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On Being 'Yourself' in Clown

(Written Jan 16 2009 )


A member of my clown class asks me a challenging question: what’s the difference between clowning and just being yourself? Is it the same thing? Do you want us to perform, or just be ourselves?

We have been doing an exercise called Present Yourself, the title of which already gives a sense of the difficulty. It is one of the very first exercises we do in a short weekend workshop, and it is the first time the students put on the red nose, their first symbolic step into the world of the clown. In the exercise they must come out alone, in front of the audience, wearing red nose and a hat, and simply present themselves.


I tell them they must engage eye contact with the audience from the first moment, and maintain it, going one by one along the rows of fellow students, spending as long as it takes with each person to feel that they have connected, such that they feel there has been some conversation, something real or authentic has passed between them in that moment. We cannot speak, so the work is entirely physical, yet I do not ask people to do anything with their bodies. If you have a feeling as you look at somebody, whatever that is (and we must learn not to judge the feelings that come up), we must let that be seen. We wear our thoughts and our emotions on the outside. We see and let ourselves be seen. We must be ourselves, and yet on some level we are being asked to perform also, to do something out of the ordinary in front of a sea of eyes.


So is clowning just being yourself in front of an audience? Or is there some distinction? How is one supposed to negotiate between the two? What does it mean to be yourself anyway?

On one level, when you are in clown, you are also being yourself. And yet me in clown and me out of clown are not the same. I sometimes say that when I am in clown I feel more myself than when I am out. There is a kind of expansion of self, and embracing of self. But how does this expansion manifest itself in practical terms? What is the quality of it, and how do you get to it? What does it mean to perform yourself in clown?

There is no getting away from the fact that when you’re in clown you are also being yourself, for the material reason that you can never not be yourself. Once we accept that, we can start to see that there is not necessarily any “real” self versus a “pretend” or “performed” self, but that we are always performing version of our selves. Erving Goffman, who was interested in the ways human beings perform theatrically in everyday situations, pointed out that self “is not an entity half-concealed behind events, but a changeable formula for managing oneself during them”. This idea that identity is constructed can be traced through the major theorists of performance studies, sociology, philosophy, and perhaps most recently in gender studies and queer theory, where Judith Butler says: “Gender reality is performative which means, quite simply, that it is real only to the extent that it is performed.” But Butler differs from Goffman in that the roles “performed” in the constitution of identity are not perceived as the act of a free and autonomous individual (a truer self) that lies beneath the performed selves, but rather than we are actors who are “always already on the stage”, and that social conditioning also plays a large part. She does not dismiss our ability, however, to re-shape and re-create that which we have learned.

The performing of self in clown, then, is something like the everyday performativity of being human. You can never not be yourself. Butler’s “stage” reference give the impression that life, like clowning, is somewhat similar to acting. My response, when students ask the difference between acting and clowning, is that in acting you are consciously becoming other than yourself, taking on a specific role or character, who may have certain physical attributes, certain mental capacities, thoughts, ideas, attitudes.


In the theatre we are used to this duality. The audience perceives an actor performing a character rather than performing himself. However, there are actors, such as Jim Carey, Dustin Hoffman, or Jack Nicholson, even appear to always be playing versions of themselves regardless of what character they are supposed to be portraying. Sometimes they even seem to be offering parodies of their earlier performances.

The fact that these actors play versions of themselves implies a kind of clowning, as I understand it. In movies, this only happens over time when certain actors become so well known for a range of roles that the audience can start to recognize certain features. Or perhaps when something momentous in an actor’s life allows us to see elements of their real personality in the character they are playing. Heath Ledger’s ghoulish and macabre performance of The Joker in the 2008 Batman film plays this trick with the audience. Knowing something of Ledger, primarily through his much publicized depression and suicide, when we watch him playing the character The Joker, we are simultaneously aware of Ledger’s own personality, his tragic story, and we are free to wonder what tortures are actually going on in his mind as we watch his performance in certain scenes where the character he is playing seems to be suffering anguish and abuse. The dividing line between character and actor dissolves as we overlay performance of character onto performance of self, not knowing where one begins and the other ends.

