I was recently asked to collaborate in a photographic project documenting the supposed ‘decadence of clowning in western culture’. My response was to ask, ‘what decadence?’ I have been involved in clowning performance, teaching and research since the mid-1980s and from my perspective there is a continuous stream of people interested in training in clowning and performing it, as well as in exploring its social use beyond the orthodox set-up of performer/spectator and into the realms of healthcare and politics. Clowning has also gained a modest recognition in academic circles, with the publication of a range of books over the past couple of decades.
But my instinct to see the positive trend in clowning is also counter-balanced by my concern about the direction clowning is taking in western culture. Barnaby King, in his recent book. ‘’Clowning as Social Performance in Colombia’, wrote tellingly about how the influx into the country of an ‘international style’ of clowning, from Europe via Argentina, could be read as paralleling the ‘apertura’, or opening up to global markets, of Colombia. This ‘globalised’ style of clowning might even threaten local and indigenous ways of understanding the artform, which is of concern.
I witnessed something similar during my return visit to South Africa some months ago, when a major theatre festival programmed, for the first time, a piece of ‘clown theatre’. A laudable move, indeed. But the piece was an unfortunate, and perhaps isolated, example, of how safe clowning has sometimes become. It could have originated in any part of Europe or North America. But its seeming lack of insights, whether personal, political, cultural or aesthetic, nonetheless drew considerable approval from middle-class white audiences who would normally go to see standard theatrical fare. I felt like we could have been anywhere - London, Paris, Bogotá. This is a far cry from the classic example of South African clown-influenced theatre from the 1980s, 'Woza Albert!' (see photo)
This blandness was nowhere to be seen, however, when workshopping clowning with Sowetan teenagers, who, when asked to ‘do something silly to make us laugh’, would come up with the most outlandish, grotesque and daft things imaginable, setting everyone off in bursts of uncontrollable laughter. Back in London, one just has to imagine presenting audiences with that kind of clowning to quickly realise that the most common reaction would be to back off. In my experience, the grotesque in clowning is getting harder and harder to pull off, in our society where ‘taste’ means seeking out yet more uncrossable lines which clowns should stay clear of.
My other work in South Africa was with Clown Without Borders, who in that country are different in that they work extensively within their own country. Elsewhere in the world, it is more common for CWB projects to be expeditions travelling some distance across the globe. Many of these projects do great things, but a side-effect can sometimes be the inadvertent exportation of the western idea of what a clown is.
The multiplication of distancing might explain in some way the drift from clowning towards stand-up which is another concern right now. It’s probably always been the case that British clown students and performers have been tempted by the culturally dominant magnets of irony, sarcasm and wit, but lately it seems like it’s getting harder to resist. With performers with little or no clown-factor now boldly advertising themselves as clown-influenced Gaulier graduates, it looks like the picture is going to get even more confused. Does anyone still want to be a clown?