I’ve Been Thinking A Lot About Clowns

Not circus clowns, or their gleeful appropriations in the horror industry and comic books. Instead, I’ve been thinking about the French clowning techniques I learned in acting conservatory based on the teachings of Jacques Lecoq (pronounced “Le Cock”, yes I know…), and even more specifically, about my own experience with clowning.

The assignment at the end of first semester of my junior year was to go home over winter break and gather a garbage bag full of old clothes. They didn’t have to be ours. When we returned for second semester, everyone in the class emptied their bags in the middle of the stage into one big pile. Then we were told to pick out some clothes for ourself from the pile. We were encouraged to dress as ridiculously as possible, like children sneaking into their parent’s closet to play dress-up. Once we had our “costume”, we were each given a red nose and told to experiment with the movement and voice that both the red nose and the clothing suggested. We did this for quite a while, milling around the stage, talking to ourselves or others as we skipped, ran, stumbled or hopped around. I’m sure an uninformed observer would have thought we were all insane (and perhaps an informed one as well).

The clown that emerged from me was odd. I can’t for the life of me remember what he wore, but he was quite young, very sweet, and for the most part rather shy. Bashful might be a good word to describe him. Like the skunk from Bambi. Except every once in a while, when someone did or said something that excited him, he would explode into a loud and raucous mirth that even other clowns found jarring.

We worked on our clowns for weeks, fine tuning their voices and behaviors. Frankly, I didn’t like my clown very much, but once I put on that red nose, it was difficult, if not impossible, to steer him in another direction. It’s the same resistance I’ve found as a writer when I try to get a character to move the plot forward in a way that their personality isn’t suited to do. Such efforts always backfire. So after several clumsy attempts to change things, I gave in and let my weirdo, adorable yet abrasive, social yet awkward clown just be himself.

At the end of the course, our instructor spoke of how our clown is often a manifestation of some aspect of ourselves we find uncomfortable, and that drawing it out and making it larger than life can be tremendously instructive, if not downright therapeutic. At the time I was quite certain I didn’t fit that process at all. I felt certain that I was nothing like my clown, and that somewhere along the way, most likely due to my own incompetence, I had done clowning wrong.

That was about twenty years ago, and there are two points I would like to make to my younger self:

  1. It is next to impossible to “do clowning wrong”. They are creatures of chaos and transgression, and therefore any perceived “mistakes” only fuel them.
  2. If you don’t think that adorable but annoying little clown isn’t inside you, you’re kidding yourself.

Now, as I struggle to find a way to fulfill the expectations of both publisher and readers and find meaningful ways to interact in social media, I think a lot about that clown, and what he would do. Nothing helpful or productive, I’m sure. And yet, I suspect there is some aspect to explore that may be instructive for me, if not downright therapeutic.