Through the eyes of a clown

Yesterday I wrote a letter to my clown. That’s right, a letter to my clown. It was in reply to a letter I received from my clown. Writing the letter made me cry, just as reading the original letter I had received from my clown made me cry.

This might take some explaining.

I recently completed a three week course entitled, How To Be A Stupid. ‘But you don’t need a course for that, Amy, hahahahah!’. Well, it turns out I did. Because being “stupid”, in the sense of being honest, open-hearted and vulnerable in a performative-context, is not an easy thing to be.

The course I’m referring to is the now much sort-after, massively over-subscribed course in Contemporary Clowning from world-renowned theatre practitioner, actor, teacher, director and clown, Angela de Castro. This time it was held in London but de Castro has taught this elemental clown training all over the world.

The clown is a hugely misunderstood creature. I myself am guilty of falling into the trap of conjuring hideous visions of Tim Curry as Pennywise in the original screen version of ‘It’ *shudders*, and alcoholic, frustrated male actors with terrible face-paint at children’s parties muttering inappropriately whilst ham-fistedly constructing a balloon poodle. But clowns come in all different shapes and sizes, just like any other style of performance. Laurel and Hardy, Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton and Mr. Bean might be some of the names that first come to mind for most people but modern day clowns range from the winsome clowning and slap-stick of Miranda Hart in her eponymous sitcom to the international fringe legend, provocateur and bouffon clown, Red Bastard; both of these performers command huge audiences and have legions of fans, which proves that those who claim the art of clown dead or outdated, just plain wrong. Scotland also has a thriving contemporary clown scene, with the massively popular Clown Cabaret Scratch Night, which floats between Glasgow and Edinburgh, attracting incredible talent and offering imaginative ideas and original concepts every time. It was at these nights that I developed a sizable respect and admirable for those who were brave enough to release their clown to the world, warts and all.

So with preconceptions out the window, I entered the workshop space with as open mind as I could muster and was happy (nae, relieved) to oblige De Castro by leaving my “cynicism and skepticism at the door”. I was not disappointed.

De Castro is a wonderful teacher. Her workshops are not just exquisitely structured, with games and exercises perfected timed to illustrate a fundamental truth about clowning as and when we were ready to receive it, but De Castro also possesses the qualities of a great teacher. She is always present and “on”; her dark eyes shine out from behind thick-rimmed glasses and she listens and responds to her students with an infectious joy and effervescent excitement that fizzes and lifts a group no matter how tired. She is generous with her time and energy; taking moments during breaks, before and after class to give individual feedback and to investigate how and why a student might be struggling. And she is respectful of difference: whilst my group had a lot in common, there were some vast differences in culture, background and circumstance; De Castro welcomed these differences and saw equal beauty in all of us.

I found this environment disarming. I am not used to places of learning being this haven of compassion and understanding. I am used to competition and criticism; to “faking it, til you make it”, and doing my utmost to earn the approval of the gatekeepers. I doubt I am alone in this holding onto this Darwinian survival instinct since my early school days. And in hindsight, this anxiety to win approval and to get a pat on the head for being the cleverest, has carried over into my performance practice. But the absolute revelation that came during these three weeks of workshops was that clown don’t care about any of that shit.

Clowns are not stupid. And this is a point worth repeating: clowns are not stupid. They have intelligence. It is just a different kind of intelligence to the intelligence of non-clowns. Clowns are wonderful because they do not hold anxiety or worry and are free of the sometimes crippling fear with which most of us approach life. They are curious about the world, but not cautious. They take great pleasure in doing things well and properly, but they are not afraid of doing them wrong. They are intrinsically optimistic and hopeful, which means they try. They will try again and again. If something doesn’t work, they will try something else. They will travel to the ends of their imagination for a solution and when they finally succeed, they will be as pleased and proud as punch. Clowns are us. They are not outside of us. They are inside and waiting to play. They are us before we tried to look cool, before we desperately needed to sound clever or like we knew what we were talking about. They are us before we knew we could fall; before we became afraid of jumping because there was a chance we might fall.

I’d say I’m actually a pretty brave person. Or...well, I’m not risk-averse, put it that way (I am a freelancer afterall and play fast and loose with my financial stability on a daily basis). But I identity with this fear. And it’s less the fear of falling down itself, more the fear of humiliation when everyone sees. The loss of dignity. But clowns have dignity too. They still fall and fail and get it wrong but the crucial difference between them and us: they share the failure. Clowns laugh with their audience. They love their audience and they bring them along for the ride. Every step of the way, clowns let you in, conspire with you and when you fuck up, they are right there with you to laugh at how life is full of bumps in the road that make us trip. It is universal. It is the essense of what it is to be human.

This may all sound completely obvious and intuitive to some, but it hasn’t always been to me. I am all too aware of my imperfections and the areas where I fall short and I spend a lot of time and emotional energy pasteing over these insecurities with a mask of confidence and self-assuredness. Being told to let that mask fall was jarring at first. Many will have had the classic nightmare of having to speak or perform in front of a big group of people and looking down only to realise that you are naked as the day you were born – clowning is like that. Except once you are over the initial shock of realising you are naked, there is no shame. Maybe your clown tries to find something to cover their nakedness at first, maybe they can’t find anything large enough to cover all the naughty bits (classic!). But the clown always looks towards the audience, searches for a connection, and in the end if the audience are enjoying this impromtu nudity (why wouldn’t they!) then why not give them what they want, cast off the inadequate coverings and dance and skip about the stage. ‘The audience love me and I love them, I am beautiful and I will give them all of me!’

In short, dear reader, I have discovered within me, a clown and she is wonderful. She is very new to the world and I’m still getting to know her. But I can say for sure that she is bold and brave, she has sparkling eyes, a big toothy smile and loves all her imperfections, each and every one. She told me so in a letter. When I wrote her back I asked her what are her likes and dislikes. At the moment, she likes a lot of things. I think she is still making up her mind - after all, where’s the rush? And there is still so much to discover.

I still have to live with my fears and insecurities, but I feel like after an intensely fun and rather profound three weeks, I have made a new friend to keep me company, to remind me there is pleasure in playing and beauty in mistakes.

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Theatre Maker & Performer




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Image by Scott Cadenhead ​