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"Everything seemed new": Clown as Embodied Critical Pedagogy

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Abstract

What do we teach when we teach clown? Over the past several years, I have investigated this question by collaborating with a number of different student communities to develop a basic pedagogy of clown: a set of exercises, along with guiding philosophical principles, offering the novice performer an introduction to theatrical clown-performance technique. My pedagogy is, of course, only one approach to teaching clowning; the fundamental principles are particular to a European model of clown, based on the teachings of French clown masters Jacques Lecoq and Phillipe Gaulier. However, in contrast to Lecoq (for whom clown practice is limited to “talented” or formally trained performers), I am of the opinion that anyone, regardless of age or experience, is quite capable of participating in the practice of clown. With regards to professional clown work, Lecoq writes: Most important, this work comes at the end of their two years in the school, when the students are used to investing themselves fully in their playing, used to knowing and showing themselves in front of others. . . . I like this work to be done at the end of the course because you can only be a clown when you have built up an experience of life. In the circus tradition, the clowns are usually drawn from among the older artists. The young ones are working on such exploits as tightrope walking, trapeze or balancing acts which the older ones can no longer manage, so they become clowns, expressing their maturity, their wisdom! Rather than subscribe to the notion that clowning requires a certain degree of mastery or virtuosity acquired at the end of a long period of theatrical training, I instead maintain that by locating clowning in the authentic body, or framing the clown as self, we actually render it vastly accessible. Theatre theorist and practitioner Julie Salverson shares my perspective. She writes that the work of Lecoq and Gaulier is “highly skilled, (and) takes years to teach. . . . Clown is the final stage of two years of study in both the Lecoq and Gaulier schools, and not many master it. I am convinced, however . . . that this approach to clown has tremendous potential with untrained people of all ages” (2009, 40). I also believe that a pedagogy of clown has much to offer the progressive, critical educator concerned with accessible approaches to education—not merely for students of performance, but for any student in the twenty-first century’s global context. By reframing clown as a radically accessible mode of engagement, I have found a number of ways in which clowning effectively supports the principles of critical pedagogy outlined in Paulo Freire’s revolutionary text Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1970). To me, the clown can act as an essentially Freirean student/teacher: critically aware of one’s social conditioning, constructing meaning from inquiry, and bearing witness to the world with humility, empathy, and hope. My hope is that the teaching practices outlined in this essay challenge the notion of individual virtuosity in performance— a notion that, I believe, can actually disempower participants in educational theatre settings. This essay describes the methodology I have developed to teach theatrical clown: educative tools that I have found most effective, learning objectives for each exercise, and the rationale for my approach. I believe that clown is not something you learn, but is rather a process of unlearning something—namely, a “mechanistic view of reality” (124). It is about remembering what it was like, as a child, when everything seemed new, a time when we did not know, but found ourselves in a constant process of discovery. As children, this is a natural condition of existence; as we grow older, it becomes a radical act. The word “clown” suggests a variety of cultural images, from the circus clown to the birthday clown, Cirque du Soleil to Barnum and Bailey, rodeo clowns to Charlie Chaplin to Emmett Kelly. Contemporary ideas of clown are often expressed using nouns, usually referring to a type of character. “Clown” as noun bears particularly significant meaning in terms of the theatre, where it may indicate a specific performance idiom. Clown can also be used as an adjective, often to describe an aesthetic...
“Everything seemed new”: Clown as Embodied Critical
Pedagogy
Laurel Butler
Theatre Topics, Volume 22, Number 1, March 2012, pp. 63-72 (Article)
Published by Johns Hopkins University Press
DOI:
For additional information about this article
[ Access provided at 3 Aug 2020 19:15 GMT from Loyola Marymount University ]
https://doi.org/10.1353/tt.2012.0014
https://muse.jhu.edu/article/468152
63
“Everything seemed new”:
Clown as Embodied Critical Pedagogy
Laurel Butler
What do we teach when we teach clown? Over the past several years, I have investigated this
question by collaborating with a number of different student communities to develop a basic peda-
gogy of clown: a set of exercises, along with guiding philosophical principles, offering the novice
performer an introduction to theatrical clown-performance technique. My pedagogy is, of course,
only one approach to teaching clowning; the fundamental principles are particular to a European
model of clown, based on the teachings of French clown masters Jacques Lecoq and Phillipe Gaulier.
However, in contrast to Lecoq (for whom clown practice is limited to “talented” or formally trained
performers), I am of the opinion that anyone, regardless of age or experience, is quite capable of
participating in the practice of clown.
