Written on October 2nd, 2013 , Clowning, Performing Tags: ,

She enters, pauses, then turns and walks stage right, and Inspector Dreyfus leaps out. She stops. “Why didn’t that work?”

“You have to count to three. A full count. That was just a bit too long, and I think ‘M’ (the boy playing Dreyfus) wasn’t sure when to jump out.”

“Yeah, I thought I was supposed to jump, but you were still there,” the boy adds.

“So, it goes ‘step-think -go, walk 2,3”, then the upstage-right one is the second set?” The girl (‘B’) playing Inspector Clouseau tilts her head, thinking.

“The first grab/miss should be just under three seconds, then three steps, the pause straighten turn go,” I reply.

“Because that’s a three, then there’s the middle one, with the lasso…which is the third one!”


“So,”chimes in M, “I have to go twice as fast to get to the other opening for the pounce.”

“That would be awesome,” I nod.

They go at it again, the above math-like jargon making complete sense to them, and this time, Dreyfus leaps just as Clouseau takes a step stage right, then a moment later, he leaps out again, just as Clouseau has turned toward center stage, then finally he and his lasso erupt out of the center stage…just as Clouseau miraculously had to tie her shoe, and another character is captured.

We are on the cusp of the perfect math, because comedy relies on math—the number of builds/attempts have to be odd, the beats have to be perfectly shorter or longer than the timing of real life, and the rate of acceleration or deceleration has to be perfect. The length of pauses, of suspension, of delivery…there are often many comic options, but for each option, the pattern is rigid. It’s almost like revealing the flawless beauty of a gemstone—the math of the cut has to be perfect.

They have practiced the routine several times now, sensing the places to speed up, noticing the places where it is almost right. “Holly, this part—what could we do to make it funnier?”

“Well, it’s the second section, so start the third beat sooner—cut a teensy bit off that second moment– and stre-e-etch it out to the last possible second, but don’t have the TOTAL time be any longer.”

“Just beat three,” nods B.

“Yes, and inhale as much as you can on that beat-it creates suspense, because you are suspending the relaxing breath. Then the exhale is the ‘GO’.”

Both youth (they are in middle school) nod and reply, “Ahhhhhoh” in that arc-ing sound that shows that the pebble has landed, the combination worked, the light has clicked on. They happily run up to the stage, and begin it again. Unable to help themselves, the other cast members and assistants, all busy with their own tasks, turn to look…because this time it is perfect. The actors are fast and furious, but the characters are relaxed and nonchalant, seemingly completely unaware of anything but the now, the mathematics of timing so perfect you can’t see it. And..the lasso! The group bursts into laughter and a smattering of applause, and the sweating, panting M and B look at each other and grin. They run up to me, out of breath and flushed with happiness.

“Holly, can we put in more gags?”

(Note, this first wonderful picture is from a Chowdaheads blog about the great Clouseau. Visit it here. The second is from the LA Times, and the last from a wiki page…click on those picks to be taken to their source.)

Written on May 20th, 2013 , Arts in Community, Clowning, Performing, Theater History Tags: ,

Got an event? Grab your friends, some archetypal and silly costumes, and do some mumming!


Mumming arises out of the same tradition as sword dances, and ethnohistorians believe they grew out of ancient agrarian societies, with a ritualized sacrifice to ensure the renewed fertility of the land and the people ….the battle between the old and new year, between winter and spring, between the darkness and the light. In the past 200 hundred years and in modern times, a group of Mummers might perform for members of a household, people on the street, people at an event (especially things like a wedding), or a group of families gathered together in celebration most commonly for/on the Twelfth Day of Christmas.

Typically, an event with Mummers also includes singing, dancing (group dancing, folk dancing and with Morris Dancers), and relevant storytelling, either by elders or recognized storytellers. The Mummers themselves might be working from an ancient bit of script, a modern version of a medieval script, or a structured improvisation with stock characters pertinent to the event.


A script or clearly structured improvisational outline!

Most ‘scripts’ have –as Wikipedia will tell you– a Doctor, George (Prince, Sir, King, Knight, whatever), the Turkey/Turkish Knight, and often a clown and/or Father Christmas to work the crowd, drive the (limited) narrative, and provide local topical commentary and audience interaction. Someone is killed and brought back to life by the Doctor.

