"Calling all clowns, rebels and activists and everything in between! It’s time to dust off the cobwebs, unfurl and emerge from a long hibernation!"
This was the callout for The Rebel Clown Project; my five day residency with Bristol Rebel Clowns around town. Supported by a Launchpad Residency with Invisible Circus I invited local clowns to join me and dive back into the world the Activist Clown with training, conversations, experiments and play.
There were two sessions a day with space for 10 in each session, in line with Covid restrictions. Over five days and ten session, 18 clowns joined the residency. We worked with the concerns and skills in the room. In the socially-distanced training space we explored and trained performance skills in clowning, street theatre, bouffon and ensemble. Hilary Ramsden, co-founder of The Clandestine Insurgent Rebel Clown Army joined us for some sessions as well sharing her training techniques of the original Rebel Clown.
My intention had been to build on conversations and training from The Activist Clown Toolkit – the workshop series exploring tools and techniques to build power and efficacy of clown based activism in the fight for equity, social and climate justice. I also wanted to explore various themes including and not limited to women in public space, decolonisation, historic perspectives of clowning and protest.
As it happened the residency took place against a backdrop of massive protests in Bristol. Thousands of voices and bodies united in the city against a draconian policing bill. This was met with police brutality and subsequent riots. In the street the issues mingled including; a resurgence in the call for safe spaces for women following the murder of Sarah Everard at the hands of a cop; alongside stories of 95% of women experiencing sexual harassment; vehement opposition to the new policing bill that would affect the right to protest, bring in trespass laws that will criminalise travellers and affect our human rights. Participants of the residency would arrive having just experienced the police violence in response to peaceful protest, so before we began the issues were palpable in the space.
In The Activist Clown Toolkit I wanted to tell a story through the programming of my four guests.
Inspired by the political podcasts, The Activist Clown Co-lab series is part workshop, part interview and part discussion. Each 2.5 hour masterclass on zoom is a playful, embodied investigation into how to use clowning for political activism with expert clowns and activists on the ground. Through discussion, play, experimentation and reflection I wanted to explore a whole bunch of questions including:
- Can clowns be political?
- How can clowns challenge authority?
- What can we borrow from activists, art movements and theatre forms to increase our efficacy?
- What can we learn from clown history and from the clowns who’ve dedicated their lives to playing on the front lines?
- Is the clown equipped to deal with power and make real change?
The first Co-lab Series took place in February 2021 with four fantastic co-facilitators; Nathaniel Justiniano -Naked Empire Bouffon Company, USA, Hilary Ramsden - Clandestine Insurgent Rebel Clown Army, Greece, Sabine Choucair - Clown Me In, Beirut and Jay Jordan -The Laboratory of Insurrectionary Imagination, France.
We were joined each week 20 participants from across the globe including; the UK, Canada, South Africa, the Netherlands, Germany and USA. A mix of clowns, activists, some already working on the front lines of social justice movements, others passionate activists seeking networks, tools and inspiration as well as relevant questions: “can the silliness of clowning address really serious, gravitas issues?”
“It was so inspiring to work with the guest facilitators for two hours and to feel that they really practice what they preach.” Participant from Activist Clown Toolkit
The work and discoveries were rich and the feedback incredible. Themes emerged and a taxonomy of Activist Clown tools is beginning to take shape. Watch this space!!!
We are living in strange and turbulent times with great revolutionary potential. I am hit by waves of emotion as tens of thousands of protesters have taken to the streets to have their voices heard. Calling for an end to the deaths of black people in custody. To speak out against the systematic racism embedded in our society and for an acknowledgement of our oppressive colonial history.
I grew up in apartheid South Africa where racism was written into law. For my parents generation, if you were white and opposed to that vile regime, speaking out could cost you your freedom. Liberal people were branded communists, and communists could be put in jail without trial.
Living under the politics of racism and segregation, the threat of army conscription for my dad and violent oppression of black citizens, was too much for them. We left in 1986. We were lucky (and privileged) enough to be able to leave and moved to a small green utopia in the pacific: New Zealand.
