The past few weeks I haven’t been around as much as I’d like because I have been busy going to clown school. No, really. What do you learn at clown school, you ask? Character work and circus skills and improv games and how to make bits work and classic clown gags and yes, Virginia, we learned how to get pied in the face. Clown school is single-handedly restoring my love of performance and my committment to this kind of theater work. Just for the hell of it, here is a link about anti-racist clowns that you should read.
Here are some thoughts. More to come but this is getting a little tl;dr.
First, clown school is something of a culture shock. I pretty much live in a progressive queer utopia. No really. I live in a gaywad house, I work a queer job, I practice homosexuality with my homosexual heterogenderous sweetheart, I train unicorns on the weekends. I pretty much piss glitter and shit rainbows of justice and sodomy and intersectional politics and privilege analysis.
Clown school is not like that. This kind of clowning is mostly made up of heterosexual white guys, with just enough women involved that people can now say things like “the year of the woman clown” and totally mean it. Women clowns are still new in clownland, and by clownland I mean circus clowns and mainstream clowns — white face paint, goofy outfits, you know what I mean. It’s pretty dudelike in mainstream big-ticket clowning, even as people who are clowns are super aware of this and working on it.
And while there are clowns of color, they are few and far between as far as I can tell. This program, there is one Latina and one Japanese woman and everybody else is variations on ethnic white — Jewish, Russian, Italian, and a few assorted-white-places people thrown in.
One of the main clown school instructors (white guy) used to run things for the Ringling Brothers Clown College — the Harvard or Yale of clown training, back when it was open — and he says how distressed he was when he realized how few people of color were auditioning. He says he went to talk to people out in communities of color, and the theory that he formed was that folks who were still fighting for their human dignity in the everyday were going to be much less likely to want to make asses of themselves 10 shows a week in front of huge crowds of people — and that he thinks this is also why women do not want to be clowns, because they are not yet in a place where they feel they can be laughed at without it meaning something politically.
This is curious to me. First of all, it has a lot to do with what the gig was — Ringling Brothers, a big public deal. I am no clown ethnographer but I know that every culture has its clowns and I know that there are clown traditions in communities here in the US that are alive and well with no need for white people and our clown colleges. But that’s part of it, right — to be able to be laughed at by EVERYONE, you have to know you’re secure and safe, and if you’re not sure the crowd will respect your dignity, you are going to be a lot more wary about getting up in front of everyone.
Here’s the thing about clowning: it is all about staying open to the moment and thinking on your feet. We are playing improv games and working in slapstick — big picture issues. Today I actually did a gag about peeing on the floor. When you are thinking fast, your brain goes to stereotypes. When you are thinking fast, your brain goes to racist, misogynist, classist places. We were playing with voices today and the instruction was “do the voice of a stupid person” and of course everyone instantly developed speech impediments, lisps, et cetera. If you are coming out and need to communicate something fast and without a lot of talking, it is easiest to communicate something stereotypical — not only for you, but for your audience. This means that if you are a woman, on stage, it’s going to be easy to make it about “woman things” and if you are onstage with a man, it’s probably about to be a love story. And if you are onstage, you have to figure out how to deal with it without killing the scene. It takes a lot of thought to redirect sexism and classism and racism etc at all, let alone to call someone out publicly, let alone to call someone out publicly in the context of a show or scene, let ALONE to do so while not shutting down the whole rhythm but to keep it in the moment. This is something I am still working on.
I am a queer, queer clown. And yet, clown school is probably the first place in a long time where I do not feel my gender is at all remarkable — because I am one of the girls, women, girls, women, ladies, women. Even with short hair, even with a moustache, even with my feygele sugardish, I am just one of the ladies. And the thing is, rather than feeling erased, I kind of love it. I love it because there is something queer about clowning, just a little; there is a certain committment to live and let live as long as you’re funny about it. My clown is a moustache clown; my clown is not a girl clown, or even necessarily that womanly a clown. I feel good about the room that I have, even though I am constantly worried about being called out about it or told I am not being authentic or some business like that. I worry this will stop working — I will do something too transgressive, and I will get kicked out of the club. This is the privilege of passing, or some kind of passing. Passing as normal enough. Passing as part of the group. I’ve been shaving my chin because I am afraid of the stubble somehow pushing it over the edge to not normal enough. I will admit that, because it’s honest, and because I feel lucky I can get away with this.
Today I was working on slapstick with another woman student and we were really getting into it, fake brawling, fake pulling each other’s hair and throwing fake punches and fake kicking each other and slapping each other, and it was so fun. We were really being fake violent, talking shit, having a clown fight. It was delicious, until someone said “catfight!” PLEASE, triflers. There was nothing catty about this fight. We were out for clown blood.
Finally, I want to talk about the Westchester Ladies. These were ladies from the Bronx, now in Westchester, who decided to take class. Italian loudmouth ladies, retired teachers mostly. THESE LADIES WERE AMAZING. They were the funniest I have ever seen, the kind of funny you only get from age and experience and long and tired experience. I hope I am brave enough to go to my equivalent of clown school when I am retired and I hope I am as sincerely joyful as they all were.
Discussion questions if you need inspiration:
1) What clowning traditions are you a part of? Do you like? Do you dislike?
2) Have you performed much? Improv performed much? What have you done about oppressive behavior on stage?
3) Who is your favorite funny person?
4) Are there spaces that have surprised you with how good they felt when you were expecting something oppressive? Where?
5) How comfortable are you making an ass out of yourself publicly? Tell me about that comfort level and how it intersects with your privilege locations.