Similarly, an event-specific ‘script should include stock, archetypal characters from that event (bride and bridegroom, and a weeping mother for a wedding, camp leaders, counselors, sports leaders, cooks, et cetera for a camp Closing Ceremonies event) and:

* doctor or person who makes the intellectual decisions (priest, principal, nurse, acountant)

* knight or persona mostly likely to take up silly defending item (camp leader with a boat paddle? Farmer with a hoe?)

* Pretty lady (played by a guy)

* manly man (played by a lady)

* step/sword/folk/Morris dancers

Your script should be very very simple, with a character-specific problem to solve (no priest, someone killed in a ‘battle’, the MC has gone mute), lots of comic idiocy (and the higher the social ranking of the character, the more ridiculous their actions should be and the characters on the low end of the social ladder are the smartest ones), and something mysterious and wonderful that happens as part of the solution that isn’t really explained (jumping the broom at weddings, raising of the dead in the Christmastime scripts, something magical and unexpected!).



Even if it is improvisational, you should practice so people have a chance to explore their characters, develop exaggerated silly walks and swaggers, discover hilarious moments and routines, and learn what the pitfalls are going to be. It will also help you practice building suspense, keeping the energy going, comic timing, and not have any one character or section go on too long!


Rags, torn strips of newspaper taped or stitched on so they hang down like straw, twigs and leaves, silly, ill-fitting, mismatched or outrageous clothes … whatever is to hand will work.



Remember to really include the audience! Ask questions, tell jokes, get them to help the magic moment, blame someone for farting, goofily accuse an audience member of doing something bad that you yourself did behind another character’s back.

And most importantly, HAVE FUN. This form, especially in modern times, is light and ridiculous. Think ‘mechanicals’ from A Midsummer Night’s Dream or commedia dell’arte shows, then add something sweet and sublime (which both A Midsummer Night’s Dream and commedia dell’arte have as well)!

Written on January 20th, 2013 , Arts in Community, Clowning, Theatre for Social Change Tags: , , ,

Girl Gets Water by Lorenzo Franzi

I learned just a few days ago that will be going back to Afghanistan in the fall of 2013, eleven years after my first incredible visit. I have the honor of going over with the Afghan Friends Network, and have begun the flurry of arrangement making even as my mind and heart are in wind and fire.

I have realized that it is hard for many people to understand why this part of the world is so very compelling for me, so I share below an interview I did with Lillie Marshall of Teaching Traveling.

Journey in peace, friends.

“When people ask what I do, I sometimes respond that I belong to the ACTUAL oldest profession—a traveling player. Long before there were ladies of the evening, story-tellers all over the world made their way from one fire to the next. In modern terms, I am ‘a theatre person’ for a living; performer, playwright, mask-maker and teaching artist (which means that sometimes I am teaching my craft, sometimes I am presenting something about my travels, and sometimes I am working with k-12 classrooms to create academic lesson plans that use artistic practices for differentiated learning). In personal terms, I come from a long line of travelers and teachers, and I have restless bones. I continue to work hard to be excellent at my art, at my teaching, and in my travels (my master’s degree is in Theatre, Education, and Social Change) and I am always looking for ways to combine these passions.

Part of what I do is connected to clowning, the kinds of clowning that exist in cultures to bring change or awareness or light. There are many trips that I would love to share with you, but I’ll focus on one for now.

It was February of 2002, not long after the Taliban were ‘ousted’ from Kabul, Afghanistan. I had recently worked with Patch Adams doing some clown therapy in hospitals and orphanages in Moscow. And then, early in February, he called me. A filmmaker in Rome, Stefano Moser, had gotten the idea to bring love and help to Afghanistan, and to make a documentary of what was happening there (Clown in Kabul—you can find it on the web or try this link) with fellow filmmaker Enzo Balestrieri. He reached out to Patch, and the end result was that the city of Rome and a number of other sponsors (I think Coca Cola was one) were sponsoring a humanitarian mission to Afghanistan. There were 20 Italian Clowns from various clown-therapy organizations, one clown from Japan, one from Australia, one from Holland, two from South Africa, one from Argentina, and six from the USA. Those six included 3 folks from the Gesundheit Institute-Patch, his brother Wildman, and their colleague Beach clown—and 3 other lucky individuals, including myself. The Italian military would fly all of us, the Italian film crew, and tons of medical and relief supplies into Kabul (I nearly threw up in the C-17 cargo plane!).

