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Facing Fear (in clown and in life)

Updated: Nov 21, 2022

One of the most basic and yet most challenging clown exercises we do is called ‘Present Yourself.’ In this exercise we simply put on a red nose and hat and step out from a screen in front of the audience. Alone, on stage, with nothing but a nose and hat for protection, we stand and face our worst fear: being seen.

As an audience what we see when each person steps out and faces us is an extraordinary kaleidoscope of human emotions, different every time, subtly and sometimes dramatically played out in the body, the face, the breath of the individual clown. While each one is different, it is always a journey, a flow of emotions from fear and stuckness and resistance on the one hand, to acceptance, serenity and pure delight on the other (not always in that order). What we see is a playing out of the struggle and the release, the fear and the embrace of all that it is to be human, which we instantly recognise, identify with and fall in love with: it is simply our own self reflected back at us.

As the teacher, I often check in with the person backstage just before they take the step out, just to calm them and remind them of the simple instructions: to breath, see the audience, get eye contact with each one in turn (there are usually 20 people in a workshop, so this can take a while). So I get the privilege of seeing the intensity of this anticipatory moment. Often the person looks afraid, terrified even: shallow breath, distracted eyes, fidgety body, trying to calm themselves, trying to gather their wits. They can barely look at me as I remind them to breathe before entering.

The overwhelming feeling of this moment (and I have felt it myself hundreds of times, as I prepare to step out to do a show) is one of fear. If you think of any moment when you have had to stand in front of a group of people to make a speech or presentation, you will probably know what I am talking about. Even just imagining it will evoke a little cold sweat, and shortness of breath. And then add to that picture that you are wearing a red nose, a hat and have no idea what you are going to say or do when you get out there, and we have the perfect recipe for a classic nightmare that most of us have had at some point.

But what is it we are we afraid of? After all, we are probably not going to physically hurt ourselves. Our bodies and lives are not in danger. No wild animal is going to rip us apart.

This is a more existential kind of fear. One that stems from our nature as social beings and the genetically imprinted importance of fitting in, being accepted, looking good, being loved, and being successful.

In that moment before we step out to face our fear, the fear itself is produced by our imagination, our anticipation of many bad things that could happen. Not physically threatening ‘bad’ things, but socially humiliating ‘bad’ things: failing, looking stupid, being seen for what we are, freezing, breaking down, crying, feeling numb, and perhaps the most scarey of all for me, being boring!

We so desperately want to be interesting, to be successful, to seen as something, someone, and at the same time we crave acceptance, normality, and simple connection. All this social anxiety is so universal that it generates a wonderful cocktail of emotion played out on the face of the unfortunate person who happens to be there standing in front of us.

It sounds easy and it sounds impossible all at the same time. The reality is, if you just breathe, feel the fear and the other emotions that come, and look with no judgment at the audience, we are utterly enchanted and fall in love with you instantly. For you are presenting back to us our own worst fears and showing us that we, like you, have the resilience to face them and survive. More than survive, in fact, we can pass through those feelings and rise to extraordinary heights. Once the clown realises this, they have total freedom. They can dance and sing and frolic and weep, all from that place of emotional connectedness and non-judgment. They are like shamans or gods, with the power to channel all human experience and transcend it. What a gift for an audience!

Yet this is not easy at all. The stepping out, though it feels horribly scary, is not the hardest part. It is an important step, to be sure. Just having the courage to step into the place of fear is tremendously important. If we can’t even step out from behind a rock to face the dragon, how will we ever hope to defeat it?

But the fear does not simply vanish when we step out. There is a shift that happens. As the fear is manifested and shared openly with the audience, we notice that there is instant connection, a ripple of recognition and empathy. In this space of connection that is created we have permission to move, physically or emotionally. But with each step, each transition, a new reckoning must be made. For with each step there is something new and, again, the risk and the fear that it will not be accepted, that we will be seen and judged and rejected. So the socially produced fear never fully leaves.

Nor should it, for this fear is what gives the performance its beautiful and believable tension. It is what compels the clown to keep checking in with the audience, giving clowning this unique quality of connection. And it is what constantly reminds us, both as performer and as audience, that we are in this together. Fear is what unites us, perhaps even more than love. Fear, of course, is the flip side of love. And if allowed to control us, it is what produces most kinds of cruelty and violence. I am not suggesting we let it rule us. Far from it. But in order to get to the love, we must acknowledge love’s dark side, and even learn to face it, in order to pass through it.

This, then, is the lesson clowns have to teach us about fear. To arrive at love we must acknowledge our fears and be present to them always. If not, they get the better of us and, like the clown who gets stuck on stage, we freeze, we lose connection, we disappear into isolation. In this place we may also feel somewhat free, especially once we get used to it, because there is nothing at stake, no accountability to ourselves or others. In isolation we can act selfishly without conscience because we cannot feel the pain of others (which is really our own pain). Love is absent.

Ironically fear only has this power when we fail to acknowledge it, when we pretend we are strong and okay. The antidote to fear is fear itself. Like the clown, we must learn to face our fears, move into them, through them, and beyond them, to the space of love and freedom that lies beyond (and yet never very far). If you are interested in exploring these ideas in practice with me, why not check out my courses, for example The Clown Connection, an 8-week deep-dive into all things clown: CHECK IT OUT HERE.

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