Until a couple of years ago, I was like most people: I didn't likes clowns. I didn't have a fear of them or anything that extreme but pancake makeup and permasmiles were a little too negatively stereotyped for me to see it as anything other than weirdness. I will admit that I was 100% ignorant about clown as an art form and truly thought that clown came in only the Ronald McDonald or Bozo style.
Just over two years ago, I had the fortune of making friends with a wonderful woman and was surprised to learn she was passionately into clown. That is when my emergence from ignorance began. There is still much I don't know or understand about clown but I know enough now to take it seriously as an art form and even enjoy some of it.
The biggest revelation was that I and much of the world have been enjoying clown for decades without even knowing it. It has been discovering the clowns that look nothing like clowns that have won me over the most. Rowan Atkinson and Sacha Baron Cohen were the biggest surprises to me. I knew Mr. Bean was physical humour. I didn't know it was clown. I knew Sacha Baron Cohen made huge money from inventing characters like Borat. I once read a review of Borat that referred to it as turtle-neck humour because you just want to hide in your turtle neck. What that reviewer and what I did not know is that the real name for turtle-neck humour is Bouffon, a dark discipline born from the revenge of the disenfranchised for bigotry during the French Renaissance. I did not know either of these men were clowns because they wore no white make-up, and even more importantly, had no bulbous red noses glued to their faces.
There are so many forms of clown that most people have likely been entertained by at least one of them. I won't go into all the styles here as I would hate to misrepresent any of them and they are easily googled. I have seen clown that I adored and I have seen clown I did not understand and does not resonate with me. That is no slight. Who likes absolutely every example of any art form? The point is that there are so many styles of clown, I doubt there is anyone who hates all of them despite how prevalent clown-hate seems to be.
Learning that there were different forms of clown was surprising enough but then I also learned that clown isn't simply about getting a quick laugh. One of the best depictions of an abusive mother was done by a neo-Bouffon clown. She did nothing outright to show she was abusive. She looked like a stepford wife and talked with a smile, but there was something so subtly off about her smile that hinted at the more sinister. It was ingenious because there was nothing specific I could mention as to why the smile was off or what made me uneasy but I knew without a doubt that I would not want to be alone in a room with that character.
This is because those who study clown study human emotion on such a deep level. What really makes up that emotion and how can a clown connect to it? A common mantra of writing is 'show don't tell' and clowns are definitely gurus in that. I do not think I am stretching it to say that clown is a very spiritual discipline.
Clowns explore how emotion manifests itself in different ways. They try to connect to their emotions to create masks no less intriguing than spiritual masks from Africa or Siberia. They use emotion to determine the looks of the characters they invent. Everything about a clown's make-up and costume is important to conveying the emotional message of the character. Every choice is deliberate. Clowns study something that seems as simple as the breath, philosophically exploring it in no less a profound way than a meditating monk. Studying clown can even involve chakra work. Clown is exploring the origins of the self.
The more I learn about clown, the more I realize why it might be so misunderstood. It is an art form that is really a form of spirituality but the end goal belies that spirituality. This shows too that spirituality can been funny and that ridiculous humour and dark humour can help us connect to our deeper selves even better than drama. The trouble is that by making something seem fun, we too easily dismiss its deeper value. That is sad to me because humour is as much, if not more, a part of who we are as a species than misery.
I am fortunate to have met a group of people able to help me banish my ignorance about clown. Learning about different fundamentals of clown has helped inform my writing. It has helped my character exploration in my books. It has helped me understand what is important to make that emotional connection in my descriptions.
The public's mistrust and trumped up dislike of clowns is a bigotry that has had its day. It is time for us to move on and open ourselves to what clowns can teach us.
I have to give a special thanks to Morgan Nadeau for being the one to expose me to this misunderstood art form and for giving me permission to use her photos for this post. For permission to use these images or further information, please go to www.foolspectrumtheatre.com