At WiseFool circus camp on Saturday we did clowning. The teacher preferred the term red nose rather than clown. Why? Clowns have a bad rap in some ways. “Stop clowning around” or “He’s such a clown” is what people say, as though clowning/being a clown is something to be frowned upon. Some people associate clowns with evil and scariness. Some people associate them with big feet, a wig, the face painting and making balloon animals with children. Definitions from European languages tend to link clown to clumsiness, unacceptable behavior.
We worked with clown – or red nose – as the seer and connector.
In a circus, teacher explained, you might have all sorts of wondrous performers. You might see trapeze artists, acrobats, tight-rope walkers. Watching from the audience, you perhaps look at these folks in awe and think to yourself “Wow! That’s so amazing. I could never do that!” Then comes the clown. You see the clown and you smile. The clown is more accessible. Clowns do not perform for the audience but play with the audience. The clown, teacher said, forges heart connection.
I’d never heard this before. I was intrigued.
Our warm up for clowning focused on deeply getting into our physical and emotional selves. This included a lot of work with breath and sound. I became conscious that when I let myself sink into free physical movement and vocal expression, I wanted to be a small child around the age of 3. Not surprising perhaps, I relished the playing around we did with curiosity, wonder and connecting with each other through our eyes, our gestures and sounds – a gasp, a sigh, a nonsense noise that communicated concern, joy or sadness all through inflection and tone.
The journey of stepping into our clown-selves included putting on the red nose. This step is worthy of its own post. Putting on the red nose is putting on a mask. I was amazed at how a simple red, plastic nose became a gateway for stepping into another identity.
Noses on, hearts open and bodies warmed, we then each performed on our mock stage. The idea was for each of us to come in from side-stage with a folding chair that we had to plant front and center. We were to follow this broad stage direction as clowns/red noses. As far as clown skills/tool go, we were initially only given one.
Exhalation became a form of communication – it’s very own sentence. Most of us are familiar with this in day-to-day life when it comes in the form of a sigh. The sigh often means exasperation or relief. We quickly learned to begin our performances by getting on stage, doing a gesture and sooner rather than later exhaling in a way that would say something to the audience. An exhalation became the final sentence in an introduction of a story being told by the clown.
For example, one of us came on stage holding the chair, with a scowl on his face and heaviness in his step. He clearly was not happy to be moving that chair anywhere. After taking a few steps, whilst giving us a sense of his dissatisfaction, he exhaled with a huff. We had no idea why he might be so unhappy to be bringing that chair to center stage. We could wonder why. We could laugh knowingly – familiar as we are with that scenario in our own lives: the task-we-don’t-want-to-do-but-must.
Each of us performed. I observed that as the clown steps out initially, we might look upon with them wonder or even a small smile. We give recognition to the story that is unfolding before us. When the clown exhales, we might let out a laugh. When we do this, we are also exhaling in a way that is its own sentence. We might be saying, for example, “I so relate to that.”
From there, we eagerly step into the clown’s story, wondering where it will take us all.
Each of us stepped onto our mock stage in our distinct ways. We had grumpy clown, we had angry clown, we had timid clown, we had struggling-to-move-the-chair clown, we had confident clown, we had triumphant clown, and so on. We had clowns that communicated/forged connection simply by staring into the audience silently.
Teacher added into our instruction, at some point, that usually a key ingredient of a clown’s performance is failure. The clown tries to do something very basic and finds it really challenging. The clown stumbles, falls or struggles.
Who, of us, has not stumbled, fallen or struggled in life?
As we move with the clown through their story, we tense when they tense. We sigh with relief when they sigh with relief. We rejoice with delight when they overcome an obstacle.
The clown connects with us through our hearts. Ahh, yes, I came to undersand what the teacher meant when she said that clowns forge heart connection. I hadn’t thought of clowns this way before.
In recent years, I’ve become familiar with social justice activists working with clowning to introduce sensitive subjects, e.g. HIV-AIDS and STDs, into community conversations. I had friends who toured the world with Patch Adams – the doctor who clowns for sick children. My nickname, in a certain group of friends, is the Jester. The jester is a cousin to the clown, no? Thus, before Saturday, I had a pretty strong – albeit vague – sense that clowning is more than about making people laugh.
What I know more clearly now is that clowning can be about holding a space for people to feel connected to themselves and each other. With this in mind it isn’t surprising that our teacher began talking about clowns by emphasizing that being a clown is about giving.
An exercise we did in our clown warm ups was to go around the room with an aim to pay attention to what we were seeing. The teacher would periodically say ‘Freeze.’ At this point we would close our eyes, stop moving and point to whatever she called out, e.g. the fire flag. Clowns are very aware of their surroundings. As I’ve come to understand it, the art of clowning requires full presence – that’s part of their gift giving.
So it was, that we were encouraged first to become very present in our selves – be aware of what/how we were feeling emotionally and physically. Then we were encouraged to be present to our physical surroundings. Finally, when performing, we were nudged to be present with our audience – who, in a way, were fellow players. While performing, we were encouraged to stumble, struggle and strain a bit. By the end of it all, I had a sense that a clown can give people a story or stories that encourage us to connect with our own vulnerability.
Clowns can gift us by being vulnerable in full sight.
Presence. Vulnerability. Risk-taking. Fumbling. Struggling.
We – in the USA – live a culture in which we are often encouraged to always be strong, to hide our fears, to punish ourselves for messing up/making mistakes, to link vulnerability with shame. The clown potentially is a wise fool who reminds us that is okay to be vulnerable.
The clown potentially is a wise fool who invites us to step fully into our own humanity.
When is the last time you let yourself dance/connect with a clown, a red nose, a wise fool? What did you feel when it happened?