Written by Jeremy Nolais
No joke, Mat Mailandt works as a professional clown. And while his business is all about making people’s sides split, the amount of exposure he has gained working as a tall, clumsy Spanish bullfighter is nothing to laugh at.
Mat Mailandt may be a big fan of the snooze button on his alarm clock; however, he isn’t exactly someone you would consider lazy.
On a routine morning, the 25-year-old springs from bed at the last minute, hops in the shower to wash off the stench from any festivities the night before and brushes his teeth until they are pearly white — after all, having a good smile is important in the circles he travels.
Next, it’s time to get dressed. For Mailandt, simply throwing on a pair of slacks and a buttoned shirt won’t cut it. Instead, he opts for a vibrant red shirt with flashy gold cuffs and candy cane-striped pants. Moving to the bathroom mirror, Mailandt hunches his hulking six-foot-three frame forward and applies some subtle blush to his cheeks and fits a shiny red nose to his face. The finishing touch to the ensemble is a sequined hat known as a montera. Yes, as far as matadors go, Mailandt’s attire would likely gain major style points, the only drawback being that he is not a real matador.
On his way out the door now, Mailandt either grabs a piece of fruit for the road or enough change to buy a coffee at the nearby 7-Eleven.
Arriving at his destination, the man that is Mat Mailandt disappears and Toro the Clown takes over. Some days Toro’s workplace is a small birthday party, others it’s a massive corporate party where he will spend the better part of six hours shaping balloons into animals for hundreds of impatient kids. Either way, this clown is on a mission, a mission to make people’s bellies ache with laughter all the while earning big bucks to do so.
Clowning is what Mailandt does for a living, simple as that. And he does it well, just take a look in his checqing account. Mailandt can earn upwards of $100 per hour to roam about as Toro and last year, between clowning and his many other theatre-related endeavours, the young actor says he took home roughly $50,000. Beyond his financial success, Mailandt’s clown creation has opened doors to numerous other job opportunities and allowed him to interact with his favourite audience of all: kids.
“When people first find out that I work as a clown, they are a little weirded out,” he says. “But I love what I do. This is without a doubt the best job I have ever had, wouldn’t trade it for anything.”
The funniest thing in all of this might be that if you told Mailandt 10 years ago he would be working today as a professional clown, “I would have said there’s no way, I don’t like clowns,” the animated Calgarian explained recently during an interview at a local coffee shop.
“The weirdest thing is that I actually hate balloons. It’s not a phobia per say but a severe distaste. There’s something about them, the latex, the squeakiness, the way they collect dust. I never really wanted to go up to a clown as a kid so it’s really funny that this is what I do for a living.”
Mailandt isn’t the only one surprised by his career path, as his father Werner Mailandt always envisioned a job in a math or science-related field for his son because he excelled in those subjects all through school.
“He was a very bright young man and had a variety of interests in different places,” said Werner Mailandt, who himself has worked in the school system for decades as a teacher and now a middle school principal. “He didn’t display the artsy nature of someone you would suspect in his business.”
Besides his competence in the classroom, athletics also began to play a major role in Mailandt’s life as he progressed through his teenage years at Calgary’s William Aberhart High School. He had discovered newfound coordination at age 14 and quickly became an obsessed teenage jock. Soccer, cross-country skiing, football, you name it, Mailandt was constantly active. Thoughts of a career in theatre were the last thing on his mind — at that point he had never even performed in a production of any kind.
That all changed in a heartbeat.
Mailandt enrolled in a Grade 11 drama class and instantly found that it allowed him an outlet to explore all corners of his bubbly personality. He also began interacting with others who held similar personality traits. Sports, science and mathematical formulas were all pushed aside in favour of character portrayal and improvisation.
“I just fell in love with it,” Mailandt says of the class, “and thought ‘Wow, this is what I want to do with the rest of my life.’”
Looking back now, Mailandt concedes that he really could have chosen any career path. His oldest sister Tara — equally bright in her own right — would spend hours each night slaving over homework assignments, ensuring every answer was perfect, while he would horse around and still pull down exceptional grades. But scientific breakthroughs or engineering marvels simply didn’t appeal to Mailandt and he instead enrolled in the drama program at the University of Calgary. He had jumped headfirst into the sprawling sea of young actors searching for their first break in the world that is Alberta theatre.
“I don’t want to say a shock but when he came to me and said ‘I am going to go into drama at university,’ I did a double-take and said ‘Why? You’re really good at math, you’re really good at chemistry, all of those things come easily to you,’ ” recalls Werner Mailandt. “And he responded with ‘It’s because this doesn’t come easily to me.’ He really wanted that challenge.”