With regards to professional clown work, Lecoq writes:
Most important, this work comes at the end of their two years in the school, when the students
are used to investing themselves fully in their playing, used to knowing and showing themselves
in front of others. . . . I like this work to be done at the end of the course because you can only
be a clown when you have built up an experience of life. In the circus tradition, the clowns
are usually drawn from among the older artists. The young ones are working on such exploits
as tightrope walking, trapeze or balancing acts which the older ones can no longer manage, so
they become clowns, expressing their maturity, their wisdom! (150)
Rather than subscribe to the notion that clowning requires a certain degree of mastery or virtuos-
ity acquired at the end of a long period of theatrical training, I instead maintain that by locating
clowning in the authentic body, or framing the clown as self, we actually render it vastly accessible.
Theatre theorist and practitioner Julie Salverson shares my perspective. She writes that the work
of Lecoq and Gaulier is “highly skilled, (and) takes years to teach. . . . Clown is the final stage of
two years of study in both the Lecoq and Gaulier schools, and not many master it. I am convinced,
however . . . that this approach to clown has tremendous potential with untrained people of all ages”
(2009, 40). I also believe that a pedagogy of clown has much to offer the progressive, critical educator
concerned with accessible approaches to education—not merely for students of performance, but
for any student in the twenty-first century’s global context.
By reframing clown as a radically accessible mode of engagement, I have found a number of
ways in which clowning effectively supports the principles of critical pedagogy outlined in Paulo
Freire’s revolutionary text Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1970). To me, the clown can act as an essentially
Freirean student/teacher: critically aware of one’s social conditioning, constructing meaning from
inquiry, and bearing witness to the world with humility, empathy, and hope. My hope is that the
teaching practices outlined in this essay challenge the notion of individual virtuosity in performance—
a notion that, I believe, can actually disempower participants in educational theatre settings.
This essay describes the methodology I have developed to teach theatrical clown: educative
tools that I have found most effective, learning objectives for each exercise, and the rationale for
64 Laurel Butler
my approach. I believe that clown is not something you learn, but is rather a process of unlearning
something—namely, a “mechanistic view of reality” (124). It is about remembering what it was
like, as a child, when everything seemed new, a time when we did not know, but found ourselves
in a constant process of discovery. As children, this is a natural condition of existence; as we grow
older, it becomes a radical act.
Clown as State
The word “clown” suggests a variety of cultural images, from the circus clown to the birthday
clown, Cirque du Soleil to Barnum and Bailey, rodeo clowns to Charlie Chaplin to Emmett Kelly.
Contemporary ideas of clown are often expressed using nouns, usually referring to a type of char-
acter. “Clown” as noun bears particularly significant meaning in terms of the theatre, where it may
indicate a specific performance idiom. Clown can also be used as an adjective, often to describe
an aesthetic or stylistic approach to a play or performance (for example, “such-and-such is a clown
piece”). Additionally, clown functions as a verb, with all corresponding temporal-linguistic qualities:
“We clowned all over New York City. The continuous present tense—clowningcan describe the
technical form as a performance practice and as an art.
Italian clown pedagogue Giovanni Fusetti proposes one way to address the problem of clown
semantics: by conceiving of clown as a state of being. “The clown is not a character,” says Fusetti.
“It’s a state of playing where everyone has access to the key question: what is so funny about myself?”
Lecoq describes entering into “the clown dimension,” which requires “a state of openness, entirely
without defense . . . a state of reaction and surprise” (146). John Wright, British director and a student
of Lecoq, discusses “the state of bafflement that we see in clown . . . as a common state of humanity.
. . . Clown reminds us that, deep down, we’re all in exactly the same bemused state” (218). John
Flax (2009), artistic director of Theatre Grottesco in Santa Fe, New Mexico, says that, for Lecoq,
theatrical clown was just about finding that basic state of vulnerability and allowing the audience
to exist in that state with you. . . . A clown state is a state of innocence and poetry and naivety
that allows the audience to draw their own conclusions. That’s the state that you bring them
to, and they’ll make the connections or not, but they love to be in that state because we don’t
go there very often. It’s a state of anti-intellectualism, a kind of pure emotion.
In order to establish coherent pedagogical underpinnings, I have found it most useful to conceive
of clown in these ontological terms: as a state of being, or way of existing in the world, rather than
simply a character, aesthetic style, or technique. This concept has provided a helpful framework for
my educative practice, since an embodied pedagogy of clown is less concerned with the dynamics
of performance and more with the experiential and communal process of entering into the clown
state. The work of the educator is to facilitate the applied procedure of arriving at this state, and to
establish that procedure as a meaningful ritual end unto itself.
