Q&A: His life is truly a circus

Name: Jaron Aviv Hollander

Age: 41

City: Oakland

Position: Artistic director, teacher and performer

Jaron Aviv Hollander as Murray

J.: If you meet someone and they ask what you do, what do you tell them?

Jaron Aviv Hollander: I tell them that I run a circus school, the Kinetic Arts Center in Oakland. I’m a teacher, I do rope and acrobatics and hand balancing. But at 41, I’m backing off from acrobatics. What I don’t say, for a while at least, is mime or clown. People have issues with mimes and clowns. I’ve seen people recoil.

How did you get started?

When I was a toddler, my mom had gone back to school and was getting a degree in set design. So I spent a bunch of time backstage when I was little, as she would be designing sets and costumes for productions. After U.C. Santa Cruz, I went to the Dell’Arte School of Physical Theater. I also spent some time at a circus school in New Zealand, where I studied acrobatics and rope.

You were with Cirque du Soleil at one point. What show?

I was with an installation on a cruise ship, “The Bar at the Edge of the Earth” — it was a wild, incredible project, and it’s very sad that few people saw it. It was this insane circus, character, bar, immersive environment with 26 projectors and screens with 3D images, and we would come out of bizarre places and interact. The average age of the cruisers was 65, so it wasn’t the most popular attraction, but I really wish more people could have seen it. Right now the big rage is immersive theater, but this was 2005, years before that kind of thing hit. My costume’s price tag was more than my entire contract. I was basically wearing a Porsche.

Does your Jewish background contribute to your work at all?

The history of American-style comedy traces its roots back to Yiddish theater, which was a major influence on vaudeville and clowning — and thus, all physical comedy in the U.S.

I have this character Murray, inspired by my Uncle Louie, who died just shy of his 100th birthday. I only met him once. He came out of the bathroom with a walker and looked around at all of us, me and my mother and the nurse, and he said, “I had a good bowel movement.” I was maybe 9 or 10 years old and it stuck with me. So one of my clown characters is Murray. He’s the same kind of character as Mel Brooks’ 2,000-year-old man, but with Murray it’s more about his physicality.

Where did you grow up? What’s your family like?

I grew up in Berkeley, and my extended family was all nearby. I would classify us as very much cultural Jews. I believe it was my great-great-grandfather who was a cantor who would not stay kosher. An interesting shift is that my brother and I didn’t end up married to Jews. Now we do all the Jewish holidays with my family and then we go do the non-Jewish stuff with our spouses. It’s interesting because as we’ve gotten less traditional, we’ve actually gotten more Jewish. There’s a strong identity. Also, a huge part of my Jewish identity came from being a camper and a counselor for years at Camp Kee Tov in Berkeley. Had it not been for that, I would not have been involved with a Jewish community outside of my family.

You just returned from performing your show, “The Submarine Show,” at FringeNYC. How did that go?

This piece is absolutely my favorite thing I’ve ever worked on, the most fulfilling piece of theater, far beyond anything I did for Cirque or anywhere else. If I have a legacy, this is the thing I would like to be known for. It’s a live-action cartoon adventure with no sets, no props and no spoken language. We transport from the bottom of the ocean, crash our sub, lose the key, everything goes wrong, we’re on a tropical island, we traverse a huge amount of terrain — and it’s all done using vocal and physical mime. We do sound effects to create the environment and accentuate our movement. We’re flying back to New York soon to do another seven shows in an off-Broadway theater.

And you’re bringing it to Berkeley?

Yes, then we come back and we’re doing it at the Aurora Theatre in Berkeley starting Oct. 14 for a few weeks. And at the same time I go into a circus production that I’m directing.

“Talking with …” focuses on local Jews who are doing things we find interesting. Send suggestions to [email protected].

David A.M. Wilensky
David A.M. Wilensky

David A.M. Wilensky is the digital editor of J. He can be reached at [email protected].