Unlike his academic work previously, Mailandt began poring countless hours into his chosen craft on top of classes at the U of C. After being inspired by a live improvised soap opera in Edmonton known as Die-Nasty, Mailandt decided to create a similar Calgary chapter called Drunk on Mondays. It was here that he met girlfriend Jessica Robertshaw.
“I was always laughing at whatever he said, even when it was stupid,” Robertshaw recalls of her initial attraction to Mailandt. “He’s really confident, he was and is really outgoing and I was always a little more reserved.”
As a fellow drama student, Robertshaw can attest to just how tough it is to make a career out of Mailandt’s chosen profession.
“There’s not always a lot of work. For women I would say it’s even harder than it is for guys,” says Robertshaw, who serves as an artistic associate for local group Berb Theatre. “From what I have seen, for every five female actors there is one male so there’s more work for them.”
Whether it was his gender or simply a result of Mailandt’s drive and determination, the young actor got his first break in the summer of 2003 when local touring group Wagon Stage hired him on. The gig was simple, perform two to three shows based on classic children’s stories each day for children in summer camps through a co-operative program run by the U of C and City of Calgary.
“It was intense!” Mailandt says. “We basically put on 90 shows over the course of two months plus rehearsals.”
Mailandt admits that he “bombed” many times early on in front his young, yet highly critical audience during his time with Wagon Stage. He quickly discovered that having grass and cookies thrown at him from frustrated audience members often came with the territory.
“I never thought I would work with kids when I first started out. It all kind of hit me by surprise,” Mailandt. “I realized how great it is performing for kids because kids are such an honest audience. If they don’t like what you’re doing they will get up and go.
“It’s not like an adult audience, you really have to be on your game.”
While filming a television promo for Wagon Stage at the crack of dawn one morning, Mailandt was noticed by a talent scout from a company called Just Kidding. He asked him to come in for a training seminar where important fundamentals of clowning, such as a proper wardrobe development and how to twist balloon animals, were taught.
“I was skeptical at first,” Mailandt says. “Here are these people willing to pay you tons of money to dress up and make balloon animals. I was thinking ‘is this some kind of scam?’ "
But Just Kidding turned out to be totally legitimate and after a few months Mailandt became a regular with the company. For his efforts, the young impersonator was paid an initial rate of $85 per hour minimum, not bad for an amateur clown.
Mailandt’s father chuckles when recalling the moment he first learned about his son being employed as a clown.
“We always joke that his best paying gig is his clowning thing and that is strange, no question,” Werner Mailandt said.
“It’s led to so many other things. It’s not just about being a clown. . . I think what it’s done more than just put money in his pocket is give him exposure and allow him to be a different character in different places. I think that really strengthens him as an actor and a performer.”
In essence, Mailandt had made it. He had succeeded where many of his peers were struggling. Just Kidding had provided him with not only a flexible job that would help pay the bills — most notably his costly university tuition.
Robertshaw said that Mailandt is extremely fortunate to be making 100 per cent of his living from performing. The 22-year-old works a public relations job in the oil and gas industry by day to make ends meet and admittedly is a little jealous that her boyfriend is parading around as a clown while she sits behind a desk.
“I think Mat is inherently sort of lucky, stuff just falls into his lap at times,” she says. “He has found this amazing job and he sort of fell into it right out of school.”
Realizing his good fortune, Mailandt wasn’t about to let his position with Just Kidding go to waste and he began developing a suitable back-story and costume for Toro as part of his work in a performer creations class. A quick peruse through Toro’s biography and it’s easy to see numerous comparisons between the matador character and his creator. For one, Toro comes from a long line of successful matadors and was expected to follow in the family footsteps but instead chose to become a clown because he lacked the proper coordination.
As for Toro’s costume, Mailandt says his intention was to keep his bullfighting uniform relatively simple, something that wouldn’t terrify kids and is easy to slip in and out of.
“He’s a very simple, European-style clown,” Mailandt says. “Look, I am big guy with a beard and that’s intimidating to kids. I didn’t want to go too ‘clown’ with my costume. I make it very apparent that there is a real person underneath.”
With Toro’s character fully developed, Mailandt began testing the limits of creation. He soon found that the job description for each clowning gig was just as varied as the venue.
Mailandt says he enjoys most being hired on as a “rover” for bigger events like the Calgary Stampede, where he spends the day walking amongst thousands of attendees and entertaining people waiting in lines.
