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
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)