An Embodied Pedagogy of Clown
The teaching methodology described below is an amalgamation of theatre games, many of
which have been adapted, derived, or taken directly from Augusto Boal’s “Arsenal of Theatre of the
Oppressed” (from his Games for Actors and Non-Actors [1992], 48); others can be traced back to
Viola Spolin’s seminal work Improvisation for the Theater (1963), as well as Keith Johnstone’s Impro
(1981). By marrying these specific theatre games with the fundamental principles of theatrical clown-
ing, I found that my students and collaborators not only experienced a deeper level of engagement
and play, but also an enhanced capacity for critical dialogue (articulating the meta-learnings behind
each exercise) and creative intervention (applying those learnings to improvisational scenarios). In
65Clown as Embodied Critical Pedagogy
the section that follows, I offer a thorough description of these games as they have been applied to
my real-life experiences as a clown teacher—from kindergartens to college classrooms, and juvenile
detention facilities to professional theatre rehearsals to circus camps—and the recurring scenarios
that emerge therein.
Walk Around the Room
One of the most important components of the process of transforming from person to clown
is identifying the social and cultural codes governing embodied behaviors and addressing them as
such. Says British clown pedagogue Wright: “We’re all clowns really, but we’ve spent most of our
lives trying to hide this embarrassing reality under layers of intelligence, sensibility and social nicety”
(184). For the clown, these socially conditioned layers are abject, fraught with unnatural, constructed
Otherness. Identifying and externalizing these social markers and symbolic signifiers can be done
either through emphasis—illuminating through exaggeration and thus rendering absurd or incon-
gruous—or de-emphasis—paring away the social codes to reveal a more “authentic” or “essential”
body. “It is never a question of the clown building something external,” says Lecoq, but “always a
gradual development of their own, personal walk” (145–48).
The gait is easily the most visible articulation of the mechanizations of the body. In the dynam-
ics of walking—pace, rhythm, size, shape, directionality, and so on—one can identify a number of
embodied patterns, habits, or socially constructed attitudes that, though unconscious to the per-
former, both affect and reflect the ways in which one inhabits and engages with the world. Thus one
of the first things we do in a clown class is to walk around the room “as normally as possible.” This
directive eliminates the student’s tendency to “perform” right away—being silly, dancing, interacting
with other bodies, or otherwise altering the natural or subjectively neutral state of walking. Once it
feels as though the students have arrived at a more-or-less “normal” gait, I call out “Freeze!” Then,
at random, I will direct them to “change” their body parts one at a time: for example, “Change the
position of your knee!” “Change the direction your head is facing!” “Change three of your fingers!”
The students have suddenly been “tricked” into a de-mechanization (Boal) of the body. Their
corporeal architecture is now distorted, unnatural, even grotesque, and their kinesthetic awareness
has been altered as a result. From here, I have the students walk a few steps in these absurd bodies so
that they can feel what it might be like to inhabit the world in this alternate shape, this other body
that is now their own. Then, I ask them to shake it out and continue walking normally.
This exercise can be thought of as externally provoking the de-mechanization process: attending
to outside directives to modify the body’s architecture and behavior. The next phase is to provoke it
from within. As we walk around, I call out different body parts that are to lead the students around
the space as they continue walking: for example, to lead with the eyes, the nose, the sternum, the
belly, the knees, and so on. These walks will, of course, be less grotesque than the previous ones,
but still radically different from the students’ normal walks. As we experiment with leading with
different body parts, I will also remind students to pay attention to their inner sensations, and how
these temporary changes in the physical self affect the emotional or intentional self.
In this way, we begin to recognize the ways in which emotions emerge, manifest, and articulate
themselves through the architecture of the body. We also recognize that the inverse is true: that by
making specific embodied choices we can effectively transform our inner sensations, emotions, ways
of seeing the world, and, consequently, our capacity to make previously unconsidered choices. By
presenting them with both external and internal approaches to physical transformation, I encour-
age my students to assert their own agency in this dialectical relationship between the physical and
emotional selves and empower them to make conscious, embodied decisions. I also encourage them
to become critically aware of socially prescriptive notions of corporeal behavior; by radically depart-
66 Laurel Butler
ing from normal walk, we are able to re-approach it analytically and see our normal(ized) pattern(s)
as one of many possibilities.
Through the physically de-mechanizing practice of clowning students can learn to recognize
and become critically aware of social prescriptions of both corporeal and intellectual behavior.