I am suggesting, by this, that clowning and acting are not necessarily so different. However, in clowning-where acting a role is not the intention-no prior knowledge of the performer is necessary for the audience to understand that the performance relies heavily on the self of the performer. This is a crucial difference. In clowning, perhaps in part by association of red nose and colourful costume, but in main through execution of a specific technique that has to do with the relationship with the moment and with the audience, we understand that this is not a performer playing a role external to him- or herself, but rather expressing something uniquely of him- or herself. In clowning, the other you are becoming and being, when clowning, is none other than you.

But we have still not answered the question of how this you differs from the you of your everyday life. What changes when you put on the red nose and step out into the limelight? One way of thinking about this (and this is something I tell students) is to forget the idea that you know anything about who you are. Our sense of identity, constructed as it is by so many experiences and influences through our lives, is strong inside us. We think we know who we are, much of the time. There are moments when we doubt, or we discover something new, or we don’t like who we think we are, but these are generally infrequent blips in an otherwise well defined set of character traits that we are expert in playing out. Clowning is a bit like one of these “blip” moments, when we suddenly realise we do not know, that there is more depth that we had ever imagined, and that these depths might be something very scary. Normally we would step back from this brink of discovery. Clowning demands that we keep going into the unknown, that we make discoveries and that we come back with a new sense of who we are. In class I say “You don’t know who you are when you are up there. Don’t try to play yourself, because you don’t know yet who yourself is. And maybe you never will. But you can make discoveries, right there in the moment, face to face with these people.”

In clowning there is a kind of expansion of the self, then, a limitless sea of possibility of the self. And this sea can only be explored through the opening up in the moment to the interaction with audience. A way of explaining clowning, that I cite directly from Sue Morrison, is to think of it as existing not just in one’s own self, or just in the audience, but “in the space between: in the we, the us, the collective.” The relationship between performer and audience thus become the crucial identifying aspect of clowning. It represents a dialectical play between individual and group, specific experience and universal experience, this moment right now and the whole history of humanity. To understand this is to understand how clowning allows every audience member to identify, not with clown as a “character” but as a placeholder for a sense of universal human experience. I look at you, you look at me, and in this moment of unique specificity in space and time, a universe rolls out in front of us which gives access to all space and all time.

Being yourself might sounds easy. But to do so in clown requires technique and a willingness to look ridiculous, get it wrong, try again, fail again, confront your worst fears, cry a lot, and look even more ridiculous. What is different, then, about clowning from being yourself in everyday life, is that we don’t tend to want to do these things in everyday life. In clowning we must. This is what clowning is. We are like a 2-way mirror, both reflecting the audience and allowing them to see through, to see us. We must learn the difficult skill of being seen, in all our beauty and ugliness. When we have a feeling or a thought it must be seen filling up the face and the body. Rather than teach this as a set of physical operations that denote certain feelings or thoughts, in my own technique we provide structures whereby the student gradually discovers what it means for them to have this internal experience which translates to the external in their own unique way. By knowing “how it feel” on the inside, we can then repeat and manipulate and exercise technique in the way it is necessary to do to present a structured performance.

In the early stages, however, in the Present Yourself exercise which I started out by describing, we must first simply feel what it’s like to start to open up in this way. Many of us are only used to opening up in this way when we are alone, or perhaps with a few very trusted, intimate individuals. To clown, we must get comfortable with that occurring in front of an audience of unknown people. It is like making 200 new best friends in the space of a few seconds. This works both ways. The connection we strive to achieve in clowning is all about creating this contract with the audience. “If I open up my heart to you (even just by looking and seeing), you can open up your heart to me.”

After I have explained this we continue with the exercise.

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