Britain has a rich, varied, and evolving tradition of clowning, from Shakespeare’s contemporary Will Kempe to Hollywood legend Charlie Chaplin; from the oft-cited ‘father of modern clowning’ Joseph Grimaldi, to current pre-school superstar Justin Fletcher (aka Mr Tumble). The word can encompass a whole raft of varied, talented performers and yet here in the UK, clowns face considerable prejudice.
Britain also has a rich, varied, and evolving language, and much of the problem seems to stem from the fact that the words clown and clowning have parted company under present usage. In general public reception, clown conjures specific images, of heavily made-up, bewigged, inhuman characters; clowning is more readily accepted as the mode of behaviour that brings these visual spectres to life, and can equally be applied to more ‘normal-looking’ personae.
None of this, however, helps the performers – and the performance industry – when faced with the inevitable question of promoting their work. Alex Dunn from Le Navet Bete, who regularly perform their ensemble clowning to sell-out audiences in the UK, says,
We rarely call ourselves a group of clowns publicly, even though that’s what we do. Perceptions and branding can be a big issue.
Working from the classical influence of physical comedy and commedia dell’arte, Le Navet Bete root their story-telling in a commitment to stupidity and, as Dunn explains,
It’s the connection with the audience and engagement that is essential to us.
To performers familiar with the clowning tradition, this may be a given; to the layman on the street, however, the explanation is all too often necessary.
Imagine a world to whom ‘a painter’ was someone in overalls and old jeans who whitewashed the walls of your home. Now try and imagine the difficulties of explaining that you paint Other Things. That you create designs, beautiful, ambiguous, grotesque, abstract or realist. That you use a range of colours; nuanced tools; that you are an artist, communicating something of the human experience through your work.
That is the challenge our clowns are facing today.
Pauline Morel performs as part of recently formed duo spitz & co. Their first show ‘Gloriator‘ has received an excellent response, but describing it can be tricky:
Even if what I do on stage is definitely clowning – and not acting – I tend not to use this word because many people don’t know what contemporary clowning means. And that’s normal! I didn’t know before I leapt into it. What I do is not ‘traditional clowning’… and I need my audiences to know it, otherwise they wouldn’t turn up!
Morel also works for the UK branch of an international charity (as do I), visiting children’s hospitals as part of a specialised team of experts who engage young people and bring joy and lightness to the clinical environment. For a charity, the fashionable antagonism towards the word clown and its current associations can be even more problematic. The work uses key tenets of clowning – improvisation, spontaneity, a sense of ‘being present in the moment’, and a genuine human connection – within the sensitivity of a hospital environment (and often also includes elements of music, storytelling, magic, puppetry, depending on the artists’ own strengths). The experience is vastly appreciated by the 1000s of people visited each year across the country; nevertheless, it is that word clowning that can often put potential donors on the wrong foot. Without donations, a charity cannot exist, and all the good they do could be lost because of a misunderstanding over a word.
The difficulty, of course, is the distance between the public stereotype of clown in the UK, and the work itself (when I’ve spent time abroad, I’ve found attitudes very different). To me, a clown is not an image, but an open soul. Not someone who tries to force humour regardless of the situation, but someone who allows their human frailties and natural ridiculousness to be seen. Not a ‘look’, but a way of being.
This art of clowning is difficult. Far harder, and very much removed from acting. A good clown is totally present in the moment, vulnerable, and in genuine connection to the people and world around them. I think it is this difficulty – and sometimes a lazy reliance on external image over true skill in the commercial environment – that has lumbered the world with bad clowns (and even non-clowns who dress in the familiar garb thinking that is enough), who have lowered the reputation of the art so far. Just as you can clown without make-up, you can certainly wear the make-up without being a true clown in the active sense.
The idea of a red nose may provoke analogous images of old-fashioned circus clowns or deliberately scary celluloid villains but, in hospitals for example, the reality of the nose provides a valuable tool in reaching young people with numerous illnesses and impairments, from a medical as well as an artistic perspective. That something so small could prejudice potential charitable funders to reconsider their donation is mind-boggling.
If I thought the emerging forms of circus had an identity crisis, it’s nothing compared to the battles faced by those who make a living from clowning, but can no longer feel confident to call themselves clowns. It may be a matter of semantics, but the significance is a deep cultural impact for UK arts.
*This post has caused more controversy than I ever expected when I wrote it. These can be sensitive issues, and I was more ignorant of that than I realised. I have removed reference to one practitioner who was mentioned without permission, and apologise for my lack of forethought KK 1/6/2014*
**2nd Revision 6/6/2014 **