Kabul by Lorenzo Franzi

This was one of the most important and valuable times of my life. It was an honor to be there, with the war still happening around us, but being witness to the recovering spirit of the many Afghan people. You have to remember that these people had been hugely multicultural and successful artists, farmers, and merchants for thousands of years, but that the 30 years leading up to the domination by the Taliban had seen endless invasion, hunger, drought, crop and infrastructure devastation, and the Taliban added onto that a ban on toys, art, the wearing of bright colors, music, performances…when we got there, the response was overwhelming. It’s hard to pick just one memory to share—crowding together with a dozen clowns in one room so falling asleep in the cold was possible? The children missing arms, legs, faces? The sound of laughter and shouts wherever we went? I’ll pick the day of two schools.

That day as we talked at breakfast, the news came about a bomb. This was when some of the US bombs were square, yellow

New Leg by Lorenzo Franzi

packages and the US food package drops were also square and yellow. A yellow package had dropped in a school yard, and a boy had found it. Even though the people were literally starving, the boy did not hide the parcel, nor take it home, but rather brought it in to the classroom to share. They opened it to distribute the food, and it exploded. The children who survived were severely hurt and in need of blood, and there was not enough. So we all donated a liter. I’m 5’6” and am slender at about 130 pounds; losing a liter made me reeeally spacey. But it didn’t matter. We clowned around before and after our turn to give, and then prepared to split up for our work in the afternoon.

That afternoon, Jean-Paul Bell and I were scheduled to spend time and perform at one of the illegal schools for girls and women. As we met the teachers (both men and women) and the students, I was struck by how much courage it took them to continue with the school, knowing that if they were discovered, the penalties would be severe and brutal. We had a wonderful time using several languages and lots of gestures to communicate, and finally it came time for the show, which we did on a narrow strip of floor surrounded by tiers of women, all holding their breath. At first, the learned tension and fear prevented anything but gasps and silent laughter behind hands and scarves drawn across faces; we were the first people to perform in Kabul since the Taliban had outlawed art, and here we were at was an illegal school. Then Jean-Paul did a routine about being a strong man in a circus. He showed his strength, strutted about, and finally came to pick up a balloon barbell. And, of course, couldn’t lift it. So after multiple tries, he began to ask help from the audience. No one would come out. He beseeched, he pleaded, and finally appealed to the littlest girl in the room, who was 4 or 5.

girls watch by Lorenzo Franzi

She got up, looked at him like he was crazy, walked over to the barbell, looked at him again, the picked it up and held it over her head. The room went wild, women cheering and laughing and crying, and the little girl strode triumphantly around the little performance space, barbell and head held high.

I am still experiencing the impact of this trip on my life; I am working on a play about the men who experienced profound facial trauma in WWI and the artists who made masks for them. But radically changed what I taught. When I got back, I wanted not only to be a clown therapist myself, but also to create training programs for clown therapists that benefit the people getting the training as well as those getting the clowning. For example, I have been working with some amazing women in British Columbia on an in-school program for students who are struggling to succeed academically. The students go through a clown process that affects them personally, socially and academically, and then become clown-visitors with the Alzheimer’s and dementia patients in the local elder care facilities. I now spend much of my teaching time working with students, hospitals, and nursing home staff on using clown techniques to improve practice.

I find that my travels always change my art, my teaching, and my spirit. I learn, grow, connect…I am illuminated by the light of a thousand new hearts and minds, by new languages and landscapes, by the everyday thoughts and deeds of other people! I can’t recommend a observant, listening travel (which is not the same as tourism) enough. Affording to do it is the hard part! When I went to Afghanistan, many of my expenses were covered by the project sponsors, and I was able to raise some funds and apply for grants to help cover much of the rest. The best ways to have a meaningful experience and to afford the trip are to either hunt down a work opportunity (teaching English is popular), join a volunteer opportunity (medical organizations, churches, relief projects, Habitat for Humanity, conservation organizations, bird and wildlife organizations all have short term projects that are in a place that is ‘new to you’!), or create your own opportunity—my son and I went to Egypt and Jordan together, and he has since hiked part of the Appalachian Trail, and hopes to work on the Lebanon Mountain Trail next summer. If you are part of a volunteer project, your experience and learning will be terrific material to supplement your teaching or the local school’s social studies and language programs, and there may be some PTA or Teacher Grant funds to support it. There are also grant funds for some kinds of volunteer projects, especially when tied with community or school learning and events. The best way to benefit everyone is to hunt for the volunteer travel projects that best suit you, then begin to imagine how what you do and learn might be useful/helpful to the students or adult learning programs in your community. Dream big!”


