Tuesday 8 March 2022

Clowning post-lots-of-things

As we return to being with each other in person, doing things like we did two years ago seems absurd. The world has moved, we have all changed. Old ways of understanding clowning seem even more out of date than before (and a lot of them were already decades past their best, dating from the early 1960s).

Online clowning during lockdown responded to urgent circumstances, when many of us were eager to find ways of being together and not alone. The online space did that intensely. Following that needy period, the online classes have become an option, convenient for many who cannot attend an in-person class, whether that's because of location or time or money. 

So let's ask ‘how do we do this now?’. Our unique new historical circumstances (post-BLM, post-Covid, in the midst of war) are the foundation for understanding our artform. Let’s innovate, respond and look to the future rather than rehashing tired ideas about ‘the clown’ as if it were a thing that exists in isolation to the world all around us. After all, clowning is nothing more nor less than a part of the society we live in here and now. It neither holds great universal truths nor is it irrelevant or disconnected to what ever real-life priorities press down upon us.

One way we can imagine this is to "flip the teaching".

Rather than students trying to work out what the teacher is wanting (or trying) to teach, how about if teachers wondered what the student already knows? 

This might help erase the belief that teachers have some kind of knowledge that they are here to impart to students. Those phrases that begin, “The clown … etc etc etc” in particular produce this kind of student/teacher relationship, since such pronouncements assume that “the clown” is a “thing” that exists in its own right, like some kind of “pure artform”. And if it exists then it would be discoverable, right? And some very clever people will have discovered it, and then be worth paying money to if you’re not clever enough to discover it. Then the teacher seems like a master/guru. “Masters” can get away with selling this product for a long time past its useful sell-by date. They can even sell it to other cultures, who will likely already have their own knowledge and practices, but still buy into the “power of knowledge”, as long as it’s got a red nose attached to it or labelled “masterclass”. 

But what if this “the clown” was just a silly mirage? What if clowns were just different ways people have of making fun of, mocking and disrupting their own beliefs and norms? (of course, that last sentence is full of its own assumptions about what clowns theoretically are!) In that case, we would all already know how to clown before setting foot in any masterclass. We wouldn’t need to be “stripped bare” and learn “neutral mask” as some kind of baptism prior to being re-educated in the correct way. We would just bring our own clownishness to the party and maybe have someone with some empathy and awareness facilitate a cultivation of what we already know. Or maybe we wouldn’t even need the “facilitator” at all. We could just come together and agree to clown. No money involved. Amateur. Because we want to.  The end of clown workshops as we know them. 

Then maybe we would have all manner of clowns made visible. Not just reproductions which are identifiable as having studied with teacher X or Y. these clowns would have begun their learning in their own families, peer groups, cultures, relationships (intimate ones, work ones, school ones). They would be diverse and different to each other. A new kind of “personal clown”? Perhaps, but not that theoretical personal clown based on the teaching method of vulnerability enforced by the teacher playing a “boss clown” (whether the latter is done cruelly or playfully is irrelevant, the structure is the same). Perhaps these new clowns would be “hyper-personal”. They would certainly be celebratory, confident a freely choosing to clown, rather than being doomed by ideas of failure, marginalisation and powerlessness.