The strongest man in the world is standing center stage in the lobby of the Bloomington Playwrights Project. He is wearing make-up and a grossly oversized suit jacket. The strongest man in the world is four feet tall and has not graduated from elementary school.\nSix of his classmates are on both sides of him, trying to pull him down by tugging at a long cord of white nylon rope that has been looped through the back of his jacket. The only resistance he encounters is by the people doing the tugging. The appointed "announcer" jokingly admonishes the group for not being able to take down a midget.\nThe kids are practicing the fine art of clowning. All props necessary to perfect such a skill are piled on a nearby table: polka dot hats, a police officer cap, sponge brick, giant foam hammer and make-up. \nGiggles roll out of the bathroom as the children learn how to properly wash off their make-up with Quantam shampoo. White clots of paint streak down from their eyes and start to reveal skin underneath that's turning red from the thorough scrubbing. Instructor Joe Lee supervises to make sure they "leave with their skin intact." \nLee, who produces a cartoon published in the IDS, is a local legend on the Bloomington clown circuit, having graduated from the Barnum and Bailey Clown College and having been in their Ringling Brothers Circus. \nHe has been performing for 25 years and spent the last two at the Bloomington Playwrights Project teaching children his tricks of the trade.\n"The key to clowning is not acting -- it's portraying an exaggerated version of yourself, which means you really need to be aware of who you are," Lee said. "Kids haven't yet figured out who they are. Experience teaches them those things."\nThe BPP has a program that assists people of all ages in gaining this experience. The School of Dramatic and Performing Arts (SODA) offers classes on different skills like magic, clowning, acting and playwrighting.\nSODA was based on a program founded by Education Director Joy Chaitin and incorporated into the BPP. It's designed to give people an opportunity to learn or improve on their talents and give them an unrestricted avenue for self expression.\n"The young people in the community were frustrated for not having their voices heard. They needed a forum for communication," Chaitin said. \nSODA's popularity among kids and adults alike has been growing steadily. Participation has tripled since it was started last year, a statistic Chaitin attributed to the staff members. All SODA instructors are required to be good teachers as well as theater professionals.\n"These are not just people who can perform -- they have a genius for teaching," Chaitin said. \nRichard Perez, BPP general manager, uses his skills to teach students lessons that would be useful for both acting and everyday life. \nHe constantly stresses the importance of establishing strong relationships with your partner, always giving them dialogue to build on and analyzing what works well and what can be improved. \nPerez said the point of SODA is to encourage young people to nurture and explore their talent by interacting with more experienced performers. \n"It's pretty amazing what kids can do. It seems like the older kids become mentors to the younger ones, so it works out really well," Perez said. "As with adults, they encounter personality conflicts, but they overcome them and get the job done"
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