“That’s when I really get to explore Toro’s character and act in a spontaneous way. Anything’s game,” Mailandt says.
Other jobs are simpler. Larger functions will often bring on clowns purely for their balloon twisting talents — an endurance test that can last up to six hours and test the patience of even the most experienced jokesters.
“My hands pretty much want to fall off after that,” he says. “At this point, I can probably make more than 100 different balloon animals. I can do a mean dragon, and a motorcycle but those take more time. When working I bigger line I try to keep it to about one minute per balloon. I can make a pig, a cool penguin, a tiger and a monkey climbing up a palm tree — that one is always a big hit. With enough time I can pretty much make anything.”
Whether it was his colourful costume, compelling back-story or uncanny artistry with balloons, Mailandt soon became a hit with kids; he had a found a facet of the theatre industry that seemed to hold numerous opportunities. In 2004, Mailandt expanded his work from performing for kids to working with them when he was hired as an instructor by Calgary Young People’s Theatre. A local company founded in 1992, CYPT intends to offer children basic theatre education and the means to explore the performing arts and advance their creativity. The CYPT’s advanced programs will even see children put on productions in professional local theatres. Needless to say, Mailandt had found a second job that he could get onboard with.
“Calgary Young People’s Theatre gave me the chance to interact with kids on a more personal level,” Mailandt says. “Men in our society aren’t really allowed to interact with kids because there have been a lot of bad scenarios. Parents really want to protect their kids. I didn’t even hug a kid until a few years of doing children’s theatre.
“What’s great is I can sit down with an eight-year-old and have a very satisfying conversation. Maybe that speaks to my immaturity but all I know is I enjoy being around them and helping them.”
After being with the CYPT for roughly a year, Mailandt watched the organizational structure of the company he loved crumbled. The artistic director and a number of board members resigned, leaving CYPT with no leader and an uncertain future. After some convincing from his peers, Mailandt, just 21 at the time, decided to throw his hat into the ring for director. He won and took over and became the youngest director in the company’s history.
“Everything changed, I took it (CYPT) from the ground up basically,” Mailandt says.
James Dugan, a former professor of Mailandt’s at the U of C, wasn’t surprised to hear to hear the news that his young, gifted student was now running a respected local company.
“He sets his mind on something and he goes after it,” Dugan says. “His personality is quite delightful. He’s very friendly, very outgoing. He talks to everyone and is interested in everything.”
It was for these reasons that the veteran professor, who has taught in some capacity for 27 years at the U of C, turned to Mailandt in 2006 when needed instructors for a summer drama camp in Silverton, B.C. Now, the Calgary actor makes the trek west every summer and Dugan says his younger children always look forward to his presence.
Annual drama camps, routine clowning gigs and the responsibilities that come with running a theatre education company were still not enough to satisfy Mailandt, as he also began performing with local acting troupe The Improv Guild. He can now be seen flying by the seat of his pants onstage at the Comedy Cave most Friday nights as an opening act for some of the biggest comedians to trek through town. As part of his work with The Improv Guild, Mailandt also took charge of efforts to create the Calgary International Improv Festival in 2008. When asked how he finds time to relax, the committed artist remains quite modest.
“I have just always been a busy guy and still am,” he says. “I am one of those people that likes to fill time with a lot of different work things, different social things.”
His father, Werner, couldn’t be happier now with the career path his son has chosen and takes pride in offering him advice when the two meet up for their weekly ritual of watching the NFL’s Chicago Bears play on TV.
“I basically tell him to keep his hands in as many different things as possible,” Werner says. “Figuring out how to make ends meet as an artist is a hard thing. He’s doing what makes him happy and from a parent’s perspective that’s really all you can ask for.
Looking forward, it seems Calgary’s acting scene is seemingly not enough to contain Mailandt’s aspirations, as he plans to move with Robertshaw to Berlin next year and work with his uncle, a theatre producer in the area.
“I have never lived anywhere outside of Calgary,” Mailandt says. “I think it’s the next step for me to live somewhere else and see Europe and then after that I don’t know because I don’t plan that far ahead.
“One day I want a wife and kids and a house somewhere in Canada but that’s down the road. Even planning a year ahead for me is quite a bit. I am very much about living in the moment. I try to enjoy everything that I am doing. I try to find a balance in my life, I work hard and I play hard.”
As for right now, Mailandt will continue to get up in the morning, dress up in his finest bullfighting attire and transform into his highly sought alter-ego Toro. After all, in the life he has chosen to lead there is always plenty of clowning around to do.