Photos by Lorenzo Franzi and Holly Adams

Written on July 13th, 2012 , Arts in Community, Clowning, Clowns, Performing, Theatre for Social Change Tags: , , , , , ,

In keeping with my recent theme of Performance and Protest (three previous blog), welcome to Part Two of Clowning!

Holly in Abu Dabi, 2001

This little section looks at ‘what is clowning’ and how that was understood early in the history of Islam in the Silk Road countries. Next week’s blog will be another look at Autism and the role arts can play in bridging, but after that will be a third (and closing) bit on Clowns on the Silk Roads. Feel free to contact me for more info! And now, on with the show.

The exchange of styles, skills, characterizations and so forth was (and is) facilitated by the itinerant nature of performers. Three main reasons why performing clowns traveled were:

*The search for new markets

*As part of royal court retinue (they were expected to accompany various court members)

*Self-preservation; as laws changed and social pressure increased, it became in the clowns best interest to keep moving

To elaborate,

The first factor was/is especially motivating for street performers: even if one is constantly developing new material, one cannot earn a living forever performing solely in one town.

Clowns retained by the court traveled with the royal entourage on sojourns and even conquests, in addition to accompanying ambassadors or other court personnel on various journeys.

The codification of Islam, the rising heat of debate between the learned as to the appropriateness of humor, and the widely varying enforcement of Muslim law to combat magic and other unnatural acts against God fueled the practice of roving. Magic and other acts against God sometimes included juggling, balancing tricks, acrobatics, slapstick, and unnervingly accurate mimicry.


Men crowd around to watch us clown, Feb 2002, Kabul

In addition to providing impetus for a semi-nomadic lifestyle, the more strident legal measures also compelled many clowns to alter their performance style in order to protect themselves; to quote Gogol, “Even the man who is afraid of nothing is afraid of laughter.” These performers adapted the art of storytelling to create a “once removed” form of clowning, thereby protecting themselves without relinquishing social commentary. At this point many people wonder how storytelling can be clowning- are they storytellers or clowns? Acrobats, jugglers, storytellers, et cetera may also be clowns. They may clown in some moments and not in others. In the same vein, although many clowns wear masks or mask-like makeup, others do not. Moreover, the presence of makeup/mask does not mean that a performer is performing in a clown role. Clowning is a social phenomenon rather than an isolated incident or a set of prescribed actions. It is like a car- if I have a ‘race car’, am I automatically racing? No. I may be buying groceries. If I do not have a ‘race car’ am I never able to race? No. You and I could challenge each other verbally or non-verbally at a stoplight.

To provide context for understanding clown modalities, it is important to understand critical clown elements. For the purposes of this blog, we will use the following parameters to define ‘clowning’:

*There must be both a performer and an audience

*The performers and audience have an agreement; they enter willingly into a space-time in which different social rules apply, a sacred negotiation space

*The performer has a social status outside of the linear and vertical social strata

*The performer communicates a context of affection/caretaking of the audience/community

*The performance instigates awareness and/or change

The first four elements make possible the last, and without the impetus to awareness and/or change (and the awareness may be as subtle as the discovery of wonder), the performance cannot be thought of as clowning. It is the delightful but startling newness that compels this kind of laughter, opening the heart to momentary clarity and the possibility for transformation. In support, I share with you the writings of three great Islamic physicians:

Alî b. Rabban at-Tabarî: “Laughter is (the result of) the boiling of the natural blood (which happens) when a human being sees or hears something that diverts him and thus startles and moves him.”

Imrân: “Laughter is defined as the astonishment of the soul at observing something that it is not in a position to understand clearly (ta’ajjubu n-nafsi min shay’in lam yuqaddar lahâ dabtuhû) . . . The matter and gravitational force serving laughter is the pure, even-tempered blood that is distributed all over the body. Its end is the awareness of the soul, when laughing, of the meaning of laughter by gaining clarity about its purpose as either humorous or serious.” 

