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  • Writer's pictureProfessor Teddy Love

The Art of Persuasion: should clowns be influencers?

Updated: Nov 21, 2022

What does it mean to influence? To change someone? Or to transform them? I often talk about transformation as one goal of clowning. So are clowns the quintessential 'influencers'?

As clowns we come out with the intention, perhaps, to transform our audience, to take them on a journey with us, to engage them in the process of transformation we must go through ourselves. Does this mean we are trying to influence them? Is this an appropriate word or useful way of thinking about transformation? To influence suggests to me a coerciveness, which is not at the heart of the clown’s mission. When one is influenced it is a product of something persuasive, perhaps visible or perhaps invisible. But either way it implies a level of unconsciousness or doing something despite oneself or against one’s will.

To influence someone’s choice (eg in an election, or at the store) is to somehow force them by surreptitious means into making a choice they might not otherwise have made. It does not mean it is the only or even the dominant factor determining the choice, but that it is significant in effect in relation to other factors, such that it could perhaps change the outcome. The source of influence may be clear and obvious to the object or influence, but it nevertheless exerts a hold over the object that the object is powerless to counteract. It denotes an absence of free will in this case. If it is hidden from the sight of the object, the object does not even know he is being influenced, and might have the illusion they are exercising free will while actually they are not. Advertising can work on either of these two models.

When we are clowning, then, it is important to be aware of the risk of influencing the audience in this way. It connotes a desire to affect them in a particular way, to have a specific consequence or outcome, to coerce them into thinking something or other. The concept of influence implies a third thing, as well as the subject and object of influence. It implies a content, the idea, theme, style, doctrine, being imparted to the object of influence. However, clowning seeks to have a different kind of effect. It seeks to have an effect, nevertheless, and the distinction between the desired kind of effect and the undesired kind is important to understand.

In clowning, the effect we want to have is not determined or controlled by the subject in the way one would in an influencing model. Instead, the effect is the product of a conversation, a dialogical encounter in which an offer is presented by the clown, accepted and returned by the spectator, and thus built in the spirit of collaboration, to become something that neither one nor the other could have created on their own. The interactional dynamic is a necessary part of its development, and the effect it has. The effect is as much on the clown performer as on the audience member, and each audience member might experience a very different effect. There is thus a kind of equality of status that differs from the influence model, and also from much theatre (including Brecht) which follows a more didactic model, in which it assumed the artist is somehow enlightened in a way which the audience must also become in order for the transformation to occur.

In clowning we start from the perspective that clown and audience are equally able or unable to understand their own situation or how to get out of it. Together they discover the problem and the way out. If the clown discovers it alone and then presents the discovery to the audience, we are cheated, we are not involved, we are shown something rather than doing something. So in clowning the kind of effect we want to have is one of drawing the audience into the experience such that they make the discoveries along with us (or so it seems).

At the end of the performance it should not seem that the clown as influenced me at all, but that we have gone on a magical and mysterious journey together. To this extent, we have an effect. We effect our audience. They come out different from how they went in. But it is not a case of making them do or think what we want. To influence suggests exactly this “making” and carries a sense of forcing which pushes the audience onto a lower status. Instead we must think about the performance as a collaborative process of meaning-production, with an unknown and unknowable conclusion.

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