today I am thinking about: CLOWN SCHOOL I

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.

Similar Posts (automatically generated):

15 comments for “today I am thinking about: CLOWN SCHOOL I

  1. Joe Finklestein
    July 21, 2009 at 2:32 am

    Clowning is a persona, if you want to lable yourself part of a group, go ahead, It does not matter who you are, when you start to lable your self, you limit your self in the world of clowning. Clowning is universal, very interactive. form of entertainment. A 5year old could care less what your polical views or gender are etc. The proablem today is attention span,
    kids do not play sports, like back in the day, young kids do not want to take the time to learn a circus craft. , especially in North America. Clowning and circus is for people who have a passion
    and a desire to have fun while they are working, like the marines when you arrive in Boot Camp of Clowning, no one cares
    who you are , what you are, you are a clown.
    Joe Finklestein

  2. July 21, 2009 at 9:42 am

    I do clowning on stilts! It’s much easier not to be yourself that way, whether you’re going for the goofy or the threatening style of clowning.

    I was hired to be a dancing devil at Pride awhile back, which in my city is kind of… crazy and a little lascivious. I was expecting trouble, since it’s not too unusual to get harrassed/groped (I was once clowning at a venetian ball/fundraiser party for very wealthy people and a man just straight up grabbed my ass in a gross, lingering way, then ran away drunk and laughing). However, I swear, there’s never been a more respectful crowd. They were so warm and kind and gave all the performers space.

  3. shah8
    July 21, 2009 at 9:46 am

    I’ll answer that last:

    It’s possible to be funny, as in comedian funny, without real social problems even if you’re a minority or disabled.

    It’s not possible to clown without being objectified and people laughing *at* you. People like me just don’t have so much in the Dignity Bank such that we *could* afford to clown. I know, because I tried to so I could fit in. I figured I’d rather not fit in.

    Being a performer is pretty tough and when you have an “image” or “essence” to keep up, it really gets nasty. To speak nothing of Michael Jackson, look at D’Angelo or Dave Chappelle. This is before you get into the kind of minimal cultural security needed to be early Chris Rock saying perceptive stuff in the most profane way possible. Dignity was something certain people never can lose awareness of, even if they think Sidney Poiter had a pole stuck up his ass.

    And all of this is before knowing that anything you do, if good enough, is probably going to get stolen by minimally talented Michael Richards clones making racist hashes with their culteral appropriations.

    I mean, I would always be thinking of blackface even if I were wearing white(with lots of colors)face.

  4. squirelly
    July 21, 2009 at 10:47 am

    I did a fair amount of mime work when I was younger. I remember one time at a fancy fundraising party where my arts-school mime troupe was hired to work the crowd – I was standing out front with a friend. A young guy came over, *picked me up* and proceeded to “steal” me from my friends. FYI, I’m a hetero-white-cis-female. I was about 18 at the time. Naive and panicky, my mime-friends played along, running after the guy to rescue me. None of us broke or spoke, but jesus christ on a crutch, I have never felt so much like public property as I did at that moment.

  5. anna.licious
    July 21, 2009 at 11:53 am

    Clown school, that’s so awesome!

    I acted in a performance art piece back in college that was a slapsticky, artsy, surrealist half-improv satire of the Bush administration. We performed it on the streets of Baltimore sans city permit, in two or three locations. We wrote skeletal scenes, but dialogue was improvised. Oh, and masks were involved. Big, papier-maché things that kind of resembled Strong Bad from HomestarRunner. It was a blast! Subversively humorous performance FTW!

  6. roro
    July 21, 2009 at 12:50 pm

    Oh my, what a cool and unexpected post! How fun! And congrats on making it work for you!

    My clowning experience was only in prep for doing musical theater and particularly melodramas — I took some light clown training to be better in that crazy theatre niche. It was quite an experience, so much fun, and much more involved (read: hard!) than I had expected. Even though it wasn’t my thing in and of itself, it sure did make me a lot more comfortable on stage doing character work, and more able to get my character and motivations to the audience.

  7. Alexis
    July 21, 2009 at 1:53 pm

    I don’t know if I could do clowing. I do Rocky Horror though, which indeed means I do make an ass out of myself in public on a regular basis.

    There have been problems occasionally with some audience members respecting performers’ boundaries. I understand that the audience is sometimes filled with underage kids that aren’t sure how to act in such a sexualized environment, but lord, you wouldn’t think they’d go so balls to the wall (sigh, literally sometimes). I’ve ended up being the Boundary Policeman on a few occasions and have sat down more than one 17 year old for a stern lecture on why you shouldn’t grab someone’s ass/tits (women and men) just because they’re in lingerie. Once, I had to convince a young fellow that he didn’t get a free pass to grope women, after they obviously weren’t happy about it or “joking around,” just because he was gay. (“But it doesn’t matter! I don’t mean anything by it!”)

    For the most part, though, the environment is really welcoming. It’s one of the few places in my red state small city that queer kids don’t have to worry about fitting in or hiding. It makes me feel good that I can bring that to them, because goodness knows I didn’t have anything like that growing up.

    Anyway, great post. It was definitely an unexpected but nice addition to this blog!

  8. stonebiscuit
    July 21, 2009 at 3:08 pm

    I’m a white, cis, straight, able-bodied female renaissance festival performer. I’ve never taken clown training, but I definitely use and have trained in similar skills–improv, slapstick, physical comedy. A good portion of what I do is making an ass of myself. That’s not necessarily true of all such performers, but it happens to be true of my particular schtick.