There I could grow up in a safe, liberal country. But Colonialism leaves a stain in more ways than one. New Zealand has its own racist history and institutional racism to acknowledge and root out. “Māori are six times more likely to be handcuffed, 11 times more likely to be subdued with pepper spray, six times more likely to be batoned, nine times more likely to have dogs set on them, ten times more likely to be tasered and nine times more likely to have firearms drawn against them by police.”
As the Black Lives Matters protests have highlighted, this institutional racism is still rife in the “liberal-democracies” of the USA and UK. Working within these political systems has not enabled people from BAME communities to be heard. If it had there would be no need for them to protest. And if you protest (even in the UK or USA): pepper spray, rubber bullets, beatings, cavalry charges and kettling are all potential hazards. On top of the risk of arrest due to anti-protesting laws.
But we must continue to speak out. We need to speak up for truth and justice, against oppression and inequality. We can use our voice to echo and amplify the voices of others who need allies and support. We can offer our voices in solidarity of the Black Lives Matter movement. And we must raise our voices together.
Clowning can offer a unique and beautiful voice to work with in protest. Clowns speak truth to power. That is one of their historic roles as the court jester or fool, able to highlight the king’s failings with relative impunity. Clown can hold emotional spaces and are able to explore difficult subjects with playfulness and innocence. The clown also reminds us of our humanity. They can see past the anger and the fear to the scared child beneath and ask the simple question, “do you need a hug?” And let's not forget that the clown can also bring joy to the oppositional spaces of protest; connecting us all through humour and play.
Would you like to explore your voice through the clown? Here are three wonderful clown workouts to find, unlock and raise your voice:
“I am, I am, I am" – is a wonderful exercise led by Jacqueline Whymark that helps you connect to your voice by drawing strength and power through 3 simple sentences, each beginning with ‘I am…’
“Singing the Sound” – Aisha leads us through a joyful exploration to find the sonic resonances of objects around us.
“Voice workouts” – Artie Godden offers three different vocal exercises from different clown pedagogies to explore the playful spirit of the voice; ‘Opposites’, ‘Sing a Song you don’t know’ and ‘Asking questions’ bring a lovely connection to pleasure and authenticity and play.
We are the Clowns of the Rebellion! The commentators, the rebels, the soothsayers. A new resistance movement; the Rebel Clowns are a performance group that I set up in the Extinction Rebellion protests of 2019. But for a clown who says ‘yes’ to everything, how does a clown resist?
Clowning and protest was the focus of my Masters research exploring ‘Small Circus Acts of Resistance’. With the spotlight on the smallest act of all, the clown, I delved into the long history of clowning, politics and protest.
Clowns are no strangers to the circles of power. Since we have been performing clowns have had their place in ancient sacred festivals, in medieval courts of kings and queens and with the people in the streets and in circuses. They have served a unique and important purpose, "to turn established protocols on their heads, and to provoke a new understanding of, and appreciation for, the human condition through a celebration of foible and a mockery of power."
For clowns co-opted into politics they occupy an ambiguous and mutable position, “at once critic, police, hero, enemy, representative of the people and a threat to the social order.” This was the case with the Clandestine Rebel Insurgent Clown Army (CIRCA). A form of non-violent political activism, rebel clowning understood and utilised the unique power and position of the clown as a tactic against globalisation, war and other issues. The Clown Army arrived alongside protesters in 2003, dressed in flamboyant combinations of army fatigues, brightly coloured fake fur, stripey socks, colanders, carrying noisemakers, sex toys, glitter, bubbles, bouncy balls and whistles. The movement radically transformed public space and binary power structures of the non-violent direct action movement.
Clowning allowed participants to explore authoritarianism through parody and ridicule. “Instead of resisting, the clown collaborates; instead of obeying and hating, the rebel clown mocks and slips away”. Rebel Clowning provided another form of resistance; subverting and inverting the oppositional spaces of protest, of police and protester. It was also able to inject values often seen as distinct from the political realm: joy, pleasure, desire, diversity and horizontal power structures.
