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

Written on June 22nd, 2012 , Clowning, Clowns, Performing, Theatre for Social Change Tags: , , , ,

Diagram, Theatre of the OppressedAs I consider both a pending production of “The Pirates of Penzance” and the commedia masks I will be making later this summer, I am reminded that the Performing Arts have been a form of protest since people gathered around a campfire and a storyteller wove critique into his or her tale, since the first time homo erectus cracked a joke at the expense of someone with more social power. Although the Performing Arts certainly include music (and I would include the haunting soundscape of the Casserole Protests, with their conscious ‘symphonizing’ of rhythm, volume, and melody, in this category), my emphasis here will be on protest actions that involve movement and theatre.

A subset of what is generally termed “Theatre for Social Change”, performance protest (or performance as protest) comes in many forms, and one would select a form based on who the participants were, how interactive the initiators wanted the performance protest to be, how much preparation time was available, where the performance protest would take place, and in what matter the target groups were to be impacted. For example, the design of the Pots and Pans protests empowers people to join – one does not need to prepare, one does not need to be able to walk or speak or sing, one does not need to show one’s face if anonymity is preferred, one may participate while protected from weather or possible immediate backlash, one does not need specific sound-makers, and so on. Maximizing participation increases the message of solidarity, and the general public, as they become aware of the performance protest, may self-select to become a performer/participant or an audience member/consumer. Sound-based performances are PERFECT for those parameters!

But what if your message is more specific? What if there are specific ideas or relationships or data or events or liminalized actions that you the initiators want to bring to light? This is where the realm of movement/theatre might be your best bet. These types of theatre exist all over the world; I will be touching on a few prevalent in Canada and the US.

*Plays. Of course, there are many plays, comic and tragic, that are intended to illuminate/bring attention to an event or idea, and there are companies galore that specialize in these works. Most are in a “Theatre Companies” list of any major city.

*Populist Theatre. This is the term used to describe community embracing/community empowering performance projects by which a smal

From Bread and Puppet

l core of people elicit stories and images from a specific community or with the public at large, and, working with community stakeholders, develop a pageant-like public performance. Bread and Puppet http://breadandpuppet.org always uses this form, and it is also often a part of Mayworks Festival http://www.mayworks.ca/

*Commedia dell Arte. One of my favorite forms of protest, commedia dell ‘arte arose in Italy in the 1500s , empowering the peasantry with information and comic satire while providing a rollicking good time. The relationships, plot devices, and comic lazzis have become classic delightful and effective structures open which to build your own hilarious and pointed piece. Historically, commedia companies are on the move, in part because they make too much trouble. Relies on a strong core of performer but has LOTS of audience interaction! Commedia dell ‘Arte: A Handbook for Troupes by Crick & Rudin; San Francisco Mime Troupe http://www.sfmt.org/index.php;  Dell ‘Arte Company http://www.dellarte.com/default.aspx

*Clowning. There are so many clown forms!! Basically, clowns reveal the absurdity of what we do, make us laugh at ourselves at our worst, and create longing for ourselves in our best, most poignant moments. There are so many incredible clowns–some of my favorites are Mump & Smoot, Morro and Jasp, and Bill Irwin. Can be incredibly powerful and revealing, and travels easily, as there are generally 2 or 3 performers. Can be lots of audience involvement or not. Historically, clowns are arrested!

*Interactive Sociodrama. To quote the late great Augusto Boal (speaking in this moment of the subtype known as ‘Formum Theatre’), “FORUM-THEATRE presents a scene or a play that must necessarily show a situation of oppression that the Protagonist does not know how to fight against, and fails. The spect-actors are invited to replace this Protagonist, and act out – on stage and not from the audience – all possible solutions, ideas, strategies. The other actors improvise the reactions of their characters facing each new intervention, so as to allow a sincere analysis of the real possibilities of using those suggestions in real life. All spect-actors have the same right to intervene and play their ideas. FORUM-THEATRE is a collective rehearsal for reality.”http://www.theatreoftheoppressed.org/en/index.php?useFlash=0

There are other kinds of protest performance, including other forms of street theatre, Environmental Theatre, and Guerilla theatre, as well as many solo performance artists and story tellers whose work is based in protest, but the above are a good place to start!


