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March 31, 2008

clown classes

by sven at 7:00 am

Barnaby King

Rather unexpectedly, I find myself taking a 9 week class on clowning.

The particular form of clown that I'll be exploring is a fusion of European and Native American traditions that was founded by Richard Pochinko in Canada. Sue Morrison is his successor; she taught Barnaby King, who'll be my teacher.

Why am I taking the class?

Well, I've been dipping my toe into theater lately... This past fall I was part of a short-lived theater exploration group called "Play." Some of the participants talked about clown... And then I saw Barnaby perform at ScratchPDX and was impressed with his presence... And then I saw a flyer for the class, and had a powerful impulse to give it a try.

During the past year I helped produce a book (Monster Month), and I've been intensely focussed on animating. On a human level, I'd like to spend some time now with an art form that's a little more immediate -- something not so very distanced from living in the moment.

Also, from what I've read online, I see spiritual elements of clown that I deeply resonate with...

"In native American concept of clown, they say that if you ever faced all directions of yourself at once you could just laugh at the beauty of your own ridiculousness. You're already not perfect. You are ridiculous. It's our struggle to be with some status in the world that is ridiculous." --Sue Morrison
"Once Richard spoke in his sleep of being in a spaceship along with others, some that we knew, some we had yet to meet. As we flew over the earth we saw people. At first he thought we were waving. As we came closer, he gasped, 'No, they're trying to get out, they're all inside glass jars struggling to get out. Our mission is to release them, to break down the glass and let them free.'

This became Richard's work: helping people to release themselves. He freed us to face our essential uniqueness and encouraged us to love and celebrate it. He called it the clown." --Gabriel Manseau

Last week I took my first class. Me, being who I am, I naturally had to write up my insights in the form of an essay. I'm sure my understanding will change during the course of the class...

Note: For anyone who might be interested in taking clown classes for themselves, Barnaby says he will be teaching another 9 week class later this summer (as yet unannounced on the website).


This is a transcription of what I wrote in my journal the morning following my first Clown Class with Barnaby King. It's unedited, with the exception of adding section headings.

"Clown" is about connection -- connecting with the audience. It is a form of improv, where you get up on stage and then react to the moment. However, there can also be composition, where certain points are known in advance. It is not a performance where you are making lots of gestures -- the vast majority of emotion is expressed through the face.

The conceit of the form is that you are turning your internal emotional life inside-out and making it external. It is as if you put every nerve ending on the exterior of your body, so you let yourself react emotionally to every moment and let it all be seen, playing out on your face.

It is not about connecting with the audience only through happy/light emotion -- it is OK and good to allow grim/dark emotions to express, too.

If you bump into a doorway as you're leaving, that's an event -- you don't ignore it and pretend it didn't happen -- you respond to it too.

How I understand why we do this...

The clown performance is a sort of ritual. The time period during which you're "in clown" is separate from profane time/space; for your brief time on stage you step into a sacred/divine space. [I'm drawing on the title of a book I read in Religion 101 at Reed titled "The Sacred and the Profane.]

The separation between sacred and profane is marked by putting on the clown's red nose -- it is a sacred ritual object. Whenever you put on the nose, there is a tradition that you must also put on a hat. You will be channeling all sorts of gods... Like how in Voodoo a person becomes a "horse" that a deity might "ride." The hat, I think, helps keep you from losing your own personal, profane self to the gods and demons that you let speak through you. If the nose is simply the marker between sacred and profane space, then the hat lets you be someone other than yourself during the ritual -- as if it will baffle the spirits, so they won't recognize you when you take it and the nose off and return to normal space.

But why become a priest? Why initiate this ritual for the village/audience? Because we live life behind armor and faces that are business masks.

We all have a naked emotional self inside of the shell of our body, but the conventions of society don't allow us to let them out to be seen. Each of us is slowly suffocating inside these shells. Many people use the ritual of getting drunk as their ceremonial means of stepping out of the armor... But this strategy has a lot of problems with it.

The clown, by intentionally becoming emotionally naked in front of the audience, gives them a hero which they can briefly empathize with and live through.

When the audience/village give the clown/priest permission to step into divine space, he is also given license to temporarily break the normal rules of society. This means reaching out with the eyes and establishing a real connection with the individuals of the audience. The clown simply reacts to what he is seeing with authenticity -- which can be a profound experience for the person he is witnessing.

In normal space, there is not only an imaginary bubble around each of us which represents our inviolable personal physical space -- there is also an imaginary privacy bubble around our emotions.

A clown amplifies their emotional presence and connection to the world -- and it is amazing to witness how almost every thought plays out across the face and is truly legible to the audience. To a large extent, this is also true with people living in normal space... Their thoughts and emotions are playing out across their faces at every moment. We think that our faces are neutral until we intend to show something -- but this is less the case than we believe. Even when a person is trying very hard to maintain a poker face, "tells" frequently flit across the face.

