I invited clowns to play in the streets of Bristol last weekend. We had expected to support counter-protests against a far-right fascist group, For Britain, who were coming to Bristol to rally against Black Lives Matter, the removal of the Colston Statue and what they called ‘mob rule’. The planned demonstration sparked a backlash in Bristol, with a range of campaign groups and organisations planning their own counter-demonstration at the plinth which was due to start two hours before. For Britain decided to postpone their rally.
Fascists are brilliant targets for clowns, as demonstrated by the Loldiers of Odin, an activist group from Finland who dressed as clowns to parody the anti-immigration Soldiers of Odin. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n85LwLsvSfc
And the anti-nazi demonstration in Tennessee where clowns held up ‘Wife Power’ placards to confuse and undermine the white supremacists messaging.
Plus there's plenty more examples in this brilliant article that outlines a long history of clowning and humour being used as a powerful tactic against fascists.
The clowns were both happy and disappointed that the fascists wouldn’t be coming to play. Without a clear target we headed out to disrupt and enliven the space instead. There was a visible response to the clowns as we moved through the busy streets of Bristol. One of the clowns, Terry, had proposed a simple structure for play: ‘Find the Game, Play the Game, Share the Game and Celebrate the Game’. The final two parts were key – can we get passers-by to join in with us? Indeed we did, from a giant skipping rope to a slow motion race to worshipping a 2 foot Strong Man doll we named ‘Tiny man’; the people of Bristol joined in our play. “You really made me smile today” said one woman sincerely after we had conducted a convoluted photo shoot with her family.
Photos thanks to Leigh Perrott and Natalie Verhaegen
We headed over to the Antifa gathering at the plinth. Here the atmosphere was completely different. A serious, edgy vibe, with the Black Bloc holding a sombre space punctuated with heavy metal music, forced us to approach carefully. We supported their demonstration and didn’t want to disrupt or mock them or their messaging...we realised this was a challenging call for the clowns. After mingling in and around the protest we finally found our place; in the faces of the police. Here we could be as annoying as wasps: questioning them, offering to polish shoes and tie shoe laces. At one point a peanut offered by one of the clowns jumped out of her bosom and hit a policewoman. Shock quietened us all. The clown fell to the ground to prostrate herself and the clowns administered a punishment, as we asked the police if we should kick her. A truly powerful image and uncomfortable moment for the police. Most of them moved away to find a different places to stand. Our final play with the police was when we made them the finish line of a slow motion race. The play extended as they kept moving and we had to reorientate our race.
We had a lot of fun and made some interesting discoveries;
Photos thanks to James Ward
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, Jon Davison, Zuma Puma and Deanna Fleysha.
Robyn has collaborated with companies including Let’s Circus, The Sexual Health Circus and Whispering Wood Folk and performed with acclaimed physical theatre companies including, Derevo, Akhe, Oceanallover, and Gappad as well as her own award-winning company, Fun in the Oven Theatre.
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. She has also set up the Laboratory of the Un-beautiful; a collaboration with Deborah Antoinette Bard, exploring the bouffon & grotesque with womxn theatre makers.