A grey drizzly day in Stockholm. I take cover under the awning of a shop as I watch a group of clowns in suits with red noses and red hats, ask passers-by if they want to be counted. One clown takes a tally with a giant pencil as more absurd questioning follows: how do they want to be counted, and how many people have they seen who can be counted too? These clowns are here to help the government carry out their census of every single person in Sweden. Claiming to not speak Swedish, I ask an onlooker what is happening. She explains that this is a joke, talking about the far-right policy aimed at reducing the number of ‘illegal’ people in the country. This policy speaks to the rising fascist policies being pushed through by a party that is not even in power.
It sounds racist and awful, I say. ‘Yes it is. This is really bad for Sweden,’ she replies.
‘Swimming’ up the road is another group of clowns. They sport brightly coloured swimming costumes, swimming caps, goggles and a banner that says ‘The ice-bergs are melting’. The group stops at a concrete plinth and creates slow moving tableaus of breaking ice-shelves, sea levels rising and suffocation from plastics in the ocean. Some break away from the group to offer onlookers swimming lessons and then training in how to hold your breath.
‘The sea levels are rising’ they say, 'we need to be prepared.'
These two actions are the culmination of a 4-day training in Stockholm exploring the meeting point of clowning and activism. This is the inaugural training of The Nomadic Rebel Clown Academy, a collaboration between myself and Hilary Ramsden. It draws on our collective experience, passions and desire to use clowning tools and methodologies to speak to the political, societal and environmental issues of our time.
On day one welcome 13 clowns, activists, theatre and change makers from across Sweden as well as one participant from London. We meet in a quirky circus space/artist space Hökarängen, a southern suburb of Stockholm. This was to be our home for the week, but following a gas explosion in the space on the first night, we quickly have to find new locations to work in. Thanks to the amazing work of Camilla and her networks we have new working spaces at Teater Tr3 on Söder (the southern island of Stockholm) near Maria Torget and the Clowns Without Borders co-working space in Sikla. I must admit, it is nice to get different flavours of the city.
We explore public space from day one to ensure the participants are comfortable with being and performing outside. We begin with a sensory walk through the streets on the first day, in pairs, with one partner eyes closed. The group returned to the space in one long line, all eyes closed, creating a spectacle for the locals.
The second day, in a pedestrianised square near Teater Tr3, explores the politics of public space asking;
On day three, two groups explore different issues using, what I call the Choreographies of Protest. These are ways we can move through public space in groups and the possibility that movement in protest can be organised and beautiful. We use ‘fishing’, ‘flocking’ and ‘socking’, ‘finding the game’ and ‘yes let’s’ as devising tools to create games and ways to move. Out in public space, the games and movement can now invite audience participation. One group explores the theme of isolation, the other borders and migration.
That afternoon we share resources about creative activism. We read examples of actions including detournement, hoaxes, creative disruptions and the Clandestine Insurgent Rebel Clown Army. We remind ourselves of the issues that are forefront in our minds; climate justice, militarism, rampant individualism, fascism, capitalism. We think about our experiences in public space so far and how we want to engage spectators. We then spend time brainstorming actions that we could take to the streets the next day. The participants coalesce around shared interests and similar ideas; adapting, tweaking, compromising. We end up with two groups, each with a possibility, an action that can happen in the streets of Stockholm on the final day.
The final day is a beautiful alchemy of play, co-creation and action. After a game of Goblins, Wizards and Giants to train our group decision-making we prepare for the two creative clown actions; clowns counting for the census and those preparing for the climate crisis. The space is alive with costume trials, prop location, banner writing and lunch eating. We head out at 12.30pm.
The plan is for the groups to start at opposite ends of a long pedestrianised street in Slussen, play, parade and eventually meet in the middle. At one end is the harbour – where the climate clowns begin. The census clowns start in a big square. Their meeting is an opportunity for each group to watch the other.
Post action we walk back to the space to debrief and close the week. It has been a profound few days and some heartening positive feedback from participants:
We conclude with an impromptu clown funeral (of course), massages, cleaning, hugs, games and prolonged goodbyes. What a week! I sincerely hope I will get to return to Sweden to meet and play with these lovely clowns again.