    I always found myself sort of silly and accident-prone; owning that turned it into power that I have, rather than a power others have over me. They’re not laughing at me if I’m doing it on purpose; rather, they’re laughing because I want them to laugh.

    Of course, I’m priveleged in a number of obvious ways–again, white cis able-bodied straight person–and also in some not-so-obvious ways: I’m taller than most people, and I’m strong, confident, and more-or-less-conventionally attractive. Plus, I love attention and I am usually armed. :D I can imagine that without these advantages, the “make a fool out of myself” aspects of clowning/etc. can indeed be galling.

    Does a lot of my performance come from stereotypes? Probably. This past season, a friend portrayed an Ottoman Turk, and went to great pains to do his research and present an accurate, fair portrayal of the people he had really come to admire. I portray a Spaniard circa 1533, and while I also take pains to do my research so I know what I’m talking about, and present the character as a personality outlier even amongst her own people, I’m still presenting a bloodthirsty, hyper-Catholic person who’s in the country without permission. Why? Because it’s funny (and frankly, a lot about Spain circa 1533 is not exactly complimentary…but mostly because it’s funnier to portray someone who’s at the far end of the personality spectrum).

  9. stonebiscuit
    July 21, 2009 at 3:16 pm

    Oh, and: my favorite funny person, without questino, is Carol Burnett. Eddie Izzard is also up there, but Carol and I go way back. I adore her.

  10. July 21, 2009 at 3:42 pm

    I love this post!

    I took some clowning classes when I was a wee one (kindergarten age), but had to stop because I got too old. Aside from modern dance, the only physical performance art I’ve done in recent years is a bit of stage combat. The class I took had about 10 teenagers, balanced between boys and girls, about half kids of color and half white kids (can’t speak for able-bodied or cis privilege, other than for myself). I loved stage combat; it made me feel cool and powerful and in control and thrilled to be in such intimate collaboration with another person. Maybe that contributes to the difference in diversity between our classes: while clowning is about making fun of yourself and being vulnerable, stage combat is about strength and power.

  11. UnFit
    July 21, 2009 at 5:16 pm

    4) I have often had that experience, actually.
    I have a background in the radical left and was often surrounded by classical 70’s essential feminists.

    In settings where people are less politically reflected (and which I therefore automatically assumed to be more prejudiced and less open minded) I often found that people make far fewer assumptions, and that they’re more willing to take a fresh look at you and think things through from first principles.

    People in the subcultures I used to feel at home in often think in much smaller categories. You’re queer. Are you a butch, a femme, genderqueer? Do you still have sex with the other gender, which might actually disqualify you? Are you our kind of feminist, or the wrong kind? Are you subversive enough to hang out with us?

    People who haven’t been exposed to any of this often (not always, of course) grant you a clean slate. You might well be the first queer/poly/colored person they get into close contact with, so you get to shape their assumptions a good bit.

    And often people seem to end up in a place where I’m the odd one, but I’m still their friend. And they might be a lot more willing to accept the next person they run into who doesn’t fit the norm.

    PS: I have no issues whatsoever with making an ass out of myself in public.

  12. July 21, 2009 at 7:14 pm

    I don’t clown, but I do theatre/music theatre/opera. The last role I played was Widow Corney in Oliver! – played with pratfalls and a lot of stereotypical old-shrew behavior. Thinking about what you wrote, I do wonder if I would have felt more uncomfortable with it if my male opposite-number weren’t written and played with equal mockery.

    I find it easier to make fun of myself and do exaggerated stuff when I’m in a part – indeed, I’m often a lot more comfortable in general (fex. singing in a musical/opera vs. singing in an audition/concert). Or, for that matter, touching people – I’m very touch-shy in real life, but was absolutely fine making out with my opposite-number in that show. Maybe because when you’re playing a part, you’re stripped of the cultural expectations of your own time and place, but without the most serious method acting you don’t adopt those of the setting of the show? I don’t know, I’m making this up.

  13. July 22, 2009 at 1:53 pm

    Wow, this is a really interesting post, with different takes on things that I wasn’t expecting. Awesome.

  14. July 24, 2009 at 10:05 am

    *LOVE* this post.

    I am the daughter of a clown. My mama was a clown when I was younger, which I always say makes you popular in middle school but come high school, well that shit don’t get you laid… ANYWAYS.

    I really liked your analysis on how one’s “performance” as part of a job can may seem restricting, but can actually offer opportunities for self-growth.

    My mom wasn’t just a clown, but she was the creator/owner/head clown of her own company that specialized in clownin’ around. She ran the show; hell, she WAS the show! And although her clown personality was somewhat genderqueer, it was mainly femme. Interestingly enough, her reason for that was that children are often afraid of clowns but not so with FEMALE/LADY LIKE clowns. So she learned that in being somewhat femme in her clown demeanour, she was able to be seen as more approachable to children; taking on an almost “motherly” persona.

    Thank YOU for writing such an interesting post. I never get to talk about my mom’s wacky clown days in this kind of context.

  15. September 9, 2009 at 10:20 pm

    Check out

    This is owned and operated by a female clown artist and best of all, the classes are held at Circus, Circus in Reno, NV!

Comments are closed.