 years of war and seven years of drought,” Gelsone said. “The irrigation systems had been destroyed.”
Battered buildings and crumbling roads filled the landscape.
Bloom said, “Most people have that impression — of blown up buildings and terrorists. My impressions are of happy children and people seeing theater for the first time in the middle of a wheat field.”
“We saw the country change,” Gelsone said.
Over time, they watched the country bloom again. Infrastructure was rebuilt. Crops grew again. The lives of people living in Afghanistan improved, but when they first met, things were rough.
Bloom spent his time doing comedy workshops to create social messages in rural Afghanistan while Gelsone entertained at orphanages and schools.
“But nobody was looking out for us,” Bloom said. “We weren’t with the U.N. We were living with locals and sleeping on the floors of the people hosting us.”
They dressed to blend in. Gelsone wore a shawl. Bloom had a beard.
When things felt dangerous for either the clowns or their hosts, they didn’t go out, but it didn’t happen as often as some might imagine.
People were glad to see them. They came to make them laugh.
“We were also the only Americans they’d met that didn’t have guns,” Bloom said.
Bloom and Gelsone began working together gradually. She worked with his company and then he worked with hers.
They became clown partners, the “Acrobuffos,” and then something more.
One day, Bloom told Gelsone, “I want to spend the rest of my life with you.”
“It really came out of the blue,” Gelsone said. “I was like, don’t you want to hold hands first?”
Two American clowns meet in a war-torn part of the world and fall in love sounds like the plot of a movie.
“It practically writes itself,” Gelsone agreed.
But it wasn’t what anyone intended.
“We were clown partners and good partners. It is so rare to find someone you work so well with. I didn’t want to jeopardize the relationship, but it turns out Seth was right,” she said.
The two were married and have been practically inseparable since, traveling the world with one show or another.
Together, they have created five separate shows, including “Air Play,” a show that mixes their comedic acrobatics, juggling and clowning with the air sculpture of Daniel Wurtzel.
The sculptor creates art using a variety of materials that are shaped and moved by air.
The couple admired his work and then met Wurtzel in Brooklyn about six years ago, when they asked about collaborating with him.
They said he told them, “You are clowns; I’m a sculptor. What are we going to do together?”
Their answer was “Air Play,” which combined the beauty of Wurtzel’s unusual sculptures with Bloom and Gelsone’s comedy.
The show has taken them to four continents and earned them praise in Australia, the U.K. and America.
Gelsone said representatives from “America’s Got Talent” have contacted them about being on the television program for years, but they just aren’t interested.
“Right now, I’d like to stay away from people making fun of me,” she said. “I’d rather just make people laugh.”
The pair said the show is physically demanding, but it wasn’t conceived that way.
“We thought making ‘Air Play’ would be an easy show we could grow old with,” Bloom said.
Gelsone added, “But this is 60 minutes of climbing and running and jumping and getting in and out of balloons.”
Bloom said, “At the end of 60 minutes we’re still out of breath.”
It helps that they stay in shape and don’t perform “Air Play” constantly. They unpacked the show last January. After the performance Saturday at the Clay Center for FestivALL, they will only do “Air Play” a handful of times before a month-long tour of China in November, followed by another U.S. tour in December.
Doing other shows and leaving gaps between performances of “Air Play” isn’t a problem for them. They wrote the show. It’s in their bones, they said. Picking the show up again after months away from it is like putting on an old pair of shoes.
“Seth and I have thousands of hours together on stage,” Gelsone said.
What’s fun for them, they said, was discovering what people around the world respond to.
“We’re always excited to go different places, even in the U.S.,” Bloom said. “People in West Virginia are going to laugh at some different things than what they laugh at in New York.”
Reach Bill Lynch at firstname.lastname@example.org, 304-348-5195 or follow @LostHwys on Twitter. Follow Bill’s One Month At A Time progress on his blog at blogs.wvgazettemail.com/onemonth/. He’s also on Instagram at instagram.com/billiscap.