Photo credits: Patrik Cevér, Mehdara, Stacey & Nicola
What a joyous thing it is to leave the UK in March. It’s a frustrating month; with the promise of spring and warm weather blown away by icy breezes and snow fall. Instead I headed to Lisbon for an Activist Clown Festival. Taking trains from the Bristol, via Potsdam for a Bouffon Intensive, I slowly journeyed south. I stopped in the historic and picturesque Luxembourg and then the trendy and vibrant Barcelona before crossing the border into Portugal.
The invitation cam from one of the most inspiring, hardest working clowns I know, Eva Ribeiro. Me and Hilary Ramsden joined 25 other clowns, artists and activists from across Europe for Jornadas ClownActivistas – a 5 day celebration and celebration of clowning and activism. The festival was organised by Eva, and two colleagues Sara Sofia and Catarina Mota, co-founders of Palhaç@s na Orla, an organisation of dedicated humanitarian clowns working towards becoming the Portuguese chapter of Clowns Without Borders.
The festival’s diverse programme included; two international online panel discussions, a fundraising gala, presentations, workshops, performances and film showings. Inspiring conversations with participants continued over lunch, as we treated to delicious vegan food prepared by the glamorous Bree and dinners in lively local streets. I love Europe street life. And its warm.
Each in-person day was located in a different venue, giving us a unique experience of different cultural spaces in Lisbon. The fundraising gala was in an old Army Barracks; Largo Residencia. The abandoned buildings are now home to artists, charity organisations, residency and gallery spaces and a bar. In small theatre and cultural space, Casa de Coreto, in a cosy northern neighbourhood, we spilled out into a square where our clown games infiltrated the lives of the locals. Our final day, at a central Lisbon theatre school, Escola do Largo, gave us access to busy tourist-filled city vibes. I particularly enjoyed a performance by Catarina Mota, set in a square, where the public passing by became part of the scenography.
I love workshopping and sharing practice so these parts of the programme stood out. Hilary gave a presentation on her work with the Clandestine Insurgent Rebel Clown Army. As co-founder of this non-violent direct action movement (2004-2006) she shared her frontline perspectives on the creation, tactics and efficacy. We then took part in a truncated Rebel Clown Training, experiencing games & exercises that had been part of the two day training. What a delight to play Giant, Wizards and Elves outside the theatre to the bemusement of local residents.
Catarina Mota led a workshop to physically explore ideas of personal and collective space. The embodied session was a continuation of her work around lack of housing through the gentrification of Lisbon. This is now a global phenomenon pushing up the price of housing, making our cities unaffordable and un-livable. I experienced full-body, visceral responses to the work; feelings of claustrophobia, freedom, intimacy and isolation.
I delivered my Butoh Clown workshop that has been in development since 2020. This unique workshop explores the the climate crisis through image dancing. Overlaying the clown into the research process moves, transforms and connects us to the overwhelming emotions that accompany the work with these subjects. Once again I am inspired by deep this work goes really quickly as well as its capacity to shift stuck emotions as we engage in the the realities and scale of the crisis.
On the final afternoon we watched an inspiring selection of films, creative and documentaries of different activist clown projects happening in Portugal, Lebanon and Brazil.
The parting of the ways is slow, over a final meal in the vibrant suburb of Chiado. As always its a sad moment as the participants leave for their respective homes. To Porto, Viana do Castelo, the Algarve, the Azores, Switzerland and Denmark. As for Hilary and I we journeyed north, separating for a time until we meet again in Stockholm or the Nomadic Rebel Clown Academy in April.
All photos by: Rafa Santos
Thursday was our final day. Our numbers were smaller but we were the stalwarts who'd been part of some or all of the previous days. The day started with a swing dance warm up thanks to Oliver Broadbent. It was a delightful, silly way to begin the last day of an intense week.
We had programmed two open space sessions so began the task of asking what we wanted to explore further. The stipulations were that they had to have come from what had bubbled up during the week. In the first open space we had two sessions. One group researched the Butoh Clown pieces some more, playing with different options such as nose, no nose, eye contact, all clowns, no clowns etc. Meanwhile another group discussed and then played with ideas of White Fragility.