This process precisely addresses Freire’s mechanistic problem: “Many persons,” he says, “bound to
a mechanistic view of reality, do not perceive that the concrete situation of men conditions their
consciousness of the world, and that in turn this consciousness conditions their attitudes and their
ways of dealing with reality. They think that reality can be transformed mechanistically, without
posing men’s false consciousness of reality as a problem” (1970, 124). By departing from our condi-
tioned physical selves for a moment and addressing them from the clown perspective, we can begin
to recognize the conditioning and the mechanisms of conditioning that have shaped our behavior,
and then explore alternative ways of “dealing with reality.” We can see our normalized patterns as
one of many possible configurations, rather than a given, inexorable state. “We know ourselves to
be conditioned,” says Freire, “but not determined (1998, 26; emphasis in original).
The Nose
In No Kidding (2003), Donald McManus suggests that the clown may actually be “more aware
of the fact that he or she is part of the theatrical illusion than the other characters. . . . Clown achieves
this special status, or alternate performance mode, by employing a different logic of performance
practice from the other characters” (12). By occupying a space that transcends the mimetic world
of the drama, the clown exposes the mechanism of theatre-making. He says that
[c]lown’s contradictory approach to conventions, both mimetic and social, constitutes an alter-
nate “way of doing” or a distinct “clown logic.” The clown will always try to think through a
given situation and either fail because of a hopeless inability to understand the rules, or succeed
because of a limitless ability to invent new rules. The contradictory impulse is part of a clown’s
performance logic and naturally implies a criticism of the nature of authority. (15)
Through the use of “clown logic” to negotiate or subvert arbitrary rules, the clown reveals the very
arbitrary nature of rules in general, and implicitly destabilizes the prevailing values and social norms
that established those rules in the first place. For McManus, “the relationship of the clown to the
mimetic world has its correlative to the power structure of the non-theatrical world” (ibid.). Thus
when we practice clown outside of the theatrical context—in clown class, for example, or public
improvisations—we see that the destabilizing function of the clown applies not only to the illusory
boundaries of the proscenium stage, but to the norms that govern the actual social situation.
Boal also recognizes the way in which clown as a performance mode occupies a liminal space
that “cannot respect rules or timetables, proprieties or etiquettes” (295). Of the clown, he says that
[b]y means of his own ridicule, he exposes the ridiculousness of others—our own!—which,
without the clown, would pass unnoticed. We are so resigned to our own ridiculousness, that
we no longer see it. We are all clowns, and the whole world is a circus—but in this arena there
is no audience, everyone acts, no-one sees us. Step forward the true clown, our critical con-
sciousness, and this is important: this clown comes dressed as one! We accept it because it has
a red nose. (294–95)
Here, Boal points to the red nose as the actual signifier of critical consciousness: the device that
exposes the “ridiculousness” of social conditioning. The red nose gives the wearer permission to depart
from conventional modes of prescribed behavior, and to reflect on the ways we are located within
those structures of convention and prescription. This permission to operate outside of custom, to
67Clown as Embodied Critical Pedagogy
transgress normal rules of behavior, and to reject key principles of the given world locates the clown
in a significantly political position.
Freire writes of the dynamics of emergence, the process by which a student arrives at a state of
critical awareness and creative intervention:
Reflection upon situationality is reflection about the very condition of existence: critical thinking
by means of which men discover each other to be “in a situation.” . . . Men emerge from their
submersion and acquire the ability to intervene in their reality as it is unveiled. Intervention in
reality—historical awareness itself—thus represents a step forward from emergence, and results
from the conscientizacao of the situation. Conscientizacao is the deepening of the attitude of
awareness characteristic of all emergence. (1970, 100–101; emphasis in original)
Much in the way that arriving at the clown state is not a process of acquiring external characteris-
tics, but rather one of paring away to reveal the authentic self, the process of emergence is a similar
uncovering, or discovering, of an individual’s immediate situation. Thus regardless of the group with
whom I am working, the ritual process of putting on the emblematic red nose must be infused with
this potential for transformation. It is my role in this ritual process to imbue the nose with symbolic
meaning, ascribing to it the potential for cultivating a heightened awareness of the here and now,
a revealing of the authentic self, and a sense of connection to, and reflection on, the condition of
human existence.
Prior to handing out the noses to the class, I begin by describing the nose as the smallest mask
in the world. Masks, according to improv guru Johnstone, carry within them the uncanny ability to
transform the wearer of the mask—even to put him or her into a sort of trance or spell. In any case,
masks clearly help the wearer to free him- or herself from the inhibitions of the socially constructed
self. I impress this upon my students, saying that “once you put on the nose, you are no longer you:
you are the clown part of yourself—the silly, ridiculous, curious part of yourself that doesn’t care
what you look like. Your body will feel different than it usually feels. Your eyes will be much wider,
as though you are seeing everything for the very first time.”
