I did not want to narrow the question too much - there are such a wide variety of clowns and 'power' can be interpreted in many ways - but I think it is important to distinguish between the performers and their clown personas, even though, in this field, there is a recognised overlap between the two. My question had partly come out of the discussion between Jacques Lecoq and Dario Fo about whether clowns could be political. It was also related to the discussion in my book about the different approaches to morality of the artists I covered and James Carse's distinction between open play and closed play. He suggests that if the purpose of a type of playing is serious then it is not really play, in the purest sense. So clown performers may have a political intention but their clown personas cannot. My contention was that clowns themselves are not only apolitical but also amoral. They respond to what is immediately in front of them, they do not see a bigger picture and don't have the seriousness to consider long term consequences. That said, because clowns don't understand rules or conventions they are associated with anarchy (but not Anarchism). They may get caught up in politics, as Chaplin innocently did waving a red flag in the film Modern Times, but usually as victim.
In the room was a wide spectrum of positions from those who use the clown persona for deliberate political ends such as CIRCA (Clandestine Insurgent Rebel Clown Army) or transformational ends such as hospital clowns and personal therapy, through to those who simply want to entertain. Even for these entertainers it was clear that they had a power over the audience and a power to disrupt other performers or conventions. The strand that appeared to link all these different approaches was the clown's vulnerability. Making oneself vulnerable by appearing stupid seemed to be transformational both for the performer and the spectators. The performer could be strengthened by becoming habituated to high levels of vulnerability, as in a drama-therapy situation, or empower spectators who feel vulnerable, as in hospital clowns or Clowns Without Borders, or could disarm, or at least confuse, the enforcers of order. These appear to be three different directions - the first is internally focussed, the second and third externally focussed, but with the difference being that one deals with a weaker spectator and one with a stronger. Holly Stoppit usefully identified three reactions to feeling vulnerable that she had noticed in drama-therapy situations - hiding/fleeing, adopting a tough stance to brazen it out and, finally, frozen inaction.
There may be a question of whether it is necessary for clown-actors to really wear their heart on their sleeve or whether they need only to appear to do so. Certainly clown training seems to encompass both directions – true authenticity or credible acting – an interior focus or an external one. The subtly different approach has some parallels with the differences between the pedagogy of Lecoq and Gaulier. Gaulier induces real feelings of stupidity and freedom, whereas Lecoq focussed more on physical technique, for example by analysing rhythm. The approaches both have their weaknesses: the free, authentic clown performer may not be able, or may not want, to produce reliable, consistent material; inspiration for brilliant improvisation may be elusive or not sustain in the long term (e.g. Gaulier-trained Sacha Baron Cohen’s demise as he moved away from improvised encounters). On the other hand the structured, technical approach may seem contrived, too clever or lose its authentic ‘life’.
Reflections from the Symposium discussion
- As ‘the one who suffers or fails’ clowns can represent all who suffer and fail.
- But there are also dictator clowns (who are ridiculous) as well as suffering clowns.
- The failure of clowns to be ‘successful’ can indicate the ridiculousness of the values that denotes success. They start from a low status, being laughed down at by audience, but can turn it round to laughing down at audience or revealing the ridiculousness of the audience, questioning the framework of the audience’s assumptions. They ‘bring the house down’ in both senses of the phrase. How do clowns ‘redeem ‘ themselves ? They somehow ‘win’ by changing our perspectives.
- An unwillingness or inability to take things seriously is clownesque
- A refusal to take some things seriously = making fun = deliberate subversive ploy by actor and is therefore not play, strictly speaking
- An intention to take positive values seriously = a deliberate moral ploy by actor but is therefore not play
Using clowning as therapeutic /personal journey:
Is therapeutic /personal journey ‘using’ the image of a clown in some way ‘political’? Yes, its purpose is to become more authentic as a performer, by raising self-awareness and honesty in inter-personal relations. The desire to ‘change the world’ must start with changing yourself.