In the afternoon Open Space Sesssion there were three breakouts. One group explored the Climate Crisis as the Trickster though a trickster story and reinactment. One group talked about Irony - continuing conversations from Franki's changing stories workshop. And another group rounded up the Clown Congress with an improvised song and performance.
We rounded up the day with some dancing and a closing circle led by Franki. It was beautiful and connecting end to a truly rich week.
On the third day our focus expanded beyond systemic influences to incorporate the whole planet. And from here we came back into ourselves. Prior to the day I had been thinking about how disconnected and disassociated we can feel to the climate crisis so perhaps we need to first locate the climate crisis within ourselves.
I introduced the day and began the first session exploring a workshop I had been developing bringing together clowning with one of my movement practices, Butoh. Butoh is a protest dance form that developed in Japan after the 2nd World War, as the country faced a cultural identity and emotional crises that left a paralysing scar on the national consciousness. Dance artists reacted to the horrors that had been witnessed by portraying them through the body with grotesque and playful results. I had been playing with Butoh as a way for us to connect to the complex feelings I had been feeling in relation to the Climate Crisis. The process was to create choreographic scores using evocative images of climate collapse or capitalism for instance. Once those were set we performed them as clowns. During the process we started to research further by adding a nose, adding music, playing the nose and/or connecting with audience. The varied results raised a lot of reflection and critique. As an audience, do the images connect more or less with each element? Are we seeming to mock these serious issues? Does adding the clown bring lightness where we don’t want it or feel we deserve it?
The second workshop was a collaboration between Saskia Kraftowitz and Pan. The session was prefaced with an introduction to grief work from Pan and a discussion about the importance of these processes in relation to moving beyond climate anxiety and into action. The session continued with a writing exercise to explore our areas of numbness, anger, rage, despair. Then Saskia led their ‘Giggling with Grief’ workshop, drawing on grief tending, voice and clowning practices and the idea that the expression of laughter and crying are closely connected. We were invited to choose a mascot from an enormous pile of soft toys Saskia had brought, and invited us to take our new friend outdoors, into nature to explore and share our grief. The process ended by sharing our experiences with a partner and creating a shrine out of our friends and clown noses, leaving our grief with them.
After lunch an open space session asked how we might practically use clowning to address the climate crisis. We split into a five practical exploratory sessions; ‘Laughing with nature’, ‘Guilt: the Musical’, playing with extreme emotions, switching emotions and the space in between; the power of expressing no emotion and how it creates abstract meaning – drawing on the experiences of the Red Brigade; and a clown theatre piece very simply and playfully exploring inequality of resources.
The day ended with a session from Franki talking about changing our stories. To explore the narratives we tell ourselves. We chose a story from our past, a trauma the had had a lasting effect on us. We then danced with our stories from different points of view; as the victim (a tragedy), as the hero, ironically and finally (although time ran out and we didn’t quite get there) comedically, when we realise all our stories are universal.
The day helped settle my thinking into ways and territories that clown and clowning can work in in these times of climate crisis:
by Jon Davison
On the second day we explored clowning from an anti-racist perspective and how to decolonise our artform.
Session 1 - Halima Habil – Clowns Without Borders Anti-Racist Training
Halima Habil shared the anti-racist training she has been developing for the last 2-3 years at Clowns Without Borders. As a response to the dangers of white saviourism in the charity sector (including clowns), Halima is part of an advisory board that produced an inclusion, diversity and decoloniality policy. They provide advice to CWB chapters on challenges, best practices and accountability.
The session guided us through exercises in self-reflection on:
Me and White Supremacy https://g.co/kgs/Q8WPCD
Cohesion Collective Www.cohesioncollective.com
Session 2 - Fatina Cummings and Jon Davison - ‘Contested Workshop’
We decided to ‘play ourselves’, which meant:
Jon: white cis male, older than many present, author of books, clown teacher internationally – gets to speak and tell others what to do
Fatina: black cis woman, ‘new’ to performing, challenged by her white and black peers, often excluded by programmers, teachers, etc.
We had agreed on jointly presenting one of Jon’s exercises
After an introduction, Jon explained the phases of the exercise, where you can only perform your script when the audience are laughing. Shortly into this process, a participant challenged the fact that this seemed like just Jon giving a workshop. My (Jon) response was, and is, to note that this is ‘us playing our roles’.