Once I have handed out the noses, I ask the students to simply look at the nose, connect to
it, respect it, not only as a prop or costume piece, but as a possibly magical object, one that allows
you to enter into another realm of experience. I may invite my students to imagine what it would
be like to arrive in this world for the first time, to look around the room as though everything is
new, exciting, full of potential, and ready to be explored, rather than being familiar and mundane.
I may remind my students that rather than “putting ona character by adding and accumulating
external characteristics, we are actually “taking off” all of the layers of defense we wear every day, in
order to arrive at the essential, truthful version of ourselves. We do not try to be funny—we try to
be honest. With these simple verbal suggestions my objective is to infuse my students with a level
of respect for—indeed, to make them believe in—the transformative power of the nose.
At this point, I, as the facilitator, have to make a choice: Do I also don my own nose, or do
I facilitate verbally from outside of the clown state? Almost always, I choose to accompany the par-
ticipants in their exploration and put on a nose at the same time. This choice does pose problems:
namely, how can I facilitate when I am also rendered nonverbal? How will my students feel free to
genuinely discover their own experience of clowning, to attend to their own organic impulses and
allow the clown to emerge in a unique and natural way, when I am clearly modeling a particular
interpretation, one that is very specific to me?
On the other hand, my experience as a performer has taught me that the red nose serves not
only a transformative function for those who wear it, but also what John Flax and I have termed
a “reflective” or empathetic function for those who encounter it face to face. In my experience of
68 Laurel Butler
clowning in public spaces, I have engaged with countless people who seemed to respond to my red
nose as a sort of permission to behave in a way that conventional social and cultural codes might
not normally sanction: for example, New York taxi drivers see the clown and bow theatrically, sing-
ing old love songs; a biker gang in California unconsciously enters into a “mirror gamewith me;
an elderly woman in Santa Fe steals her husband’s hat and places it on my head; a homeless man in
Albuquerque shows me how he can juggle his shoes. This reflective function occurs with my students;
once they see how the nose has radically shifted my status and persona, my embodied patterns and
behaviors, my awareness and my engagement with the space, they are implicitly enabled to explore
the same shifts within themselves during their first unstructured exploration into the realm of clown.
It is imperative to allow this improvisational experience with the nose. Feminist theatre educa-
tor Ann Elizabeth Armstrong points to the “creative agency” of the actor when he or she is given the
freedom to choose from all the stimuli in the improvisational situation. “Such forms of improvisation,”
she says, “draw upon the body and the environment as resources and eschew narrative structures that
can create conditioned cause-and-effect responses” (qtd. in Juhl 153). On some days I will hold the
space for up to an hour for students to explore in their wide-eyed state; at other times this exploration
will last only a few moments before I ask them to “find a private space where no one can see you,
take off your nose, take a moment to transition, and meet me in a circle.” Before proceeding to the
next structured exercise, it is critically important to include a reflexive dialogic component and ask,
“What was it like to have the nose on?” There is no wrong answer to this question.
Emotional Transfer
In this game, the spatial arrangement transitions from the ensemble-oriented circle into
the performance-oriented proscenium. It may seem rather abrupt to transition into presentation
so quickly, but most students are quite ready to do so at this point, perhaps, in part, because “the
clown nose is seen as both liberating and protective as it grants the wearer a disguise at the same
time as unleashing the more raw, vulnerable and hidden aspects of the self” (Baer 3). I begin with
an arbitrary object—a juggling ball, a dollar bill, a shoe—and place it center stage. The exercise
traces the following arc:
The clown begins offstage, where he or she puts on the nose.
The clown steps onstage with a specific emotion in his/her face and body. The first thing
he or she must do is to look directly at the audience, to communicate to them the chosen
emotion.
With this emotion the clown walks across the stage.
When he or she arrives at center stage, the clown notices the object. Again, the clown
must look directly at the audience to indicate acknowledgment of the presence of an object
onstage, and then look back at the object.
For a reason known only to the clown, this object causes the clown to transform into
another emotional state. The clown must look directly at the audience a third time to show
what new emotion is felt in response to the object.
With this new emotion manifested in face and body, the clown exits via the opposite side
of the stage.
This exercise draws upon our initial exploration of walks, expanding it to incorporate the architec-
ture of emotion in the body and face. Most students focus their energies on this acting component,
working to portray the emotions as clearly and emphatically as possible. Because their attention is
occupied by the game-playing, the more symbolic and fundamental meanings of the exercise become
absorbed into the students’ clown repertoire in an almost unconscious way.
