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In defence of clowns

Whether they’re being cast as serial killers or compared to politicians, it’s a hard time being a clown. Sherry Zhang reflects on her time as a jester, and talks to some friends in the profession. 

Time and time again, clowns have been ridiculed and defamed in our parliament. A few weeks ago, in relation to parliamentary questions on the Green School shenanigans, Winston Peters called out to James Shaw. “You’ve made a clown of yourself, mate.” The speaker of the house quickly intervened, but the damage had already been done. 

Flick through the Hansard reports and as early as 1946, “clown of the House” is regarded as unparliamentary language. Insults fly and tension runs high, with Steven Joyce dishing it back to Winston Peters (“silly old clown”) and Andrew Little remarking, in reference to property prices: “This government is responsible for more bubbles than the clown troupe of the Ringling Brothers Circus”. Prime minister Jacinda Ardern wishes she could be a clown. 

I’m the Spinoff’s intern, and I’m a clown. 

It’s a noble pursuit to constantly fall over. It’s hard to find new ways to take the wrong way. It’s about curiosity, play and vulnerability. Too often the profession has been misunderstood, oversimplified to “wack muthafuckas” on a drunk night out. While it’s true that’s how clowns got their red nose, there’s much more to it. I talked to a bunch of fellow clowns to understand what makes the craft so special.

The magic of medical clowning

Victoria Abbott as Dr Captain with Clown Doctors New Zealand (Photo: Supplied)

“Clowning allows you to be beautiful and human. It’s not about the aesthetic of beauty, but about showing your big beating heart.” – Victoria Abbott

Dr Captain was Victoria Abbott’s first clown. They’re a “world champion at parkour, very tall, and not necessarily a lady, clowns aren’t gendered”. However, I’ve met Abbott, who’s substantially shorter than me. She was part of Clown Doctors NZ and Dr Captain used to make their rounds through Starship Children’s Hospital and dementia wards in Auckland. 

Abbott spent a month studying character with legendary French clown teacher Philippe Gaulier, whose “tongue-lashings” have been described as “an exquisite form of torture”.

“It was so deeply romantic. Clown school in France! But everyone was also on the razor’s edge of total elation and total humiliation,” recalls Abbott. She says it didn’t really matter which side you ended up on – Gaulier was always creative with his insults. “He would always elicit someone in the class to agree with him as to how bad you were.” 

But there’s kindness behind the cruelty, and Abbott remembers Gaulier quietly checking in with her during the Christchurch earthquake. After making sure she was doing OK, he said, “Victoria, I know in your hometown, big earthquake, destruction, butterfly effect from your bad performance”.

Abbott does her best French man voice and laughs, “It was just so brutal. And so, so funny.” There was a lot of tension, and she had a few close friends who’d lost loved ones, “but at least, in that moment, I could laugh”.

After graduating, Abbott worked as a clown doctor in Wellington and Auckland until 2017.  While they aren’t “real” doctors, the role does require an awareness of the medical space. And beyond being a skilled performer, it’s about having high levels of empathy. 

The traditional role of clowns is to distract audiences while the circus changed scenes. However, a medical clown’s task is different. “The goal is to change the atmosphere of the room from one thing to another. Sometimes it’s as small as boredom to interest.”

It’s also about knowing when to leave the space. “If the energy shifts, we have to be onto it. We’re in their space and the priority is for all the medical stuff.”

And sometimes, families are dealing with incredible grief and loss. 

Abbott recalls a particularly difficult incident when some family members were stuck outside of the room while difficult news was being delivered. “As clown doctors, we were having trouble tying our shoes. No fanfare, we knew something was wrong. One of them came over, tied Dr Captain’s shoe, and said, ‘Thank you. That was the first time I felt useful all day’.” 

While there’s no relief for grief, it means a lot to Abbott that clown doctors can “offer people a moment of feeling human”. 

According to Abbott, clowning is a beautiful metaphor for consent. “Especially with being a clown doctor, you give them their right to say no, yes, come closer, stop there.”  

Le jeu, the game, is a way of “remembering how the world used to be”, explains Abbott. “Each seat cushion is a world. Each bug is fascinating. And kids are like that anyways. I often feel like I’m running after the masters of it, trying to keep up.”