Fatina then took the lead by describing some of the challenges she faces as a black performer and how she has sought to meet those challenges.
We then jointly presented the main phase, asking participants to take a recent news story relating to colonialism and to stage it. They then performed according to: only perform the script when we laugh.
Some performances revealed quite a lot of discomfort, about: refugees and racism (Ukraine and black refuges).
My own big learning point was around the group of 5 white participants who I and Fatina both coached during the process, who expressed firstly that they felt no connection to the news story (about a young black man killed during the previous weekend’s Notting Hill Carnival), but who felt so much (discomfort) when having to perform that they refused to perform (the only group who refused). Fatina’s reflections on this were very clear, about the privilege white people have to not feel discomfort. So, although black and white clowns have different discomforts, we can all play and clown those discomforts.
‘Colonialism is our script’
Session 3 - Open Space – discussing issues relating to decolonising clown and anti-racism
Groups formed to discuss some of the issues raised earlier, such as:
How do CWB behave when they travel to a different country/culture?
Racism in the clown workshop
What is the lineage of racist clown exercises?
There’s a reason we feel discomfort
Online Panel Discussion – Clowning, Equity and Social Justice
This online panel discussion was be moderated by Amrita Dhaliwal from the Idiot Workshop in Los Angeles. She posed some of the Clown Congress’s key questions to clown artists who are actively working on issues of social justice.
Panel guests: Jacqueline Russell, Barry Bilinsky
20 people attended online
by Hilary Ramsden
Day 1 of the Clown Congress focussed on Clowns: Power, Protest and Authority. Dr. Bim Mason, (former Artistic Director of Circomedia, researcher, mask-maker and street theatre practitioner) presented perspectives on a brief history of the clown as provocateur in the forms of jester, fool and trickster, and followed this with references to contemporary provocateurs such as Leo Bassi, Sacha Baron Cohen, Banksy & Pussy Riot. He then continued with a presentation of his own most current work, Big Heads, and spoke informatively and in depth about response from and impact on audiences of this particular performance work. Maggie Irving (clown, researcher and educator) followed Bim with a lecture-demonstration of Feminist incursions into Clown practices drawing on her own work and experiences as a female clown. Dr. Hilary Ramsden then completed the more formal presentation part of the day with a talk on the radical phenomenon that was CIRCA (Clandestine Insurgent Rebel Clown Army) from its inception to its demise!
After the morning break Hilary facilitated a 90-minute workshop that drew on the 2-day Basic Rebel Clown Training that CIRCA used to offer on its UK tour to different cities before arriving at the 2005 G8 Summit in Gleneagles. The focus of the workshop was to explore some of the games and exercises we’d worked with at that time and to see how it felt 20 years on – what still worked (of course, some of the exercises are regularly used by many kinds of facilitators, not just clowns, rebel clowns or activists and not only performers), why and why not.
Bim facilitated an after-lunch workshop ‘Contemporary Ideas & Actions’: Big Head Mask Workshop where Bim outlined his approach to creating mask actions for the G7, COP26 and other events. Congress participants were invited to put on the Big Heads, and to explore the possibilities for embodying power and trying out iconic gestures and attitudes that might accompany these masks of a number of UK politicians. As an audience we looked at and discussed their impact in terms of power relationships and audience response.
The last session of the day was framed with a number of questions (listed below) that were intended to invite participants to create some practical work around the themes of the day.
Practical session: What kinds of actions might we work on? What new ways can clowns invent for usurping authority? Drawing on ideas from the previous sessions we formed small groups around a variety of topics to discuss and create some ideas for future actions. We then gathered for a show and tell after 40 minutes….which in fact was more of a tell rather than show.
The Congress kicked off with a one-day workshop offered by Portuguese clown, Eva Ribeiro. A friend and prolific clown & activist, I had met Eva online during my Activist Clown Co-lab Series in February. At her invitation I went to Porto to deliver my Activist Clown Weekend. Continuing our conversations on the political possibilities of clowning I invited her to join us at the Clown Congress. This was also a chance to see elements of her own practice in action.