69Clown as Embodied Critical Pedagogy
The fundamental principle presented in this exercise is the agency of the clown in ascribing
meaning to an object. The object in the exercise is inherently bereft of meaning, and it is up to the
clown to decide its subjective value and significance in relation to the self. As Wright says: “Clown
comes from a pre-literary tradition where meaning is of secondary importance and where what hap-
pens in the ‘here and now’ takes precedence over everything else” (193). This is one of the tenets of
inquiry-based pedagogy, and it is the point of departure for clowns’ playful mode of constructing
their own reality and naming their own world. For Freire, “[t]he construction or the production of
knowledge of the object to be known implies the exercise of curiosity in its critical capacity to dis-
tance itself from the object, to observe it, to delimit it, to divide it up, to close in on it, to approach
it methodically” (1998, 80).
Awkward Moment
The “awkward moment” is my version of the notoriously excruciating, uncomfortable, and
even cruel “le flop” exercises used by both Lecoq and Gaulier to induce a state of bafflement, confu-
sion, astonishment, and not-knowing in the clown performer:
There are many ways to provoke bafflement. Lecoq made us run on stage and take a flamboyant
bow, expecting a rapturous applause, only to realize that the audience were completely quiet,
and indifferent to us. We were perplexed; it was a disaster, and we didn’t know why! Lecoq
called this moment ‘Le Flop’. Gaulier made us, one by one, sweep the stage, and turn round
to see that the audience were in their seats and watching us. Again it was a disaster. He called
it ‘the big flop.’ (Wright 195)
In these exercises, the clown must face the audience with nothing and exist onstage for as long as
it takes to reach an extreme state of vulnerability and honesty. The power dynamics of this exercise
admittedly pose a problem for the democratic, shared-learning approach, and conducting it requires
compassion, complicity, and care on the part of the facilitator.
As in the emotional-transfer game, the clown begins offstage, where he or she puts on the
nose. The facilitator then selects a piece of music; the clown enters the stage walking or dancing to
the music, totally unaware that he or she has walked onto a stage. The music abruptly stops. The clown
looks around and realizes that he or she is onstage and being watched. The clown also cannot leave
the stage. What does he or she do? How does the clown act or live onstage, under the gaze of the
audience? Does he or she try to entertain? To distract? To leave? To simply be?
For many, this is a breakthrough exercise, the moment when the discomfort and confusion
of existence suddenly conflate in a transparent state of total honesty and presence. Many clowns
will try to be funny, to create a character, to become phony versions of a clown—a caricature.
Surprisingly, these choices receive far fewer laughs than the people who anxiously try to search for
an exit, or frantically search the stage for some source of help, or shrug apologetically, or even just
nervously smile at the audience for lack of anything better to do. In such moments, the clown and
the audience are bearing witness to each other, to the humility required by both to exist together in
the here and now. The exercise also begins to cultivate the highly counter-intuitive capacity to exist
in a state of “not-knowing.”
The discourse of Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed presupposes the not-knowing of both the
educator and the student as crucial conditions for democratic learning. In speaking of conscientizacao,
Freire says: “It is a requirement of our human condition . . . natural to ‘unfinished’ humanity that
is aware of its unfinishedness” (1970, 55). The awkward moment exercise establishes not-knowing
or naiveté as the foundation and starting point for the construction of the clown’s epistemological
imperative of awareness, curiosity, discovery, and play. Onstage, with no props, directives, co-stars, or
70 Laurel Butler
plot, we are bereft, naïve, and ignorant, and we support one another in that ignorance, applaud it and
validate it as the most honest way to approach the educational, performative, or existential situation.
A Communitas of Clown
In September 2009 I led a group of students—young people between ages 7–12—in an
improvisational public clowning performance, playing and roving throughout a large world-music
festival for an entire afternoon. The day before the performance we practiced exploring the festival
space with our noses on, to see what opportunities for improvisational play we might discover. After
about a half-hour of climbing over bicycle racks, hiding under doorways, playing catch with invisible
baseballs, walking on the “high wire” of cracks in the cement, and even playing some spontane-
ous rounds of emotional transfer, we ducked behind the building and took off our noses. I asked
my young comrades what the experience had been like for them and received several of the usual
responses: “It was fun”; “It was weird”; “My nose kept falling off.” One extraordinary 9-year-old
clown had this to say: “Without my nose on, everything in the space would have been normal and
boring. But when I put my nose on, everything seemed new and interesting. Like I could play with
any of it if I wanted to.”