In my Masters research I aimed to explore mechanisms of the clown that could shift the balance of power; to resist. I discovered, like CIRCA, that through parody the clown can highlight the hypocrisy and absurdity of authority and implicit rules that maintain the status quo. Through playing games, the clown can encourage participation and interactions with others, unlocking the subversive power of play within each individual. While a simple game of mirroring can offer spectators a moments of self-conscious awareness of their complicity in upholding rules that maintain the current systems of power and authority. Parody, participation and play offer effective tools of resistance for the clown.
For the new generation of Rebel Clowns these mechanisms have been central to exploring important political, social and environmental issues of our time. Let loose on the streets of Bristol, the Rebel Clowns have created performances including bringing Black Fri(deity) to life to challenge the new religion of consumerism and capitalism. We have also created a playful healing space to help people deal with their grief...in all its stages, post Brexit and the Election in 2019.
Working with resistance can offer interesting tools for the clown and for us. Where we feel resistance we and can feel our edges, and know ourselves and our boundaries. Physically, resistance can give us something solid to lean into or to rest on. We can also push against and find new pathways and possibilities.
You can explore resistance in the following Clown Workouts:
In ‘Playing with Resistance’ Holly guides you through an embodied exploration of resistance, asking what do we do when we don't want to play?
In ‘Moving with Resistance’ Robyn offers an embodied experience of encountering different types of resistance in the air around us.
Can clowning be used to flip a difficulty or some adversity into something amusing? Maggie Irving offers perhaps another solution to meeting resistance in this video ‘Flipping It’.
 Clowns by Ezra LeBank and David Bridel, London and New York: Routledge (2015)
 Clown by Jon Davison J (2013)
 ‘We disobey to love, rebel clowning for social justice’, Isabelle Fremeaux, and Hilary Ramsden, H. Leicester, UK: National of Adult Continuing Education (NIACE) (2007)
A giggle of clowns attempt to take back our public spaces
John Jordan’s work merges the imagination of art and the radical engagement of activism. He is a writer, lecturer, artist and activist. He set up C.I.R.C.A and works in the Laboratory of Insurrectionary Imagination infamous for fermenting acts of mass disobedience. I found this fantastic video from him which outlines 16 Principles for creating beautiful trouble through art and activism. Watch here
A group of clowns 'lighten' the mood of a very serious festival
At festival of independent journalism I explored ideas of resistance through play. Click here to read more...
Today I met an amazing lady, Stefania Placenti, who has just completed her PhD in Italian theatre studies at Bristol. Her thesis dealt with the links between movements of protest and theatre in particular the occupation of spaces as a form of resistance, with reference to the Occupied Theatre Movements in Italy born in 2011. Her research covers a number of theatre occupations, examining the historical, socio-economic and political context in which these movements occurred.
An interesting section in her thesis examines the language the occupiers used to perform their protest. From this chapter I was inspired by their approach using their physical presence to resist. From being, to walking and then talking, each action begins to change the narrative of a space.
Our so-called public spaces are culturally defined, but by who? Is it a shared agreement? Are the public spaces in our cities actually public? It can be difficult to escape capitalist ideologies in the centre of Bristol, with advertising and shopping dominating our view and the narrative to buy more to feel better.
In my next workshops I plan to further explore public spaces, to examine the dominant narratives and then poke them with a stick.
A group of clowns try to instill authority and boundaries at a festival where there is none
Through a series of workshops at PLAY Festival I explored the ideas of resistance where there is little or no authority to oppose. Click here to read more...
I am a New Zealand performance artist, director, teacher and producer based in the UK. With over twenty years’ experience, my passion lies in physical theatre, circus and street arts. Participation has formed the centre for my work, whether by involving community & artists in the creative process or creating work that asks the audience to become involved. I enjoy the power of the arts to inspire and for people to be active participants in theatre, empowering them to realise their own creative potential.
My skills are many and varied and span arts and event management, production, design, teaching and performance. I am proficient in marketing, PR and business development, with skills in administration, web design and office management. My project management skills incorporate planning, budgeting, tour management & reporting. I am also a teacher, choreographer and director of dance, physical theatre and circus.
My portfolio of work has taken place across the globe, from New Zealand and Australia to the UK and Europe, from Central and South America to the islands of the Pacific.