Clowning and Wellbeing. Feature Article from Rod Dungate. (Date)
An account of a remarkable clown training event and the strong links it established between Clowning and Wellbeing.
‘I can take the smallest thing / and help you sing with joy.’
What does it mean to be a clown? Clowns make us laugh, but is there a connection with wellbeing? In a recent project, four actors, new to clowning, discovered that their emotional experienced centred around freedom, laughter, and fun. These, they came to believe, are central to wellbeing.
I recently headed up an innovative project exploring the connection between Clowning and Wellbeing. The title of this article is taken from a poem I wrote in response to the project; the full poem can be found on my website, www.RodDungate.uk
I worked with clown director, Jane Sutcliffe and four actors. The actors were not trained as clowns but were eager to learn. It was a short project (three days) but we discovered the Clowning-Wellbeing connection was powerful. Three short films were created at the end of the sessions. Two of these are short clown plays (Happy Birthday and Medals) and one a discussion among the actors explaining their emotional connections and discoveries. The three films can be found on the DDArts YouTube channel. DD Arts Birmingham created the project.
There is not a definitive description of what a clown is or does, no manifesto if you like. Ask twelve clowns what a clown is and you’ll get twelve different answers. However, we set out some basic principles which would help focus the project. Here they are. (Note that although for clarity the male his and he are used, all people, whatever their chosen identity, can create their own marvellous clown.)
- The clown struggles to make his way in the world which he frequently finds alien, confusing, working against him
- The clown lives in a world of mystery and imagination, a world in which anything can happen; he approaches a d versity and advantage with childlike surprise
- The clown uses his wit, innocent playfulness, imagination, and awkwardness to fill his life with wonderment, joy, and laughter for himself and, importantly, for his audience
- The clown will frequently focus on the smallest detail of his life or environment, giving the detail profound importance, which is a kind of real-world magic
- The clown loves his audience and treats them with care and respect; his greatest pleasure is to welcome his audience into his fantastic world, to gift the audience joy and laughter.
Clown Director Sutcliffe worked, first of all, with the actors to help them find their own clown. Exercises included relaxation, movement or physicalisation, playing games, interactions without speech. Communication without speaking proved tricky, especially as Sutcliffe would regularly say: ‘Don’t mime.’
Sutcliffe encouraged discipline and respect of each clown’s red nose. When an actor spoke wearing a red nose, or when a clown spoke without wearing their red nose, they would quickly be pulled up. The parallel lives of the clown and actor became excitingly tangible.
Once the actors had established their basic clown, they were encouraged to develop their plays. They discovered that each play was based round a small event – a person receiving a birthday cake, a person being rewarded for learning to play an instrument. Within the clown worlds, these events, though simple and underpinned with innocence, became profound, even profoundly moving. It was this that brought me to consider the connection with poetry – and, hence, the poem Clown.
We also noted a striking duality in a clown’s life; the clown knows he is being funny (it is part of his reason for being) yet within the world of his clown play he is totally serious. This relationship the clown has with his audience and play-world is different from the relationship an actor has with his audience.
The third film uploaded is the discussion from the performers; we see that this is the performers’ reactions, not the clowns’ – red noses are not worn. In this discussion the performers regularly return to their own wellbeing being enhanced by clowning; how they could examine aspects of themselves including aspects they did not much like in a non-threatening, purposeful and fun way; that the working together lifted spirits; that they enjoyed the free imagining; and that they could see links with the real world.
The beneficial effect of clowning is exampled, for instance, by Clown Emmeline who noticed that you could take elements of yourself you found confusing or that you do not like and play with it, reducing its power to harm. Clown Carl noted the joy of the freedom, the ability to work at a tangent and develop those ideas.
This project is a work in progress; the main threads we have discovered so far, outlined below, have given us the intention to continue the work. At this stage we would argue:
- There is much to be gained emotionally through the cathartic effect of watching the clown deal with life’s adversities with the laughter it encourages. Clown Ralph: ‘The clown has to overcome adversity and failure, but the clown uses it to his advantage.’
- The process of engaging physically and emotionally in clown work – its preparation and performance – offers liberation through enriched imagination and a helping hand with dealing with personal challenges that can affect wellbeing negatively in the real world. Clown Hugo: ‘I get confused, I feel lonely, the clown is my little friend, I don’t need to be on my own.’
- There is much to be gained from an intellectual examination of clowning and its relationship with literature.
As mentioned above, DD Arts Birmingham is keen to take this work further, incorporating a full-length performance, and related short and longer-term outreach activities.
Note: This project was written up in a fuller version for a Birmingham City University Journal; if you would like a copy of the article or if you would like to comment or ask questions, contact me. Rod@RodDungate.uk.