I took a clowning class recently. A statement which never fails to elicit a chuckle from friends and co-workers! To be fair, there is something intrinsically funny about the idea of going to school to be a clown. I guess it gives a whole new meaning to the phrase “class clown”!
I found it to be an equal parts terrifying and liberating experience.
Since this was a very introductory class, we didn’t get into all the standard ‘clown’ stuff you imagine when you picture clown school, like pies to the face or tiny cars or funny makeup. Instead, the focus of this course was around a concept which the teacher called “finding your pleasure”. Basically, we had to do a series of exercises involving standing in front of the class, wearing a red clown nose, and finding some sort of simple enjoyment in connecting to our feelings and to our audience in an open, non-judgemental way. A pretty challenging task! And it taught me some stuff about myself which I think I can apply to other areas of my life as well:
- Everyone has an inner clown-child. I call it a clown-child because the state of “pleasure” which my teacher refers to is a childlike state. It is the simple experience of enjoyment or sadness which children have and then which we as adults learn to intellectualize or complicate or simply hide from others and sometimes from ourselves. So the best way to start out as a beginner clown is by going back to what it is like to experience the world as a small child does – with wonder and simple emotions, and without self-doubt or second-guessing.
- Your inner clown-child is just happy or sad, and shares that with the audience without the walls we build up as we get older to protect ourselves from the world.
- A clown doesn’t create conflict with the audience – he or she invites them along. Otherwise you risk losing them.
As an actor, one of the hardest things for me was realizing that a lot of my typical performance tactics, for instance using aggression as a form of defense, don’t work for a clown. As an actor, you create drama for an audience with an attitude that no-one is watching. The scene is between you and (unless it’s a monologue) one or more other actors, and the interest for the audience is in the conflict – negative conflict or sometimes a positive ‘conflict’ that comes from romantic or sexual tension, or else characters who are working together to achieve a goal against an obstacle (conflict). But as a clown, your partner is the audience, and you can’t afford to alienate them by creating the conflict between yourself and them. So it becomes a much more collaborative process, and therefore in some ways it requires greater vulnerability, which is scary.
As a (beginner) clown, you can’t cheat by using negative conflict to keep the audience’s attention – you have to allow them to experience things alongside you. So we had to re-learn how to engage with an audience. We did exercises that involved making silly faces and “milking” whichever one got the best response from the audience. We sat still and simply exchanged gentle moments with various audience members. And the interesting thing was…it felt amazing.
I laughed so much in that class, at such silly things. I found myself relaxing into myself, and simply enjoying my classmates’ company and all the silliness. I felt closer to my intuition. It felt great.
So now I’m trying to bring some of that simple enjoyment my inner clown-child discovered into my everyday life. And to share that with others, without judgement or fear. Because deep down, that little clown just wants to come out and play once in a while.