Friday 9 May 2014

Why do some clowns want to discredit some other clowns?

Why do some clowns want to discredit some other clowns?

In a blog article entitled When is a Clown Not a Clown?” Katharine Kavanagh reflects on how some divide clowns into two groups. On the one hand there are clowns possessing these qualities: normal-looking, beautiful, ambiguous, nuanced, artist, communicating something of the human experience, bring joy and lightness, highly trained, true skill. And on the other hand are these kinds of clowns: heavily made-up, bewigged, inhuman characters, visual spectres, lazy reliance on visual image.

As with most binary oppositions, this claim that the two sides possess opposite characteristics is not the end of the story. One side will be awarded the privileged status, the other denigrated. Value is ascribed to one side at the expense of the other. In this case, the first group is deemed ‘true clowning’, and superior as it is supposed to characterise the qualities of clowning known ‘to performers familiar with the clowning tradition’, whilst the second group are denigrated as ‘bad’ or ‘non-clowns’, and are known ‘to the layman on the street’. This baddies vs. goodies value judgment is then completed by claiming that ‘many people don’t know what contemporary clowning means’. This divides the population up into those (the public, the majority) who ‘don’t know’ and those (the performers, the minority) who ‘know’.

This leads to some ‘finding it terribly sad that the word [clown] has become so misunderstood’. Personally, I find it ‘sad’ that some clowns like to criticise other (unnamed) clowns based on nothing more than having a different aesthetic to them. Actually, rather than sad, it makes me mad.

This kind of dismissal of others is widespread in some parts of the clown world. It is rarely countered, maybe because those who are dismissed have little interest in attacking others just because of their different approach. In my personal opinion, this lack of attack is a sign of good clown values. However, as someone who not only performs but also writes and analyses clowning, I feel compelled to make these points.

The ‘just because’ argument works both ways. Saying it doesn’t make you a clown just because you ‘dress in the familiar garb’ might sound reasonable. But I could equally say: it doesn’t make you a clown just because you don’t wear clown make-up, or just because you have trained with such-and-such a teacher, or just because you believe that the ‘key tenets of clowning are improvisation, spontaneity, a sense of being present in the moment’.

But I won’t bother arguing that, since to claim superior clown-ness by these means is pointless. I can only judge the quality of the clowning on a clown-by-clown basis. Otherwise, I could say that, given that a large number of the type of clowns who claim greater truth who I have seen have also been extremely mediocre or bad clowns, then I would be justified in claiming that all these kinds of ‘truth-claiming’ clowns are bad. And that would be ridiculous.  So, if you want to criticise some clowns, please do so on an individual basis, giving reasons. Otherwise, this is nothing but snobbery.

Jon Davison

Co-founder of Escola de Clown de Barcelona and author of ‘Clown: Readings in Theatre Practice’.

(This article was edited on 10/5/2014 to reflect the fact that the views expressed in Katherine Kavanagh's article were those of her interviewees.)
(This article was edited on 13/6/2014 to reflect the fact that the interviewees in Katherine Kavanagh's article had not given their permission for their words to be published.)