Clown school trauma 

Alex Medland at John Bolton Theatre School (Photo: Supplied)

“Everyone has their own clown, their own childlike version of themselves. But I shut back to an abusive situation as a child. It took me a long time to be able to go back on stage.” – Alex Medland

Alex Medland was 18 years old when she went to Melbourne to train in clowning at John Bolton, a theatre school based on “Lecoq’s brutal method”. Most modern styles of clown pedagogy are based on French stage actor Jacques Lecoq who thought that only through abuse, humiliation and negative criticism could the student figure out their best performance.

“But it’s quite scary,” says Medland, “because you’re completely vulnerable.” On the first day of class, they were told to dress in their most ridiculous clothes while John Bolton, the man after whom the school is named, berated them as the whole class watched. 

For Medland, trying to access the innocent, childlike version of herself was incredibly challenging as someone who’d experienced childhood trauma and abuse. 

She says she doesn’t agree with the traditional way clowning is taught and finds Lecoq’s method patriarchal. Other people in her class would put on a red nose, and find their clown straight away, she says. “But for me, it was so difficult just being insulted over and over again.” 

She definitely prefers other forms of acting, says Medland, but the clowning experience has taught her to look at things differently. She now feels prepared to go into any improvisation piece, since “nothing will be worse than clown training”. 

Mr Fungus’s mirror 

Fergus Aitken (Photo: Supplied)

“Clowns use the absurd to show us the light and dark. It’s a powerful medium that holds a mirror up to society.” – Fergus Aitken

Fergus Aitken has been a clown for the past 35 years. Starting as a mime, he’s performed in various festivals around Europe. His clown, Mr Fungus, is a geeky man in a suit with slicked-back hair and spectacle frames. According to Aitken, Mr Fungus takes his life far too seriously. 

Aitken remembers the first time he fell in love with silent storytelling. “They didn’t say a word, yet portrayed this story of happiness and sadness. Love and loss, life and death, and silly human things. Like eating.” 

While Aitken understands most people see clowning as the red nose, children’s birthday party schtick, he says it’s actually much more than that. “There are the obvious physical skills like juggling, but it’s really about empathy and reading other people’s expressions. Seventy percent of communication is non-verbal, so having awareness of your physicality around other people is really important.”

Asked about any parallels with politicians, Aitken says he doesn’t think Trump is a good clown. “He’s not particularly moving, not breaking new ground.” And so while Trump may be ridiculous and stupid, “that’s not what clowns are. [Being a] clown is a state of being really present, spontaneous and truthful.”

Clown as disruption  

Ania Upstill (Photo: Supplied)

“Clowns are curious and optimistic. They give you space to critique through laughter, the things we accept as normal. The joy in the ordinary is clown.” – Ania Upstill

After working in New Zealand for six years as a director and performer, Ania Upstill studied clowning and physical theatre at Dell Arte in California. They’re currently completing their masters in applied theatre at City University in New York.

As a nonbinary performer, Upstill hopes to start conversations through non-naturalistic forms on the ways we all perform gender and binaries. “Clown is outside of gender,” says Upstill, who says they were attracted to clowning because of its disruptive nature. “Clowns operate by their own logic. They’re able to question things in the world that are hard to question.”

As a clowning educator, Upstill doesn’t believe ridicule ever works in teaching. For them, “clown is about connecting to hope and curiosity,” because when the clown fails, they should never hit the ground. “They’re buoyant, and have a bouncy castle as a base.” 

Upstill was part of Clowns without Borders, an organisation that sends clowns and performers to children as psychological support in areas of crisis. During Upstill’s time there, they collaborated with a local theatre company in Palestine to help upskill local clowns. 

“It was amazing to see the interest in clowning,” Upstill recalls. “They see it as a way of bringing joy to children in an incredibly oppressive situation. And laughing is so important to being a child.” 

They also toured shows and saw the joy clowning brought across borders and cultures. Upstill fondly remembers a student, Manal, from a small, traditional village. Manal didn’t speak English so they were constantly working through translators. “But she was a shining ray of life. Working with no resources from the Palestinian or Isreali government, and just so inspired to make children’s lives better.” 

Manal was traditionally dressed and had some restrictions on what she felt comfortable doing, but Upstill says they’d never met someone who was more of a “natural clown”. They hope we can start breaking down the idea that clowning is only “a young white man educated in Paris”. 