My young collaborator recognized and owned the extraordinary possibility invested in the
world merely by approaching it through the lens of the clown. He felt the power of re-approaching
reality with a sense of not-knowing, of naiveté, of newness. The clown is a neophyte, a beginner or
novice in this world of cultural symbols and meanings; he or she occupies a liminal space, neither
here nor there, neither of this world nor of another. For anthropologist Victor Turner, liminal enti-
ties are “betwixt and between the positions assigned and arrayed by law, custom, convention and
ceremonial” (95). He says that
[t]heir behavior is normally passive or humble. . . . Among themselves, neophytes tend to develop
an intense comradeship and egalitarianism. Secular distinctions of rank and status disappear, or
are homogenized. . . . What is interesting about liminal phenomena for our present purposes is
the blend they offer of lowliness and sacredness, of homogeneity and comradeship. . . . Some-
thing of the sacredness of that transient humility and modelessness [sic] goes over, and tempers
the pride of the incumbent of a higher position or office. (95–97)
For Turner, occupation of a liminal space presents an alternate model for human society—a sort of
unstructured and egalitarian community or communitas, in which “a mystical character is assigned
to the sentiment of humankindness” (105). Additionally, the wisdom that is imparted or attained
during periods of liminality is not merely a set of conventional understanding and facts, but rather
that “it has ontological value, it refashions the very being of the neophyte” (103). The experience,
then, is truly transformative.
A key question regarding clown pedagogy is its longer-term or wider significance, its sustain-
ability—the transferability of this liminal experience to other spheres of social life. Clown class must
inevitably come to an end, at least for the day. We remove noses, hopefully with some time left to
reflect on the experience, then gather up backpacks and say farewell to the classroom and the expe-
rience we just shared. We walk out of the doors and reenter the world of the twenty-first century,
a world where the institution of high-stakes testing continues to dominate US public-education
policy; a world where online culture offers unprecedented modes of mediating social identity, and
the Internet remains a paradoxical site of democratic accessibility and global standardization; a
world where advertising strategies threaten to subvert the critical-thinking capacity of the average
consumer. The students, however, have not left their noses in the classroom; rather, the clown state
is now within them, ready to be called forth in moments that require heightened awareness and a
critically thoughtful position.
71Clown as Embodied Critical Pedagogy
Clowns know better than to subscribe to the notion that there is only one correct answer
to a given problem, and instead call upon the modes of discovery and play to construct meaning.
They understand that their role “is not restricted to a process of only observing what happens but it
also involves [an] intervention as a subject of what happens in the world . . . so as to become aware
of my insertion into a context of decision, choice, and intervention” (Freire 1998, 72–73). The
clown has no use for the paradigm of passivity and the idea that one must follow a prescribed set of
parameters, choosing instead to subvert the voices of the censor in favor of intuitive, inquiry-based
sources of knowledge. When confronted by the stigma surrounding weakness, failure, vulnerability,
or not-knowing, the clown nonetheless ventures fearlessly into that innocent place. He or she then
reports back and lets us know that this “willingness to engage in the face of failure . . . living even
despite the humiliation of trying endlessly” (Salverson 2006, 153) actually indicates a great deal of
strength, confidence, and a sort of situational adaptability that is essential to learning, particularly
in an age of constant flux. “Beyond the ‘nothing’ we must stand in, the seeming emptiness of how
little we offer,” says Salverson, “there is also the ‘something’ we must bring in our efforts to listen,
to teach, to engage, and to change things” (154).
In presenting my clown pedagogy as a point of access for novice performers, I contest the notion,
popular within the discourse of European physical theatre, that only the highly skilled performer
is capable of true clowning. Because clowning is such a relatively simple embodied act, I believe
that any participant willing to engage in this basic level of collaborative play can find an expressive
mode that is transformative and empowering. Clowning is not about entertaining an audience of
spectators, nor is it merely engaging in the idiom of the absurd, making funny sounds and walking
in funny ways. Instead, clowning is about relinquishing one’s knowledge, certainties, and reliance
on conventional symbols and cultural codes; it is about stripping down, leveling, paring away, arriv-
ing at the most basic state of humanity and then re-approaching the world, rediscovering it and
repossessing our ability to create and assign meaning and value to our experiences. By grounding
our clown practice in the principles of Freirean pedagogy—namely, critical awareness, inquiry-based
discovery, empathy, and presence in a state of not-knowing—we cultivate the fertile conditions for
collective creativity and reflection that are crucial not only to theatrical performance practices, but
to all students’ participation in, and transformation of, their own realities.
