There’s a pretty good chance that if you’ve been to Las Vegas recently, you’ve seen Brett Alters and Benedikt Negro. Brett’s a part-time clown with Le Rêve and several other shows on the strip, and Benedikt is the lead in Cirque du Soleil’s O. Still, even with their time and energy-consuming day jobs, these two dedicated performers have committed themselves to their brainchild, 1230, a clown-oriented variety show that is taking Las Vegas by storm. But Brett and Benedikt aren’t about amassing millions and filling a 2,000 seat theater — they are simply on a mission to entertain and engage their audience, a feat their sold-out shows have undoubtedly achieved.
How did you two become part of the circus arts community? Did you always know you wanted to be clowns?
Benedikt: In Xanthan, Germany, where I grew up, we had a lot of traveling circuses come through, and I was always fascinated by that art. When I was nine years old I started off doing magic shows in different street and company festivals, and I was making money with that. At one point I decided to go to pantomime school in Berlin and after that I was hired through my agents to go to Las Vegas and work in Cirque du Soleil in the water show O. And that’s where I met Brett, because Brett is working for the same director at Le Rêve.
Brett: Well, I was Benedikt’s biggest competitor in Xanthen, Germany… No, I’m kidding. I was born in San Diego, and I really liked old movies when I was younger – the classics like Harold Lloyd films and Buster Keaton – so I was always fascinated with silent clowns. My mom put me in youth musical theatre, and I started doing improv in high school and working a few theme parks. I went to NYU and studied musical theare there, but I was always getting jobs doing burlesque and variety work because I think I’m more naturally inclined to be a clown. So I started taking a lot of clown classes with pretty renowned clowns in New York, then I auditioned for Le Rêve, and they hired me.
Now, before we get into 1230, you two have some very interesting day jobs.
Brett: I work at a burlesque show in town, Crazy Horse Saloon, and I’m doing that in Paris. I also do Tournament of Kings at Excalibur, and then my main gig in town is Le Rêve, which is a Franco Dragone show. Benedikt is the lead character in the Cirque du Soleil show O, It’s probably the most well known circus show in the world and they’re always selling out.
What exactly is 1230?
Benedikt: 1230’s a Las Vegas-based clown show.
Brett: It’s a mix of a lot of things old and new, but it’s something completely new in itself. I always say it’s like a combination of European variety and American vaudeville, but that’s not even a very accurate description. Along with the clown acts and clown sketches that make up the main content of the show, the variety in it all has a twist that’s comic and clown-y. Our burlesque dancers do a burlesque striptease, but there’s a clown on stage as well. 1230 is heavily reliant on comedy, especially in a recession.
Benedikt: And sexuality because it’s Las Vegas.
Brett: And we’ve also done some political commentary in it. We push the envelope, but I wouldn’t say it’s in a crude or offensive way. I would say it’s in a very smart way.
Benedikt: Well, it’s in a very dumb way, which makes it smart.
What would you say differentiates 1230 from other Las Vegas shows?
Brett: A lot variety shows have an emcee who comes out and says, “The next act is the flying Blah Blah Brothers,” and they do their act. 1230 is continuous, congruent, and it’s a group effort, so characters from one act will appear in another act and come back. If we’ve left out a character from a show, often we’ll get asked, “Where did that skeleton go?” and then the next show, boom, he’s back.
Benedikt: We have reoccurring stories, but every three weeks we create a completely new show.
Brett: And it’s not just a show – it’s an event. There’s a pre-show, live music, the show happens, and it ends at about 1:30. Then there’s a DJ and a bar and drinks. It’s a community thing.
Where did you get the name, “1230“?
Benedikt: We all perform on the strip shows, so we basically get out at midnight. When we meet, we say, “Hey let’s meet at 12:30 here,” and when we write it on our cell phones in text message we put 1230 because we’re too lazy to put the dot in between. So when we were thinking about a name for our show, I said, “Well let’s call it 12:30 because that’s when we meet. And we will write it, 1230.”
What was the journey like of conceiving this idea, then getting it to a theater and having it go?
Brett: Benedikt and I were having a drink one night about six months ago, and we said, “Man, we really need to do a variety show. We want a place to showcase our work and there’s no real variety in Vegas.”
Benedikt: There are shows, of course.
Brett: We wanted to do a really good clown show. We’d been taking a clown class, and we knew we had a big pool of talent to collaborate with.
Benedikt: A clown class is something where you show up and sign in if you want to be funny and then you go to class and you get funny. Even if you’re working in a show being a clown, you take a clown class.
Brett: It’s like ballet.
Benedikt: Different teachers come into town and that’s when the community comes together.
Brett: We should also mention Stefan Haves, who’s not only one of our most influential clown teachers, he’s a designer and consultant for Cirque du Soleil. He runs his own variety show in Los Angeles, he works for Disney, he’s done an international circuit. Stefan helped our group collaborate, and he was essentially our artistic director the first few shows.
How do you decide what goes into your shows?
Benedikt: Originally, we had auditions where we had to sort things out, and we don’t have auditions anymore. There are no unfunny things anymore. For example, we had Casey, who is not a clown, who just came on stage and read an interesting…
Brett: A good poem, he wrote a great poem.
Benedikt: And half a year ago we would have said that doesn’t belong in a clown show because that poem is very deep and not funny at all. But what happened was more and more people went onstage, did their clown-y stuff, and at the end Casey got a pie in the face. And now it’s in 1230.
What do you ultimately hope will be the future of 1230?
Benedikt: Right now we’re super happy, but of course the dream would be our own venue. And we’ve wanted to keep it small from the beginning. Our capacity’s only 150 seats, and each show we have to send more people away because we don’t want to get in a big theater. Being a small show, you get a lot of curve balls and we’re trying to work around all those little rules and regulations. When you don’t have the backing of a lot of money you’re pretty much screwed here in Las Vegas.
Brett: We want a burlesque club or something really unique. A lot of people ask us, “Do you want this show to be bought at a casino or go to a casino night club?”
Benedikt: Absolutely not.
Brett: We’re not saying that we wouldn’t be happy for a company to sponsor us, but we need them to be on our level about keeping this real. We don’t want to be jammed in the back corner of a casino. We want our own venue, our own theatrical club.
So what can Daily BR!NK readers do to help contribute to your success?
Benedikt: Come to Las Vegas and come to our show.
Brett: If you are a producer or someone – whether it’s in Vegas or New York or wherever – and 1230 sounds like something you want to support, get in contact with us. Sponsors and business partnerships are welcome. I don’t think people realize how much circus and variety are in the world. I think it’s glanced over because back in the day when there were no televisions – this is what it was.