The Tao of Clowning

Covid Clowns, Christmas and Red Noses

One of the first things I did back in March was sit in on a zoom play reading of the Peter Barnes play, Red Noses. I fell in love with the play years ago which is a comedy about the Black Death. Yup. It’s a comedy about a pandemic. It’s a sprawling play with an epic cast led by a young, hopeful priest who after praying to God for guidance on how to help his fellow man during the darkest of times, decides that laughter is the best medicine.

Father Flote leads a rag tag group of misfits around the French countryside to do Monty Python-esque performances of the Passion Play. It’s bawdy and slightly sacrilegious. (I wouldn’t pair it with a church pot luck.) But it is, I think, one of the most beautiful and human plays around. In the LA Times review from 1988 Dan Sullivan writes, “Barnes is trying to say something important, and hard to say, about laughter: how it can keep us sane in one kind of crisis and play us false in another.” And he sees as Barnes central question “Does God want us to feel awful about being human--and therefore in a mood to punish others for being the same--or are we to look on our fellow stumblebums with the amused tolerance of Father Flote?” Certainly we face this same question today in our own pandemic culture.

In the existential gloom of the last several months the question I’ve had to ponder the most: How do I teach acting to high school kids with masks on? With half of them online and half in person? While they’re frustrated and tired and lonely and bored?

I’m not complaining. I’d rather be pondering these questions than trying to figure out how to do AP Bio labs over zoom. In fact, as I’ve pivot stepped more than a grandma at a square dance, I learned a lot. I did a podcast last week with two of my beloved-est friends, Cathleen and Kaitlyn. Their podcast is Artist Care and Feeding and interviews artists about how they are surviving, thriving, striving amidst the pandemic. They interviewed me about my work as an actor but mostly about my work as a teacher of actors.

The amazing thing about this time is that there are lots of things that I’ve learned that I will fully adopt into my post covid life as a teacher. A lot of things that worked better than they ever have. One of those things were Covid Clowns.

You have to have confidence that you are enough - quirky, pimply, masked, adolescent, you are enough to bring us joy.

In my Advanced Acting class I pitched the idea of doing clowning with my students as a way to get into their bodies and learn the very challenging style of clowning. I’m not talking scary clowns with balloon animals but theatrical clowns. The clown I always reference is Bill Irwin’s Mr. Noodles from Elmo.

The covid clown project turned out to be the best thing I could have done. Here’s why:

  1. Clowns are the essence of Beginner's Mind; to learn to be a clown is to unlearn and that was a great practice for these kids right now.

  2. Clowns can be myopic and not see the obvious answer right in front of them. So too can we overly focus, particularly on the negative, and overlook the beautiful staring us in the face.

  3. Clowns are great at looking outside the box. For as myopic as they are - they also see options where us regular folk see only roadblocks. They think creatively.

  4. Clowns have access to all their feels. They’re not just smiles and rainbows. Part of why we laugh at clowns is watching them struggle, watching them long for something outside their reach, and sometimes even, watching them fail. Clowns teach us that there is joy in the full scope of human experience.

  5. Clowns have amazing resilience. A clown’s stock comedic routine is called a lazzi (lot-zee). One of the basic structures of the lazzi is the build. It wouldn’t be funny if the clown won or gave up right away. The funny part of the struggle is that it keeps growing. There’s always one more mountain to climb at the top of each ridge.

  6. Clowns connect to others. One of the most basic rules of clowning is that you have to connect with your audience. You can’t go more than say 30 seconds without reaching out to the audience with your eyes and letting them in on how you feel. The clown in his own world isn’t really clowning. Whether performing their clown scenes online or in person, my students had to think about how to connect, how to communicate, and how to let others into their emotional lives.

  7. Clowns are funny! Finally, the obvious truth. We all needed some time to laugh and make other people laugh. And the only way to really make someone laugh is to plan a little, trust a lot and let go. The best moments in the performances, my students said, were unplanned. You can’t force funny. That’s why it’s so scary. It’s not like memorizing 300 verb conjugations and acing your French final. You have to have confidence that you are enough - quirky, pimply, masked, adolescent you are enough to bring us joy.

My students all did terrific performances, but I think the one that moved me more than any other was my student Robbie. Robbie has been learning from home all semester and so has had to log in each day sometimes just to watch other people play games in person as he sits on his computer, observing. Robbie recorded his clown scene in his basement bedroom where a strong light cast shadows all over the walls. The shadows became his elusive friends. If he got too close they disappeared or if he moved they jumped to another wall. Watching Robbie try to negotiate these shadow friends in his basement made me sad. So many kids who desperately need socializing have been alone for far too long.

At one point in the climactic moment of the scene, Robbie tries to hug his shadow. His covid clown is desperate for connection and human touch. As he moves closer, the shadow diminishes, frustrating him; until finally, he shrugs his shoulders and just presses his whole body, arms outstretched onto the white wall. He stays there a moment and I swallow hard. The moment is something so good and true and beautiful. When he releases the shadow wall from his awkward embrace, Robbie looks over at the camera, at us, and does an ecstatic dance of happiness. He introduces us, the audience, to his friend the shadow. And scene.

After the in person class of kids watched Robbie’s performance they all said one thing. “I can’t wait to hug people again.”

“Some of us live closer to our clowns than others.”

My teacher in grad school said this and it stuck with me. I, in turn, say it a lot to my students. The idea is that we all have within us our own clown. In some ways this inner clown is actually our inner essence. Our true self. And we spend most of our time trying to wrap other things around this inner essence to hide our clown. We’re ashamed of it. It’s not the attractive part of us. It’s not the part of us that the world values. It’s awkward and vulnerable and maybe even a little ugly. It’s the part of us that is comfortable with not knowing and being different.

That’s why when I teach a clowning unit, I think of it as somewhat sacred territory. I’m asking people to peek into that inner space that some of them have spent years avoiding. Others, however, live fairly close to their clowns. They not only live close, but they embrace their clowns. They value them. They let them shine. They live unashamed and guileless.

Believe it or not, I actually have former students who make their livings as clowns. Not in circuses - or not solely in circuses. They are stand up comics, comedy writers, movement teachers. Looking back at their time as teenagers, they were not the class clowns, but they were the kids who lived closest to their clowns - a rare and beautiful thing.