Feb 2002, Kabul. Women laugh with delight; we are the first performers since the Taliban came.

Kindî: “Laughter —- An even-tempered purity of the blood of the heart together with an expansion of the soul to a point where is joy becomes visible.”

Without question, the personal discovery of the viewer is usually rooted in an altered social perspective, but it doesn’t need to be. Sometimes the clown is simply evoking awe and delight, reminding us that “There are more things in Heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy”. That there could be “more things in Heaven and earth” is at the crux of the debate in Islam as to whether or not magic, circus tricks, clown antics and so on ‘fly in the face of God’. Despite increased opposition at the beginning of the second Common Era millennium, there remained a faction that believed such performances were not the result of invoking the devil or false gods, but the revealing of the measure, beauty and wonder ‘of God’s capacity’.

Written on July 6th, 2012 , Arts in Community, Clowning, Clowns, Theatre for Social Change Tags: , , , , , , ,

My two most recent posts were about Community Process and Performance as Protest. Both touch on a performance form that to me is the most sacred and most profane, most accessible and most sublime, CLOWNING. As some of you may know, my Master’s Thesis was called “The Search for Indigenous Clown Forms in Afghanistan” (of course it was), stimulated in part by participation in a humanitarian mission to Afghanistan in February of 2002 with the the Italian military, an Italian film crew, and approximately two dozen clowns, mostly Italian. My passion for Silk Roads clowns continues unabated, and lately, people have been asking me more about them.

Thus, this blog entry! This is an excerpt (sadly made slightly ‘rumpled’ in tone in my attempt to cut words) from a paper I presented at a Silk Roads Conference in Australia. It also provides a working definition/explanation for clowning (which is really a social phenomenon, not a particular costume or make-up). I am breaking it into two parts for more ‘readablility’.

Feel free to contact me with questions or if you would like more info!



Clown in Kabul

In any discussion of clowning, images of the court jesters of Europe and of Western antiquity prevail. Their presence in literature and common social construct is so profound that even in the United States (where, obviously, there have never been court jesters) they are as well known as the clowns of the Ringling Brothers, Barnum and Bailey Circus and the Cirque du Soleil. Jesters were long an integral part of Silk Road courts as well. Modern day aficionados of the form recognize the traditional importance of clowns in a court or a community; they are ‘the wise fools’, the touchstones of human nature, and those who reflect the weaknesses and strengths of a people. Clowns are not only a medium by which a community regains internal harmony and mutual caretaking, but also by which strengthens its identity and offers resistance in the face of external oppression.

There are traces of the clown forms from these regions that are pre-Islamic, detectable primarily through etymology and through current clown customs that have existed so long that they are described as heritage. Marcus Aurelius claims that the use of masks by the Greeks came from Central Asia, and indeed the word “Mask” comes from the Old Italian word “maschera” from the word “maskara” adopted into Arabic as a result of trade and invasion. “Mask” is also the word for the facial hide of an animal, particularly a goat or sheep. The tanned hide of a goat or sheep fits the human face well, as the eye sockets line up with our own and the outer contours are also approximately the same size. Such masks were worn in sacred rituals both serious and humorous throughout ancient Central Asia.

Vestiges of these customs remain in the goat horns that adorn some of the rural mountain Islamic shrines in Afghanistan, in the modern (as of the 1970s) traditions and celebrations in some regions of Pakistan, and in the legacy of masks or mask-like makeup by clowns in Bali, India, China, Japan, Russia, and Europe. (Of course, they are also the likely source of the western Christian notion of the devil as having horns and other goat features.) The Italian clown form commedia dell‘arte has a predominance of masked characters, and the oldest character, Arlecchino, has a lump on the right side of his forehead, which is said to be either a syphilis lump or a goat/devil horn. Finally, the clowns of Kashmir are called “maskara”, and their ‘make-up masks’ include red markings on the cheeks and a big red nose.

The exchange of styles, skills, characterizations and so forth was (and is) facilitated by the itinerant nature of performers. Three main reasons why performing clowns traveled were:

*The search for new markets

*As part of royal court retinue (they were expected to accompany various court members)

*Self-preservation; as laws changed and social pressure increased, it became in the clowns best interest to keep moving