In order to keep society running, there is an unspoken contract that we will not react to each other's faces -- the text of what we say out loud is the currency of our social transactions. It almost never happens -- but when someone explicitly reacts to the tone of what we say rather than the text, or starts talking about the emotions on our face, it tends to be experienced as a violation of personal space. The imaginary privacy bubble has been ripped away, and we feel naked and exposed, extremely vulnerable because we can't control the fact that our thoughts are playing out over our faces.

So the emotional privacy bubble exists to give us some safety to think and feel what we do without threat of being called to account. But the bubble also exists because the daily business of living has to get done. When I go to the grocery store, my interaction with the cashier must be formulaic. If I suddenly broke into divine space and connected with them as if I could see their naked soul and they could see mine, and a conversation was occurring... Well, the line of other patrons behind me would get quite irate at the wait.

However, while privacy bubbles are necessary for emotional safety and getting the business of life done, they also have a negative side effect: they increasingly make us feel invisible and isolated. It's as if no one can actually see us -- at least not the "real" us. It becomes lonely inside our armor... And then the crazy notion that we don't really exist can even creep in, as we internalize the apparent message of people ignoring our "real" selves.

Because society has no healthy outlets for darker, more problematic facets of ourselves (rage, jealousy, grief, trauma), the internal censor which helps keep these emotions reasonably hidden inside the bubble can begin to reinforce the boundary with a sense of shame. This is profoundly unhealthy -- and while professional therapy can help allow people to air out their armor, it is also true that professional therapists are required to establish boundaries (e.g. the 50 minute hour, emotional detachment and distance) which can make it difficult or impossible for a client's divine self/selves to come out and be witnessed.

It is also worth noting that some people use the privacy bubbles for personal gain... Knowing that most people accept the convention of only interacting with each other through text, these individuals use tone in malicious ways, and act in the silent spaces for personal advantage. Given how challenging it is to break normalcy and name something that's happening as problematic, it's extremely easy to get away with shit if you're willing to disregard the conventions of polite social transactions.

Back to clown. As I've said, the clown is like a priest in a special ritual. He is given license to break the normal rules. He strips off his personal emotional privacy bubble and shows the audience his naked soul reacting to them. This is a profound sort of truth telling... And yet, the clown is not given license to simply say (verbally or non-verbally) whatever comes to mind.

There is an ethics of kindness which must be in one's heart if one presumes to claim the role of clown. Clown is not buffoon, where you make fun of your audience. The clown's ethic embraces all facets of his own personality (and the souls of his witnesses) light and dark, and laughs -- kindly -- at the absurdity of existence.

The clown allows the audience to briefly live through his own emotional freedom -- but also pierces through the fourth wall and the individual witnesses' privacy bubbles, and lets himself really see them too. Being truly seen by kind eyes is a gift to the audience members which, for brief instants during a performance, pulls them out of their stifling armor.

One of the most fascinating aspects of the clown to me is that he is a mayfly...

The clown is essentially born in the instant he steps onto stage -- which is part of how the performer is able to step into their "beginner's mind" (to borrow a term from Zen). But the clown also only lives until they step off stage; stepping into darkness is like letting go and falling into the arms of death. The clown's turn on stage, thus, is a microcosm for living life.

This raises further interesting questions about the quality of interactions with audience members during that brief life in the spotlight. There is the possibility of feeling quasi-romantic/erotic attraction to particular audience members while you're on stage. What do you do with that experience?

In giving oneself permission to expose radical authenticity, it seems that this possibility must be allowed... But there's also a responsibility after reaching out to individuals in the audience to come back into oneself and share what one has felt with the audience as a whole.

Another strategy, besides returning to self-awareness, might be to not exhaust the interaction with whomever you're connecting with, but rather to feel that energy and then move with it to another individual, seeing what happens when the thought is carried along into a new interaction.

It must be kept in mind that the clown's brief divine life on stage is not the same as a profane life. There is an element of composition that occurs, so that when you step out of the stage lights and into the clown's death, there are no promises of more to come. There's no promise to any of the witnesses that "I'll come back and give you more attention later" or "I'll be back for an encore if you clap enough." The clown, due to the psychological requirements for coming on stage entirely in the present of their emotional nakedness, must find contentment with what occurs during their brief stay, and "die" knowing that's all there is to it.

I've written about the clown as priest... But this is only half of the picture -- because there is also the profane person who makes the decision in normal space to let themselves be possessed by clown.

Why do it?

Because there's a selfish motive of wanting to get to take the armor off and feel emotionally alive in a very intense way.

The clown-priest, I think, in essence is a healer... So there's probably a messianic impulse too...

But the theatrical actor who does clown performances probably ought not to give too much credence to the thought that what they are doing is "holy" or "healing" work. The performance is a brilliant moment -- but when it is over, any lasting effect on the audience is almost purely accidental.

The performance is what it is, during the moment it exists, and then it is over. The ritual of clown, therefore, must be undertaken primarily for the sake of enjoying doing it.

posted by sven | March 31, 2008 7:00 AM | categories: classes & workshops