Written on June 8th, 2012 , Arts-in-Ed, Clowning, Clowns, Teaching Artistry Tags: , , , ,

Big Clown and Little Clown

A colleague recently asked me for some Opening exercises to do with a clown class. The class would include folks with a variety of challenges, from the usual “I don’t like being vulnerable/connecting deeply with other people” to learning challenges to challenges that accompany Down’s Syndrome.

What an AWESOME question and AMAZING project!

There are sooooo many terrific and deep clown things to use and do–it’s such an ancient, myriad, mulitplexed thing, with lots of forms and frames that even it’s practice in a workshop setting can change how one is and feels in the world. I have included below to ‘openers’ that are great for many workshops—not just clowning, not just theatre. Moving in space, taking chances, being in someone else’s movement, and out-of-the-box problem solving are excellent opportunities for many situations. Be sure to include open reflection questions at the end of every other exercise, so the experience can become cognated (“What did you notice? What else did you notice? It could be about something you saw, something you felt…What did you see? How did you feel? What changed?”, et cetera). VTS (Visual Thinking Strategy) styled questions work best!

Name and Movement Circle

You go first. You say your name and do a movement–it can be silly or a daily move ment (like brushing your teeth). Everyone copies (including saying the name), and must COMMIT. Then the next person goes, and everyone copies them. If someone shrugs and says”Idon’t know” on their turn, I just go with that and have it be fun and perfect. On every third (sometimes second, sometimes 4th) person, you lead everyone in performing the “dance” of all of the name/movemnts done so far, in the reverse order (so you are last). The cumulative-ness is fun, everyone has a supported chance to be ridiculous, everyone tries on someone else’s movement style, and people learn others’ names.

Another early fun one is People to People/Name to NameAs with all games and exercises, explain it ahead!

Everyone gets a partner. You are the caller. You first call out Name to Name, and everyone makes up a silly name (it can be

Clown students in Arkansas

something like “door” or “rug”–use those as examples for your folks) and does a silly hand shake. Then they have a conversation as this new silly person with their partner (so both people are being silly). Suggest asking each other about favorite clown foods or silly pets. Then you call out two body parts, like “pointer finger to knee cap”. Both members of the partnership must put all their pointer fingers on their partners kneecaps. You call out anther pair of body pats, like “hair to elbow-pit”. The partners switch to touching their elbow-pits to their partners’ hair (both doing both). Do one or two more, then call out “PEOPLE TO PEOPLE!”. They have till you count backwards from 5 (go fast, but keep everyone successful!) to get a new partner. You call out “Name to Name, and they can keep the same silly character or do a new one. You might want to gage what is best for them and regulate it.

After they have done a couple rounds of this, walk up to a crazy shaped pair (they must hold each pose till you call our 2 new body parts) and say, “OH MY GOSH! What happened? How did you get like that here in clown land?!?!?” They will really look at themselves. Give them a second, and if they need it, give a fun helpful question/prompt (like “Was there glue involved?” “Is this a new olympic sport?” “Are you a crocodile?”). Do maybe one other group.

On the next round, do a few more groups. Ask a group that seems further along the road, “What happened before this?” as part of your question. When it seems like enough rounds have happened so that people have all had a chance to name something that happened, and folks are with a good partner, have them stay with that partner and choose one of the silly poses one of them ended up in and decide what happened. They then create a scene (or for your guys, 3 tableaux—one for beginning, one for middle, one for end, which should be the People to People pose) of the very very short story of how they got there!

This is great for growing physical comfort, stretching risk taking and trust, creating clown moments and SOOOOOOO much more. And don’t forget to have the reflection time (“What did you notice? What did you see? How did you feel?” etc)

Have fun, and if you have questions, would like some more exercise ideas, let me know!

Written on May 20th, 2012 , Arts-in-Ed, Clowning, Clowns, Performing, Teaching Artistry Tags: , , , ,

Getting Ready

As I write this, I am at the tail end of another Clown Therapy project, and once more find myself gnawing on questions of sustainability and propagation. Many projects in the expressive arts have a built-in lifetime, and a part of the pleasure arises out of the pre-knowledge of the project’s life expectancy.