12 lovely clowns joined us on a gorgeous sunny Sunday in the grounds of the Estate to explore Clown Diving in Nature. It was a gently-led invitation to tune into our senses, tap into our intuitive selves to play and respond to nature. Each sense; sight, sound, touch was explored with the playful, lightness of the clown. The day culminated in solos, duos, trios and group presentations by clowns responding site-specifically to the woodland.
The day was a welcome opportunity for all participants to step out of our everyday experience of the world, letting anxiety drop away and a child like curiosity take the lead. It was a really beautiful way to start the Congress.
The Clown Congress was a collaboration between three clowns, teachers, activists and academics; Robyn Hambrook, Jon Davison and Hilary Ramsden. We had connected on Zoom during the Pandemic as we explored new ways of working and performing with clown that took us beyond studio and street-based methods and processes. Simultaneously we wanted to discover and create new forms and processes that address political, societal and environmental issues. Following a research residency in Athens in February we want to extend our questions, experiments and discussions to the wider clown community.
We wanted to collectively ask what does it mean to be a clown in this current era? In times of crisis and change, the old models of our artforms may need re-imagining to suit the times we are in. And as we face shifting and transitioning political power systems, climate breakdown and urgent issues of social injustice we are gathering to ask what is the future of clowning in these turbulent times?
Offered a residency and deciding to make the Congress 4 days long; Hilary, Jon and I decided to curate a day each to explore broad themes that in some way followed our own interests.
As an activist, her time at Greenham Common and experiences as the co-founder of CIRCA, it was obvious that Hilary’s focus should be on Clowns relationship to Power, Protest and Authority.
With 40 years experience teaching, and currently questioning colonial and potentially racist pedagogical practices, Jon Davison’s day focussed on Decolonisation and Anti-Rascism.
The third day’s theme was Climate and Planet. Addressing the elephant in the room of our present and real climate crisis, I have been asking questions about what the role of clowning is in these anxiety inducing times.
Our final day asked ‘What Next?’ and left the day to be curated by the participants; to give space to respond and research questions and ideas that bubbled up during the previous three days.
We were joined by Franki Anderson; who facilitated daily sessions that allowed participants to self-reflect and bring their attention back to themselves after touching on the huge global issues we were exploring. Franki was also in a support role, to feel the room, to ground us and support difficult processing through her therapeutic movement practices.
We were based at the Arts Mansion, set in the stunning Ashton Court Estate thanks to a residency offered by Artspace Lifespace. It was the venue of The Trickster Lab I held there in September 2021. The incredible venue offered a large wooden panelled Music Room, two smaller carpeted lounges, a bar area for catering expansive manicured grounds. Our beautiful setting however, was also a reminder of the deep inequality in Britain and of a dark history tied up in private land ownership, wealth and slavery. If were going to talk about decolonisation of our our artform we have to acknowledge this suffering and exploitation in the places we stand.
The Congress kicked off with a one-day clown workshop on Sunday and then four days of the Congress from Monday to Thursday. Over the 4 days 50 people joined us from across the UK. We also had visitors from Europe including France, Belgium and Portugal. You can read more about each day here:
Day 0: Clown Diving in Nature
Day 1: Power, Authority & Protest
Day 2: Anti-Racism & Decolonisation
Day 3: Climate & Planet
Day 4: What Next?
What a gift! The opportunity to travel to Porto to take my research and The Activist Clown Weekend workshop to a group of Portuguese clowns, artists, campaigners and activists. The wonderful human, Eva Ribeiro, suggested the idea back in February after she attended my online Activist Clown Toolkit Co-lab Series. Her work with clowning and activism is alive and vibrant. As well as nurturing a beautiful, politically engaged rebel clown community, she performs almost weekly, organising exchanges and projects and right now she’s in Senegal collaborating with the International Clown Lab. I would like to mention, Eva is also a brilliant and generous host and I felt so welcome and looked after.
For the workshop Eva has gathered 12 participants from all over Portugal that we meet in an spacious Working Men’s Club in Vila Nova de Gaia on the south bank, across from Porto. We work in a large dance hall, we eat lunch together at a massive table and have a drink a the end of the day. I love these places, rituals and moments that feel so very European.
