Hometown: San Francisco, CA
Family Circus: Born and raised in the Bay Area, Pisoni wasn’t the kind of kid who dreamed of running away and joining the circus. His family was the circus. The San Francisco Pickle Family Circus, to be exact. “My parents started it,” he says. “My mother was a juggler. My dad was a clown. I grew up surrounded by clowns, actually. Bill Irwin was in the room when I was born.” Pisoni joined in the family business at the wee age of two, entertaining crowds during intermissions. “We were in Juneau, Alaska,” he remembers. “They gave me a little cane, which they’d sawed off, and a busted-up top hat and a suitcase with two plastic bowling pins in it. My father put a bit of makeup around my eyes. Then I walked out into the ring, and I mimicked my parents.”My Father, the Bozo: An instant hit, Pisoni moved up from between-acts entertainment and into the show itself. “I was an acrobat, a juggler, an aerialist, a clown,” he says. “Then I became the ringmaster and, eventually, my dad’s straight man.” So, just to get this straight, the Pisoni homestead was the kind of place where the young ones dressed in top hat and tails and the older folks carpooled with 20 friends in a VW Beetle? “I experienced all the same lessons we all experience,” Pisoni says, “except my father was wearing a red nose when he was administering them. It’s kind of hard to understand that you need to clean up your room when your dad’s wearing big shoes.” And yes, Pisoni is putting all of this in writing, and workshopping a one-man show about his upbringing. Stay tuned.
Breaking Away: While making new friends at Vassar College, Pisoni decided to keep his circus background under wraps. Then he got busted when his roommates overheard a message left by a circus director, asking if he was available to ringmaster a show in Tokyo. “When I got back to the dorm, it felt like an intervention, with everyone sitting on the couch, waiting for me.” As he filled them in on his three-ring past, Pisoni realized life was moving on, and it was time to try something new. “For a long time, I thought I was going to be a lifer,” Pisoni recalls. “But being a ringmaster requires a lot of acting, and doing all those jobs made me realize there were other things I wanted in life.” So in 1999, after 20 years in the big tent, Pisoni turned in his top hat and traded one circus for another: New York City.
The Actor’s Life: Being reared by clowns might’ve made for some crazy stories in college, but it had cash benefits in Manhattan. Parlaying his circus pedigree, Pisoni soon found work as a physical-comedy consultant, coaching the likes of Matthew Broderick and David Arquette on how to trip properly. Then he was cast in the chorus of the Present Theatre Company’s production of Romeo and Juliet. That led to more Shakespeare credits, including As You Like It at the Public which went to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival and his Broadway debut in 2003’s Henry IV at Lincoln Center. On the contemporary front, his performance in Election Day earned him a Lucille Lortel Award nomination in 2007. “I’ve been lucky,” Pisoni says, noting that his most demanding role yet was still to come.
A Boy and His Horse: Physically, playing Nugget in Equus requires Pisoni to wear steel hoofs that weigh six pounds each, while running around the stage in circles with Daniel Radcliffe riding piggyback. “I keep telling him to lay off the pizza,” he jokes, before pressing an ice bag to his knee in his dressing room between shows. Offstage, there are other challenges—like explaining his role and the play itself to family and friends. Remembers Pisoni, “I’d say, ‘I’m a horse,’ and I could see their faces blanking out. Or I’d have to tell them, ‘No, it not a two-person costume.’ Now I just pitch it as, ‘Part of the play is like Law & Order and Columbo, and the other part is this weird theatrical event.’” Thanks to all the publicity Equus has received, it wasn’t long before his friends started giving him a hard time, saying, “‘Harry Potter’s riding on your back.’ That kind of thing.” He should ask what they’ve been up to lately. “Exactly!” Pisoni says, laughing. “It’s like, What’ve you got?”