Clown Therapy, projects, however, are not wrought, like a performance, but rather exist as a process, like the water cycle, where beings are drawn together, change, affect and are affected by their environment, are lifted up, then are quite literally expressed. Like water, the process itself does not need to have the same exact people in it all the time to feel continuous, although like water, repeated action in the same place and close in time creates clearer channels and direction.

In essence, “Clown Therapy” or “Clown Care” refers to any number of project types that involve joy, a red nose, and a desire to ease suffering. They exist all over the world in many different formats, in hospitals, veterans’ organizations, theatre companies, war zones, eldercare facilities, orphanages, community centers, mental health organizations, and even schools. Although I have had the honor of working alongside, learning from, and mentoring incredible clown therapists in all of these contexts, my current longterm (I hope!) clown therapy project partners high school students (including youth who are at risk) with people in eldercare facilities living with Alzheimer’s disease or dementia. This extraordinary project is the brain child of two educators in the Okanagan Valley of British Columbia, Linda Beaven and Sandra Richardson, who decided 3 years ago that a school-based clown therapy basic training program would help students develop a sense of belonging and of community, as well as growing their interpersonal skills, courage, kindness, and reasons-to-come-to-school, in addition to being a supportive part of the mental wellness for the folks living with dementia. I have had the privilege of being the project designer and lead teacher.


Our first year, the bulk of the training was after school, and took place over several weeks. The impact was beyond our wildest expectations, especially on the students who had been struggling the most with challenges in life and at school (you can read the follow-up article on page ten of the Penticton Western News here: http://issuu.com/pentictonwesternnews/docs/pwnn100623_a)The following year, we tried a different structure, and the training program was combined with arts-based academic learning for a social studies/humanities class populated with kids with a variety of life challenges. Although the project reached more students, had a longer life-span, and strongly impacted the students’ self perceptions and their success in school, the connection to the community suffered. We could not all go at once, some students were not suited for the direct interactions, we could not go during school hours so scheduling became a big challenge (scheduling two dozen teens is more than twice as hard as scheduling one dozen!). In the first year, students got credit, which got them in the door, then fell in love with the direct contact, which kept them coming. In the second year, students were required to participate in the training, because it was part of the class, but it was hard to get them to come outside of school hours for the direct contact, so many of them did not have the opportunity to fall in love. So, greater impact in many ways on the “student side” of the equation, lesser on the “community side”.


Ciao, Toscana!

This year, all of our parameters had to shift—school, scheduling, time of year, recruitment, etc—and as a result, our enrollment and training depth suffered. There were days that I wondered if we were going to have any measure of success, especially as the time of year (spring) has meant that concerts, sports, final projects, back homework, jobs and job hunting were also competing with us for our in-school/afterschool time slots. However, there is a depth of vulnerability, of poignant connectivity that participants discover in this kind of work, even in the just the prep exercises. End result for our intrepid little band this year: some only got workshop time, but felt moved and awakened in new ways. Some got to have a single visit with the folks in the eldercare facility, and experienced the excitement and wonder of this type of interaction in the way one discovers a secret and wondrous landscape. The “one visit” students didn’t get the chance to really find their way, but at least they got a glimpse of what could be. One student was able to make to visits, and during the second, she blossomed, and began what I hope will be a lifetime interest in sweet, silly, quiet, loud, goofy, supportive, listening joy (I call it “dog love”).

Of course I want more for her, for them all. So we have begun to toss around new ideas. What if it was to two or 3 week sessions, separated by a few weeks? What if we ran the program through the school’s drama department? What if I sought out some additional sponsorship? What if a business student helped us with the paperwork and scheduling and so on? What if we could tap into a youth jobs program so they could have this be their part-time employment? What if ….

Regardless of what happens in the Okanagan Valley, there is sure to be some sort of Clown Therapy or Clown Care or Clown Doctor program in a large city near you. Even though they are not all alike nor necessarily adding new clowns, check them out. Watch, take a workshop, fill up to the brim with the amazingness that happens. And of course, you can contact me with a question or thoughts if you’d like!