Over two days I pack a lot in. Maybe too much. Clown training, partner work, audience connection, authority and status, movement and ensemble work. We touch on the political potential of clowning and explore what the practice can transform or teach us about ourselves. We have the opportunity to take a clown posse into the streets on the afternoon of the second day. A crazy idea after such a full weekend...but the work belongs here, it comes alive in public space, with spectators and purpose. You can read reflections from our street action here.
What happens when you support the political messaging? And what if there is no clear target? The clowns become the target.
It’s Labour Day, Sunday 1 May. A bank holiday that internationally is used to defend workers’ rights. In the centre of Porto hundreds had gathered; unions, workers groups, veterans and anarchist groups, brandishing banners and flags to highlight their cause. We most certainly supported the event but wondered what would the role of the clown be if we went to play in that political space. Could we fulfil our role as commentators and also as activators and change-makers? As we began to discuss this the same questions arise; what’s the point? why are we doing this? is it insensitive to bring mockery and humour to those politically charged spaces? As always I ask the clowns to come with a sense of research; let’s try it and see what happens. If we intellectualise or talk to much, we’ll talk ourselves out of going.
The group settled on the idea of dressing as a Syndicate of Bosses. Playing with authority and parody provided lots of games, both supportive and provocative. For instance, the call ‘Anti-stress’ resulted in long massage lines and culminated in a huge circle meditation that easily involved lots of participants in the game. The bosses could also congratulate workers on a job well done which had increased their profits. And when the bosses yelled ‘get back to work’ this elicited playful boos from one group of workers. Here the clowns provide a provocation that can help spectators to express unspoken or taboo ideas in a safe and playful way.
As always the territory the clowns play in is fluid and what we stand for is not always clear. Is that our power? Some spectators didn’t understand what we were doing, some violently pushed the clowns out of the way, which very quickly changed the playful atmosphere for the clowns. Some spectators were curious enough to watch for a bit longer, earning the reward of the ‘aha’ moment when they got the joke and our playful intention. What is certain is that these political spaces are sensitive and they take practice for clowns to remain connected, positive and playful and to greet all responses with open-hearted love. For love is truly what the clowns can bring.
Robyn is a Bristol-based director, teacher and performer. With over 20 years experience she is a passionate practitioner of clowning, physical theatre, circus and street arts. She has a MA in Circus Directing, a Diploma of Physical Theatre Practice and trained with a long line of inspiring teachers including Holly Stoppit, Peta Lily, Giovanni Fusetti, Bim Mason, Jon Davison, Zuma Puma, Lucy Hopkins and John Wright.
Over the past five years she has been exploring the meeting point of clowning and a deep desire to address the injustices in the world. This specialism has developed through her Masters Research ‘Small Circus Acts of Resistance’, on the streets and in protests with the Bristol Rebel Clowns and in research residencies with The Trickster Laboratory.
Robyn’s Activist Clown research has led to collaborations with Jay Jordan (Laboratory of Insurrectionary Imagination, France), Clown Me In (Beirut), LM Bogad (US), Hilary Ramsden (Greece) and international Tricksters; ‘The Yes Men’ (US).
During the pandemic in 2020, Robyn set up The Online Clown Academy with Holly Stoppit and developed a series of Zoom Clown Courses. Robyn’s research, started during her Masters, has been exploring the meeting point of clowning and activism, online, in the real world and with international collaborators. With this drive to explore political edges of her work she has also dived back into the world of the Bouffon; training with Jaime Mears, Bim Mason, Nathaniel Justiniano, Eric Davis, Tim Licata, Al Seed and the grand master Bouffon-himself; Philippe Gaulier.
Keen to explore the intersection of clowning and politics, Robyn is driven to create collaborative, research spaces, testing and pushing the limits of the artform to create new knowledge and methodologies for her industry and strengthen partnerships for future work. Some of her most recent collaborations and teaching projects have included the Nomadic Rebel Clown Academy (5-day Activist Clown Training), The Laboratory of the Un-beautiful (Feminist Grotesque Bouffon Training for Womxn Theatre Makers) and the Clown Congress (annual gathering of clowns, activists & academics collectively exploring what it means to be a clown in this current era)