Laurel Butler received her B.A. from Hampshire College in 2006, and her M.A. in theater educa-
tion and community outreach from the University of New Mexico in 2010. In 2008, she founded
the Street Theatre Brigade, an ensemble of artists that created original, collaborative, and radical
performance works for the public spaces of the City of Albuquerque. With Brigade, she developed a
performance workshop on the fundamentals of clown, which was presented at community festivals,
cabarets, children’s hospitals, and elementary schools throughout the city as part of the National
Hispanic Cultural Center’s Artes los Martes program. She has also served as the clown instructor
for the NHCC’s Circo Latino program, executive director of Theatre-in-the-Making, and artistic
director of the Actor Inside program, facilitating performance workshops with inmates and juve-
nile offenders in New Mexico. Currently, she is the youth arts manager and education/engagement
specialist at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco.
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Butler, Laurel. “Ridiculous Freedom: Towards a State of Clown.” Graduate project, University of New
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Freire, Paulo. Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Trans. Myra Bergman Ramos. New York: Continuum, 1970.
———. Pedagogy of Freedom: Ethics, Democracy, and Civic Courage. Trans. Patrick Clarke. Lanham, MD:
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Johnstone, Keith. Impro: Improvisation and the Theater. New York: Routledge, 1981.
Juhl, Kathleen. “Feminism in the Acting Classroom: Playful Practice as Process.” Radical Acts: Theatre and
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Lute Books, 2007.
Lecoq, Jacques. The Moving Body. Trans. David Bradby. New York: Routledge, 2001.
McManus, Donald. No Kidding: Clown as Protagonist in Twentieth-Century Theater. Newark: U of Delaware
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Salverson, Julie. “Witnessing Subjects: A Fool’s Help.” A Boal Companion: Dialogues on Theatre and Cultural
Politics. Ed. Jan Cohen-Cruz and Mady Schutzman. New York: Routledge, 2006.
———. “Clown, Opera, the Atomic Bomb, and the Classroom.” The Applied Theatre Reader. Ed. Tim
Prentki and Sheila Preston. London: Routledge, 2009.
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Turner, Victor. The Ritual Process: Structure and Anti-Structure. New York: Aldine de Gruyter, 1969.
Wright, John. Why Is That So Funny? New York: Limelight, 2006.
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Chapter
Elder-clowns are a recent innovation in arts-based approaches to person-centred dementia care. They use improvisation, humour, and empathy, as well as song, dance, and music. We examined elder-clown practice and techniques through a 12-week programme with 23 long-term care residents with moderate to severe dementia in Ontario, Canada. Analysis was based on qualitative interviews and ethnographic observations of video-recorded clown-resident interactions and practice reflections. Findings highlight the reciprocal nature of clown-resident engagement and the capacity of residents to initiate as well as respond to verbal and embodied engagement. Termed relational presence, this was achieved and experienced through affective relationality, reciprocal playfulness, and coconstructed imagination. These results highlight the often overlooked capacity of individuals living with dementia to be deliberately funny, playful, and imaginative. Relational presence offers an important perspective with which to rethink care relationships between individuals living with dementia and long-term care staff.
Ridiculous Freedom: Towards a State of Clown
  • Laurel Butler
Butler, Laurel. "Ridiculous Freedom: Towards a State of Clown." Graduate project, University of New Mexico, 2009.
Personal interview with author
  • John Flax
Flax, John. Personal interview with author, 15 April 2009, Albuquerque, New Mexico.
Boulder International Clown School 2009: The Red Nose
  • Giovanni Fusetti
Fusetti, Giovanni. "Boulder International Clown School 2009: The Red Nose," 2-23 August 2009, available at <http://www.giovannifusetti.com/en/workshops-detail.php?nav=1&lang=en&post=40>.
Feminism in the Acting Classroom: Playful Practice as Process
  • Kathleen Juhl
Juhl, Kathleen. "Feminism in the Acting Classroom: Playful Practice as Process." Radical Acts: Theatre and Feminist Pedagogies of Change. Ed. Ann Elizabeth Armstrong and Kathleen Juhl. San Francisco: Aunt Lute Books, 2007.
The Moving Body. Trans. David Bradby
  • Jacques Lecoq
Lecoq, Jacques. The Moving Body. Trans. David Bradby. New York: Routledge, 2001.
No Kidding: Clown as Protagonist in Twentieth-Century Theater
  • Donald Mcmanus
McManus, Donald. No Kidding: Clown as Protagonist in Twentieth-Century Theater. Newark: U of Delaware P, 2003.