In difficult times, Upstill sees the role of clowning as a way to remind people to smile. “Adults often forget to play. So being able to access that space can be particularly therapeutic.” 

“Especially now, the future is unknowable and unpredictable. But being a clown can be a beautiful way to be present and appreciate what you have in your immediate surroundings.”

The trickster and the sun

The White Face Crew (Photo: Supplied)

“There’s no deeper layer. We paint our faces white because we’re mimes. And call ourselves a crew, cuz we like hip hop. That’s it.” – Jarod Rawiri

The White Face Crew is a hip hop pantomime trio made up of Justin Haiu, Tama Jarman and Jarod Rawiri who do a mix of theatre shows and street clowning. High energy and always looking for a laugh, Rawiri asks during our interview if I could transcribe him slurping his soup while Jarman mimes getting stuck in the Zoom screen box. 

Jarman explains that while they look like typical mimes with drawn on eyebrows, painted white faces, red lips and white gloves, they also talk. “We have the traditional rules in our toolbelt, but we choose not to use it.” 

Rawiri says he loves being able to connect with people on the street. “You’re able to take the ordinary and make it extraordinary just for a moment.” Haiu, on the other hand, loves the challenge of “getting a wee smile, of getting people to jump on the play you’ve created”. 

“Clown logic is never the most sensible or efficient way,” says Jarman. “It’s about allowing yourself to look for the creative and most fun path. To just enjoy the process rather than always look for the outcome.

“It’s a kaupapa of joy. Letting your inner child act impulsively and purely, and not paralysed with the adult critiques and assessments.”

“There’s also a bit of showing off too,” adds Rawiri. “You want people to like you and love you. But it’s without any ego, only innocence and purity.”

While the name “white face crew” has raised a few eyebrows, producer Dolina Wehipeihana chips in after Rawiri’s humble explanation that they’re just three guys who mime and like hip hop. “They own the provocativeness,” says Wehipeihana. “It makes people question blackface. It asks why people have issues with brown people painting their face white … These guys care deeply, and are conscientious about being Māori and Pākehā clowns, dance and theatre practitioners.”

The author at a Shakespeare by Chicks rehearsal with Victoria Abbott

Unitec senior lecturer in acting Pedro Ilgenfritz says clowns have always been with us. “To ask ‘when is the beginning of clown’ is a silly question.”

“The trickster is the great grandfather of clowns. They are laughter, chaos, madness. In all pre-Christian society, for example in Polynesia with Māui, there is mythology centred around the shaman and the trickster.”

“We need someone who creates disorder to balance things against the leader. If we are only serious all the time, it will kill us. We need laughter. Clowns are necessary to show how we fail, and make mistakes.”

Eve Gordon, co-founder of circus school the Dust Palace adds that the circus has always been a safe place for the “freaks” of the world. “There’s diversity and eclecticism in the essence of it all.”

For the past few years, I’ve studied with physical theatre company Massive Theatre, learning techniques such as complicite (connection) and le jeu (play). These are based on Gaulier’s practice.

I remember being told that if I was actually at clown school in France, I’d be thrown off stage so I better find that curiosity and joy while skipping through a massive rope. I’ve always responded well to insults, perhaps a leftover trait of constant verbal abuse from tiger parents. 

Some people pay for yoga and download mindfulness apps. But nothing has made more sense to me than breathing in sync with a chorus and folding my body softly like a croissant across the floor of Te Oro community hall. As someone who struggles with perfectionism, depression and anxiety, physical theatre and clowning has become my way of staying present. Sometimes, when it’s just that little bit grey and rainy in Auckland and my law degree is just that little bit dry and dusty, I imagine what it would be like to actually fuck off and go to France to achieve my full clown potential. 

Last summer, I was struggling to find my inner clown. Victoria Abbott placed a sticker on my nose and said: “You are enough”. She then sent me on an exhale to enter the stage. That way, when the momentum pushes you into the space, the first breath taken is clown. 

And a few months before I interviewed for The Spinoff, I did a workshop with Ania Upstill. They handed me my red nose, and with the parting words of “the nose sits really well on your face, Sherry,” I practised what I learnt.   

I put on my nose, strode in, did a gag where I stole The Spinoff editor Toby Manhire’s pen, and fooled them into keeping me on for six months. Punk’d. And the media circus is really the next best thing to clown school.

 



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